Scottish innovation: design and democracy

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We are perhaps seduced into believing that the UK is moving into the Harry Potter economy, in which so-called ‘creative’ industries, such as film production, television and publishing drive wealth creation and employment. Indeed, some years ago it was suggested that boy bands contributed more to the GDP than the aerospace sector. While I’ve never been able to fully examine the veracity of this claim, the day after One Direction called it a day, I paid a visit to the Tayside firm of Scott & Fyfe. The broad product portfolio of this textiles manufacturer includes composites that stitch bond together glass, carbon, aramid and other high performance fibres in products that are used in a range of sectors, including aerospace. While this company’s turnover may not quite be up there with the world’s top grossing music act, they represent a sector that is vital to the UK economy. The textiles industry in Scotland has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years, contributing over £1 billion to the economy, and generating considerable export earnings. There are currently around 570 companies Scottish textiles manufacturers directly employing around 9,000 people. In Scotland we still make things. But we make them, and create them very differently, and Scott & Fyfe shows us a unique way of doing things.

The company  has a 150 year history as a manufacturer of technical textiles, from its base in the small coastal town of Tayport in the north east corner of Fife. What it weaves and knits are the textiles that are used to create motorcycle helmets, rubber underlay backing, irrigation piping systems, bus interiors, yacht hulls, water slides, truck wind deflectors and much else. This company, which has a global reach in highly competitive markets, is a hidden gem of Scottish innovation. For me, its significance and inspiration comes from its unique fusion of design and democracy that creates an aspirational, highly creative firm that values and fully uses the skills and insights of its employees.

The global economic crash of the late 2000’s coincided with a crisis in the company’s fortunes. But its slide towards crisis was caused less by recession and more by its long-term failure to innovate and develop new products.

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“Ours is a business of failure”, said Michaela Millar, the hugely impressive Business Development Officer who had invited me to the company. Michaela’s background is in textiles design from DJCAD, but it is evident that her responsibilities go far beyond a design brief. She explained to me that the company’s varied markets demanded constant innovation and bringing new products to the market. Most of these products will fail, so the task is to learn from failure, build on success and move on.

In our risk averse culture, this attitude is refreshing and places Scott & Fyfe in a rare group of organisations which have succeeded in finding strategies that innovate through encouraging creativity.

Talking to me in one of the innovation pods in a huge open area adjoining the factory, painted in primary colours and floored in astroturf, Michaela told me how two key developments pulled this ailing family-run firm back from the brink. In 2010 the company began to work with Glasgow School of Art’s Design Innovation Studio, to explore how creative thinking and innovation could infuse its culture and operations. This resulted in a range of tools and methods being explored and applied in the company. This opened them up to new perspectives and – crucially – new thinking tools that could be applied to new product development.

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Joined by Business Manager, Michelle Quadrelli, the two spoke to me with obvious passion and enthusiasm how this design-led strategy was quickly accompanied by a move towards employee ownership. In December 2012 Scott & Fyfe evolved from a fourth generation family owned firm to a fully employee owned enterprise. The workforce is fully informed and briefed on what the firm is doing, and above all is valued in terms of their knowledge and skills. The tools provided by GSA are one means of harnessing this vital expertise, and turning it into new successful products.

This appears to be a vital element in the company’s success – and all too rare in the UK. Unlike Germany and the Scandinavian countries, industrial democracy has been notably absent from Britain’s industrial landscape. Perhaps predictably, it is on the agenda of none of our political parties, and it should be.

Scott & Fyffe shows another way ahead for our manufacturers – based on design and democracy. It embraces creativity – the creativity of ALL of its workforce. Far from pillorying failure, which is seemingly our national pastime, it uses failure as a useful source of learning. As Michaela said to me “we fail fast, and we fail often, and that way we do things better.” It uses methods of innovation and design thinking that I last saw being applied in California’s Silicon Valley. It trusts and it values its people. And yes, they are “people” not “human resources”.

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Giving relatively untested employees like Michaela trust and responsibility is refreshing. Hers has been a steep learning curve, but the scope to explore new markets and possibilities has brought the very best out of this highly talented young woman. But that is my enduring impression of Scott & Fyfe – an enterprise that knows that its employees are its most valuable asset. Respect and value them, give them a stake in success, support them and give them tools and space to creative, design and take risks – and you will succeed.

With design and democracy, Scotland’s enterprise can be world class.

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