BRITISH INVENTIONS HAVE BEEN EXPLOITED OVERSEAS

Andrew Summers, chief executive, Design Council

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of Britain’s manufacturing industry have been greatly exaggerated. But a few politicians still subscribe to the myth that Britain can succeed by abandoning manufacturing to become a 100% service-based economy. The Design Council believes they are wrong, and the 1997 Manufacturing Industry Achievement Awards (MIAAs) are a welcome opportunity to celebrate manufacturing’s successes.

Only one company in any market-segment can be the cheapest. The others have to differentiate themselves by adding value and the simplest way of doing that is through design. Companies which don’t take note of this fact are in danger of going under.

To remain competitive we need to shift the basis of manufacturing. Lowest cost is yesterday’s solution; higher added value, through design and innovation, is today’s.

Luckily, Britain is one of the world’s most prolific inventors. According to Japan’s Ministry of Trade and Industry, since the Second World War Britain has been responsible for more than 40% of the inventions which have been significant to Japanese industry. However, it’s also true that our record of converting these inventions into commercially successful innovations leaves much to be desired. We can all think of British inventions which have been exploited overseas, so another reason why the Design Council supports the MIAAs is to celebrate those British companies which have produced successful products through innovating.

Schemes like the MIAAs celebrate successes and help shift attitudes. We know that just 27% of UK consumers believe that British products are excellent or good (38% think German ones are excellent or good and 43% think this of Japanese products). We need to celebrate what the UK has achieved to improve perceptions of British products, and we need to recognise that these achievements usually come about through exploiting design. As you’d expect, we also believe in the power of design as a force for increasing competitiveness.

While British fashion, films and music are well-known world leaders, as are products like Dyson cleaners or Psion laptop computers, few people realise that eight of the 13 Formula One car makers are British, or that around half of the world’s large commercial jet engines are made in Britain.

A report for the Design Council, by the London Business School’s Centre for Economic Forecasting records some startling figures that illustrate how more companies can achieve such success. Devoting an additional 1% of turnover to product development and design raises turnover and profits by 3-4% over five years.

On average, just 3% of British companies have produced a new product in the past five years, and yet of the top 10% of British companies nearly two thirds have produced new products in the same period. This lesson is obvious but while British companies’ profits rose by 18% in 1995 their investment in R&D rose by just 4.2%.

Design, innovation and creativity are the means to success in the MIAAs, but they are also the keys to future prosperity not just for individual companies but for the UK as a whole.