I had the pleasure of meeting Sir George Cox for a chat last week. Cox is Chairman of the Design Council, and has recently submitted his review of creativity in British business ("The Cox Review of Creativity in Business: building on the UK’s strengths") in response to the Chancellor's request in his Budget speech earlier this year.
We had a wide-ranging discussion, which I found highly interesting and useful - more later, I'd guess - but it's worth dwelling on the Cox Review for a moment. This has to be seen in the context of an increased focus by the Government on design, 'the creative industries' and their role in the UK economy. There are numerous complex contextual aspects to this increased focus from Gordon Brown, and arguments either way as to whether it's simply paying lip-service to this sector, an attempt by the Blair administration's to gain 'cred', or genuine insight and infrastructural support on a vital and thriving component of the British economy (see Nico Macdonald's article for the RSA Journal for a balanced series of views here). However you see it - and personally I'd welcome the focus but be keen to see true understanding and developmental support as a result - the fact that Sir George Cox was commissioned to 'stock-take' and provoke discussion via concrete recommendations can only be a useful thing.
In a nutshell, it's a good report. I'll do no more than note a few key findings here, and suggest my own take on it - which I should stress is unrelated to my conversation with Sir George. The full review is available in PDF format via the Treasury website.
The context stated in the review, and set by Brown, is the emerging challenge of the 'BRICs' (Brazil, Russia, India, China) in particular, not only in manufacturing industries but also in the informational economies that the post-industrialised West had assumed would be their 'value-added' economic base. This rings true, not least due to being supported by a well-aimed broadside of data. While we've heard these warning signs before - cf. Japan in the '80s - what we know of Shanghai, Mumbai and the like does suggest a fundamentally transforming balance of economic power.
To which, the traditional strategic answer had been 'our' apparently more advanced stage of development in the knowledge-based industries. This, however, is not enough. Indeed, the UK's strength in creativity and innovation, not just in the thriving creative industries, is noted in the Cox Review but the general air is of now not being a time to be complacent. Hence the report's recommendations are genuinely infrastructural and development - not simply a case of re-stressing the importance of 'creativity'.
The central recommendations address financial support for innovation within business, providing a decent focus on the bottom-line, particularly for SMEs. They're couched in the 'advisory' language of such reviews, of course, and have to navigate the labyrinthine circuits of public policy, but if enacted would certainly help. For instance, Treasury reviews of R&D tax credits should 'consider' changes to increase the effect on smaller businesses. The powerful public procurement sector should be adapted to encourage innovative solutions from suppliers, too - if that seems like a mealy-mouthed recommendation, it's worth noting that this is a UK market worth £125 billion a year in good and services, which can be manipulated to some degree (despite deregulation and a virulent 'value-for-money' meme).
Changing the culture of business itself is another arena for the Review, with a range of recommendations running across the business environment, from support programmes for SMEs right up to changing the Institute of Directors syllabus. This might appear tangential or too nuanced but this kind of change management, in the unfortunate jargon of business consultancy, is certainly crucial to the success of any such strategic activity. Switching the hardware without addressing the software rarely works. I've been engaged in work at the BBC recently to look at the cultural changes effected appointing creative/technical staff to senior positions, and it's interesting to see Cox's recommendations like "steps should be taken to get greater understanding of creativity and innovation into the boardroom by recruiting people with creative experience onto company boards" in that context.
Closer links between universities and SMEs should be a given, and it would be impossible to deliver a report such as this without making that recommendation. However, putting it into practice is rarely as easy. I have personal experience of the worth of these kinds of activities, via my work at MMU, in the Northern Quarter of Manchester, but Cox rightly notes that UK education needs a root-and-branch upheaval of the way it handles creativity, rather than forcing students to choose between two cultures at such an early age. Again, a clear recommendation but I'd suggest that the problem is a a deeper cultural issue for Britain, with education a particular manifestation within a symbiotic causal relationship. The report clocks this, with a sense that a multidisciplinary emphasis within education would help hugely. Again, from my own experience creating multidisciplinary teams, I'd endorse this. There's a decent discussion of some opportunities for education and business here, and still a sense that "the UK appears to be adept at developing world-class subject-matter experts who too often lack commercial aptitude ... too many great technological ideas are squandered as their creators have little to no idea how to express their inventions”. I hear echoes here of John Kieffer's talk at the Sibelius Academy's 'Future of Music' symposium, in which John noted arts graduates equally devoid of entrepreneurial or business skills (with a notable exception being the YBAs, who somehow emerged as fully-formed artists and business people. More here in John's recent article for AEA Platform).
Over and above the suggestions around financial support, business practice and education, the grandest gesture within the Cox Review would be the most significant if delivered with imagination: "A network of ‘Creativity and Innovation’ centres should be established throughout the UK, with a central hub in London." This would mean building actual bricks-and-mortar (and digital, one presumes) infrastructure to support this industry, providing a focal point for the more diffuse recommendations elsewhere in the report and for this kind of industrial and creative development in the UK in general. The proposed benefits will be familiar to those working in the field, from business performance to more nebulous but equally important cultural impact.
It's up to the regional development authorities (such as the LDA in London) to deliver these centres, and I'm yet to read anywhere that Brown has committed significant additional money to facilitate this, despite giving it and the Review a thumbs-up in general. If so, a fair amount of advocacy and persuasion is going to be required to deliver a coherent network, one suspects, as well as a commitment to high-quality architecture, integrated with urban centres and cultures. Delivering this effectively will take real skill and sensitive engagement, capable of traversing physical and cultural structures with equal facility and imagination.
Personally I'd suggest any such architecture should be a supportive act for a higher goal - the creation of intellectual architecture around creativity, truly enabling networking and business development via information, discussion and support around design in the widest sense, distilled into these physical centres for impact but conceptually and actually far more diffuse. Again, addressing software, in this case social software for business and creativity, alongside hardware. The informational relationships between the buildings and the cities - and the businesses and citizens which provide the life of both - is the real essence of these networks, not the buildings themselves. It can also flex, grow and adapt, sustainably, in ways most buildings struggle to. John Thackara makes a similar point. But if constructed in this context, and if constructed well, it should become a transformative, defining act for creativity in UK industry - the one recommendation which compares to that context in chapter one.
It's immediately telling that there are few examples from BRICs throughout the report. In short, this may be to how difficult it would be to recommend such policies to a G7 government at this point. This is state-led investment beyond even the most dirigiste gestures of the modern European social democracies. The few shining examples from the East occur in the 'national network of centres' chapter, mentioning the Korea Design Center in Songnam City, Taiwan's national design centre, and the mother of them all, the £158m 'Fusionopolis' centre in Singapore:
"The centre will bring together businesses from the ICT and creative sectors in an iconic new building occupying 1.2 million squarefeet, sited in the middle of the ‘Central Xchange’ – one of three ‘Xchanges’ aimed at fostering knowledge transfer and providing a vibrant work-live-work-play environment. The centre is a key component in the country’s aim to increase the contribution of the creative industries to six per cent of GDP by 2012."
A recent email from Our Man Sometimes In Shanghai (ahem) notes the level of investment in China, not just in scientific infrastructure, R&D etc., which we'd traditionally recognise as instruments of industry - through the prism of the last century - but also in terms of new media labs, creative parks, vast student numbers, incubators, distribution chains etc. i.e. all the components necessary to build an informational economy too. In other words, there may currently be a creativity and innovation gap, but not for long. When the results of such investment in the creative industries truly kick in - over and above existing harbingers - the BRICs may able to exploit that too, not by virtue of their scale but by having a genuine industrial policy capable of flexing muscles across all sectors with real purpose. As Justin pointed out to me, our deregulated political environment means we simply can't enable state-led investment on the same scale as the BRICs (ironically analogous to the way Britain was overhauled throughout the course of the 19thC). I personally dislike an oppositional approach to defining our strategic response to the BRICs - the dull FUD of head banging on wall, attempting to raise the troops - preferring to see the opportunity and intrigue in a a world at once global and local ... but again, it's no time to be complacent. As Cox puts it:
"What is impressive – and worrying – about the emerging economies is not where they stand today but how they are positioning themselves for the future. Alongside the enterprise and vigour that characterise their economic growth, they arebuilding up new technology-based industries and impressive capabilities in scientific research, and investing massively in education, technical skills and creative capabilities. As a consequence, it is now the high-skilled jobs in the hitherto leading economies that are coming under threat."
The point is not to necessarily build another Fusionopolis, but to find a truly culturally specific response from within British industry, capitalising on our strong history and rich potential; a response which engages with the BRICs as true partners where possible - importers, exporters, co-creators - as it's going to be difficult to play them at their own game. Building something better than Fusionopolis should be the aim, and a smart, sustainable combination of physical and intellectual architecture described above could be just that. In this context, the Cox Review may be correct not to focus too much on examples from the BRICs, and draw instead from our own terrain.
So the Cox Review is a welcome 'focus-pull' on to a range of fundamentally useful recommendations which would genuinely create useful conditions for the continuity and growth of UK PLC, via creativity. However, by drawing the focus so neatly it also illustrates the gap between our ability to nurture industrial culture and our ability to truly shape it. At the moment, it's as difficult to create an industrial policy for creativity as it is to create an industrial policy, other than laissez-faire, in general. The Cox Review's closing remarks are entirely apposite, as is almost the entire report - well-timed, well-made, and convincing. Exactly the kind of rallying call required. And yet ... and yet ...
"This report has been prepared for the Chancellor. It therefore focuses on the things Government can do to stimulate greater creativity in UK business. And, as illustrated, there are several things I believe can be done. However, the real messages are for business. Competition is going to get tougher. In the modern world, the only answer is to be more enterprising and more creative, and this has to come not in response to exhortation but out of enlightened self-interest. "
In asking what you can do for Britain, and not vice versa, the Cox Review sends the right message out to industry but requires a receptive ear at nos.10 or 11 - if not the whole postcode district - to truly take things forward. Cox's team have done their part - will real support emerge as a result? The British knowledge-based industries are powerful, robust and endlessly innovative, possessing a rich heritage from which to draw and a bright future well within their grasp. But it will still require coherent, brave policies creating a fertile loam to nurture growth, delivered with skill, sense of purpose and bold visionary thinking, if we are to have a meaningful stake in the 'harmonious world' envisioned by the Chinese president. We need rich mortar to build with these new BRICs.