Design in Dundee – Autumn’s highlights


Dundee really is living up to its designation as the UK’s sole UNESCO City of Design. Even in just the next few weeks there’s is a whole host of events and activities that embrace design.

  • Friday 9th October 2015 – I am chairing ‘Design Experts in Discussion’ at the Vision Building, and we have some amazing design people taking part. It’s free but you need a ticket in advance.
  • Friday and Saturday – Scotland Re:designed, a new dedicated showcase of Scottish Interiors – within which the experts discussion is taking place – created for designers and makers to exhibit, gain mentoring, support and provide business opportunities, as well as an opportunity for design enthusiasts to immerse themselves in the best of Scottish design. There will be a unique pop-up shop to purchase beautiful design that may not be readily available on the high street. Again, free – but get a ticket. Details for both here:
  • For just this week (up to 10th October) Stagecoach is running an old Routemaster bus on the 73 route between Ninewells and Arbroath. This bus, that entered use in London during 1956, is a design classic. It was the first bus to use lightweight aluminium construction using methods developed from the aircraft industry.
  • The next Make/Share event takes place on Wed 14th October from 7-8.30pm at Dundee MakerSpace, also down at the Vision building. This time around, four speakers will give short informal talks about their experience, thoughts, inspirations around Collaborative Working. These include ex-DJCAD jewellery designer Scarlett Erskine, independent game designer Malath Abbas, and Becca Clark and Ruth Aitken who collaborate as a duo, Bhuntang Marmalade.
  • Make Works, a factory finding platform for artists, designers and makers and Creative Dundee are bringing Maker Speed Dater to Dundee on Thursday 22nd October. The event provides an opportunity for 20 designers and 20 manufacturers to have a conversation and learn about what can be made in Dundee. A bit like speed dating, but for finding new projects and contacts to work with locally. Tickets are £6, and worth every penny.
  • During Dundee Literary Festival I will be hosting one of the lunchbox talks session entitled Designing Stories and will be in conversation with Holly Scanlan, Dundee born hairstylist and author of popular blog GGBOBSHERHAIR. The focus is very much on blogging. Tickets are £5, but that includes lunch. Dinner and a show. What’s not to like? The whole Festival has some great stuff going on including Nick Frost and Jeanette Winterson. A preview of some of the best bits here.
  • Dundee’s Wasps Open Studios takes place at Meadow Mill on 24th & 25th October. In addition to going around and meeting the designers, makers and artists who work there, you can also attend workshops. These include: Design Demonstrations with Judith McDowall, Introduction to Sand Casting with Robin Bell, and a Drop in and Draw session. Details here.
  • The Pecha Kucha tickets for 10 November have gone on sale for £5 each – a great evening of talks! Details here.
  • Then of course there’s the Internet Yami-­ichi – a flea market where people gather and exchange “Internet­-ish” things in real life. Launched in Tokyo in 2012, since then it has travelled to Berlin, Sapporo, Brussels and Amsterdam. Now it will be in Dundee on 14 November. Book a stall and sell your internet-related things.
  • We are also just finalising plans for the next Dundee Touchpoint – an evening of creative service design open to anyone for free! Details will be posted on our Facebook page.

Achieving relevance

My lecture to First Year students at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design (DJCAD) on 8 October 2015 emphasised how the achievement of relevance is a fundamental aim to their four years of study. Find what is relevant to you and to the world around you; use this to guide your creative strategies and developing technical skills. The lecture wove together the themes of relevance, creativity and craft – and at the end of this post are resources to help you explore these themes in more detail.

But why listen to me about how you should be thinking about your next four years at Art School? I asked five remarkably talented individuals to give you their advice, all of whom studied at DJCAD. One graduated six years ago, while another graduated in 1993. Between them they embrace a range of creative disciplines. All of them are inspiring people, who needed no encouragement to share with you their advice on how to get the best from Art School.

James Donald is one of Scotland’s most successful weavers, selling his work all over the world – particularly in the United States. Based in Edinburgh he allies his creative practice to being joint-owner of the successful Concrete Wardrobe retail outlet. Here is a message from James to you:

Johanna Basford is a remarkably versatile illustrator who studied printed textiles at DJCAD. This year, as creator of the first colouring books for adults – she became one of the top selling authors on Amazon worldwide. Apart from designing the catalogue for the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, she has acquired an enviable client roster across many different industries from Channel 4 to Absolut Vodka. Her blog post 50 things I wish I’d known in art school is required reading. But below is her personal message to new DJCAD students:

Lauren Currie is co-founder of Snook – a social innovation and service design company based in Glasgow. Studying both Product Design and the Master of Design course at DJCAD, Lauren’s career has begun with a remarkable start, and she is now running a company that has the Chinese Government among their clients.

Joanna Montgomery graduated in 2010 in Interactive Media Design, is Director of Little Riot whose Pillow Talk product has proved a viral sensation on YouTube, as we saw in the lecture. In exchange for her valuable advice, Joanna asks that you vote for Little Riot in a national competition, to make Pillow Talk a reality. I am sure you will support Joanna in this competition. It will take you a minute!

Kate Pickering studied Jewellery & Metal Design and the Master of Design at DJCAD. Since graduating she has established Vanilla Ink, a highly acclaimed initiative to bridge the gap for jewellery students into industry. Kate won funding from the NESTA Starter For Six scheme to launch her initiative. An accomplished teacher in jewellery and design, this is her advice to you:

Why not follow these designers on Twitter? This will help you keep up-to-date with their activities and give you more insights into their professional practices. All of them use Twitter as a key part of their professional practice. Click on their names to access their twitter stream: James Donald, Johanna Basford, Lauren Currie, Joanna Montgomery, Kate Pickering. You’ll also find me on Twitter. Once you have set up a Twitter account, then you can follow them.

Achieving relevance referred to a number of artists, designers and events that you may wish to explore further.

Scottish innovation: design and democracy


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.


“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.


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”.


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.

Vote for design


The forthcoming General Election demands us to be critical of all parties and interrogate their manifestos for the issues and policies that we believe to be most vital.

There are three issues that I expect parties to address – creative education (in its broadest sense), the embedding of design methods in both policy making and the development of public services and the nurturing of the creative industries. I have a professional interest in all three of these.

Creative education is not only fundamental to civilised values, but empowers citizens to contribute creatively to their communities and there is evidence that it enhances wellbeing. Indeed that was why Aneurin Bevan argued equally for the NHS and an arts policy in his ground breaking book In Place of Fear. Placing design within government and the public sector is demonstrably a good and progressive idea. You can pledge all the money you like to the NHS, but unless you address the issue of service design, then such pledges become meaningless. And creative industries exploit the talents of the UK’s filmmakers, craftmakers, designers, artists, writers and others to create wealth and employment.

If these were the only issues that matter (and clearly they are not) then only Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party are in the running.

The Labour manifesto refers to design nine times in the context of the redesign of public services and the introduction of co-design principles. To be honest here I was very surprised at this emphasis. Labour also assert “We will guarantee a universal entitlement to a creative education”. The Greens have a similar policy and further claim “We will set creative government free”. Their manifesto has considerable reference to design, including the design of safer cities and communities. So, some fine words and general principles, from both parties, but not a huge amount of detail.

But it is the Liberal Democrats who win the design prize – 19 references to design, including three explicit references to “design against crime” (thanks Nick, all our research on this issue clearly made an impact). They also win the prize for creativity for their section “Pride in Creativity” which has clear policies for education and more detail on support for the creative industries.

Rodney Fitch once said that no other British Prime Minister had ever banged the drum of design quite as hard as Margaret Thatcher. And with the possible exception of Sir Robert Peel, he was probably right. So how do the Tories stack up in 2015?

Design is actually mentioned, between “theatre” and “film”. So, a very 1980s notion of what design is – which is curious given that the Cabinet Office actually has recently done some very fine work at embedding design in government. There is reference to support for creative industries, but mainly centred on tax breaks for the film industry and anti-piracy measures. The emphasis in education is on STEM rather than any reference to creative education. So the message is very much: we like the money the creative industries earn for us, we want people to have access to culture and arts, but how people are empowered to create that culture is not something we think is important enough to mention.

But when we move on to the SNP, a rather curious and frankly disturbing black hole opens up. Just a simple word search results in: creativity: not found; design: not found; arts: not found; culture: mentioned twice in terms of business (culture of innovation) & twice in terms of agriculture and aquaculture; creative mentioned twice, both in the context of the BBC. There are a couple of very passing references to creative industries (less than two short paragraphs saying little), and one whole page about fishing. In Scotland the fishing industry employs 4,000 people and the creative industries employ 85,000. No mention of creative education at all.

I am told that this is because all of these issues are devolved. Excuse me? Creativity and design are devolved? How does that work? Education is very definitely devolved but there is considerable reference to it in the SNP manifesto. There are five references to the devolved policy of “free” university education in Scotland. Five. Just in case you miss four of the references. Curiously there is no mention of the 1,000 further education jobs that have been cut and the 12% reduction in FE budgets resulting in a 48% reduction of part-time places, many of which are in creative disciplines.

There is an interesting and telling use of language and reference to ideas in the SNP manifesto that is very conventional in its political rhetoric and simply does not refer at all to those ideas and methods that are transforming the public sector across Europe, which some other manifestos on the “progressive” side do.

However, the SNPs wins the prize for repetition. In addition to the five references to “free” university education, the term “more progressive” was used eight times. Neither the Liberal Democrats nor the Labour Party mention “progressive” at all. The Greens refer to “progressive” seven times, but in terms of taxation and energy tariffs rather than the assertion of a political mantra.

But don’t take my word for it, read these manifestos with an open mind and make your own decision. Whatever we think of political parties and their manifestos, they are the best guide we have to assess how seriously parties take the issues that are important to us.

I’m voting for the party that helps us to design a better future.

Oh yes, I nearly forgot. UKIP.

Creative: not found; creativity: not found. So no surprises there. The references to design are twofold. ”Design and print by…” a reference to the printers of the manifesto. And “The EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) was designed from the beginning to steal our fish”.

So long, Nigel, and thanks for all the fish.

Craft on the new frontier



How do we characterise craftmakers in the 21st century? Are the varied activities of making taking on a profound shift in response to globalisation, technological change and new cultures of making and consumption? Is making being transformed by an emergent “new industrial revolution”? These were some of the questions addressed by the Crafts Council’s Make:Shift event, held on 20/21 November in London and billed to “explore how advances in materials, processes and technologies are driving innovation in craft practice.”

As chair of three of the sessions, I found the conference inspiring, challenging and dazzling in the sheer diversity of practices and perspectives that were represented. Running alongside the event was the national Make:Shift:Do programme of open workshops, exhibitions and talks that dovetailed the London conference and places the discussions in a national context of making. In Dundee, Louise Valentine and Jo Bletcher put together an ambitious programme of practical workshops, a salon discussion event, and an exciting new exhibition of work from designers, makers and up-and-coming undergraduate students. For us, embedding Make:Shift within our teaching programme and culture was an opportunity we could not miss!

In the conference summing up I presented some initial ideas and reflections, which this post expands on. They are not offered as a definitive view, but as perhaps a starting point, and I would value comments on them. This is not intended as a summary of the conference, as that can be better gained from the conference website with the videos of the various sessions.

Empathy for process and people

Right at the start, Martina Margetts raised the critical question of how we define makers and making. The presentations and discussions of the event provided evidence that definitions are fluid and increasingly diverse. Early on in the conference, one participant described craft as “empathy for materials and process”. This certainly seemed to be reflected in a range of the practices presented and discussed. through an ‘empathetic engagement’ makers had discovered new values and explored the creative affordances of seaweed, loofas, industrial estates and advanced robotics. But empathy for the physical, technical aspect of craft is clearly an incomplete perspective. Empathy for people is critical. As one contributor said “technology is just a tool, that’s all – above all, it’s about exploring context”. The human context is the driving force, to produce work that has cultural relevance and resonance. This human context does not just concern the use and consumption of crafted objects and systems, but far more significantly its production – and perhaps this is where empathy is most necessary.

Collaborating through a trustful language of touch

From the opening keynote to the closing speech and through just about every presentation in between, Make:Shift highlighted a new spirit of collaborative working, and a passion for defining new languages to underpin and enable these collaborations. Roger Kneebone introduced the idea of reciprocal illumination as a way of understanding how we advance craft knowledge. The old teacher > student model of learning has been supplanted by the maker <> maker model of advancing mutually supportive practices. This has echoes of Richard Sennett’s notion of the social expert, and suggests a welcome advance from the conventional notions of how craft should be taught. It made me question how we could better and more explicitly embed reciprocal illumination in our craft courses. Collaboration requires communication, and Roger Kneebone also raised questions about how we develop languages of touch, and of how we value the eloquent voice of silence.

On the final morning of the conference, I asked participants on twitter what their key takeaway had been so far. Tony Quinn replied: “The link between language, skill, collaboration and trust to develop and sustain one’s practice and one’s community of practice”.

Twenty years ago, Crafts Council and other events presented craft as a very much more individualised and solitary practice. I will speculate on some of the factors that have shifted us more towards collaboration a little later.

The maker as DJ

Colleagues at the event from Benchmark tweeted that today’s maker has become a DJ. As co-inventor of the Rip + Mix ‘designer as DJ’ method of innovation in service design, this struck a chord. In many cases we could see where makers were mixing age-old craft knowledge with new knowledge and finding new contexts and applications for their outcomes. We could see evidence of this with Michael Eden’s ‘digital ceramics’, with the electro embroidery of Sarah Taylor and Sara Robertson and in the new hybrid lab described by Raymond Oliver. DJs are above all expert curators and – in a whole variety of ways – create wholly new experiences and sounds out of what they find. Lauren Bowker mixes insights and innovations from science to crafted wearable objects, Roger Kneebone finds harmonising elements from highly disparate craft sources, and Fi Scott discovers hidden values and processes in gaskets and sailmaking.

If we seriously view the modern maker as curator of technologies, materials, tools and practices, as much as an originator, then this places further demands on them as social experts and collaborators.

Farmers and cowboys/girls

Roger Kneebone raised the issue early on about the difference between scored and improvised performance. For a musician this places very different demands on them – as it does the craft maker. This caused me to think about different modes of craft practice, and to connect with an idea expressed recently by Brian Eno. In his view there are two types of creative practitioner: farmers and cowboys. The former has a patient and intimate relationship with the tools and materials of their practice, and has a wealth of learned knowledge and experience to draw upon. The latter works largely in new territories with far less knowledge and experience, and improvises with what is available to them: “I often think that art is divided into the musical Oklahoma: the farmer and the cowboy. So the farmer is the guy who finds a piece of territory, stakes it up, digs it and cultivates it – grows the land. The cowboy is the one who goes out and finds new territories.”

In my view, craft – or indeed any creative practice – requires both cowboys and farmers. A constant search for new territories could pull destructively at the bonds of community and sense of common purpose that reciprocal illumination demands, while the focused cultivation of one creative territory would seem to negate any sense of progress. What becomes interesting is listening to the experience of those makers who have no problem in shifting from one role to another, and back again. Michael Eden, for example, appears very much at ease at being both farmer and cowboy.

Makers as facilitators

The new collaborative culture of craft reflects significant new developments in creative practice over the past decade. The emergence of design jams, maker spaces, the open source movement, DIY culture, a new connectedness enabled by social media has led to new ways of learning and sharing, new forms of collaborative creativity, new forms of practice that not just blur, but render obsolete the old professional/amateur distinctions. Makers are as much concerned with facilitating and supporting the creativity of others, as they are with developing their own. Indeed many define their creative output in terms of facilitation. Increasingly, makers are crafting new opportunities for the creative empowerment and expression of others. The maker spaces and other projects hosting Make:Shift:Do events are evidence of this – as indeed is the Global Sustainability Jam that opened worldwide on the final day of Make:Shift.

A new industrial revolution?

At least a couple of the speakers took issue with some of the more fashionable ideas being expressed currently. Raymond Oliver claimed “I do not believe in wearable technology”. Others rejected 3D printing as overhyped. And while Chris Anderson’s book Makers was cited by two speakers, there was some questioning whether his notion of a new industrial revolution was valid. Revolutions are not made by technology or tools – revolutions are made by people and their aspirations for change and new values.

Ours is not a time of revolution – industrial or otherwise. But is is perhaps a time of an accelerating shift in craft’s relevance and role, and an associated shift in the role of the maker. We are on a new frontier, and therefore we need cowgirls and boys, who can explore and define new creative territories. The qualities they need above all else are empathy, a confidence in collaboration, a curatorial spirit and a willingness to constantly shift from the new frontier to the farm and back again. And perhaps above all, the frontier spirit demands a fair bit of courage.











Why learning through making matters


The poppy installation at the Tower of London seems to have moved all who have seen it, capturing the immensity of the human cost of needless war. Certainly it triggered debate, which is always a positive thing.

The irony is that in the week this installation by ceramicist Paul Cummins captured the public imagination, so a campaign was launched to save yet another ceramic course threatened with closure – this time in Falmouth. Throughout the UK ceramics courses have been steadily axed over recent years. Apparently there is no longer any value in learning how to craft beauty and meaning, insight and inspiration from clay. However, the hundreds of thousands of people who have visited the Tower of London in recent weeks may have a slightly different idea.

Paul Cummins learned his craft at the University of Derby, where ceramics is still taught. If we value learning through making, if we value the unique objects and art works that only a mastery of ceramics gives us, if we value the imagination and power evident in the Blood-Swept Lands and Seas of Red installation at the Tower of London, and the sense of wonder experienced by all those who have seen this remarkable artwork, then surely we must defend the teaching of ceramic art and design.

Ceramics runs deep with us. It runs in our veins. Some of the earliest human made objects are ceramic, such as the 30,000 year old Venus figurine discovered in Moravia. The invention of the potter’s wheel in what is now Iraq around 6,000 years ago revolutionised the production of vessels and led directly to the establishment of cities. Then there is Josiah Wedgwood: a potter who invented the factory system, industrial design, the principles of modern marketing and laid the ground for the industrial revolution. Oh yes, he also helped abolish slavery and provided the money for Charles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle. Artistic expression, the birth of cities, innovation, revolutionary change, social responsibility and evolutionary theory. Pottery. What’s not to like?

The craft of ceramics may play a vital role in our history, and can be used to remind us powerfully of recent historical events. But it is not consigned to history. Ceramic design is very much a practice of today – and it is vital for our future. At Falmouth, where the ceramics course is under threat, ceramic design researchers have been leading the internationally recognised Autonomatic Research Group, fusing craft and digital practices in highly relevant and innovative projects in partnership with programmers, cultural geographers, bio-scientists, journalists, social scientists, technology developers, museum curators, and artists. And of course they are doing this in Cornwall, a region where there is huge value in exploring new applications for making and craft.

If you’re still not convinced that an education based on making stuff has any value then perhaps you could imagine living without your phone. As Apple’s head of design, Sir Jonathan Ive pioneered the smartphone and the tablet, and provided the design expertise to make Apple the most highly valued company on Earth. This week he said “So many of the designers that we interview don’t know how to make stuff, because workshops in design schools are expensive and computers are cheaper. That’s just tragic, that you can spend four years of your life studying the design of three dimensional objects and not make one.”

Yes, it is tragic that those who are responsible for design education appear to have no idea of the educational, cultural and economic value of a learning that is based on making. But in most cases those responsible do not actually work in design education. It is part of their “wider brief” as senior managers in higher education who are given an art school alongside a clutch of other related (and usually less related) disciplines. In my experience, these “here today, gone tomorrow” managers have much in common with cabinet ministers who have responsibility for education: they have no passion, no interest and above all, no knowledge of their brief. But – and this is the real tragedy – they are making decisions that future generations will have to live with.

This week the UK Education Secretary Nicky Morgan spoke out unambiguously about the value of the arts and humanities: “If you wanted to do something different, or even if you didn’t know what you wanted to do…then the arts and humanities were what you chose. Because they were useful – we were told ­– for all kinds of jobs. Of course now we know that couldn’t be further from the truth, that the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects.” In choosing the arts, she asserted, pupils are making choices that “will hold them back for the rest of their lives”. There is a poverty of knowledge and imagination behind these comments that is hugely dispiriting.

It is dispiriting because there is naturally the assumption that learning based on the arts – and making in particular – is somehow a bit dumb, and thus is something pursued by thick people. I don’t agree with this.

Craft is the one true alchemy. It is through craft  – through learning based on making – that quality is found in the crudest of materials. From mud is created ceramic, from sand is created glassware, from ores comes metalwork and jewellery and from a sheep’s back comes woven textiles. It is through craft that pigments from the earth were discovered to have qualities of colour which could be applied as paint – to paint the sky. Craft is the process which takes the earth and paints the sky with it.

Learning through making fuses science and art, technology and culture. It defines our humanity and our values, it provides future visions and possibilities. It captures imagination.

It must not be lost.

Sign this petition.






Useful work: the changing landscape of entrepreneurship



“Here, you see, are two kinds of work – one good, the other bad; one not far removed from a blessing, a lightening of life; the other a mere curse, a burden to life. What is the difference between them, then? This: one has hope in it, the other has not. It is manly to do the one kind of work, and manly also to refuse to do the other.”

William Morris, Useful Work vs Useless Toil, 1884


Bill was right all along. The alienated useless toil necessitated by capitalism would eventually give way to more constructive, satisfying and useful work. It would take a great deal longer than he expected and involve far less chintz, but the landscape of work would – in the early twenty first century – begin to shift towards sustainable autonomous production involving considerable numbers of people. Perhaps not as part of the socialist utopia predicted by him, Marx and others – but more as a means by which people in advanced industrial economies could gain flexibility and satisfaction, while coping with the erosion of the welfare state.

There are some profound shifts taking place in the landscape of entrepreneurship in the UK which educators and policy makers need to catch up on. Despite record numbers of new business start ups in Scotland, political debate has yet to seriously address issues that concern entrepreneurs or indeed the wider cultural and economic questions of entrepreneurship. This is regrettable because the latest research is providing some rich insights into why people go into business, what meaning it provides for them, and how working and creative practices are being transformed.

A recent report on microenterprise provides some fascinating insights: the RSA/Populus survey Salvation in a start-up? The origins and nature of the self-employment boom, produced in partnership with Etsy and authored by Benedict Dellot. Below I will pull out some themes from this report, link them to other recent research and identify some implications.

A cultural shift

Since the onset of the recession in 2008 we now have 600,000 more micro enterprises (firms with less than 10 employees) in the UK. Today, one in seven of the workforce are working for themselves, and this trend is clearly climbing. Just over the last year we have seen a 9% growth in new business in Scotland, and over the last five years the business start up rate for Scotland has been one of the highest in the UK. According to Entrepreneurial Spark founder Jim Duffy “Coming out of a recession, a new industrial revolution is starting in Scotland. So many people, who didn’t think they were capable of turning their hand to entrepreneurship, are now doing it.”

That much is certainly true. But they are not doing it because of the recession. They seem to be doing it because they want to: it is (to coin a perhaps overused phrase) a lifestyle choice. The RSA survey suggests that only 27% of startups had anything to do with escaping unemployment, and self-employment had in any case been on a steady climb all through the years of the economic boom. This is supported by other recent research including a survey conducted by Ipsos MORI for the Resolution Foundation, confirming that 73% of those who became self-employed since the recession “did so wholly or partly due to their personal preference for this way of working, and not solely due to a lack of better work alternatives”. While the RSA report argues for evidence of structural social and economic change to account for this, I would suggest that there is a more deeper seated cultural shift that is behind the new ‘start up tribes’.

 The new tribes of enterprise

The report identifies six tribes of self-employment, each of which describes very diverse characteristics and motivations of entrepreneurship – shown in the figure below. Only 33% fall into categories that we associate with conventional business culture – driven by profit, a focussed sense of purpose and desire for growth. Virtually all business policy is predicated on the assumption that startups have the ambition to grow and take on employees. The reality – revealed by this research – is that most don’t. Indeed, very few self-employed people who have started up in the last 5 years have taken on employees. There has also been a notable rise in part-time self-employment, suggesting that this can co-exist with part-time paid employment and other activities. Nearly half the rise in self-employment since 2000 is accounted for by part-timers, or nano businesses, as the report refers to them.


Poorer but happy

Many of those in the RSA survey see work as inherently enjoyable (in contrast to much of society) and 85% say “they are now more creative, autonomous and satisfied in their work” with key advantages being flexibility to deal with their own health and the welfare of family. In other words, autonomy, flexibility and happiness appear to be the qualities of self-employment that are most valued. On the downside, they are earning less money. As the report argues:

“Life for the self-employed presents a paradox: they appear to earn less, work harder and be more isolated, yet in the round are some of the happiest people. The reason seems to be because their work offers greater autonomy, a source of meaning and – perhaps surprisingly – a greater sense of security. All of which suggests that the draw of self-employment lies in what the Swiss economists Benz and Frey term ‘procedural utility’. In other words, people who work for themselves gain more from the way something is done rather than the final outcome of that activity – namely money.”

I would suggest that there is a genuine movement towards creating a culture of useful work and autonomous welfare. The two massive failures of the modern age are the alienation and inflexibilities created by work and the shortcomings of our welfare state, especially in terms of childcare and inadequate pensions. Much of the shift towards self-employment would appear to be driven by an impulse to create meaningful, flexible work rather than profit. This is not to deny the vital importance of the visionaries and the classicals to local and indeed national economic growth, but their needs and significance have to balanced by the very different needs (and contribution) of the remaining two thirds of the self-employed. I will briefly look at three issues below and pull in some additional evidence.

Self employment is about thinking.

The biggest increases in self-employment since 2008 have actually been in professional occupations. 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.” This would suggest that self-employment is driven by a very basic human need: to use your brain creatively and fully.

Self-employment is family friendly.

The successive failures of UK and Scottish governments to provide adequate and affordable childcare – in contrast to many other European countries – is providing one major motivation for self-employment. One recent survey showed that 65% of mothers with children under ten years of age are considering starting a business from home in the next three years, and 49% “believe that they would be financially better off if they started a business from home”. The rise of the ‘mumpreneur’ (a contentious term), of whom there are estimated to be 300,000, is part of a shift in self-employment away from its historical tendency to be male dominated. Indeed, over the last two years the number of female entrepreneurs has increased by 9.6% in contrast to a 3.3% rise for men.

Make a job – don’t take a pension.

The self-employed are getting older. Those aged 55–64 has risen by 40% since 2000, while the over-65s in self-employment have increased by 140%. The over 55s are now a significant start up demographic and we could perhaps see this group as shifting towards self-employment as a means of dealing with the pensions crisis that is otherwise undermining security into old age. This view is supported by the Resolution Foundation in their separate survey and report:

“28 per cent of the overall growth in self-employment is due to a decline in the rate at which people leave self-employment. Our view is that this is partly explained by the UK’s expanding and ageing workforce. The raising of the retirement age, longer life expectancy and low levels of pension saving may have led to people remaining in employment for longer, and because self- employed people tend to be older than employees, this disproportionately affects this group. Self-employment might be growing as an alternative or complement to retirement, rather than as an alternative to being an employee.”

A policy vacuum

The evidence suggests that this diverse and varied landscape of enterprise is simply not recognised as such by the state, and those public bodies there to support the self-employed. At least that is the view of those surveyed in the RSA report who “still largely feel as though they are overlooked by the state”. More significantly “the vast majority believe the Conservatives have the best policies for their business”. Worryingly, there is also widespread support for a cap on immigration. The Conservatives certainly have more policies and a clear ideological commitment to enterprise and self-employment. The left and the labour movement appears held back by long-established animosity. While the RSA report points out that the most obvious bodies to help provide the collective benefits and support needed by the self-employed are the trade unions, this is unlikely to happen any time soon as the unions “have been one of the most vocal in disapproving of the rise in self-employment, with the Trades Union Congress recently expressing its concern that this type of work is inherently insecure”. 

So perhaps in an independent Scotland the self-employed could be the driving force of a new economy, autonomy and community focused wealth generation and support? Best not hold our breath. In all of its 604 pages, the weighty tome that is Scotland’s Future : Your Guide to an Independent Scotland contains only one reference to the self-employed.

What is clearly needed are conversations to help set a new agenda to support the forms of self-employment that are reshaping work, enterprise and welfare. These conversations should seek to focus around the question of how the UK’s micro enterprises can be taken seriously and influence policy makers. A critical objective should also be to create a vision of how a world centred on useful work could develop and thrive.