What is urban manufacturing?

The delocalisation of manufacturing activities has pushed manual jobs, technical knowledge and industrial innovation capacity out of European cities. Outsourcing manufacturing out of city centres, and Europe generally, has externalised environmental issues while contributing emissions from transportation. As a response to the economic and environmental challenges, political discourse has called for an ‘Industrial Renaissance’ (EC 2014) and endorsed re-industrialisation initiatives such as the Circular Economy Package and Industry 4.0. This may offer a raft of potential benefits, including jobs for socio-demographic groups most affected by unemployment, innovation, more efficient use of materials and urban resilience. Urban centres play an important role in nurturing new forms of green urban manufacturing, based on a clean, knowledge- and labour-intensive manufacturing sector.

Re-industrialisation is a complex challenge in terms of adaptation of urban areas and the public services that can support it. This project will close this critical knowledge gap by combining complementary research on a) relevant new smart technologies, b) physical environments for urban making and c) how public services and other relevant stakeholders can engage in transition strategies. This will be achieved through applied research and case studies in Brussels, London and Rotterdam. The outcome will provide practical guidelines and resources for public service professionals, aiming to position public services at the centre of re-industrialisation, grounded in academic research and best practices while equipping them with practical and cost-effective tools that can be deployed to revitalise their industrial bases. Such results will be as relevant to private actors that are taking a collaborative, cross-disciplinary and/or place based approach.


In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, there has been a growing realisation at a political level that the re-industrialisation of Europe is necessary and an essential complement to the services sector. Production, once at the heart of European cities, has shifted to the periphery. Employment became services focused, industrial areas turned derelict and gentrified to housing or office space, while cities have become centres of linear consumption. Cities need sustainable local industry for various reasons (Leigh & Hoelzel 2012). As urban centres absorb a large percentage of the world’s population and resources they are also increasingly exposed to pollution problems, social inequality and non-diversified economic activity and will need to become far more resilient, self-sufficient and resourceful. That makes the return of local production, together with its jobs and innovation, not only desirable but essential. The European Commission (EC) defined a challenge in 2012 to grow industry from around 16% to 20% of GDP by 2020 (EC 2012), issuing several strategy documents as part of an effort to bring back a strong innovative productive base, increase local jobs, promote import replacement, increase value and economic activity. With the advancement of technologies such as high-precision 3D printing, CNC milling, decentralised resource processing, the emergence of the ‘maker’ culture, new entrepreneurial models and a focus on the circular economy, such a return is possible. Industry and making can be more sustainable, social, better distributed, quieter, non-toxic and adaptable to existing urban conditions.

“In addition to the public sector’s role in catalysing innovation in the wider economy, there is an urgent need to power innovation within the public sector itself in order to unlock radical productivity improvements and efficiency gains, to foster the creation of more public value and a better response to societal challenges.” (European Union 2013)


The public sector plays a vital role in convening the re-industrialisation process, however needs skills to support it. The shift to re-industrialisation is not just about business. It is about jobs, material flows, local entrepreneurship, new land use and action between various stakeholders including: public services, entrepreneurs, investors, the research/design sector and local communities. Public services – services provided by government authorities as a public good – can provide an essential role in mobilising re-industrialisation based on collective benefit without the environmental and health issues that emerged from the industrial revolution. However specific mechanisms for public services-led urban re-industrialisation are being overlooked in the European industrial strategy documents, possibly due to an expectation that the private sector will drive innovation and change. This view fails to acknowledge the inertia in current framework conditions that pushed industry away in the first place. As Mazzucato (2013) points out, public financing and procurement has played a major role in industrialising innovation that were eventually commercialised by the free market. Again, public service can be a major agent in the processes through setting the conditions for re-industrialisation.

Catalysing complex changes such as re-industrialisation, however, presents new vexing challenges for public services that must balance demands for public entrepreneurialism, rigid internal process and mitigating stakeholder interests while adapting to austerity. While re-industrialisation is a broad and complex issue, the focus on public services and stakeholder engagement are very powerful leverage points. This invites three key questions, that we’ll apply to Brussels, London and Rotterdam.

  1. With new technology and processes for dealing with material (particularly waste resources) and production – industry of the 21st century will be very different from the traditional polluting factories. What are the most relevant materials, technologies and processes that will form the basis of the re-industrialisation process in European cities?
  2. Re-industrialisation can enter into urban centres, into vacant commercial space, into mixed use zones and re-inhabit former industrial land. Where could re-industrialisation occur within existing urban areas and what might the spatial conditions look like?
  3. Despite innovation resting largely in the hands of private actors, change will occur very slowly, it risks being disjointed, disregarding local heritage and communities or environmental conditions and not benefiting the local community unless a mediating stakeholder, negotiating public and private interests, is at the centre of the changing process. What is the organisational capacity and necessary governance that will help transition European cities to re-industrialisation through public services?