On March 12 2020, a hospital in Brescia falls without replacement valves for a resuscitator. The supplier cannot deliver to the Italian city located in any of the regions hit among the hardest by corona. The hospital in distress contacts the director of a regional newspaper, who in turn calls Massimo Temporelli out of bed. Both have been working together for years to introduce Industry 4.0 in schools. After many phone calls, Temporelli finds a nearby company that immediately takes a 3D printer to the hospital. In a few hours they redesigned the missing piece and produced it on site. Immediately Temporelli communicates that they are willing to use their FabLab network to print the valves for hospitals in other regions. A day later, the system works and ten patients use a machine with the 3D-printed part. On March 16 he receives congratulations from the Italian Minister of Innovation. This example shows the power of local networks based on new production methods and collaboration, where know-how is shared worldwide. Meanwhile, it is happening in every country. For example, a citizens’ initiative has been launched in Brussels to produce more than one hundred thousand masks. Engineers in the FabLab Brussels are building a simple ventilator at the VUB. In the United States, researchers at prestigious MIT are working to rapidly develop an open source fan at a low cost.

A new balance

The corona crisis shows that we are moving to a new balance with less market forces and more government control, whereby citizens’ innovation is also given a greater place. There is a need, especially in light of the transition to a climate-neutral economy, of a strategic industrial policy. In the past, the question would have been: which manufacturing industry do we want? As we look to the future, this question broadens into: which social circular economy are we developing? Where do the raw materials come from, how close are the supply companies, what can we repair in our own region, how do we create jobs? Strategic intelligence is also needed to increase production in times of crisis. So we have to think about reliable supply chains, because not all of them can remain global. And we  will have to invest as well in buffer capacity, also in terms of production. The company 3M, known for its post-its, is a major producer of mouth masks. It drew lessons from the shortages at the the sars period. It established new companies in China and Korea. Each site has its own supply chain. The parent company in the United States makes almost all components itself. And it has installed additional production machines ready to run when demand increases. In present days that is: they doubled their production in two months.

Monopoly on knowledge

Complex systems are vulnerable if they depend on a central point or, on the opposite, if all parts are connected. High-performance systems have multiple nodes and smart connections. This was shown in the test strategy for corona in the Netherlands. Two central test points were chosen for the entire country, but the province of Groningen decided to equip all five laboratories in its territory for testing. She used various suppliers for this. There was a shortage in the central test points due to the use of only one type of measuring equipment. Compare it to a printer: it only works with specific cartridges. The Swiss company Roche was unable to follow up with the production of reagents that belong to the measuring device and initially did not want to reveal its composition. Only after great pressure did the multinational yield. Another form of centralization is patenting. The valve for the Italian hospital was patented. That monopoly on knowledge had to be violated to save lives. The question arises whether patenting is the most efficient way to stimulate innovation and to distribute the benefits fairly. Economist Mariana Mazzucato concluded after thorough research that many of the devices that make a lot of money for private companies have only been achieved thanks to large public investments in research and development. Like the researchers at MIT, we can also opt for an open source approach based on collaboration and the free provision of knowledge. Naturally, research and upscaling must be financed. This is possible with fair licenses. As a result, the inventors and investors receive a fair compensation, which is limited to, for example, ten times the amount invested, and never excludes other companies from getting started.

Ceta? Outdated

The example of the 3D-printed valve shows another dimension of a future-proof economy: relocating production in networks of factories of various scales. 3D printers now allow to produce locally. Micro factories can be the building block for a circular economy, where they focus on production and recovery. This can create jobs, even for groups that are currently unable to find work. We will certainly not produce everything in our own region, for example trains. However, relocalisation fits into transition plans for regions that are currently struggling. Nor will global trade come to a halt, it will revolve more around strategic goods and things that you cannot produce everywhere. But trade treaties like Ceta are outdated. Because as stated in the editorial of this newspaper: “Do we really want to open our markets to cheap beef from a destroyed Amazon, in order to be able to export more European pills and cars?”[1]. The movement to take back control of production locally has been going on for fifteen years. Also outside the digital world. For example, the number of self-picking farms is on the rise. An important motive is that people want to know again where their food comes from. A study by Belgian Think Tank Oikos shows that there is also a large increase in the number of initiatives in areas such as energy and housing. It is often developed by ethical cooperatives that combine transparency, democratic decision-making and community care with their shared production. It makes sense that the focus is on fighting the virus and preventing job and income loss. But if we don’t learn from this crisis, we increase our vulnerability in front of the next shock. The good news is that many things that are necessary for the development of a climate-neutral economy – social circular economy, steering government, space for citizen innovation – also make society more resistant to shocks like corona. The creators of the Green New Deal could not have imagined that more than a decade ago.

Author: Dirk Holemans in De Standaard , 18-04-2020


[1]  Lieven Sioen: Braziliaanse steaks voor Europese auto’s (Brazilian steaks against European cars) in: De Standaard, December 19, 2019, https://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20191218_04773665 retrieved 18-04-2020