Glasgow School of Art embarks on a Highland fling with new design centre

The Glasgow School of Art and Highlands and Islands Enterprise have this month opened a Centre for Design Innovation at the Horizon Building at Forres in Moray, northern Scotland. The centre aims to use design innovation to benefit businesses and communities in the Highlands and Islands area.

HIE – whose role is to develop sustainable economic growth across the region – is initially providing funding of up to £1.27m over the next three years, though it is hoped the centre will remain thereafter.

Key focuses of the project will be renewable energy businesses, such as tidal energy and wind farms, and healthcare, with the centre acting as a base for a team of GSA researchers and a rolling group of students. This team will also work on-site in more isolated areas, giving students the opportunity to work on live projects.

Professor Irene McAra-McWilliam, head of the school of design at GSA and director of the centre, previously worked with HIE through Design Innovation Scotland, and the bodies’ shared interests in sustainability and social enterprise have largely informed the centre’s aims.

Alex Paterson, chief executive of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, says, ’The work that GSA plans to do from its new base in Moray will focus on tackling challenges faced by businesses and communities, enabling them to grasp opportunities and generate economic growth.

’This will include exploring ways in which current and future services might be provided into local communities – for example, healthcare, education and banking.’
HIE will act as a conduit between businesses and the centre. Carroll Buxton, director of regional competitiveness at HIE, says, ’HIE has staff throughout the area to identify challenges businesses are facing that may generate areas for the centre to work on.’

The centre’s work will include running design workshops, and businesses will be able to use the creative studio space and technical facilities.
McAra-McWilliam says, ’Taking into account the plans for Digital Britain, we want to see broadband going deep into Highland and Island areas. It’s of key importance that technology is used to support smaller areas and communities.’

In the centre’s work on healthcare, The Pendant project – which sees students help to redesign a personal emergency medical alarm for Moray Care – is already under way.

Richard Wilson, digital media specialist researcher at the centre, adds that they have also been working on ’telecare’ remote rehabilitation services, such as allowing patients to access physiotherapy sessions from home via a two-way video conference link.

’Because of the geography of the area, you could be hundreds of miles away from the hospital and it saves them making that trip,’ he says.

The centre will be delivering two design innovation workshops as part of Nesta’s ’idiscover’ education programme next month – Artful Dodgems and Build Your Own Bedside Lamp – which will give young people an opportunity to design and build simple electronic devices.

McAra-McWilliam says, ’We’re interested in how a region, which provides so much in terms of landscape and community, is becoming a centre for life sciences, research and renewable energy – 21st-century topics in terms of innovation.

’All the areas designers think about in urban terms take on a different dimension here.’

Aims of centre
Professor Irene McAra-McWilliam explains that much of the work from the centre will be driven by the concept of seeing the region as a ’Distributed City’. She says, ’Instead of a “hub-and-spoke” model of a city, we’re looking at it in relation to a rural surrounding where we can help different kinds of businesses connect to one another in social and economic terms’
In the first three years, the centre aims to undertake six applied research projects and support 100 businesses to engage in design-led innovation
On 26 November, an exhibition in Forres or Elgin will showcase students’ work on prototypes for the Moray Care project
The centre will feature a laboratory in which the team can prototype digital media and electronics, a meeting room, a lecture theatre and two creative studios. In keeping with the project’s focus on sustainability, the building’s wall insulation uses sheep’s wool

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