Our innovation can shape the future

As new technology transforms the way we live, Christopher Exeter pleads for the industry to engage with the big questions facing society

Designers at the Chinese company Shenzhen Huashi Future Parking Equipment have come up with a solution to cut congestion on the country’s streets: the tunnel bus. The electric vehicle, which operates on special tracks or follows coloured lines, straddles two lanes of traffic, allowing passengers to ride on a top deck while cars can drive underneath it. A pilot scheme is planned in Beijing, with construction starting at the end of this year. This is 21st-century global creative destruction.

This term – creative destruction – coined by German sociologist Werner Sombart and made famous by Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, explains how economies are strengthened by the innovation that’s released when companies fall and rise. This is happening all the time, especially when design and technology come together and consumers get what they want: landline phones are rapidly being replaced by mobile phones, desktops by laptops, film cameras by mobile phone cameras and, increasingly, TV by online viewing. The Chinese tunnel bus is an example of a new kind of creative destruction – global creative destruction. As economies rise and fall, countries invest to create disruptive solutions for major public policy problems common across the world.

How to sustain economic growth has long dogged the UK. In the 19th century Prince Albert was concerned that Britain was lagging behind Continental manufacturing competitors and was not keeping pace with American innovation. His solution was the 1851 Great Exhibition. Fast-forward 150 years and not much has changed: the US is still regarded as an innovation factory, and for manufacturing, read service sector. Recent service-sector data, from the purchasing managers’ survey, show a drop in activity from June to July this year. In contrast, the eurozone purchasing managers’ index was more positive, reflecting improved performance in France and Germany.

It’s a fallacy to believe that economies can be ’rebalanced’. They are what they are, especially in Western societies operating in a globalised world. Boundaries are increasingly a construct of governments, not of people. Technology has enabled people to live and work in very different ways, and to get what they want, when they want it. From ordering books to health information, from manufacturing to investments and everything else in between, the world has become smaller. Only governments and businesses not focused on their customers have failed to fully appreciate and adapt to this shift. As Leonardo da Vinci once said, ’simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’ – so what can we take from this today?

In his foreword to A Strategy for Sustainable Growth, Business Secretary Dr Vince Cable argues, ’The growth we need should be different from the past… This means protecting and building on our strengths – in design, creative industries and innovative manufacturing.’ By drawing upon assets as either sources for growth or as interventions that help encourage growth and improve performance, the UK can begin building a post-recessionary economy that may be more robust. The question this leads us to is why hasn’t this been done before?

Dr Cable’s growth strategy references the need to encourage entrepreneurialism; he wants to make it easier to both start a business and encourage existing businesses to grow. A recent report on start-ups and job creation from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a US not-for-profit organisation focused on advancing entrepreneurship, states that without start-ups there would be no net job growth in the US economy. To encourage start-ups and to help them grow requires a range of support, and there is strong evidence that design can play a significant role in this.

In the current economic climate, the public and private sectors have a difficult equation to balance: they need to drive out excess costs, while meeting socio-economic demands, such as increasing consumer expectations, an ageing population, environmental concerns and a digital society. Going back to da Vinci’s quote, the simplest innovations are the best. Going with the demographic flow and focusing on what consumers want is the way to improve public- sector productivity and increase private-sector growth. Design can help make this happen; it isn’t a luxury, it is part of the 21st-century economic infrastructure – just as building the railways were back in the 19th century.

Growing economies involves many types of intervention, and other policy problems can draw on design to help promote economic sustainability. For example,evidence shows that subtle influences to change population behaviour can have significant impact on both public finances and society more widely. The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has recently announced an inquiry into the effectiveness of behaviour change interventions. Similarly, there has long been talk of making public services more citizen-centred: the coalition Government’s objective for promoting a ’big society’ – where citizens are given the power to solve problems in their neighbourhoods – also plays to design methodology. Design must make its voice heard as these policies are being shaped.

The bottom line is that design can and must play an active role in solving complex economic and public policy problems. US Treasury Secretary Timothy F Geithner recently said the world can no longer rely on the US as much as it has done for economic growth. To return to da Vinci, ’It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.’ There is no better opportunity than now to let the UK’s design industry ’happen’ to economic growth and the reform of public services.

Christopher Exeter is director of policy at the Design Council

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