Movement for Socially Useful Production

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Adrian Smith and Andrew Stirling:

"Manufacturing workers in the UK in the 1970s, as elsewhere, were facing a bleak future. A combination of international competition, new technologies, and the movement of capital into services were threatening jobs and communities. A remarkable grassroots response from workers began at Lucas Aerospace in 1976, rapidly moved to other companies, and developed into a movement for socially useful production (Smith, 2013). Workers developed alternative industrial strategies for their companies, and proposed that rather than redundancy, the owners and government commit to socially useful production. Workers presented analyses and prototypes for socially useful products based on their skills, experience, and technologies available (Wainwright & Elliott, 1982). Their suggestions included hybrid electric engines for cars, devices for the disabled, heat pumps, wind turbines, and many other products that businesses are trying to develop forty years later.

There are many aspects to this history, but interesting here is worker commitment to democratizing the introduction of new technologies (Cooley, 1987). These skilled operators were very aware of developments in computer-aided design and computer-numerically-controlled machine tools. In the hands of capital these technologies threatened to displace worker skills through automation. However, rather than resisting computer technology, workers at Lucas wanted a say in how it should be developed and introduced. They sought humancentered production technologies in which computing power enhanced work rather than displaced it. They set about researching and designing computer-assisted tools that served to heighten operator skill and made workers more valuable to the company rather than redundant.

At heart, these workers wanted to democratize the design, development and use of industrial technology. In so doing, they provided a practical counter to vision compared to the automated, workerless factory purveyed by management consultancies at the time. The Lucas workers’ aspiration was shared internationally, and particularly inspired the most advanced work in this area amongst researchers and workers in Scandinavia (Kraft & Bansler, 1994; Ehn, 1988; Rasmussen, 2007). There, a Collective Resource Approach to computer technologies pioneered practices in participatory design. Study groups were created. Action-research in the workplace was undertaken. Activities for appraising and articulating different values were established. Mock-ups of new technological arrangements were built. Design specifications and prototypes were developed collectively and iteratively modified through consultation cycles.

The industrial democracy sought by workers ultimately proved elusive. Nevertheless, the case for skilled operator input and overrides in computer-numerically-controlled machinery was made, and the role for user-centered design and development was persuasive. The techniques and practices for participatory design, intended as democratizing activity, have been selectively co-opted and adapted for the purposes of user-centered product designs (Asaro, 2014). Nevertheless, in seeking to democratize developments in manufacturing technologies, these workers cultivated techniques whose use under appropriate conditions has continuing relevance for innovation democracy today (Smith, 2014)." (


Adrian Smith:


In introducing a book about his involvement in socially useful production, Mike Cooley (1987) quotes Karl Marx from Capital to evoke the spirit of the movement, and to give Cooley’s book its title, Architect or Bee? A bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of its cells; but what distinguishes the worst of architects from the best of bees is namely this. The architect will construct in his imagination that which he will ultimately erect in reality. At the end of every labour process, we get that which existed in the consciousness of the labourer at its commencement

Ideas about labour process, skill, design and technology were at the heart of the movement for socially useful production. The movement sought a more democratic human relationship with technology that furnished tools for people to become architects in a deliberated societal vision, rather than perpetuating a situation where humans became scientifically managed bees tending machines in the service of capital (Cooley 1987).

As Veronica Mole and Dave Elliott put it, activists wanted:

to present a vision of an alternative paradigm that prefigured a different role for technology in society … To do this it is necessary to produce both a critique of the current shape and aims of existing technologies together with examples of alternatives that could lead to social and technological change (Mole & Elliott 1987, 82)

Mike Cooley was an industrial designer and trades union shop steward at Lucas Aerospace. He was aware of arguments and initiatives for industrial democracy, and a firm believer in creativity inherent to all people. It was at Lucas, and through the development of a worker’s alternative plan for the company, that ideas for socially useful production found practical expression. It was a focal experience for many, and gave an impulse for the wider movement.

2.1 The grassroots trades union origins of socially useful production

Like many in manufacturing in the UK at the time, workers at Lucas Aerospace were facing redundancy and the decline of their communities in the face of industrial restructuring by capital, international competition and relocation, and increasing technological automation in design and production. In January 1976 workers published an Alternative Corporate Plan for the future of Lucas Aerospace. This innovative measure anticipated management cuts to thousands of jobs. Instead of redundancy, workers argued their right to socially useful production.

The Lucas Plan was unusual in that, through careful analysis of skills, machinery, work organisation, and economic potential, workers themselves proposed innovative alternatives to closures. It took a year to put the Plan together, including designs for over 150 alternative products. The plan contained economic analysis; proposals for training that enhanced and broadened skills; a less hierarchical restructuring of work that broke divisions between practical shop floor knowledge and theoretical design engineering knowledge. It challenged fundamental assumptions about how design and innovation should operate.

Half of Lucas Aerospace’s output supplied military contracts. This business area depended upon public funds – as did many of the firm’s other activities. Moreover, UK governments had since the 1960s been financing the “rationalisation” of manufacturing sectors, and paid the welfare benefits of those who became unemployed as a result of this restructuring. Activists argued state funds would be better put to investing in socially useful production. Arms conversion arguments attracted interest from the peace movement and social activists more widely. Additional proposals in the Plan, such as for human-centred technologies that enhanced skills rather than displaced labour, and for socialised markets for products, caught the attention of those associated with the Left. Here was a practical example for connecting new forms of trades unionism and grassroots initiative with ideals for democratic socialism (Wainwright & Elliott 1982).

The workers themselves, and especially their leaders in the Shop Stewards’ Combine Committee, suspected (correctly) that the Plan in isolation would convince neither management nor government (Lucas Aerospace Shop Stewards’ Combine Committee 1979). Both eventually rejected it. In the meantime, and as a lever to exert pressure, the workers launched a political campaign for the right of all people to socially useful production. The Plan assumed a symbolic role for alternative possibilities within a wider critique of the restructuring capital that was closing so many industries in the UK (Bodington, George, & Michaelson 1986).

2.2 Connecting with old and new social movements elsewhere

Aspirations for socially useful production permitted alliances between workers and the new social movements for peace, environment, community activism and women. As such, the movement for socially useful production consisted of an unusual (and sometimes uneasy) mix of people and organisations. Their ideas for design and innovation arose through a combination of unorthodox trade unionists revitalising arguments for industrial democracy and worker’s control, and in so doing meeting with newer social movements for community activism, peace, radical scientists, and feminism. The latter had become prominent features in social and political life over the course of the 1970s.

Combine committees of shop stewards at other companies met to develop their own plans in response to redundancy threats. These included workers at firms like Vickers, British Aircraft Corporation, Dunlop, Parsons, and Chrysler (the latter proposing diversification into products for the Third World) (North East Trade Union Studies Information Unit 1980; Speke Joint Shops Stewards Committee 1979).

The movement connected with initiatives internationally (Rasmussen 2007). In West Germany, for instance, the metalworkers union drew upon the Lucas experience to inform Alternative Product Working Groups established in a number of firms, including Blohm & Voss, AEG, VFW, MBB, Krupp and MAK. Workers proposed combined heat and power systems, transport systems, and, at Voith in Bremen, designed tyre-recycling equipment. In an attempt to progress to prototypes, and help diffuse alternative initiatives, Innovation and Technology Centres were set up in Bremen and Osnabrück in collaboration between trade unions, universities and local authorities.

Over the next few years, practical initiatives for socially useful production emerged from the bottom-up, in shop floors, in polytechnics, in local communities, and in workshops (Blackburn, Green, & Liff 1982; Collective Design/Project 1985). The new movements advanced overlapping, yet different, demands. Consequently, there were various strands to thinking and activism.

The first strand derived from the specific aims of the newer social movements. So, for example, socially useful production should focus on developing environmentally sound technologies, and produce devices for peace rather than weapons for war. Feminists raised gender issues as important absences in a framing of socially useful production arising initially in a male-dominated sector of manufacturing. Gendered perspectives within industry needed to be confronted; socially useful production should look beyond manufacturing settings, and recognise the importance of consumption activities as well as production in other sectors, including the undervalued services provided in homes (Huws 1985; Liff 1985).

Activists within radical science, centring on the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, were also drawn to discussions about the Lucas Plan (Reilly 1976). Demands for more socially responsible technologies resonated with radical scientists’ questioning of the institutional interests and priorities setting technological agendas in society (Asquith 1979; Levidow 1983). Some were drawn to Marxist analysis of the structures of science and technology, whereas others looked to the cultures and practices of knowledge production in society (Asdal, Brenna, & Moser 2007). What they shared was an interest in how the Lucas workers and emerging movement were trying to develop a very different framework for design and innovation. The movement for socially useful production was consequently not framed solely as a campaign for jobs and products, but rather about the culture, structure, locations and direction of innovation in transformed societies.

2.3 Participatory design and the democratisation of production

Movement arguments challenged establishment claims that technology progressed autonomously of society, and that people inevitably had to adapt to the tools offered up by science. Activists argued technology was shaped by social choices over its development, and those choices needed to become more democratic, more open to plural knowledge, including tacit and practical expertise, public decisions about the funding of product research and development, participation in design and innovation processes, and popular planning for social markets (Cooley 1987).

The movement clearly found its first expression in the workplace. Here, technological change, particularly computer integrated manufacturing (CIM), was seen to be deskilling and displacing workers (Brödner 1990; Noble 1979). The Lucas Plan and Technology Networks at GLEB were an inspiration for trade unionist and researcher projects in Scandinavia developing their Collective Resource Approach to participatory design (Ehn 1988). These trade unionists and researchers saw nothing automatic in the development of automated systems (Piore & Sabel 1984; Rauner, Rasmussen, & Corbett 1988). Automation required oversight, debugging and adaptation; systems designed without thought for user skills resulted in serious failures, as well as resistance from operatives; and production programming in centralised offices could be inflexible, and lead to slow and costly re-tooling that was unresponsive to customer demands (Brödner 1990; Cherns 1976; Senker 1986). The practical know how underpinning such complex tasks provided potential levers for exerting worker influence over the design and implementation of new technology. Computer-controlled machinery should allow programming on the shop floor, machines should enhance rather than substitute operator skill and initiative, and production should be organised by teams of workers who schedule the work required (Rosenbrock 1989). Significantly, workers themselves should be involved in the design methodology for these socio-technical systems (Ehn 1988). As such, the socially useful framing expanded to argue democratic control and direct participation was required over the design, development and social use of technology (Cooley 1987; Ehn 1988). Since the notion of “usefulness” was a matter of negotiation, workers and communities had to be involved. Design, development, investment and marketing decisions were a matter for participation, debate and negotiation.

Brian Lowe at the Unit for the Development of Alternative Products in the West Midlands put it:

The central feature of socially useful production is the development of ideas and organisation forms that encourage involvement, generate self confidence and release new found or rediscovered skills during the examination of how productive resources should be used to meet social needs. Initiatives promoting socially useful production must, in turn, be extremely responsible and very supportive throughout the complete process if working people are to successfully take on the tasks and challenges of responding with alternative plans. (Lowe 1985, 69)

Ideas about participatory design embraced community development and popular planning. The movement soon found institutional support amongst the leadership of a handful of radical local authorities, such as the Greater London Council, and who were able to provide resources and facilities for putting ideas into practice.

Mary Moore from the London Innovation Technology Network described the aim as

… making sure that what you do is going to be of real use to the intended users which means somehow getting them to take part in the design process rather than just pop in with a product when you’ve produced it … So you wouldn’t just market-research a new product, which puts users in a passive role. You’d actually get them in the workshop and enable them to learn more about how such things are made and designed and repaired and modified (quoted in Mackintosh & Wainwright 1987, 214)

The desire to produce in a socially useful way, and to place skills, design and production technologies at the service of communities rather than capital, found a willing audience amongst community activists and the Left. Community workshops were a crucible for this unusual amalgam. Early in the career of their Technology Networks, GLEB wrote, “Already there is no shortage of proposals for products and services … to excite interest, widen horizons, and ensure a continuing flow of practical and job-creating challenges to economic fatalism” (Greater London Enterprise Board 1984a, emphasis added). This quote is quite typical in blending practical, object-oriented activity with aspirations for alternatives to capitalism (Linn 1987). But it was a blend that also introduced tensions into Technology Networks." (


* Article: Technology Networks for Socially Useful Production. By Adrian Smith. Journal of Peer Production, · Issue #5: Shared Machine Shop, 2014


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