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Innovation and the UK’s “Hidden Heroes”

Craft makers are the “hidden heroes” of the UK’s innovation economy

Craft makers are the “hidden heroes” of the UK’s innovation economy, and government and business must better understand and better invest in the sector or risk losing a £3.4 billion industry to global competitors in Europe and Asia. This is the key finding of a major new report from the UK Crafts Council.

While Brexit will affect nearly every facet of the UK economy – the country is enjoying a “making boom” with over 150,000 professionals driving design and innovation across a multitude of industries while directly impacting cutting edge companies from car manufacturer Bentley to tile manufacturer Johnsons. This is a key area where Britain can create a global competitive advantage in or out of Europe.

But the report – authored by KPMG - warns that policy makers and business leaders must wake up to the fact that crafts is not a hobby industry. Makers devising embroidered surgical implants, designing drug catheters, and using origami techniques to create new ways of manipulating metal are just some of the examples of how the craft sector is adding value to the economy and making it a world leader in innovation. Yet, according to the report, this value could be eroded rather than strengthened if government and business fail to offer real, strategic support. 

In response to the report findings, the Crafts Council and KPMG have launched a seven point action which includes:

  • Brokering and co-ordinating business-to-business collaborations between craft experts and businesses from other sectors, with lead bodies in engineering, technology and manufacturing
  • Ensuring that development of industry strategies by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) involves makers and materials experts
  • Offering innovation vouchers or competitions to facilitate and incentivise business-to-business collaborations between craft and other sectors

Britain’s stalling “march of the makers”

Britain has a burgeoning movement of makers who, given the right support and network, will take their micro concepts and turn them into macro innovations in evetything from biotech, to wearables, to robotics. But until now, the UK’s creative industries policy has been focused on media entertainment and digital industries with less focus being placed on the physical, material creative industries.

Both government and business need to better understand what a craft is, how it can be commercialised, and how it fits into the research and development process of established businesses.

If this does not happen, the UK risks witnessing an investment and brain drain as innovative “makers” move to US, China, Scandinavia and other growing innovation hubs. These markets have seen the potential for craft and innovation with strategic investment already underway – Britain has to catch up.

A survey of craft makers conducted for the report offers a view of the challenges the UK faces:

  • around a third of respondents felt that a lack of shared language or understanding of other industries was a barrier to collaboration;
  • and almost 60% of respondents identified challenges in identifying the right people with whom to collaborate.

From transport to tiles, crafts are driving UK innovation

Businesses across the country are benefitting from the creative and disruptive power of Britain’s 150,000 professional craftsmen and women. It is driving industry-leading innovation across sectors such as healthcare, high-value manufacturing and digital technology.

In one example, the KPMG report estimates that luxury car manufacturer Bentley benefitted from a groundbreaking partnership with highly-skilled craft makers who combined to add over £1.1 billion to the company’s Gross Value Add to the UK economy in 2014 alone.

In a similar example, weaver and textile artist Ptolemy Mann recently collaborated with Johnson Tiles. Recognising the way in which her understanding of colour and pattern, developed through weaving, could translate into product design, she used this skill and understanding to renew Johnson Tiles’ ‘Prismatic’ range – this single collaboration is estimated to have added close to £250,000 to the UK economy in 2014-2015.

Yet without more structured support from government and engagement from business examples like these will not be replicated and craft and commercial collaboration will never become embedded across the UK economy.

Ramping up government support and solving market failures

Responding to this challenge, the Crafts Council in collaboration with KPMG have established a seven point action plan to boost Britain’s craft innovators and ensure Britain really does witness a “march of the makers”:

  • Action 1: Invest in enhanced activity to showcase and publicise the value of, and opportunities for, craft innovation through cross-sector collaboration.
  • Action 2:  Broker and co-ordinate business-to-business collaborations between craft experts and businesses from other sectors, with lead bodies in engineering, technology and manufacturing working together with bodies such as the Crafts Council, Innovate UK and KTN.
  • Action 3: Ensure that development of industry strategies by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) involves makers and materials experts
  • Action  4: Develope the role of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) as network hubs for driving innovation and collaboration between craft and industry
  • Action 5: Offer innovation vouchers or competitions to facilitate and incentivise business-to-business collaborations between craft and other sectors
  • Action 6: Develop the ‘fused' education agenda to ensure that all levels of the education system supports students to develop their creative, practical talents alongside their scientific, technological and enterprise skills
  • Action 7: Facilitate collaboration between businesses and other sectors at a local level, potentially through Local Enterprise Partnerships, local authorities and growth hubs, with support from Crafts Council
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