Put design at heart of business and reap benefits

Design in Action (DiA) is an Art and Humanities Research Council knowledge exchange hub for the creative industries
Design in Action (DiA) is an Art and Humanities Research Council knowledge exchange hub for the creative industries
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Creative problem-solving delivers results, says Michael Marra

THE first Scottish Design Summit will take place today, quite fittingly, in the new Malmaison hotel in Dundee. The long-mooted redevelopment of a former temperance hotel next to the city’s Victorian dockland was finally sparked by the reimagined waterfront and the potential of the city’s design economy. That story of culture-led regeneration and the industry of creativity and digital imagination has given birth to a groundbreaking research project at the University of Dundee – now pushing the boundaries of innovation and transforming the way universities work to improve our economy.

Design in Action (DiA) is an Art and Humanities Research Council knowledge exchange hub for the creative industries headquartered in Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design at the University of Dundee, but reaching across the whole of Scotland through six partner universities. Over the past two years DiA has built a network of more than 500 Scottish SMEs and is engaging them in the role that design can play in business growth. Residential innovation events have been created to bring together business people with academics and designers. These events are producing new products and services with initial grant funding of up to £20,000 from DiA.

With nine companies in various stages of development in the DiA pipeline across a variety of sectors, a diverse portfolio of ventures, investments and research is developing. The universities and academics involved are benefitting from close relationships with these businesses, learning how they work and what role design innovation is playing in their strategic development.

All of this work is underpinned by compelling evidence that design can play a key role in driving new levels of performance in the Scottish economy. For every £1 spent on design, businesses gain £4 in net operating profit, more than £20 in net turnover and more than £5 in net exports. That effect is stronger the more strategically a business engages in design processes. So where outlay on the common concept of design in product aesthetics will deliver results, far more can be achieved if design is positioned at the heart of the business and all of its processes. Design-led businesses innovate faster, know their customers better and understand the marketplace that they are operating in and those markets to which they aspire. Design demands real discipline and delivers real results.

Think about what design means: it is problem-solving, creating solutions that really work, planning with the best available information. It is far more than how the product looks and feels. Design at its best lifts our imaginations to how things could work and how they will work.

Just how government should interact with the huge potential of a design economy is a tricky business. Too often design falls between the stools of culture and economics. Businesses in our creative industries in Scotland know that story all too well. The great frustration is that it is a false distinction created by bureaucracy alone. A strategic approach to the support of design capacity in Scotland, how design is taught and how design techniques are used by public bodies to empower citizens should all be part of a Scottish design policy. It is the innovative capacity of design approaches that can add huge value that government should embrace and support.

The level of investment in research and development in the Scottish private sector remains stubbornly low. Opening up credit for investment in new ventures is critical, but if we don’t do more to spark those new ventures in the first instance the small flows of capital from financial institutions still struggling to rediscover their purpose will do little to return our economy to levels of growth that are comparable to nations whom we aspire to collaborate with.

Translating or exchanging the research and development in our higher-education institutions into business has been seen as key to the private sector R&D problem for a decade now. While spin-outs and open-access intellectual property policies will continue to play their part, the DiA model is an active mode of knowledge exchange that is pushing change in both business and universities. All of the institutions involved have been challenged to change their systems and approaches to how they can collaborate. The results are agreeably uncomfortable. Worthwhile change is seldom easy.

• Michael Marra is deputy director of Design in Action www.dundee.ac.uk

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