In his opening speech for the autumn ADEPT conference this year, Rohit Talwar, CEO of Fast Future, suggested that global supply chains were shortening even before COVID and that councils should be alive to the possibility of a resilient future based on local first.
'Prior to the lockdown, the OECD reckons from 2013-2019 supply chains were shortening by about 50km a year for companies,' he said.
'The lockdown accelerated that [trend] as people didn't want the risk of not be able to access the goods they needed. Increasingly we will be looking to manufacture closer to home, which creates an incredible opportunity.'
It is tempting to imagine this is all because of the green movement influencing a more sustainable culture, but technology appears to be a major engine behind this trend.
The Global Value Chain Development Report 2019 from the OECD and others such as the World Bank and Trade Organisation highlights that automation could provide 'an advantage to integrating multiple stages of production' at a single location and so bring manufacturing back from low wage countries.
However the process is not a foregone conclusion. For example, in 2016, Adidas opened a fully-automated shoe factory in Germany using 3-D technology and robotics. It then went on to announce last year that it would end production at its robotic 'Speedfactories' in Atlanta in the US and Ansbach, Germany.
Analysts suggest that robotic factories are a powerful tool but much more difficult to quickly reconfigure or repurpose than a human workforce.
Amazon and Tesla, while making strides in automation, still require a human workforce and have also noted the difficulties of robotic production.
As is often the way with automated technology, the future is a little further away than expected but while progress is slower than thought it is hard to imagine the trend going backwards.
In 2018, the OECD argued that 14% of jobs in developed countries were highly automatable, while a further 32% of jobs were likely to experience significant changes to the way they were carried out.
If this trend is driven by big tech, it is likely to entrench their economic dominance further. Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft have all crossed the trillion-dollar valuation threshold, and along with Alphabet and Facebook penetrate just about every market there is. So how much of a real opportunity is this?
Central government has already wasted one opportunity when it comes to PPE and other aspects of the early COVID response, Mr Talwar argues.
'One of the most disappointing things about how we handled the first phase of the pandemic is we didn't invest and trust in local manufacturers. We could have really boosted local economies by going to local manufacturers and also helping them adapt. There is a new dialogue required now, saying that we increase resilience by doing more manufacturing at home. How do we help local authorities grow that local manufacturing capability?'
Firstly, it requires councils to exercise ingenuity and become more digitally literate or at least support others' digital literacy, Mr Talwar says.
He urges councils not to have 'everyone do everything but build local clusters of critical industries and then collaborate to bring that expertise to bear to local players'.
'Places can collaborate with others of similar size or strike alliances with key partners where we do the development together and create world class systems that can then be sold to create a revenue stream. One idea I like is about creating innovation incubators around key areas of policy and activity.
'This is not about helping big companies grow bigger; they can do a lot of that themselves. This is about how we help local entrepreneurs take new technology and build viable businesses of the future. Raise the education stock. It requires a strategy.'
The message is 'collaborate on creation compete on promotion' and Mr Talwar offers up a range of case studies to prove his point. Espoo in Finland has taken on to a 'city as a service' model offering a kind of Uber model to match demand and resource on things like low cost office or manufacturing space.
Likewise, Cluj-Napoca in Romania has tried to create an engagement model 'using collective intelligence tools and approaches to build cross-societal perspectives', a type of crowdsourcing of plans and resources for the city.
In this country, we find Cornwall having cancelled its £160m partnership contract with BT and brought everything back in-house. It embarked on a transformation programme with three levels of focus:
- digital in society
- digital internal working
- delivery of services to citizens
The work has so far thrown up inspiring community schemes such as saving over £2m for residents by providing platforms that let them access and purchase a range of services including broadband.
At a time when the world is licking its wounds and counting its pennies, Mr Talwar paints a picture of resources going begging.
He highlights luxury goods manufacturer Elvis and Kresse, which for over a decade has made sure none of London's fire-hoses have gone to landfill. Over 200 tonnes of material has been reclaimed by making them into handbags.
He discusses the potential for pop up festivals and other micro tourist attractions sold to a world audience thanks to the internet.
On a more prosaic level: 'Some classrooms in schools are only used about a third of a day, some university lecture rooms only used about 30% of the day,' he says. What could be made of this empty space?
Councils are in a position of trust and power, but they don't have the resources to do all the things they would like or even that the community needs.
Of late, we have used apps to outsource our sense of community. In cities we often privatise local favours such as borrowing tools or carrying out chores. There is now a market for the things the village used to offer for free.
So can councils take advantage of this two? Can they bring a sense of local community back in-house?