“Design creates value”: Innovate UK launches programme for design in innovation

The programme seeks to overcome “barriers to progress” and will feature grant funding opportunities and other initiatives to “fully embed design in innovation”.

Innovate UK, the country’s innovation agency, has launched a new strategy to support and encourage design investment.

In the last five years, programmes of investment and support for innovative companies and products has produced “impressive results”, according to Innovate UK executive chair Dr Ian Campbell. But despite these successes, he says, there remains a vast amount of untapped potential for businesses to use design for good.

Design in Innovation, then, is a four-year programme developed by the organisation in a bid to truly “embed” human-centred design into innovation practices. It will be split into four themes: investment, reducing the cost of entry, access to design talent and maximising value contributions.

“Part of the cultural DNA of the organisation”

At the core of the new strategy is the belief that many businesses could benefit from a better understanding and use of human-centred design. As the name implies, human-centred design begins by viewing problems through the lens of people and their lives, rather than technology or engineering.

According to Innovate UK’s research, cited in the strategy report, design provides the least value to businesses when it is used on an “ad-hoc basis”. It provides the most value when it is “integral to the business strategy and forms part of the cultural DNA of the organisation”.

While the benefits of embracing design are demonstrable, there are barriers that currently prevent its uptake in businesses across the economy. The four themes being focused on by the programme seek to overcome those barriers.

Investment in design

The first area for focus will be in making the case for investment in design. Challenges here include making design feel accessible to businesses.

The strategy aims to frame design “in the context and language of business” — that is, to raise awareness and understanding of design to reach even “less design-aware” firms.

This will be done through a range of different initiatives, including supporting business facing award schemes, showcasing events and providing internal and external support using “design advocates” for the former, and networks like the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) for the latter.

Lowering the cost of entry

Convincing companies to invest in design is one hurdle, but the cost of them then following through with their intentions is another barrier.

Innovate UK will aim to reduce the cost of entry into design by providing grant funding, innovation loans and investment accelerators. Innovate UK already offers dedicated funding competitions and programmes, so these will be strengthened over the next four years.

New pilot schemes will also be run to support large-scale funding, to “ensure that major R&D projects have benefitted from human-centred design expertise”.

Providing access to design talent and maximising contributions

Another aim is to connect businesses with design talent so that “fruitful collaborations” can be born. The coronavirus pandemic has served to considerably unsteady the creative job market, so this could be good news for designers.

Ways to support this will include network and cohort building, as well as brokerage initiatives. On top of this, the organisation intends to work with public agencies and educational institutions to ensure “design skills provision remains up-to-date and relevant for industry”.

The final focus point will be on maximising the value contribution of design through the fostering of design cultures within organisations. Non-financial support mechanisms like peer-to-peer learning and mentoring programmes will be run, alongside funding opportunities, to provide businesses with expert design advice and leadership.

“Break new ground, build businesses and create jobs”

Since its founding in 2007, Innovate UK has sought to increase both public and private investment in research and development activities, according to Dr Campbell.

Looking to the next four years and integrating this mission with design will see the “likelihood of success increase”, he says, with the agency drawing on examples like Apple, whose “clever technology” keeps people buying often at a premium for the experience. Indeed, as research cited in the report from McKinsey and the Design Management Institute suggests, design-led companies outperform their peers by around 200%.

The launch of this new programme has been welcomed by the Design Council, with CEO Sarah Weir telling Design Week the organisation is “delighted” with the news.

“[The strategy] seeks to encourage and support excellent design in innovation and has the facts and figures from our national evidence-based research at its heart,” she says. “Great innovation is the beating heart of the UK economy.

“Designing our future through world leading products, processes, places, and services will not only change lives but break new ground, build businesses and create jobs.”

“In short,” Dr Campbell echoes, “design creates value.”

What do you think of this new strategy? Let us know in the comments below. 

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  • Philip Johnson August 26, 2020 at 9:20 am

    Innovate UK is to be congratulated on this move – but with everything that the Design Council has done in this area along with the impressive work that NESTA consistently delivers, is it not somewhat surprising that it has taken quite so long?

  • Alan Topalian September 1, 2020 at 9:38 am

    Such strategies are always welcome. Their power would be considerably enhanced if they stated that all innovations are designed because they go through at least one phase of design from conception through to implementation. As such, design is in the DNA of innovation (not just business culture) though, of course, there is design without innovation. Neglect of design among business leaders restricts the potential of their organizations and could result in corporate sabotage. Example Boeing 737 Max.

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