Recalling the Lucas Plan: what can an old movement for socially useful production tell us about democratising technology today?

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SPRU Wednesday Seminar 5th February 2014, room G22, Jubilee Building, University of Sussex

Speaker: Adrian Smith; Discussant: Johan Schot

It is thirty-eight years since a movement for ‘socially useful production’ pioneered practical approaches for more democratic technology development. Of course, the world is different now. Nevertheless, remembering older initiatives casts enduring issues about the direction of technological development in society in a different and informative light: an issue relevant today in debates as varied as industrial policy, green and solidarity economies, and grassroots digital fabrication. It was in January 1976 that workers at Lucas Aerospace published an Alternative Plan for the future of their corporation. Archive film is available here:

http://steps-centre.org/event/seminar-adrian-smith-lucas-plan/

The plan was a novel response to management announcements that thousands of manufacturing jobs were to be cut in the face of industrial restructuring, international competition, and technological change. Instead of redundancy, workers argued their right to socially useful production. Rejected by management and government, the Plan’s arguments attracted workers from other sectors, community activists, radical scientists, environmentalists, and the Left. The Plan became symbolic for a movement of activists committed to innovation for purposes of social use over private profit. With hindsight, the movement was swimming against the political and economic tide, but at the time things looked less clear-cut, and some of their ideas did prove influential. Recalling the movement now, what is striking is the importance activists attached to practical engagements in technology development as part of their politics. We will discuss the relevance today of old questions connecting tacit knowledge and participatory prototyping to the political economy of technology development.

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