The Opposite of Silicon Valley


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Navy Yard, Brooklyn, New York. July, 2016.

Mitchell Joachim
Mitchell Joachim is one of Navy Yard’s masterminds. He is co-founder of Terreform ONE [Open Network Ecology], a philanthropic ecological and smart city design group and an Associate Professor at NYU. A TED fellow, and listed in Rolling Stone’s “The 100 People Who Are Changing America,” he was formerly an architect at the offices of Frank Gehry and I.M. Pei.
The Navy Yard
A model for new manufacturing villages, the heart of the operation is a gargantuan building once used to construct battleships and abandoned after the Korean War. Now, after a $46 million-dollar fix up funded by a grant from Governor Cuomo, the Empire Development Corporation, and the New York City Economic Development Corp, the versatile structure houses the Navy Yard’s communal machinery workshops, a cafe, labs, desks for rent, conference rooms, and even display areas for art and products manufactured on site. Access to some spaces is restricted, but closed spaces have large windows and public walkway-bridges lace the building rendering it a gallery from which everyone can watch what everyone else is doing. @MitchellJoachim
What’s the difference between a new manufacturing space and a maker space?
The Navy Yard is sometimes called a maker space, but it’s really a maker village. The problem is that at the village scale, security is complicated.  In this sense it’s the opposite of a maker space because it’s not entirely open. Our IDs are updatable for every room and every machine to determine who has access. I can unilaterally activate or deactivate access to rooms and machines. It’s a dictatorial method that I find problematic, but we’re slowly reducing gates and security measures over time. Ideally, the system is open for synergy and cross-referencing.

What is the role of synergy in new manufacturing?
New Manufacturing is the opposite model of Silicon Valley. In Silicon Valley, a bunch of guys in garages work in top secret. There’s no discussion, no openness. It’s a suburban model. Here in the Navy Yard you have that garage but it’s a rainbow of men and women on an open floor plan next to another garage, next to another garage, etc. spanning out horizontally and vertically. It’s a deeply synergistic place where a lot of overlap is happening intentionally. The idea is that you get to see what someone else is doing and immediately respond to it.  We’re set up as a randomizer. If you’re stuck in the same routine with the same discipline set, it’s hard to break out of that orthodoxy. The point for us is heterodoxy. Of course, you can’t force synergy. But you can build in principles where that is the goal.

What are the other driving principles of new manufacturing?

You can’t put a blanket over everyone’s principles. Our chief principle is the environment. It’s one thing to say “I want to make a green chair.” It’s another to say “I want to grow a chair out of mushrooms and bamboo and we’re going to do everything we can to prove it works” and have the whole team think that’s a cool idea even though it means many times the time and cost.

Kalundborg in Denmark is a great model of new manufacturing and industrial ecology. They feed the waste from every single component made there into the making of a different material, even across companies. So it’s a zero-waste ecosystem of production. Everything is a positive gain. That’s what new manufacturing is mostly about, on a theoretical basis. It is not optimization or efficiency or a zero sum game. It’s about positive net models—doing good with the production process.

Why are positive net models better than optimization?

Optimization means doing shitty things less shitty. “Here is my gas-guzzling piece of shit car that destroys the atmosphere. Now it won’t poison as much. It still uses fossil fuels, but it’s been optimized to use less.” That system is a failure.

Then there’s the zero-sum game: “do no bad but do no good.” That means all the materials that go into manufacturing are necessary and when it’s finished there’s no extra carbon load and the product will last for many years. But that’s neutral.

But take our Fab Tree Hab project; we’re creating living building materials out of ficus plants. When you make a house out of living trees, you’re not cutting down wood from a forest that you have to replace nor using energy and power to bring it to a mill to reduce it to parts to then use more energy to deliver it to a site where with people with power tools to make it into a house that will last 80 to 100 years only to be ripped down and sent to a landfill. You’re growing it on site out of living materials that last much longer than traditional materials. When it’s alive and growing it’s part of our Krebs cycle. It’s cleaning pollution out of the atmosphere. That’s a positive net model.

The Fab Tree Village by Terreform ONE

Look at Thomas Thwaite’s The Toaster Project. He bought a toaster for $9.99 and wondered how it could cost so little. So he decided to make an electronic toaster from scratch starting by mining his own metals from quarries. His effort was gargantuan and it taught him that we don’t pay for all of the external and hidden costs in the things that we manufacture. We reduce the costs of the toasters by destroying landscapes and environments and we don’t care about the forced-labor or warfare that goes on around it. Part of New Manufacturing is that we’re accountable for the entire process and we want to make things as locally as possible.

How else does new manufacturing depart from the mass industrial model?

New manufacturing is more inclusive and accessible. It gives easy market penetration by leveraging the power of the Internet to glean new characteristics to build into your manufacturing process.

Here in the Navy Yard, there’s a baby spoon company. A few new fathers wanted to design a spoon that would mimic the nipple to make the transition to solid food for babies less messy. So they designed and 3D printed a dozen iterations, retested, and optimized the geometry until they found what made sense. They 3D printed a final mold here, then took it to a German factory to produce in mass quantities.

It’s an example of an important element of new manufacturing: logic of the market. They ran an Indiegogo campaign to gauge interest in the product by the number of people who said they would buy one before it launched. This allowed them pre-order sales without having to go to a Wal-Mart or a JC Penny. Manufacturing, sales, and marketing were simultaneous. Also, with new manufacturing, you can continuously tweak designs because you don’t need to mass-produce the items all at once.

It’s super streamlined, direct to the person who will use it. In New Manufacturing we don’t like using the term “user.” They’re humans that have a relationship with you and the product. It’s important to have bidirectional discussion. In the past we used to have a bunch of engineers guessing what mommy would need and they were probably mostly men.

But if you can’t mass manufacture, how can new manufacturing replace the mass industrial model?

For now, they should coexist. The way of new manufacturing is also to get discrete and specified and customize off the shelf components and put them together in novel compositions in localized systems that make unique products in dense urban environments. For instance our Cricket Farm structure has plastic jug units that are made in bulk and optimized. There’s no way to beat the cost and the control. It’s a fantastic product. We don’t need throw away 200 years of industrial thinking. New manufacturing is a merger.

We constantly produce stuff we don’t need. Things are designed for obsolescence, perceived and real. Those are old- school manufacturing ideas that must die. Your first iPhone is probably still perfectly fine. But if your shoes lasted forever, every shoe company would go out of business.

How does new manufacturing solve that dilemma?

Instead of mass-produced sneakers, you could locally produce customized shoes with craftsmen that use digital tools and your foot geometry. Of course there’s an iron limit to that because people don’t have time to design all of their own shoes or chairs or shorts. But we don’t want stuff constantly thrown out only to be purchased again and again.

It’s also the case for new manufacturing’s ideas of synthetic biology in which case design for planned obsolescence is cool because maybe you throw your cellphone out in a garden and it feeds thousands of other forms of life.