Innovation and the Prosperity of Nations

At the recent Competitiveness Summit, the connections between business and innovation were made starkly clear

In November 2005 the UK Treasury published the Cox Review of Creativity in Business, addressing “a question that is vital to the UK’s long-term economic success—namely, how to exploit the nation’s creative skills more fully” where the “emphasis is on the use made of creative skills by smaller businesses, with particular concern for manufacturing.”

This December the UK Design Council, of which report author Sir George Cox is Chairman, convened the Competitiveness Summit ’06 in London to brief people on progress with implementation of the report’s recommendations and ‘build momentum’ around it. Specifically the Summit was intended to showcase the role of creativity and design in UK competitiveness, discuss how they may be further embedded, and examine future trends; consider threats and opportunities from abroad; and examine the role of education and its relationship to industry.

The Competitiveness Summit was probably the most serious and eminent design event in the UK in the last five years, though the balance of the audience was from the design and consultancy industries, government policy and funding, and education, rather than the ‘client side’ of the equation.

“My report contains no originality at all,” Sir George Cox told the assembly in his opening keynote—though he reported the interest it had generated in the US and the Middle East, and at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting at which he had presented.

Innovation “will dictate the economic prosperity of nations,” Cox observed, but the weakness of the UK is “not being able to take full advantage of this.” We produce people in art schools who don’t understand the language of the business world, he noted, and business people who don’t understand how to manage innovation. How can we combine their skills?

Considering the much debated threat of China and India he argued they also represent great potential, but to take advantage of this we will need “wit and imagination, and to be able to innovate.”

Bill Sermon, Vice President, Design at Nokia Multimedia, described how each operating group in the Finnish champion has a head of design—an arrangement which is wholly unfamiliar to UK plc. “We are a people-led business,” he said, and their needs drive creativity and innovation. He described how the company brings in people from outside, whose involvement is “not just focus groups, but creating with us.”

He characterised Britain’s approach as asking “what is our defensive position in the wider world?” and argued that “we lose speed and agility when we start watching the competition.” Despite this, he noted that Nokia was keen to be in the UK today, as it is a great crossover point “where the world wants to meet.”

Among his observations and recommendations were the lack of ‘joined-up’ design representation in the UK; the need to focus on quality over quantity in design schools, and their failure to exploit their alumni; and the importance of design being represented on the boards of companies. There are four new design research labs in opening in the UK in next year [including a Nokia lab], he observed in conclusion, and asked “What are we going to do with them?”

Responding to the question ‘Is UK competitiveness imperilled by developing economies catching up with us?’ John Thackara, Director of Doors of Perception, and programme director of the Designs of the time (Dott 07) project, challenged some of the assumptions underlying the Summit. “We are all emerging economies now”, he argued, more “wrongly developed” than advanced. He noted that the Stern Review [on the Economics of Climate Change], with its focus on external costs, is a radical change in how we measure economic success, and “paves the way for a new scoring system.” “Who will be competitive?” he asked.

“Those who go ‘full speed a-Stern’” he answered—providing an instant Thackara-ism.

What government can do is a modest part of the story, he argued, especially if they simply say ‘Consume less.’ Instead, he outlined the approaches he and his team are developing in the Dott 07 project, which starts by asking “How do we want to live?” Thackara’s suggestions included the observation that innovation is all around us: we need to discover it and bring in resources as needed; we do not need to start more organisations and initiatives. Further, we need to ask people how they want to live rather than telling them how to live. In conclusion, he noted that we can run by old rules “and run slap into a rock called climate change,” or we can do things differently.

During the first panel, on Creative People and Places, Graham Hitchen, Project Director (for the London Development Agency) of the Cox-proposed International Centre for Design and Innovation discussed the characteristics the Centre might have. Considering the unexpected success of clubs such as Manchester’s famed Haçienda, he noted that while space is important, it is not sufficient. “Physical space is the stage, the dance floor.” He backed this up with observations from the Cox US Mission, which took a group of academics, officials, and policy makers to universities and design firms in California, Chicago and Boston, including Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design; the Ford Engineering Center at Northwestern University; and the Engineering Systems Division at MIT.

The National Centre “is not a centre,” argued Hitchen, but a trading place for the exchange of ideas and innovation, a meeting point for different disciplines. This might involve “bringing ‘people in white coats’ into design spaces,” he suggested, around a strong programme, including informal activity. In particular he noted the plan for an International Design/Business Exchange, which would be “a dance floor for international, design-led innovation.”

Professor Stuart MacDonald, Head of the Aberdeen-based Gray’s School of Art, argued that the Lighthouse architecture and design centre in Glasgow, of which he was the director, “is Britain’s national design centre,” having, in the spirit of the Cox Review, established a new business model and tools for the design sector. He also covered the forthcoming Six Cities Design Festival, which he described, in somewhat Trotskyite language, as seeking to “foster a permanent design revolution in Scotland.”

The panel on Strengthening Links Between Industry and Education Providers, brought together Professor David Gann, Principal of Imperial College London’s Tanaka Business School; Professor Jeremy Myerson, Director of Innovation RCA at the Royal College of Art; and Rolls-Royce Chief Design Engineer for Civil Aerospace Geoff Kirk. What does industry want from academics? asked Professor Gann. “Well trained people, inquiring minds, rigour.” What should academia avoid? “Second rate consulting to third rate firms is the road to misery,” he argued. Instead it should consider collaborative models, take a long-term view, work out its attitude to intellectual property, and consider incentive models. In the context of the first point, he described one of the increasing number of links between Imperial and the Royal College of Art, some motivated by the Cox Review.

Professor Myerson noted that the Cox Review had separated creativity (‘generation’) and innovation (‘exploitation’). He also observed that design is not the whole story, and that there is a need for collaboration with other disciplines. His suggestions to policy makers were to address demand by business for academic expertise, not just its supply; and to support real inter-disciplinary generation of knowledge.

“In South Kensington [home of the RCA, Imperial and the associated Tanaka] we have a nexus of design, business and engineering” he noted—while recognising that South Kensington is not the sole UK nexus. More generally, he argued that universities should focus on teaching and research rather than “compete [by doing consulting work] with the employers of our own graduates, and our own graduates who are setting up businesses.” Crucially, he asked where universities, especially in art and design, fit in the innovation cycle when R&D is now out in the open. Noting the innovation phases of discovery, create/develop, and deliver, he observed the skills of art schools are best suited to the first phase.

Geoff Kirk’s key argument, complementing Myerson’s, was that universities are not sub-contract houses. Rather, they “need to retain independence of thought” and feel they can challenge a sponsoring company.

The pre-lunch keynote was delivered by the Rt. Hon Alistair Darling MP, UK Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who recently asked the Design Council to produce a report on how well UK industry is making use of design and creativity. Darling began by comparing current developments to the industrial revolution, and arguing that Britain has got to compete on quality and excellence, and design and creativity. “We must seek competitive advantage by exploiting capabilities that our competitors cannot imitate” he said. “The UK has distinctive skills in innovation and creativity that we can draw on to produce high value goods and services.” Reflecting on the ur-example of successful consumer products—the iPod—he noted that “it was the consumer-friendly and up-to-date design that brought a revolution in the market.” “Without great design, a great idea will wither on shop shelves instead of flying off them,” he argued. Considering the role of government, he reflected on the importance of network of Centres of Creativity, with the London-based National Centre for Design and Innovation at its core, and also noted that Government could help promote design and creativity through its own procurement.

Design Council Chief Executive David Kester started by defining design as “what links creativity and innovation,” and “creativity deployed to a specific end.” He cited Design Council research which showed that design-driven companies out-performed the market, but noted that business often lacks the skills to use design effectively. He reflected on the trend for emerging economies—including China, India and New Zealand—to embrace design and creativity, and cited research by John Heskett, Professor of Design at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, on the creative capabilities of China, commissioned as part of the Cox Review.

Darling and Kester’s speeches were responded to by a panel including Sir Terence Conran; David Godber, Director of Nissan Design Europe; and IDEO co-founder Bill Moggridge. Conran reflected on the key influence of the 1951 Festival of Britain, in which he had a hand. “No one knew what design could do” he observed. “Design cheered people up.” Coming back to the present he asked “Where can you go to be convinced that we care deeply about design?”, suggesting the London-based Design Museum, which he was key to creating, with its ambitious plans under new director Deyan Sudjic. He also cited his first hand experience of the UK government’s enthusiasm for design, based on the tour of the Royal College of Art student show he and Rector Christopher Frayling had given the Chancellor of the Exchequer. “This is the future for British industry,” was the comment of the likely next UK Prime Minister. Conran also reflected on the challenges for design, observing that there are no large-scale furniture factories in UK.

David Godber noted the resilience of UK in general, but reported that one of the key government initiatives, tax credits for design, were still mostly unclaimed by qualifying design companies, implying greater challenges than simple policy development.

Bill Moggridge returned to the theme of the Festival of Britain, noting that it “inspired me to be a designer.” The most powerful aspect of being a designer, he observed, is that “design brings in the human element.” Design methods need to be combined with prototyping, which is increasingly important as life becomes more complex, and can be extended to prototyping services—which also benefit from inter-disciplinary approaches. “Do it quickly, as business needs to see things tried quickly and cheaply,” he counselled. Touching on education he noted the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, in which IDEO co-founder David Kelley has a key role, is novel in being “an institute that allows for [inter-disciplinary] collaboration.”

The Summit concluded with three breakout sessions, on Globalisation and Future Trends; Commercialisation of Ideas; and Creative Industries and Innovation.

For a UK conference to be addressed by one government minister is something. For the competitiveness Summit to get two, with Malcolm Wicks MP, UK Minister of State for Science and Innovation, wrapping up was a quite a coup. Unlike Alistair Darling, Wicks spoke off-the-cuff, on a step, to a standing audience. We scare our kids about China, he said, but we will cope. We need to be good and we are good at certain things, such as science and technology. But, following his boss Alistair Darling’s lead, he asked how we might “get the design component in there?” And picking up on David Kester’s earlier observations, he also asked “What about our economy, our lives, isn’t designed?” “I want to learn from you” he concluded. We felt flattered.


Ultimately the Competitiveness Summit was a pedestrian, feel-good, networking event that provided few insights or challenges to received wisdom. If this were the first time we had heard these wonderful stories about design, government, education and business, we might have been more optimistic. But over the last 10 or more years—back to the Design Council’s re-founding—we have come to know them well. And it is not clear how much difference is really made by well-researched statistics about design effectiveness in business, or Government ministers’ proclamations of their belief in creativity. Perhaps the problem is being tackled at the wrong level.

First, however, the format of the event. There was no ‘symposiarch,’ as John Thackara would have it, behind or in front of the Summit. Speakers came and ‘did their thing’ without anyone apparently shaping the overall discourse, or the debate. The event was ostensibly chaired by Stephanie Flanders, Economic Editor of the BBC2 Newsnight show. Although having a professional emcee and chair is desirable—and those BBC folks are real pros—they are typically generalists and thus unable to shape the debate or challenge the presenters. One of Flanders’ questions during the education discussion was about whether there was a plethora of government reviews. “Is this initiative-itis?” she quipped, aping itain’s mind-numbing model of media inquiry.

Lacking a symposiarch, the Summit also lacked any clear direction or debate, either between the speakers or with attendees. What was the question that was being answered? Whatever it was, there was no one to try to ensure it was at least addressed. If, as Alistair Darling claimed, UK plc is facing challenges on the scale of the industrial revolution, one would expect more focused, thoughtful and heated debate. Part of the reason for the lack of debate was that the Summit attracted the ‘already converted’ from the design side. I encountered only one person from the business side, the COO of an early stage technology venturing company. The UK design community doesn’t have a recent history of engaging in profound debates with itself.

Even within the design community the discussion was oddly out-of-date, focusing almost exclusively on product design.

The Ministers were, as usual (and perhaps understandably), given to this narrow understanding of design, though they were also guilty, in the case of Malcolm Wicks, of corralling ‘rock and pop’ and the design industry into the all-encircling pen of ‘creativity’.

In design in general, and even in product design, the key dynamics are interaction design, service design and research methods. And surely these newer disciplines hold more promise for UK plc than traditional industrial design, which has already been mastered by China plc—where designers are also proximate to the factory shop floor. To their credit, service design was mentioned by Thackara and Moggridge, though interaction design was surprisingly absent from the latter’s discussion.

The Summit demonstrated a somewhat limited imagination about the power and nature of design. In his very engaging talk, David Kester cited the typography of the Yellow Page as an example of good design. And so it is. But did it really answer the problem? Possibly at the time, but the real design solution to finding and evaluating local services has been much better solved by a combination of searchable databases, the Web, ubiquitous Internet access, mobile devices, and GPS.

This is the scale at which design solutions should be conceived. And Professor Myerson is right that “design is not the whole story.” This level of thinking requires equally high levels of investment (and much else beside). It is not clear that this will be forthcoming from UK plc, which as Bill Sermon observed prefers “watching the competition”—and thus avoiding risk.

At whatever level design is focused, there is another challenge that was highlighted by the initial Summit keynotes. What motivates and inspires us to design? Creating a successful business? Giving UK plc a future? Saving the planet? Or fulfilling people’s needs? While these are not mutually exclusive, they are sufficiently confused to leave the role of design and designers more fuzzy than at any period in the modern era.

Much of this confusion is a result of contemporary politics and government policy, which have lost any concept of rational problem identification or problem solving—key aspects of designerly thinking. If the current government really wants to promote innovation, and thereby design, it needs to go beyond the insipid measures, such as public procurement, to which Alistair Darling alludes. Darling’s previous position was as Secretary of State for Transport, where he could have had an enormous impact on innovation and design. Instead he presided over the slow death by inaction and taxation of the British transport system, while the Chinese were building maglev and high altitude trains, finishing Chek Lap Kok airport, and launching manned rockets.

One of the ways of invigorating or re-orienting an economy is for governments to be ambitious, invest substantially, and lead from the front. This was true of Eisenhower’s ARPA and NASA initiatives, which were at the root of the Internet and communications satellites, as it was of Kennedy’s manned-rocket-launching and moon landing programme—which also had a profound psychological and cultural impact.

Gordon Brown and other Ministers in the current UK administration may say the right things about design, but they lack real ambition or leadership. Instead they are raising up design and creativity and hoping to bask in their untarnished glow. Designers need to avoid being tarnished by association.

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