Late last year, the Design Council moved offices into a former telephone exchange in Covent Garden, London, just across the road from the Royal Opera House. Only a few days before the move was due to take place to the former nerve-centre of West End telecommunications, the Council had still not found out from BT what its new telephone numbers would be.
This was particularly frustrating for at the time it was trying to embark on a massive communications campaign aimed at getting companies interested in the Millennium Products initiative.
Today, though, the Council is installed in its new offices, complete with phones and faxes. For all we know, a BT telephone may even be on the shortlist for selection as a Millennium Product. The answer to that will be known on 2 April when the announcement of the first wave of successful Millennium Products is to be made from the 1,000 or so applications received.
There will be three more chances for firms to submit product applications, with the results from these later tranches due in September this year and in April and September next year.
The launch of Millennium Products last November by prime minister Tony Blair has marked one of the most ambitious programmes yet for the Council. It is an attempt to find up to 2,000 British products that demonstrate the best of what UK companies can do.
Andrew Summers, Design Council chief executive and the man in charge of the Millennium Products campaign, says he is looking for products that could be regarded as British ‘icons of our age’.
These are the kind of products, he says, which could give the concept of ‘Britishness’ a better image.
‘People associate Britishness with old fashioned and backward-looking concepts of so-called heritage. But do we really want to go into the 21st century saying that Britain and Britishness is only about buildings, culture and heritage?’ he asks.
The target figure of 2,000 Millennium Products is of course arbitrary. It could be that there are far fewer products that meet the criteria out there in the market. Or there may be many more.
‘I’m not saying we will get 2,000 products,’ says Summers, who admits that this target is ambitious. ‘I am certainly convinced that there is this number of products out there. But the big challenge is getting information about them. The problem is simply that many companies don’t perceive that they have interesting products or services,’ he adds.
The task is daunting. Summers wants all parts of the country covered, with a good regional spread. That could lead to the situation of companies from less industrial regions having a better chance of getting Millennium Product status than those elsewhere.
‘I would not be surprised if more companies with Midlands addresses apply than those with addresses from Devon and Cornwall,’ Summers says. ‘If we don’t have very many products or services coming forward from one region, then we will send our researchers out there to find them. But the criteria of what makes a Millennium Product will not be relaxed in one area just to get entries in,’ he says.
The Britishness of the products selected has yet to be examined in detail. In theory, Millennium Products are British products. But with so much of UK industry either in overseas ownership, or working closely in partnership with overseas players, there is a risk that this rule starts to look as old fashioned as the dreaded ‘heritage’ concept that the Council is trying to move away from.
‘Britain is not an inward-looking or xenophobic country,’ says Summers. Products that are developed with technology and funding from around the world are still perfectly valid as Millennium Products.
‘Airbus, for example, is made in different parts of Europe, but the wings could be eligible to be considered as a Millennium Product,’ he says.
‘The key criterion is that the intellectual property has to be created in the UK,’ he adds.
One reason the Millennium Products are British, rather than, say, a pick of the best technology or products from around the world, is to do with finance.
‘If you want backing from the Government, it is reasonable to focus this scheme on British innovation,’ Summers says.
The Government has pledged £3.5m of taxpayers’ money for the project over four years, which will include funding a campaign to bring in entries as well as the selection process itself, which uses external experts as judges.
So what will become of the Millennium Products once they are selected? Some will be promoted around the world at expos and trade fairs, while others will become the focus of case studies for schools what Summers terms ‘a learning legacy’.
A selection though will be given special prominence, with the chance to be exhibited in perhaps the most famous or infamous Millennium Product of them all: the Millennium Dome.
Copies of the Millennium Products brochure and submission forms can be ordered on: 0181-580 8826.