How government can get 3D printing policy right without micro-managing
Authors: Andrew Sissons
16 October 2012
Allister Heath, editor of City AM, discussed our report on 3D printing in his letter this morning. He labels 3D printing – along with self-driving cars – as the “big ideas to watch over the next decade”. We’d probably argue there are other, equally important technologies with the potential to transform the economy (and probably others we haven’t heard of yet), but it is always encouraging when the media pays some attention to the things that will get our economy growing in the long-term.
Heath’s letter contains some kind words about our paper, but it is wide of the mark on a couple of points. The first is straightforward enough: Heath describes The Work Foundation as a “left-wing think-tank”. Statements like this clearly involve a large degree of interpretation, but The Work Foundation is an independent, non-partisan organisation. We are interested in getting more people into work, making that work better and helping organisations perform more effectively – hardly issues that are the exclusive preserve of the left or the right. Our proposed solutions on how to achieve those aims are informed by the available evidence, not by any ideological leanings.
The second point is more important. Heath goes on to claim that we are “too keen on government micro-managing this crucial new technology” and that we don’t need a “3D taskforce led by Vince Cable, or subsidies”. Our position is more nuanced than this.
The 3D printing task force that we envisage would not – and must not – attempt to micro-manage the development of the technology (incidentally, we are also agnostic on whether Vince Cable should chair it). It should act as a vehicle to build consensus among the entrepreneurs and academics involved in 3D printing, taking its lead from them. And it should provide a forum for coordinating the different policy changes needed to ensure 3D printing does not get held back.
Heath rightly echoes our calls for a fit-for-purpose intellectual property system, an effective approach to regulation and a clear legal liability framework for 3D printing. Assuming, for instance, that the government still wants to regulate guns, bombs and other dangerous items, it will need to find a way to do this for 3D printing. But these changes need to involve a range of different government bodies; without a coordinating body, who is going to make sure these changes are made coherently? Without a body that can work out what changes are needed, we are very unlikely to get a coherent policy on 3D printing.
The question of how government can support new technologies without micro-managing them is a complex one, though, and one to which we have given considerable attention. Old-fashioned industrial policy, especially where involving picking winners, is rarely effective, and is particularly poorly suited to unpredictable new technologies. But at the same time, ignoring new technologies completely is a weak option. New technologies often require changes in government policy, and usually emerge as a result of public research funding in the first place. A new, more flexible approach to supporting disruptive technologies is needed.
Our solution is set out in this short note on Market Making, which is a summary of a longer forthcoming report. The idea is that the state can play a supporting role in helping new markets emerge, but it must always take its lead from businesses and entrepreneurs. Where new technologies emerge and approach maturity, the government should look for opportunities to open up new markets, by changing relevant policies and removing any barriers, but not by intervening in the market directly. Getting this approach right may be challenging for government, but it is something it must learn how to do.
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