Accelerating UK innovation post-Brexit

Last week I was invited to speak at a BIDA (British Industrial Design Association) webinar titled Designers in Innovation. How can we boost innovation in the UK? What role does design have in this? In a post-Brexit and Covid-19 impacted age, it’s more important than ever to be building on one of the UK’s finest exports: innovation. I’ve jotted down my key takeaways from the discussion.
January 26, 2021

1. There is a disconnect between design and business at the education level.

In the way that structural engineering and architecture courses are now being taught side by side at some Universities, design and business should be more closely aligned. I’m not suggesting that designers should be considering the financial implications of every design decision they make. [Absolutely not, can you imagine!] However having a basic understanding of how to fund, develop and create a business from a product would mean that designers know what questions to ask, what expertise to seek to get their own ideas off the ground.

Designers are the best innovators. And every year thousands of students graduate having spent a year researching and developing some incredible final projects. Products that get put to one side come June because they don’t have the first clue how to take them forwards. Linking designers up with business students during their studies will not only create opportunities for ideas to go further than a degree show, but will forge a deeper respect and understanding that each has to play in accelerating innovation that they will take with them into the industry.

2. We don’t share ideas, successes, failures, anything enough.

In the US failure is celebrated, in the UK we tend to have a more mumbled response. I don’t see us playing a fanfare every time a startup doesn’t make it (tbh I think the American black slapping ‘welcome to the failure club bro’ attitude is ridiculous), but we should be talking about what went wrong. Understanding what can cause failure and hearing genuine stories of the mistakes people have made is invaluable learning.

I’ve worked with a lot of startups. And it’s those that share their ideas early that do best. Apart from not talking about failures, we also don’t share our ideas with other people. Talk to people, validate, co-design. We have access to thousands of people at our fingertips like never before, people who are 9 times out of 10 more than happy to give their feedback, opinions and even ideas… for free! Innovation is nothing without an application in the real world. Something that can only be validated by talking to real people.

3. There aren’t enough women in industrial design.

There were two women on the panel, myself and the hugely insightful Dr Bettina von Stamm. But looking through the audience the female representation was poor, definitely less than 1/4. Research by the Design Museum puts the percentage of women in design in the UK at 22%. I wrote an article about the lack of women in design almost 6 years ago and it saddens me greatly to read it again and for every aspect of it to still feel so necessary. And it’s not only true of women, where are the people of colour at? You only have to type in ‘diversity and innovation’ into Google to get article after article about why diverse and inclusive teams are the engines of innovation. It’s definitely not going to be the ultimate solution, but if we really want to boost innovation in this country, focusing at least in some part on solving the lack of diversity in the design industry would be a good place to start.


Jo Barnard