Design Council deputy CEO David Godber discusses some of the initiatives and people who have helped cement the North East's creative reputation. One name in particular stands out: Jony Ive of AppleBrands like Berghaus, Nissan, Tommee Tippee and Barbour have seen to that, drawing on an innovative spirit going back to Joseph Swan’s light bulb and beyond. And centres like Northumbria University have national standing as beacons of excellence in design education. Its alumni include none other than Apple’s Jonathan Ive, arguably the world’s most influential product designer and the creative force behind the iPod, iPhone and much more besides.
So it was no accident that the Design Council launched a programme called Designs of the Time (Dott) in the north east in 2007. It was a year-long series of events and projects showcasing design but also mining the ingenuity of people and communities, allying it with local design talent and putting it to work to solve real problems. If ever an initiative needed good raw ingredients, this was it. But it worked. One project, called Low Carb Lane, centred on the mining town of Ashington. We weren’t extracting fuel from the ground, of course, but working out how design could help people use less of it. We set out to see how designers and residents of a single street could work together to cut energy consumption. The results included a prototype energy co-op to buy fuel from the grid at preferential rates and give people interest free loans for energy saving home improvements that they could pay back with their cash savings.
The project attracted national attention, and it wasn’t the only one. Urban Farming transformed large parts of Middlesbrough into spaces for growing food – enough food to feed several thousand people at a celebration banquet and get everyone thinking differently about sustainable food supply. Another project called Move Me designed a new transport system with the people of Scremerston, making the agenda at a Department of Transport seminar in 2008 and providing a model taken up through 50 local SureStart centres. Most excitingly of all, perhaps, another project looked at how to improve the lives of people with Alzheimers, an issue that’s only going to grow as the population ages. The work we did here means we’re now talking to the National Alzheimer League about a project that we hope will revolutionise care in this field.
What started in the north east with Dott is evolving in other ways. The Sittingbourne MP Derek Wyatt heard about Low Carb Lane when he attended an event at Westminster. He told Southern Water, a major employer in his constituency, and now we’re working with them on a major project bringing in water metering and promoting sustainable consumption across the region. And the Schools Design Challenge piloted in Dott has found a new life as a way of educating the next generation about not taking water for granted.
And, of course, Dott itself moves on, building on all this experience with a new programme in Cornwall.
None of this would have been possible without One North East, the regional development agency, which embodied the region’s deep-rooted innovation in the way it joined us so wholeheartedly and acted as a catalyst for all that followed. It’s also seeded more business innovation by backing our support programme Designing Demand, which gives businesses’ top teams the skills to spot how design could make a difference and then do something about it by choosing the right designers, briefing them and managing a project effectively.
One beneficiary is Darlington-based central heating specialist Steve Heslop, who saw an opportunity in low-carbon heating systems but needed the right identity (from Newcastle-based Element 5.0) to establish credibility in a fast-growing sector. His new business Natural Warmth has got off to flying start in spite of the recession, picking up a Tees Valley Best New Business Award along the way and aiming to double turnover in 2010.
Add to this the recently launched Design Network North, which sets out to disruptively link clients and designers and solve a broad range of problems while creating genuine business opportunities for the region, and the soon to be launched Northern Design Centre planned for Newcastle-Gateshead, and you have a region which clearly punches well above its weight. David Godber is deputy chief executive of Design Council www.designcouncil.org.uk