Every year I give a lecture to my postgraduate design students about writing: how and why we write, and in particular how to write well. This latter quality is not one that I myself possess, so I refer them to people who I believe exemplify the art of writing. My rather select list comprises Susan Sontag, Peter Dormer, Malcolm McCullough and Eric Hobsbawm. I learned this afternoon that Eric Hobsbawm has died at the age of 95.
It is certainly not for me to write his obituary, for that has been done today by others. Indeed the obituary of this seemingly obscure British Marxist historian can be found in the pages of newspapers in just about every country on earth tonight. That is a reflection of the impact of his writing, of the power of his storytelling. For Eric Hobsbawm was a masterful storyteller, who made history come alive and make sense. But as a Marxist, his concern was as much about the future as it was about the past, and his genius was in crafting the vision and the narrative to help us understand just where we were in time and space, and where we might go in the future.
Scattered over my home, on various bookshelves are books by him that stand as markers in my life. Way up high in the study is a small Penguin volume Industry and Empire that has my 16 year old signature on the first page. It guided me through my A level years. On the bookshelves up the stairs is his collection of essays The Forward March of Labour Halted which shaped my ideas as a postgraduate student, and which (as Tony Blair admits himself) provided the intellectual impetus for New Labour. But please let us not blame Eric for that. In the living room is a collection of his key works – Age of Capital, Age of Revolution, Age of Empire, Age of Extremes – which are vital contributions of this time lord. And alongside is his autobiography, one of the last presents from my late father, which is his personal history of the 20th century.
I loved Eric Hobsbawm as a writer because of the effortless way that he shaped his vision and ideas into words that told a story. As a Jew born in the First World War, brought up in Vienna and Berlin and living through everything that followed, then his experience of the twentieth century shapes his unique insights of history both before and after. But more than that, it was his problematic and contradictory relationship with the Communist Party that I found most inspiring. I was a member of the Party when Eric Hobsbawm was the focus for those of us in the Eurocommunist faction, providing a real sense of political vision. He helped many of us through all those contradictory feelings.
Tonight it feels like a light has gone out. It was always there: a pole star of wisdom and insight against which you could judge your position and navigate yourself into new territories. But we will find our own way forward because of the inspiration and insights he leaves us with. Great writers do not just leave us with their words, but with the actions that those words inspire. Thank you, Eric Hobsbawm.
Following the Olympic and Paralympic Games, a number of us starting discussing a new sensation we were experiencing – national pride. For those of a certain generation who are broadly speaking on The Left, national identity and patriotism have been problems over the years. And so my friend Catherine Annabel set up a blog to discuss these questions, and invited me to contribute.
Our Island Stories begins with this call from Catherine:
So, do we treat Danny Boyle’s vision of the Isles of Wonder as a requiem for what we value about our country, or a celebration? Or even, perhaps, a warning and a call to action? Do we allow our ‘normal state of being’ to be reinstalled in the British psyche, without protest, without attempting to hold on to what we briefly experienced? As Billy [Bragg] asks in his blog, ‘Has the euphoria of the past two weeks has caused a seismic shift in the meta-narrative of Britishness? … Can a new spirit of engaged and transformational patriotism emerge from this experience? One that seeks to build a fairer, more inclusive tomorrow, rather than constantly rehashing a narrow vision of the past?’
My contribution is far less any form of profound reflection on these questions – more an explanation of how I ended up having a highly vexed relationship with the idea of Britishness. Flagging up the issues focuses on my experiences during two days in 1977. If strong language and descriptions of violent acts offend or disturb you, then please do not read it.
The previous post argued that politics has failed the people: its institutional forms are defective and the culture of political discourse is both anachronistic and, to be honest, frankly offensive. As a consequence voter apathy is at record levels, and political debate now centres on meat-filled baked pastry products originating from the Cornish peninsula. D:Ream are simply wrong on this: things can only get much worse. So let us consider how design can begin to map a way out of this political slough of despond.
According to Jennie Winhall: “Design is political. It’s about values, power and preferences, about ideologies and consequences.” And it always has been. As I have argued elsewhere “Designers are value driven. They look at the world, usually just one small part of it, and consider how it could be more efficient, more sustainable, more engaging, more desirable, more competitive, or simply more beautiful. How can that one small part of the world better reflect the values that we consider to be most relevant? Design makes a statement of what we want the world to be like. And in doing so, it is a political activity. Values are political, values express preferences about what problems are worth solving, and in whose interests they are solved. Values determine the degree to which design liberates or empowers the individual and those communities that make up the wider society.”
Unfortunately, the evidence of our own eyes would suggest that the values and politics pursued through most design practice meets the needs of vested corporate and other institutional interests, valuing the world only in terms of the commodities that feed unfettered consumerism. But according to Winhall: “The good news is that there’s a growing breed of designers who are political with a small p. They’re not campaigning, but problem solving; they’re not “master-designers,” but democratic in approach. They’re using their skills as designers to illustrate, create and demonstrate opportunities for social change. But the reason for their emergence is that the politics of design itself has changed.” She cites the redesign of public services as evidence for this, in that conventional policy makers, who are used to top-down decision making, are simply ill-equipped to address the needs of an age in which the user is central, and should be empowered to enable change.
Former Design Council Chairman, Lord Bichard, clearly agrees, and believes there are three key ways in which design can make public services better.
- It can redesign the way we deliver our services allowing us to “build or reshape our services around citizens, around clients, around customers.”
- It can help the development of better policy “ensuring that ideas are tested before having scarce resources invested in them on a national basis.”
- “Design can help us in the public services to be more innovative. We need to be conscious that today’s problems are just not going to be addressed by yesterday’s ideas and yesterday’s solutions…we need a whole new approach to policy over the 10 years.”
There are two areas of design practice that display the qualities and potential of a progressive political design practice: (i) service design in the public sector and (ii) design activism. The qualities in evidence are: user/citizen focussed, participatory and/or co-design in approach, valuing the primacy of local and practical knowledge, entrepreneurial in spirit and ethos, integrating design thinking and design craft, committed to open design principles, progressive in the social values that underlie practice. I will briefly consider each in turn.
Service design in the public sector is well documented in terms of how design is contributing to a democratised public sector through its distinctive methods and approaches. As The Guardian reported: “Design methods fuse time spent in the field and research techniques borrowed from anthropology with an understanding of how people use objects. They are democratic in spirit: designers use workshops that help people contribute their ideas freely. They are just as happy dealing with the currency of experience and emotions as they are analysing trends. And if public service reform is about anything, it has to be about people.”
Companies such as Engine and Scotland’s own excellent Snook are active in this field. Indeed Snook is working with the Scottish Government to see how design, innovation and creativity can be more firmly embedded within the processes of government. Our own Master of Design for Services course works very closely with public healthcare providers, local government and others to explore service design’s potential as a transformative process in public services, such as the current Totally Dundee project led by Taylor Haig which pulls together a team of recent MDes graduates.
The danger of service design for public services is that it becomes incorporated within the institutional paradigm that it has the potential to challenge, and thus becomes just another technocratic tool of the public sector. Simon Blyth and Lucy Kimbell have provided a vital analysis that comes out of service design practice, but which suggests a significant shift of emphasis:
“Rather than claiming to solve social problems, we want to argue for the relevance and value of Design in actively, critically and reflexively contributing to their construction… We want to invite designers to make this more clearly part of their practice. We think there are things about Design that make it particularly good at doing this, although the positioning of design-as- problem-solving tends to have ignored them.” Blyth and Kimbell argue that there are five things that make Design particularly good at helping construct social problems:
- The first thing Design does well is rendering issues as something that other people can experience.
- The second thing Design expertise does well is creating artefacts around which people can gather to interpret and discuss the characteristics of a social issue.
- A third thing that is central to design expertise is staging an open-ended enquiry that actively avoids being closed down quickly in the form of a particular solution.
- A fourth aspect of Design is its role in making trouble and being open to the potentially disruptive side of creativity.
- A final part of contemporary Design expertise is opening up the conventions about who and what can be included in a design project.
Their paper deserves close reading, especially their three specific suggestions about how Design needs to change in order to responsibly rise to the challenges of working on social problems that are often deep-seated and involve conflicting values:
- Firstly, individuals need to be aware what they bring to problem-definition and problem- solving on a project level, and how this amplifies, reproduces or challenges existing ideas about collective problems.
- Secondly, designers working on social problems should set up the possibilities for double-loop learning and reflective conversations.
- Thirdly, designers need to question whether the consultancy model, which continues to be a dominant way that the industry operates, is the right one for working in domains such as public service.
Service design in the public sector contains a variety of practices, but out of theme we can see emerging a political form of reflexive practice in which values are explicit and explored, and social activism becomes a more central element of practice,
Design activism is a very broad field which I have no intention of mapping here. Thankfully Anne Chick and Paul Micklethwaite have done that job admirably well in their book Also, Nicholas O’Donnell-Hoare, Karen Yair and I have documented many examples of design activism through our Change Makers project.
However, one specific aspect of design activism demands attention here, and that is the Open Design movement. Open Design Now is an excellent book that is partly available to access free online. Regretably the part that isn’t available includes Bert Mulder’s chapter on Open Design for Government, in which he argues that open design’s most significant contribution to government could be in terms of citizen involvement.
I have written elsewhere about open design and the maker movement’s possible contribution to a new economy and a new politics. Here I want to finish on Marleen Stikker’s introduction to the Open Design Now book. She centres her analysis on two ways of thinking and interacting with the world:
“Possibilitarians think in new possibilities, and get all excited when things get messy and life becomes disorderly. In disruption, possibilitarians see new opportunities, even if they do not know where they might lead. They believe, with Denis Gabor, that ‘the future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented’. Realitarians are operating within a given framework, according to the rules that are given, following to the powers there are. They accept the conditions and the institutions as given, and are fearful of disruption.”
As she continues to argue:
“Possibilitarians engage in open design as a process, trusting their own abilities to guide that process. And as possibilitarians, they pursue strategies to be inclusive, to involve others, to build bridges between opposite positions: North-South, old-young, traditional-experimental. Possibilitarians represent a sharing culture which is at the core of open design. As such, they trust others to make their own contributions and to build upon what has been shared. Trust, responsibility and reciprocity are important ingredients in an open, sharing culture.”
Not all designers are possibilitarians, but it seems to me that those who are hold the key for defining a new politics. Design is the art of the possible. So was politics, once. Alas, no longer. The change we need to see in our political culture will not come from the realitarians who dominate that culture. Designers therefore have a challenge and an opportunity: to demonstrate their value as transformative change makers.
In a third post I will set out some steps we can take to do this. I will also engage with Tony Fry’s latest book Design as Politics which sets out a highly radical path for the design community.
When Cornish Pasties become the dominant political news story, then either it is a remarkably slow news day or there is something critically wrong with the state of politics. With yet another UK fatality in Afghanistan, and an imminent petrol tanker drivers’ strike, lack of news would not appear to be the problem. But militarism and industrial relations have long ceased to be the stuff of political debate. In our liberal democracy where all political parties jostle for position in the centre ground, ideological differences take on a much more subtle and seemingly bizarre form. So Ed Miliband and Ed Balls – the supposed intellectual heavyweights of the Labour Party – brandish sausage rolls to make their point. Meanwhile in Parliament, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was floored by a question that was not about his failure to manage the economy, but was about when he last bought a pasty at Greggs. When a Greggs pasty is the political hot potato of the day, then we really are in a pickle. Food for thought, eh?
In the last general election, 35% of registered electors failed to vote at all. According to the Electoral Commission, up to 6 million people do not even register to vote, so if we factor them in, then around 43% of eligible voters either don’t register, or stay at home on polling day. Thus, we have a Prime Minister representing a party that secured 19% of the eligible vote in the last general election. None of this is news, as rising voter apathy is well recognised across the political spectrum. But what is equally disturbing is apathy on the part of the political parties themselves to address an issue which, if neglected long enough, will simply destroy the democratic system.
Like just about everyone I know, I vote with a very heavy heart. The party I vote for has no vision, no creative imagination and no ability to engage people about issues that matter to them. My party of choice has abandoned most of its values and has enacted some policies and practices that I actively abhor. But they’re better than the other lot. Not much of a reason to vote though, is it? None of the parties address the long-term issues that our collective future depends on, preferring to focus on short term gains that are politically expedient. Consequently issues such as the ageing population, energy and transport policy, and the whole sustainability agenda are parked to one side. The pasty takes precedence.
There are two issues here. First is the tendency under liberal democracies for a coalescing around the centre ground, thereby removing ideology from politics and any sense of long term vision. As a consequence we choose not political alternatives based on a notion of a world we would like to live in, but technocratic alternatives based on how efficiently we think the world could be run. We vote on the basis of which party we think has the more competent leaders to make the decisions required to steer an advanced capitalist economy. Of course, we are not really qualified to choose on the basis of actual competence, so it boils down to which bloke looks the part. And right now it is all blokes.
Second, the conventions, cultures and methods of politics are wholly anachronistic and simply have no appeal or resonance with the majority of people as the British Social Attitudes Survey suggests (I think the bloke thing is a clue as to the reason for this). The world has moved on. Politics has not. I used to listen religiously to Any Questions on Radio 4. Two weeks ago after it had been on for five minutes, we switched it off. I do not want shouty people who seem incapable of listening or acknowledging other points of view in my house, thank you very much. It’s bad enough when you have to vote for them. I’m with Martin Amis on this one, who argues that British politics is full of “not very nice people – touchy, vain, power-hungry male politicians obsessed by maintaining face”. And that’s just the good ones.
Politics has failed the people. The irony here is that it has been politicians who have driven change everywhere else. We had to get more competitive and weed out the lame ducks. So the mines and shipyards were shut. We had to reform the public sector, so throughout education, healthcare and policing we have seen radical reforms and restructuring. We have all changed. We have all adapted. Meanwhile the political system remains largely as it was in the 19th century. No change there. There is a language and culture of conflict, secrecy and duplicity that has now become so profoundly unappealing and irrelevant to the way that the world works, that radical change in politics is no longer an option but a necessity for its very survival. Apathy becomes tempered when we are offered what appears to be authenticity and real choice in politics. George Galloway and the SNP are at least authentic. But do we really desire a politics based on sectionalism or nationhood?
It is time to design politics better.
In the second part of this post I will look at the inherently political role of design, initiatives by designers to creatively engage communities in rethinking their future, and some recent arguments suggesting that design itself could constitute a new politics.
I was fortunate to be invited to give a talk at the Dundee Pecha Kucha Night vol 2 held on 28 February. My talk was on the theme of public education, and I have made a version of the talk available below. It is a prerecorded rather than ‘live’ version.
If you are unfamiliar with the format, each speaker has 20 images projected, each of which stays on the screen for 20 seconds – so you have 6 minutes and 40 seconds to make your point! Creative Dundee are to be congratulated for organising these excellent events that attract a full audience. Live videos of all talks will be available soon from the link above.
An opportunity for Labour?
It’s hard work being a Labour Party supporter. I suspect Obama supporters feel the same. Indeed, the failure of the left and the centre left (or in the US case, the liberals) to advance any credible progressive alternative is dispiriting in the extreme. What is all the more curious is that there IS the starting point of a progressive alternative staring them all in the face – but since it has not emerged from the increasingly insular world that party politics is now conducted in, then it has simply not been noticed.
The makings of an alternative are to be found in maker culture and active consumerism: in craft cafes, hacker spaces and especially in IKEA. It addresses some profound issues concerning how we innovate, how we create sustainable enterprise, and how we link this to a social agenda. It provides solutions for educational underachievement, models for urban and rural regeneration, and strategies to address critical skills shortages in fields as diverse as plumbing and programming. It demands that we rethink our conception of work, in order to make better use of the one vital resource that humans are provided with: our creativity. It connects with something very deep within us all: an inherent desire to make things for ourselves. And it requires that we ditch the one thing that ties us to redundant notions of our future: our labour. Perhaps that is the left’s problem.
What is interesting and significant is that this ‘new alternative’ has in recent weeks been the subject of coverage in UK and US business media, national media in the US, New Scientist, together with the technology and eco-activist blogosphere – but aside from one or two pieces in The Guardian, the Left’s media appears far more interested in the Occupy movement. Sorry, but I’ve spent time at St Paul’s and all I see is yet another marginal protest that the Left is so fond of.
Below is a summarised commentary on some of this recent coverage, prior to working it up into a more resolved piece of writing. I have emphasised recent writing rather than more extensive academic literature, such as David Gauntlett’s recent excellent book. The argument threading through it is that the emergent maker economy is of critical significance in the development of an alternative economic model that is capable of addressing economic regeneration, social renewal and individual fulfilment. While we have in the past been defined by our labours, in the future we will be defined by our works.
The indie capitalist revolution
In December 2011, The Economist reported on the significance of the maker movement under the headline “more than just digital quilting”. It recognised that its roots lie in digital culture at the confluence of the open source movement and the new technologies such as Arduino and MakerBot’s 3D printers. Setting its scene at the New York Maker Faire, The Economist explained how “this show and an even bigger one in Silicon Valley, held every May, are the most visible manifestations of what has come to be called the “maker” movement. It started on America’s West Coast but is spreading around the globe: a Maker Faire was held in Cairo in October.”
Physical spaces and tools are part of the maker movement’s landscape, along with online communities. There is a rich pluralism as hackers and corporates coexist alongside business startups, social enterprises, hobbyists and venture capitalists. In its conclusion, The Economist draws a pertinent parallel:
“The parallel with the hobbyist computer movement of the 1970s is striking. In both cases enthusiastic tinkerers, many on America’s West Coast, began playing with new technologies that had huge potential to disrupt business and society. Back then the machines manipulated bits; now the action is in atoms. This has prompted predictions of a new industrial revolution, in which more manufacturing is done by small firms or even by individuals. “The tools of factory production, from electronics assembly to 3D printing, are now available to individuals, in batches as small as a single unit,” writes Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine.
“It is easy to laugh at the idea that hobbyists with 3D printers will change the world. But the original industrial revolution grew out of piecework done at home, and look what became of the clunky computers of the 1970s. The maker movement is worth watching.”
Also writing in December, Bruce Nussbaum – a former editor of Business Week – presents four reasons why the future of capitalism is homegrown, small scale, and independent. Indie capitalism, Nussbaum argues, is “a maker system of economics based on creating new value, not trading old value. It embraces all the strains of maker culture–food, indie music, DIY, craft, 3-D digital fabrication, bio-hacking, app enabling, CAD modeling, robotics, tinkering. Making is not a rare act performed by a few but a routine happening in which just about everyone participates.”
In contrast to The Economist, Nussbaum differentiates the culture of this new movement from the West Coast start up scene of the 70s that spawned Apple and Microsoft. He favours the term indie capitalism “because it captures more of the social context and values of this new economy. I think it is sufficiently different from the entrepreneurial, startup culture of Stanford/Silicon Valley to warrant its own name. The term feels more 21st century, while ‘startup’ sounds, well, 20th century. It’s socially focused, not technology focused, more designer/artist-centric than engineering-centric. I especially like ‘indie’ because the indie music scene reflects many of the distributive and social structures of this emergent form of capitalism. It’s no accident that Portland and New York have vibrant indie music scenes and are the centers of a rising new indie capitalism.” In Nussbaum’s, view, the time is right for this indie capitalism to usher in an indie economics and indie politics given that – from Occupy to the Tea Party – finance or ‘predatory’ capitalism is under attack. And so is high street retail capitalism.
In a blogpost entitled why 2012 will be year of the artist-entrepreneur, Michael Wolf argues that with distribution chains collapsing vertically across video, music and books, as online storefronts become the entire distribution chain, so this expands the role of the artist-entrepreneur who distributes themselves. “No doubt, the vast majority of economic wealth is still distributed through large corporate media, but as new technologies enable artists to reach consumers directly through push-button creation and distribution, there is a movement afoot. Expect this movement to expand in 2012 as more artists take control of their own economic destinies and become part of the artist-entrepreneur generation.”
Writing recently in the New York Times, William Deresiewicz frames this development even more profoundly: “The small business is the idealized social form of our time. Our culture hero is not the artist or reformer, not the saint or scientist, but the entrepreneur. (Think of Steve Jobs, our new deity.) Autonomy, adventure, imagination: entrepreneurship comprehends all this and more for us. The characteristic art form of our age may be the business plan.”
The Left almost certainly has a problem with the maker movement because it is bound up with entrepreneurialism. Which is strange, because many of the new entrepreneurs seemingly have no problems with politically progressive concerns and ideals. Yes, this is is the age of the business plan and the start up. Young people especially are doing it for themselves in terms of employment creation. Now, in part this is because many have no other choice; around 30 percent of new entrepreneurs in the US go into business because there is no other option for work. But whether reluctant or willing, increasing numbers of entrepreneurs are doing it less for the money and more to make a difference.
Danny Alexander, a design entrepreneur writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, takes issue with those who see entrepreneurship as purely in terms of wealth creation: “For many of us, entrepreneurship is our anger, our edge, and our ego. It is our social movement… I’m an entrepreneur because I see fundamental problems with society and want to be active in creating solutions.” Closer to home, there are dynamic new enterprises such as Snook which are pursuing a new politics and social vision through entrepreneurial action.
Labour isn’t working – the value of doing it yourself
Throughout the world, there is a generation of highly educated, aspirational young people with a strong sense of a social vision who have been failed by both labour markets and labour parties. Put simply, there are no jobs and no political vision about how to change the world in a progressive direction. The only solution to both problems is to do it yourself. Entrepreneurialism also addresses a third problem: most jobs suck.
In a piece entitled How British workers are losing the power to think, Guardian correspondent Aditya Chakrabortty has drawn on research that strongly suggests an erosion of autonomy in many occupations. “Since the mid-80s, academics have been carrying out regular skills surveys, asking detailed questions of thousands of employees. In 1986… 72% of professionals felt they had a great deal of independence in doing their jobs. By 2006, that had plummeted to just 38%.” Some researchers are suggesting a future workforce in which only 10-15% will have permission to think. “The rest of us will merely carry out their decisions; what the academics call ‘digital Taylorism’, in which graduates will end up on the white-collar equivalent of a factory line.” The options appear to be useful work (through creative entrepreneurialism) versus useless toil (by selling our increasingly devalued labour power). Put simply, whether creating a livelihood or building bookcases, people value doing it themselves. If you want proof – go to IKEA.
The IKEA effect has been documented and argued by behavioural economist Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School. In this month’s New Scientist, an article entitled The hard way: Our odd desire to do it ourselves explained how Norton and his colleagues set up experiments in which people were asked to assemble IKEA furniture or fold origami or build Lego sets. “The participants then had to bid small sums for the products of their labour, or for a custom- or expert-made equivalent. The results were impressive. People bid considerably more for their own creations, even when they were plain old IKEA boxes. When it came to origami, they stumped up nearly as much for their own forlorn frog or bird as for the same animal folded by an expert – even though other participants subsequently rated their efforts as ‘nearly worthless crumpled paper’”. The New Scientist piece describes other research that cumulatively demonstrates that the things we make we value far more – regardless of how well we make them.
Crafting the creative society
One of New Labour’s many problems was the incredibly narrow way that it viewed creativity, reducing it to the questionable notion of creative industries. The whole point was that the UK was to build up a particular set of consumer industries that required specific skills and knowledge that would be supplied through the labour market. Built on a theoretical bedrock that drew heavily from Richard Florida’s Creative Class thesis, this drove policy at both national and local government. There are three central problems with the creative industry emphasis. First, it is highly centralised: necessarily London will act as the key focus for such industries. Second, it is very fragile: the experience of the computer games industry in Dundee is evidence of that. Third, it is culturally defined by Florida’s Creative Class: DIY culture in north Wales or knitting in Shetland does not feature in its metropolitan landscape. As such, the creative economy as defined is exclusive.
Crafting an inclusive creative society demands a wholescale rethinking of education, work and the processes of civic society. Libby Brooks, writing in The Guardian, makes the following case:
“A recession invites fundamental reassessment of the place of work – and leisure – in our lives. Practically, this means recognising that teaching a tradable, portable skill is one of the best ways to lift people out of poverty. Philosophically, it invites an acceptance that a trade-off between hamster-wheel presenteeism and mollifying consumption has never been good for us and is not feasible in this economic climate. Crucially, craft is egalitarian. While some in the Labour party appear bent on resuscitating the canard of meritocracy, which divides the gifted few from the unexceptional mass, craft reminds us of the significance of equality of outcome, rather than of opportunity. Everyone shares the capacity to develop a skill, based on decent teaching, application and time – not raw talent.”
The question is, can Labour (or indeed The Left) envisage an egalitarian future in which people craft their own lives?
The Wedgwood Museum faces selloff to pay £134m pension debt after court ruling
You don’t need to have a passion for pots to appreciate why the Wedgwood Museum represents the crown jewels of our industrial heritage. Josiah Wedgwood was responsible for some of the key innovations that drove industrialisation and design, and whose vision for technological progress went hand-in-hand with social progress. His was a vision of socially responsible capitalism that we could benefit from revisiting today.
The Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent is a unique factory-based collection and archive that tells the story of Wedgwood’s contribution to our age. And what precisely is that contribution? Well, to get well made, durable, beautifully designed crockery onto tables Josiah Wedgwood undertook painstaking materials research into new ceramic bodies, he invented new decorative techniques, he created the profession of the designer, he built one of the world’s first factories, he invented the idea of market segmentation and pioneered many of the essential principles of today’s marketing. ‘Buy one, get one free’ was a Wedgwood innovation. Not many people know that. He brought science and art into industry in a unique, powerful and visionary way.
He invested his wealth in Britain’s canal system, and built proper homes for the new working class he had created, driven by a paternalistic concern for his employees. A passionate slavery abolitionist, he produced cameos with an enslaved black figure on a white background above the legend “Am I Not A Man And A Brother?” Soon becoming the fashion of the day, Wedgwood was the first to enable us to wear our issue-based politics on our sleeves, or around our necks. After Josiah’s death, his granddaughter married Charles Darwin – the Darwins being longstanding family friends – and the Wedgwood inheritance bought Darwin the time to write his theory of evolution.
His ambition, to give pottery “an elegance of form” embedded craft aesthetic and processes within the new technologies of his age – in much the same way as Steve Jobs achieved two centuries later. Like Jobs, but far more fundamentally, he redefined design and its management for a new age of change.
Today, every innovator, designer, industrialist, scientist, craft maker and entrepreneur is standing on the shoulders of this giant. His significance cannot be over-stated. To achieve his “elegance of form” required building a whole new infrastructure for manufacture, commerce and culture. “Father of English potters” is an epithet that tells only a fraction of his story and significance.
The company that bears his name went into administration in 2009, and the brand is today owned by a New York based private equity firm, with Wedgwood employing only a few hundred workers producing top-end products. This followed some catastrophically inept management in the company in its latter years. I should know: I spent an interesting lunchtime in the company of Wedgwood’s Board. They hauled me in because I had said on BBC TV some fairly damning (but very true) things about the paucity of their design management, and how it was leading directly to factory closures. In short, Wedgwood’s problems in the mid-1990s was nothing to do with cheap imports, rather its key challenge was with expensive imports. Analysis of trade statistics showed that they were losing market share in the top-end, design-led markets. This of course they denied. While they employed some exemplary designers, the skills of these talented individuals were being exercised in a strategic black hole. A passion for pots? It was my view that the bosses knew the meaning of neither.
I knew I was right when lunch was served. It was horrible; the kind of fare that even University caterers would avoid serving. Put simply, if you do not appreciate the joy of eating, how on earth can you create the world’s best tableware to share that joy with others? Clearly the days when pottery managers were people with “clay running in their veins” were over. These people were accountants, and they didn’t do that very well either.
Allowing Wedgwood to fold was above all damning to the generations of Stoke pottery workers and their families who had invested their working lives and their craft skills in the company. To be honest, the best pots in the world count for nothing if the people who make them, who believe in them, whose lives are defined by them, are simply thrown onto the industrial scrapheap. They deserve far better.
And that is the dilemma here. A blackhole in Wedgwood’s pension fund has led to a court ruling yesterday that the Wedgwood Museum should be sold off to raise the £134 million needed for the former employees’ pensions. Their jobs were taken away, and with it their dignity and self-worth. Their pension is all they have left.
But as important as their pensions, is our history. History only becomes meaningful if we study it, learn from it, draw lessons out from it to guide our future. It is the mark of a civilised society that we invest in understanding our past. The Wedgwood Museum is in UNESCO’s UK Memory of the World Register as, according to UNESCO, it represents a vital and significant part of our documentary heritage. It enables us to better understand and appreciate, not only Josiah Wedgwood’s remarkable innovations, but also those made by other potters and artists in creating an industry that defined its age and laid the ground for other industries to follow.
Without Josiah Wedgewood, it is doubtful that the UK ceramic and textile industries would have become the engines for industrialisation and world market dominance that they became. Without him, design would doubtless have gained a far lesser role in the UK economy, removing the foundations that today’s creative industries are built on. Without him, all the tricks of retail marketing we use today would have been pioneered in other countries. Without Josiah Wedgwood, who knows how we would earn our living in today’s world? I suppose we would always have slavery to fall back on.
THAT is why the Wedgwood Museum matters. And of course because it celebrates all those working people who gave their working lives to the pottery industry of Stoke-on-Trent.
As I’m not an accountant, I cannot answer the question of where the £134 million can be found to save the Museum and to pay the pensions. I understand such sums of money are trivial small change in the trading rooms of the City of London; perhaps it represents a couple of bankers’ bonuses. Perhaps some of our iconoclastic entrepreneurs could dig deep for the Museum? Step forward Sir Richard Branson. Shelve the tourist spacecraft, we have a time machine for you that will tell you far more about the world than 10 minutes in outer space will.
But I can answer the question of what it means if we allow this Museum to dissolve into private collections worldwide. It means we don’t really give a damn – about our history or the people who made it. I think we should. And we owe it to them to save it.