Let’s try plan bee to boost the economy

What can we do to learn from our mistakes and move on? asks David Kester, urging the creative industry to set the pace for change

Last week two retailers went bust on my local high street in London’s Putney. Those talking about an ’L’ of a recession are harking back to similar tell-tale signs from the last time round in the 1980s and 1990s.

I recently read a powerful argument for making innovation a national cause based on the fact that we have fallen behind our global competitors. The author was Prince Albert and the idea was the 1851 Great Exhibition. Read it and weep.

While the US and Germany pick themselves up and face up to the new global order, we are left picking over the pieces of our broken banking system. If we were a business we would rightly be accused of being short-term opportunists – again. We are consistent at failing to learn from history. In the past 30 years alone we sleepwalked from dot.com disasters into the next bubble without a long-term plan.

Assuming we aren’t content to be one big garden theme park, on what should we build our plan? What will be our bread and butter for the next 100 years? And please don’t say manufacturing because the numbers just don’t stack up. And the creative economy at 7 per cent of GDP isn’t the answer either.

Let’s start with the new context. The world has moved on even since the shutterboards last went up in Putney. Then no one had heard of 3G. Now almost two-thirds of the world’s inhabitants have a mobile phone and more than a quarter use the Internet. The world has shrunk. Beijing is at my door and Putney is in Beijing.

The problem is that too few UK consultancies have absorbed and acted on the liberation of the consumer, user and citizen. At our best, we have shown brilliance. Companies like Virgin Atlantic have deployed great designers such as Joe Ferry to pre-empt the customer and deliver beyond their expectation.

But have you tried to buy a stamp from your local post office recently? Have you walked into an Apple Store and wondered whether the staff were heaven-sent – especially when contrasted with your local Currys or Maplins? Why do we send young hopeful entrepreneurs for an apprenticeship with the man who brought us Amstrad? Why not Sarah Curran from Mywardrobe.com or Brent Hoberman from Lastminute.com?

In 1992 James Carville, Bill Clinton’s strategist, coined the phrase, ’It’s the economy stupid’. In 2010, ’It’s the consumer stupid’. In the 20th century companies were defined by their shareholder value. In the 21st century a company is defined by its product, not its market capitalisation. As Apple has shown the world, if you get the first right, the second follows and it is now bigger than Microsoft.

The same is true closer to home. Rather like Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs, designer Christopher Bailey and chief executive Angela Ahrends have remodelled Burberry around its global customer. The pay-off is a place in the FTSE 100.

So what does this mean for economic policy? It needs to say ’people first’. The customer or the citizen must be at the very centre of everything we create. Our companies and public services have to provide more choice and better experiences, using the best and latest technologies. Our business policy needs to follow this through and play to our strengths in the UK. That means taking some risks and backing key sectors rather than picking winners. Here you have to make a distinction between the sources of wealth and the enablers that we will depend on.

It’s a bit like honey and bees. The honey is the source of wealth. Here Vince Cable is right to emphasise the importance of technology as it is one of our greatest strengths and has proven potential for business success.

A great example is UK microchip designer Arm Holdings, whose technology powers every iPhone and iPad. Other parallels are in life-sciences and clean technology. As a basis for our future economy, these honey pots are knowledge-intensive low-capital industries. They are perfect for
But you can’t make honey without bees. Who are the enablers? Who will transform the ideas into practical products, brands and services?

One of those enterprise enablers will continue to be the financial sector and, in particular, our strength in venture capital. The other big enabler is the creative sector and, in particular, those areas that can marry the needs of consumers to the potential of technologies. This is where our design sector has everything to play for – not just as a solid exporter, but as the key to unlocking UK innovation and future wealth creation.

Design is not a luxury, but an essential ingredient for survival and growth. Rather like the bees – if we vanish, so does the economic honey.

Key enablers of enterprise

  • The financial sector – and venture capital in particular
  • The creative sector – especially when it manages to match up technologies with consumers’ needs, like Apple so successfully does (store pictured above)

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