“Manufacturing Ecosystem” and a New Definition to Support Inclusive, Equitable Community Development

If you’re working in a space that is similar to the space Manufacturing Renaissance works in you’ve started to hear the words “manufacturing ecosystem” thrown around quite a bit. As a former ecologist, my interest was piqued at the notion.  I quickly imagined the manufacturing ecosystem to mean the diverse mix of stakeholders, participants, practitioners, beneficiaries in and around the manufacturing sector, including companies, people and the local governments, organizations and programs that get people into those companies.

Like anyone with a question, I Googled “Manufacturing Ecosystem.” What I found was a couple pages worth of articles and reports describing the latest in advanced technologies or “Industry 4.0,” data and analytics as it relates to manufacturers being able to make their products faster with better materials integrated with the internet and other digital technologies for smarter supply chains, increasing the value added to the producers and their customers. That is awesome in that we’ve come this far as an industrialized economy to find ever more innovations and applications for technologies.

For the record, according to an article written by Deloitte in 2016,  Industry 4.0 is defined originally in 2011 by a working group established by the German federal government as “A paradigm shift . . . made possible by technological advances which constitute a reversal of conventional production process logic. Simply put, this means that industrial production machinery no longer simply “processes” the product, but that the product communicates with the machinery to tell it exactly what to do.”

In another article written by Deloitte in 2020, they describe an ecosystem as being “formed when different entities come together in meaningful ways to solve shared challenges and meet shared objectives. Effective ecosystems enable a cumulative network effect for participants and create value greater than the sum of parts, driving higher performance and creating exponential results. Underlying all of this is the concept of collaborating and coevolving.” The article goes on describe how smart manufacturing ecosystems can accelerate the smartening of factories and lessen the response time to produce the products our society needs, especially in times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Again, great stuff here. This definition brings forth mental images of a futuristic montage of technology in an intricate choreography of precision movements guided by clouds of data and perhaps a smart-looking, racially-ambiguous bespectacled engineer looking on with a look of satisfaction. Yes, there is a hint of snark here only in that the author is aware that unfortunately while advances in technical innovations are a necessary and critical for the advancement of human quality of life, the image of progress is incomplete when you “zoom out” to realize that a factory, even a smart one, is likely in or near a community with high rates of unemployment, perhaps high rates of violence, poverty, negative environmental impacts on already vulnerable communities, who not coincidentally are low-income white, Black, Latinx, Indigenous or representing other marginalized or persons of color communities.

For this author, former-ecologist-turned-advocate-for-inclusive-manufacturing-ecosystems, its time to expand the definition of manufacturing ecosystem. Let us zoom out together with intention and vision to see the potential for an approach to development, sustainable development, a new paradigm for development that views manufacturing as a foundational domain to advance multiple sustainable, economic and community development goals in a given region. If we do this effectively, not only would manufacturers, especially the small-to-medium-sized manufacturers get the support, investment, and workforce they need to transition into more sustainable, smart producers of the often life-saving products we need into the future, but the communities that house these factories also get the support, investment, education and training infrastructure needed to ensure those residents are the primary beneficiaries, if not also the leaders of driving increased sustainable economic opportunity through manufacturing-related careers, ownership and other wealth-building opportunities.

Manufacturing Renaissance has drafted another working, more inclusive definition of Manufacturing Ecosystem which modifies the industry-centric view to a community-centric view that recognizes the interdependence of manufacturers, schools, workforce and social service providers, sustainable development stakeholders, government, policy-makers and the people who provide talent to drive industry who come together to solve shared challenges and meet shared objectives toward building thriving regional economies and local communities.

Furthermore, beyond recognizing the broader mix of interdependent manufacturing stakeholders, Manufacturing Renaissance is seeking to make investment throughout this ecosystem more equitable and inclusive. At the moment, manufacturing sector-related investments focused primarily at the factory or R&D incubator level, and largely only trickle out into the surrounding community sporadically at best. We are seeking equivalent investments in the surrounding education, training, community service and economic infrastructure required to ensure that nearby residents and the smaller/family-owned manufacturers are actually equipped and empowered to meaningfully participate in the developing, commercializing and production of the technological innovations that make the things we need in an increasingly more sustainable way. Without such an equitable distribution of investment, growth and development, the manufacturing sector will ultimately displace and further exacerbate inequality and exclusion of people and communities. Manufacturing Renaissance refers to this concept as Inclusion and Industry 4.0.

This work is already underway.  In Chicago, we work as a growing network called the Chicagoland Manufacturing Renaissance Council (CMRC) a mix of manufacturers, workforce and social service providers, faith-leaders, local government, teachers, labor leaders, and other individuals, organizations and allies who see manufacturing as a tool for expanding social inclusion and community development. CMRC leadership gave rise to career pathways programs for youth and young adults on the Westside of Chicago, manufacturing instructor training programs, factory owner-succession support efforts, policy-influencing and advocacy efforts to get more decision-makers on board for supporting this approach to development, research and a variety of community outreach and engagement activities on building awareness and exposure to the importance of manufacturing.

The inclusive manufacturing ecosystem work is imperfect and underfunded, but developing spontaneously in pockets around the country and around the world. We are working in context of social, political, economic, environmental crises converging and seeming to overwhelm the vision of the future of what’s possible, of what could be if we work together. We, as inclusive manufacturing ecosystem practitioners, are beginning to piece together all the many pieces of the this puzzle into a more effective, visible, recognizable, compelling vision for how to to implement sustainable development, grounded in our communities but that we know has reverberating effects reaching far beyond our perceivable boundaries. We are prototyping projects, programs, initiatives, and campaigns and our roster of allies and colleagues are growing. Join us.

Learn more about our National Manufacturing Renaissance Campaign here.

Join our Chicagoland Manufacturing Renaissance Council network here.

-Erica Swinney Staley, Executive Director