AT Lochaber High School the other day, there was a wee sparkle of what our post-corona economy and society might look like. The local hospital, the Belford in Fort William, was running short of protective visors for staff. But one doctor had heard the frames could be made by a “3D printer” – a small manufacturing unit that can be programmed to squirt plastic or resin into any shape.

So they called up Stephen Stewart, head of the computing department at the school. Not only did he have a 3D printer, he was ready to leap into action, and started making the appropriate equipment.

Mr Stewart’s proud tweet would charm the heart out of you. As Alasdair Gray once said, Scotland is a place where the highest figure of authority is the heidmaister.

But what was even more stirring were the responses below his post. Other schools, Scottish and international, asked for the digital file of his design (which Stephen duly distributed). Or they linked the teacher to other cloud-based repositories of free medical designs.

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The instant, horizontal solidarity of this is something we’re seeing more broadly at the moment.

(By the way, anyone with anarchist tendencies must be tickled: they’re seeing Peter Kropotkin’s concept of “Mutual Aid” become the accepted label for these neighbourhood care networks mushrooming everywhere).

But just as impressive is the way Lochaber High has shown how our expertise, technology and industry might be differently arranged – and how it might have to be, post this pandemic (and as the climate crisis intensifies). The seeds of this coming model have been around for a few years, and travel under a few names – cosmo-localism, or “design global, make local”, or peer-to-peer production.

But they’re only seeds. And before (or if) their opportunity comes up, we should check whether what’s left of British manufacturing can answer the “war effort” call, and turn its processes and skills towards needed medical equipment.

James Dyson was called up 10 days ago by the now-infected Boris Johnson, along with other engineering consortiums (including the McLaren F1 team, Nissan, aviation specialist Meggitt, JCB, Rolls-Royce and Airbus) to design and build ventilators.

Yet what this highlights is the way our medical equipment sector had already been massively transferred to China – which is at the moment dispensing medical supplies and tech to grateful health systems across the planet.

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There’s an air of Pythonesque desperation here. Do we really think that such a rag-bag of UK industries will quickly “knock up” the requisite ventilators and other med-tech in time to cope with the social peaks and troughs of the virus?

And of course, Brexitannia will always waive the rules. An offer was made this week from the EU, asking the UK to join in a scheme that would cheaply procure protective equipment and ventilators for the NHS. The initial response from the Prime Minister’s official spokesman was: “I think the short answer to that is no,” though some faffing and backtracking has since commenced.

As Britain blusters away, the European Commission is already scoping out the future that the Lochaber High School is hinting at. It is asking companies involved in 3D printing (or “additive manufacturing”) to come to the aid of hospitals across the continent.

The driving story here comes from Lombardy in Italy. About 10 days ago, local hospitals were running out of a crucial valve to keep their ventilators going. In response, 3D printing enthusiasts produced them, from their own scans of the physical object. Yet there was a flurry around whether the original patent holder on the part might sue them for misuse. In the spirit of the moment, they didn’t. But this case begins to open up the much bigger question that coronavirus, and the climate crisis that stands behind it, poses to our current model of manufacturing.

What do we need to make, and how globally or locally should it be made? The mighty worldwide supply chains of capitalist globalisation can apparently be snipped apart by fiendishly mutating and spreading viruses (and there’s more like Covid-19 coming).

So, in these unstable conditions, how should we provide ourselves with the engineered products and services we need (which might not, of course, be the same as the ones

we want)?

Enter the tribe known as the cosmo-localists. It is a growing network of technologists and activists. Some come from open-source software, some from the green and municipal movements typified by cities such as Barcelona and Ghent.

Their general slogan is DGML: “design globally, manufacture locally”. This isn’t just something enabled by 3D printers, but an entire new philosophy and method of product making.

It tries to answer the main charge of the eco-economists – which is that we must try to reduce the “material throughput” of our economies. And that a globalised manufacturing economy – with parts sourced from far-flung spots on the planet, and then toxically transported everywhere to be assembled – guarantees this won’t happen. Never mind that all of this is further accelerated and duplicated by our current form of hyper-competitive capitalism. The maelstrom is nearly complete, and it’s right before us.

The cosmo-localists’ answer to this is another slogan: “We must stop regarding what is truly scarce as plentiful, and what is truly plentiful as scarce.”

In the first part, they mean our natural resources. We need to get a grip on the amount of stuff that moves through our lives, satisfies our whims, but chokes the planet. Thus comes the vision that we might consciously decide to localise our economies and industries.

But the second part of the slogan refers to knowledge and information. The great structural threat to commerce that digital culture has long presented is that its best plans can easily be copied, pasted and shared. Through patents and software, we force this information to be scarce – in order that bucks may be made and royalties received.

However, what if we could make many of these ideas and designs universally available, on the global cloud? And available, in particular, to local areas (towns, cities, regions), which could begin to build small manufacturing sectors around this “commons” of knowledge?

Current examples are embryonic but suggestive. From downloaded free plans, backed up a supportive user community, you can make a residential house, insulin, farm implements (including a “farmbot”), office furniture, an electric car, beehives … the list is growing. The point about a cosmo-local design is that it would have to be essentially robust and repairable, not flimsy and discardable. So we’re not in the world of “this season’s model”, but a gradual, evolving and improving functionality. Our pride in these objects would have to come from their fixability and durability, and our active role in that – not their flashy transience.

Until literally the last few weeks, the cosmo-localists would have regarded themselves as heroic outliers. Yet I’m sure they would point to the Lochaber and Lombardy stories with some justified delight.

See what can happen, they’d say, when even the lightest distribution of DGML is placed right into the heart of a community (and there’s nowhere closer to its heart than a high school and a hospital).

Imagine this capability and these systems could begin to answer other needs and requirements. How vital, energised and profoundly resilient such communities would be, in the face of coming changes!

We may say they are dreamers. But in these upside-down times, where the lowly are elevated and the on-high are as infectable as anyone, they’re not the only ones.

If governments are now in the business of supporting us through these weird times, they shouldn’t just back up the old structures that made us so fragile in the first place. Holyrood, and Westminster, open your eyes and ears to the cosmo-localists.

If you’d like to know more about cosmo-localism, go to the P2P Foundation wiki page.