UK Can Go Back To Its Industrial Roots And Thrive Post-Brexit, But Only With Design

The lack of focus and attention on design is deeply troubling
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Hold onto your hats – the UK is building again. The Government has pledged millions to the construction and aviation sectors in a bid to get Britain moving. But before we sharpen the pencils and put on the hard hats, we need to have a serious conversation about design.

In early July, the long-awaited £420m Construction Sector deal was launched promising an ambitious new partnership between the Government and the construction industry. This was followed shortly after by an equally important and much anticipated Aerospace Sector Deal, pledging £343m in government and industry investment for research and development and productivity improvements to facilitate the rollout of electric and hybrid aircraft.

It’s great news. But before we race ahead, let’s consider how design can – and should – be used to prosper these sectors and build better places for people to live and work.

Design is responsible for shaping the built environment, the digital world and the products and services we use. Design has, after all, been at the heart of industrial change throughout the centuries. In post-war Britain, the country turned to design to innovate and build. But somehow, between then and now, design has fallen off the radar somewhat despite all our best efforts to keep it top of the agenda. The value of design is largely absent from current UK commentary and political debate.

No longer post-war, we are now concentrating our minds on post-Brexit and if we are to succeed, we must turn to design once again. Productivity is stagnant. Business growth is unequal across the regions and automation is impacting on living conditions and job security. In the UK today too few places, people and businesses are benefiting from the full potential of design.

Some businesses, thankfully, are starting to wake up and realise the power and promise of design. Our recent report on the Design Economy (2018), launched at the same time as the sector deals, tells a compelling story of escalating growth, the rapid rise of digital design and a deep-rooted connection to UK innovation and global economic change.

If you look to the most successful businesses in the UK you will find that most – if not all - are prioritising design. It’s design that is helping them to innovate, expand, grow and stand tall on the global stage. Take Rolls-Royce for example. They have developed an engine that will set new benchmarks in fuel efficiency, CO2 reductions and reduce engine noise. Not possible without designers. Design is improving, innovating and generating new products, new services, and new ways of doing things.

So why for instance, is design still not central to economic debate despite the value it is bringing to the UK, and despite key industrial sectors placing it at the heart of innovation? Much of what is discussed about an innovation economy, depends on design. But design skills are still not embedded in school science, technology, engineering and mathematics and there is a notable absence of debate on design in Parliament. We continue to have a ‘recognition’ gap across schools, within some businesses and in the media on the design skills needed to deliver our future economy. Has anyone else realised yet that its extremely important to our future prosperity, particularly post Brexit?

The lack of focus and attention on design is deeply troubling – at a time when the country needs to harness and develop the skills and innovations that will drive investment to the UK after Brexit. As a nation we took a huge gamble exiting the EU but have retreated a little since, preferring to stay safe, concentrating on making skills from coding to fast production lines, all of which are vulnerable to automation, AI and robotics in years to come. Design is so much more than just coding.

The time to act is not 10 years – it’s ten minutes. And if we don’t act fast, as parents, as young people, as business leaders, or as politicians and commentators, we will confine a generation of workers to playing catch up on skills needed for high value work. Lost in an education system providing static knowledge, without the creativity to open up the jobs of the future – most of which don’t yet exist.

We can’t let that happen – and that is why Design Council is working tirelessly to build from Design Economy, the sector deals announced this month, and break through into key economic conversations today, to shape our tomorrow. Before it’s too late. Greg Clark, our Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said that the UK has a rich heritage in civil aviation, is the home of the jet engine and the “wings factory of the world”. He wants to ensure that the UK remains at the cutting-edge of the aviation sector. So do we.


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