Innovation is the key to business success in the creative industries, and businesses can no longer stand still, Sir George Cox, head of the Design Council, told a sell-out audience of Six Cities Design Festival attendees.
Cox, who was also the author of the influential Cox Review, said he was troubled that graduates were leaving university without realising design, innovation and creativity were not one and the same thing.
“I often use word like design, innovation and creativity as if they all mean the same and you can just interpose them,” he said. “Creativity and innovation have always been important to business but never as important as today. Creativity is the generation of ideas; whether that’s going to be put to a purpose or it’s pure art. Innovation is the introduction of change. The introduction of the new; to innovate. And design is what links them.
“Design is what takes creativity; an idea; an opportunity; a spark; and turns it into a product; a service; a building. A new way of doing thing.”
Cox went on to describe the frustration at the speed of new technological uptake, saying we were now living in an environment where it was impossible to predict what was going to happen.
“Our world is being reshaped,” he said. “It’s being reshaped by a number of things. Economic forces and sheer economics growth. It’s being reshaped by changing attitudes in society. Attitudes have changed towards environmental issues; towards smoking; drink driving and wearing fur coats. Attitudes change markets and they change society and the way we do things.”
Globalisation is also a force for change, as are global events and disasters.
“9/11 changed our attitudes towards security and air travel; airports will never be the same again,” he said. But the biggest force of change, as identified by Cox, was technology, however, he acknowledged that none of the forces of change act independently.
“Technology advanced to the point where we could handle financial transactions much simpler with credit cards,” he said. “But credit cards introduced a far more important change that just a more efficient transaction. They changed the whole attitude to credit. Before credit cards, the only people who had anything on credit were the toffs. The people at the other end didn’t have the money to buy things. Credit is now a big driver of the economy. Technology has been a big contributor to change in how we lead our lives.”
Sir George Cox believes there are still huge changes due to come, and admitted to having made incorrect predictions in the past.
“We’re the end of the last generation where the concept of getting lost will have any meaning,” he said. “Technology is driving change at a tremendous pace. This is giving us great difficulty in predicting what’s going to happen. I can give you a paper I wrote in 1970, predicting the paperless office. It was quite clear to me, paper was going to disappear. However, I’d have been better recommending people buy shares in paper companies. Understanding technology and understanding human behaviour are two different things. We get things wrong frequently, mainly because part of the problem is that technology doesn’t replace things.”
The challenge for business, according to Cox, is that regardless of the industry companies operate in, change will affect them all.
“You can have a fine product and a fine reputation but it’s no longer enough,” he said. “There’s not a field you can think of – from leisure to finance – and I defy you to find a business that’s not going to be touched by change.”
Scotland’s strength – and the UK’s strength, in general – lies in its track record of innovation, Cox continues.
“Our design skills and creative skills are outstanding, as are our engineering skills,” he says. “Our weakness is a failure to exploit it, and that has to change.”
Innovation, he believes, is a key solution to eliminating the societal problems the UK experiences. “Whether you look at the provision of health, sustainability, the disposal of waste, clean energy, transportation or education, you cannot put more resource into these areas and satisfy public demand,” he said. “You have to innovate and do things differently, it is key to the problems we face.”
Education, in turn, is key to the growth of the economy, but the attitudes of educational establishments have to change. “The role of education is the structured way society can pass on its accumulated wisdom to equip people for life,” he said. “The life that we’re trying to equip people for is becoming much less predictable. We have to equip people to be more creative and I don’t just mean people who study what we call creative subjects. I mean right across the board. It pains me that we still churn out engineers who don’t understand design. And we don’t communicate effectively. It troubles me that we turn out people in the creative arts that don’t understand the world they’re going to operate in, or other disciplines they’ll work with. And it bothers me that too few business schools really teach how you manage a creative culture. There in lies the tremendous challenge for education.
“If we want the economy to change, we have to make the whole business environment more creative and it encourages me, that since my report has been produced, that you can see real evidence of change, such as this festival.”