The home-factory, the shop-house or the loft exist all over, in the small alleyways of Tokyo, the colonial precincts of Singapore, the designer studios of Berlin and New York. They are making a big comeback.
For millions around the world, the choice or compulsion to work from home is a reality. Working from home—whether as an artisan, a professional, or a home owner renting out a portion of the house—has shaped cities throughout history.
It was during the 20th century that modern urban planning saw mixed-use dwellings as promiscuous and hazardous, and tried to sort cities out along functionalist lines. However, whenever planning norms were weakly enforced, or deliberately relaxed, the industrious home thrived.
The overwhelming presence of live-work conditions in Indian cities is striking: from Bareilly to Agra, from Coimbatore to Surat, not to mention the enormous manufacturing and processing hubs in Delhi and Mumbai. We call this live-work typology the “tool-house”, or homes used as income-generating tools.
Small is smart
The synergy between economic life, family and community is particularly strong in India. Many eatables and wearables, for instance, are made by a myriad small producers rather than large-scale factories.
But for many policy-makers, statisticians and economists this is a problem. While they recognise the value and importance of cottage industries, economic development indicators ignore the intricacies of small-scale arrangements, especially when they get lost in the more ambitious makeover of cities. Neighbourhoods where such production happens don’t look modern enough; they are typically low-rise, high-density and unplanned.
A closer look at such arrangements reveals that we may be missing an opportunity to unleash India’s rather advanced local economy. What happens in these neighbourhoods is an intricate scale of production that works flexibly and simultaneously for local, regional, national and global markets. In all this, the local economy acts as a foundation and a bedrock, drawing hugely from family and community.
Local needs can be very specific and peculiar, ranging from material needed for community rituals to jewellery made in a particular ethnic fashion to niche household items not always found in regular markets. What we have are overlays of traditional practices that have become integrated into new chains of production and exchange.
This makes it easier to customise the production of any good, object or service, thanks to the presence of high quality but affordable skills that are constantly being tested and experimented upon at the neighbourhood level. This is as true for constructing homes locally as it is for adapting tailoring skills for industrial needs.
Makers in India
People live in clusters that allow for families and communities to develop networks of co-dependence. It may sound like a cliché to say this, but the Make in India initiative should really be a commemoration of the millions of makers in India who are part of an economy that exists and services the entire country (and beyond).
Everywhere cities are trying to reinvent themselves by combining craft, creativity, design and technology, which tailors to niche markets, locally and globally.
But these makers, and the value they generate, don’t seem to be valued enough. At the most, academics condescendingly acknowledge the resilience and resourcefulness of the “informal economy”, but few venture to actually take stock of its economic and social worth. This lack of recognition is what allows productive settlements to be regularly emptied to make space for real estate (which has become the crux of metropolitan economies, especially in India).
While India is trying hard to make its cities look modern by eradicating what many consider backward lifestyles and livelihoods, cities in other parts of the world are encouraging new forms of craftsmanship that merge manual with hi-tech skills.
It is precisely this combination that has propelled Shenzhen to the very top of the global electronic and robotic industry. It is also what is preserving the relevance of Western European craftsmanship in Germany, Switzerland, France and Italy.
Everywhere cities are trying to reinvent themselves by combining craft, creativity, design and technology, which tailors to niche markets, locally and globally. Mixed-use neighbourhoods are key in this process. European cities are actively promoting them. Producing locally and consuming locally—while being networked globally —is not only smart but also good for the environment.
India is incredibly ripe for this ‘maker’-centric economy. It has industrious neighbourhoods at the core of its cities, and the Internet has already penetrated into all social-economic strata. What’s more, a large number of urban youth, who come from families engaged in artisanship, have attended college. They know enough about media, law and accounting to reinvent their family’s businesses.
The same youth who suffer from discrimination when they apply for white-collar jobs should be given incentives to start the creative enterprises of tomorrow. Tool-houses in Agra are already producing high-end goods for designer studios in Milan. The know-how is here. It must be harnessed.
What needs to change is not the scale of production but the scale of support for existing production. Crafts must be promoted, transmitted and reinvented. Vocational training must be developed, but should be rooted in productive neighbourhoods. This also means resolutely accepting and legalising homegrown, mixed-use neighbourhoods, allowing their residents to invest in their homes and businesses, and making every effort to improve civic infrastructure.
This can become an opportunity to improve the working and living conditions of millions of people. It is especially important for women, for whom working from home is a daily reality. Working from home must become less of a compulsion and more of a tool for economic and social emancipation.
The writers are co-founders of urbz.net, an urban network that’s active in Mumbai, Goa and beyond.