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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Learning from Vanilla Ink

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So Vanilla Ink – the unique Dundee based jewellery start-up incubator and general creative powerhouse – is to shut up shop in the city; for a while at least. Kate Pickering has driven forward Vanilla Ink from an initial hazy notion of what she would have liked to have seen supporting her when she graduated as a jeweller a decade ago, through to being the creative exemplar cited in just about every talk and article about Dundee’s creative economy. Well, in mine anyway.

For Dundee this is an important moment – perhaps more important than we recognise, given the significance of design to the regional economy and to the future that we are seeking to create for ourselves. Personally it’s significant, in that I have worked with Kate in a very modest way over the last few years to support her in building her vision. Some reflection is therefore in order about what we can learn from the Vanilla Ink achievement, where it leaves us, and – most importantly – how we build on the incredible legacy that Kate has provided us with.

What, then, has Vanilla Ink taught us? It would be easy to say that it all rests on the remarkable Ms Pickering of whom I am hugely proud. But as an educator I believe that individuals who do remarkable things stand as an inspiration to us all, and as such help us all to raise our game.

It’s about vision

Right from the start, Kate had a clear vision about what she wanted to create – a workshop space to enable jewellery graduates to develop their businesses, supported by mentors and a structured programme of support that would help them to develop the skills, confidence and knowledge to succeed in the future. That was it. Hers was a vision propelled by the passion she has for jewellery, for the city she had chosen to call her home – and most importantly for people.

It’s about people

It was a vision about how people could work together, support each other and make their own visions real. This has echoes of the idea of the “social expert” – in which craft expertise (or indeed any expertise) is indivisible from social interaction, from mentoring and co-operation. This is in contrast to the idea of the “antisocial expert” who is competitive and selfish with their knowledge. Kate exemplifies the qualities of the social expert, and has created a project centred around the sharing of skill, confidence and creative entrepreneurship. I believe that a sustainable and convivial future is dependent on people who are passionate and caring about other people.

Telling the story

Visions do not become concrete unless they are shared – and to do that their story has to be told. Right at the very start, Kate told that story a little uncertainly, a little falteringly. But the more she told it, the more her confidence came, and the more vivid became the telling. The vision was just the start – it was the story, the narrative, the placing of this idea within her own experience and expertise that made this project a viable proposition. In November 2011 she was one of those invited to speak at Dundee’s first ever Pecha Kucha. Watch her presentation below:

Build alliances

Innovative places require innovative communities, and building communities is the most vital activity, without which change simply does not happen. Again, this is part and parcel of being a social expert, and Gillian Easson’s success in building the Creative Dundee community is evidence of this. Kate was a pioneer (to my mind anyway) in using social media as a means of building a real community around Vanilla Ink, and connecting with others, such as Jane Gowans and Hayley Scanlan, to demonstrate a vibrant community of creative women entrepreneurs in Dundee. Her use of Kickstarter for the first Vanilla Ink cohort was a brilliant demonstration of what crowdfunding could do to generate support, community and finances to raise the ambitions and profile of the group. Indeed, Vanilla Ink was one of the first UK Kickstarter campaigns. Kickstarter was a means by which the City could get behind Vanilla Ink and show its collective support.

Creative leadership

“Mike, I’m going to initiate and organise the first ever Scottish jewellery week. What do you think?”  I thought she was possibly a bit unhinged, and if it went wrong, then it would go spectacularly wrong, but when you are a proven and respected creative leader then that’s not really on the agenda. Creative leadership means forever looking outward, not inward, looking for new opportunities, creating a focus for your ideas, and bringing people along to share in what you create. From initiating Vanilla Ink, then a creative festival to celebrate jewellery was the logical next step. Creative leadership is also about being unpopular when that is necessary, it’s about facing up to setbacks and having the confidence to move on. It is about being brave. These are qualities that she has developed, and that the emerging generation of new change makers can learn from.

Knowing when to quit

There’s a real art to quitting. And indeed a science. I teach my students “the meaning of life” at then end of one of my lectures (no honestly, I really do), and this is in part about knowing when to quit – or rather about knowing when to reinvent. As the inspirational Charles Handy says “The world keeps changing. It is one of the paradoxes of success that the things and the ways which got you where you are, are seldom those that keep you there.” I have no doubt that Vanilla Ink could have just carried on in the same way, but the world does keep changing, the challenges shift, and new opportunities arise. This is linked to creative leadership, having an outward focus that constantly scans for new ways of developing and implementing vision.

 

Some lessons for Dundee…. be cool

Finally, a few lessons for Dundee. The creative industries are great. They can be transformative to regional economies and to the profile of a post-industrial city such as Dundee. They bring the allure of awards and celebrations, which of course cities love. But they have two other qualities: they are VERY fragile, and VERY mobile.

We are at a significant moment in our city’s development, which is overlain by some equally significant shifts in employment nationally and internationally. Scotland has a much improved rate of new business start-ups, but we have yet to see the kind of support for new businesses and for the self-employed that the RSA, NESTA and other organisations have been saying we need to see, and which I have been writing about for some time. It is time that the city and the country took the needs of our fragile but vital creative industries more seriously. This is not about asking for hand-outs or subsidy – rather the infrastructure, business support and mentoring that our Millennial-driven start-ups need.

Kate exemplifies Richard Florida’s idea of the creative class – these are the creative knowledge workers in fields as diverse as engineering, the theatre, life sciences, education and business start-ups that all economies demand to retain their dynamism. As Richard Florida says “In the future, they will determine how the workplace is organized, what companies will prosper or go bankrupt, and even which cities will thrive or wither.” One key characteristic of the creative class is that it is highly mobile, lacking the traditional bonds and loyalties that formerly bound people to place.

When he was Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg wrote this in the Financial Times: “I have long believed that talent attracts capital far more effectively and consistently than capital attracts talent. The most creative individuals want to live in places that protect personal freedoms, prize diversity and offer an abundance of cultural opportunities. A city that wants to attract creators must offer a fertile breeding ground for new ideas and innovations…. Economists may not say it this way but the truth of the matter is: being cool counts.”

In Dundee we have made considerable progress, but we still have a fair way to go. I have yet to be convinced that the City truly understands the cultural dimensions of economic development, or indeed the needs of our fragile start-ups.

However, my belief is that by learning the lessons from initiatives such as Vanilla Ink, and strengthening the creative communities of Dundee, then we will continue to make progress. Vanilla Ink 2 Dundee will open up, and will take Kate’s vision into new territories. For this to happen we need new energies and ideas to join with hers. She showed us what was possible. Now let us build on that further and really put creativity to work in Dundee!

 

Useful work: the changing landscape of entrepreneurship

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“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.

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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. 

 

Don’t bully designers

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Design requires courage: personal and professional, and perhaps we should tell this to our students a little more. As educators we tend to emphasise just one side of its dualistic nature by highlighting the successes, the award winning achievements and plaudits of commentators and critics. The annual New Designers event in London that I recently attended is a well established celebration of this culture of success. The other side of design requires a slightly thicker skin.

Headlines throughout the world yesterday and today have focused on the Team Scotland parade uniforms for the Commonwealth Games designed by Jilli Blackwood, and not in a good way.

  • “Couldn’t they just go back to blowing up blocks of flats?” asks Stephen Daisley of STV News: “First Glasgow 2014 proposed an uplifting opening ceremony in which the Red Road flats would be blown to smithereens; now Commonwealth Games Scotland wants to kit out our athletes in apparel so gaudy it would make Dame Edna Everage blanch.”
  • “If you thought Australia’s Commonwealth Games uniform was bad, it isn’t a stitch on the host country’s horror design” is the view of Fox Sport in Australia. “Scotland’s athletes will attend the opening ceremony in outfits that appear to have been inspired by doctors’ scrubs and picnic rugs.”
  • “Team Scotland’s got the blues” says Christina Miller at the Huffington Post, arguing that the designer’s skills perhaps don’t lie in the realm of fashion: “The expanse of turquoise fights for attention against the busy tartan that seems to have been draped here, there and everywhere, while the stone bag punctuates what is, quite frankly, a visual disaster. When describing her work, the Jilli Blackwood website says, “… blurs the boundaries between ‘Fashion and Art’ and ‘Art and Craft'” suggesting that yes, Jilli Blackwood might be a successful textile artist, but perhaps her forte is with interiors and art.”
  • “Costume is not for faint hearts”, asserts an editorial in the Herald: “The designer of the Scottish Commonwealth Games uniform has succeeded in putting Scotland on the fashion map – a 19th century fashion map. ‘There will be no mistaking that this is the Scottish team,” says designer Jilli Blackwood. Unfortunately, she is correct. Brigadoon meets Laura Ashley appears to be the theme and shouts from the rooftops that every Hollywood film travesty of Scottish dress is true. The only missing touch is blue-daubed faces a la Braveheart.”
  • “P45 for the “designer. That is just a shocking combination, total embarrassment” is one of the quotes used on the Sky Sports website, followed by “What a shame for the athletes who have worked so hard to get to the Commonwealth Games for a designer to put them in this!!”
  • “It’s the uniform that everyone’s taking about. It’s the kit for the Instagram WTF generation.” The Guardian really doesn’t hold back: “It’s Pixar’s Brave meets Alexander McQueen’s Highland Rape. It’s the gift that keeps on giving – the more you stare, the more you see. You can probably still see it when you close your eyes. Yes, Scotland’s Commonwealth Games uniforms have made quite the impression on the Guardian fashion desk. That’s before we get started on designer Jilli Blackwood’s getup.”

These are just a sample of the many news items currently running on this story. Perhaps we should not be surprised that the media is treating this story in a trivial personalised way, as that is how it treats much of design, especially fashion. A particular approach in much of this coverage (and I’ve excluded some of the nastier stuff) is to rubbish the designer herself through questioning her expertise, her taste and overall professional approach. Mind you, treatment of Jilli Blackwood is relatively mild compared with how Australians have responded to the design of their Commonwealth Games swimsuits.

For any student designer reading this, how would you feel if you and your work was discussed in this way? How would you feel late at night after an evening of reading this kind of stuff about you? Do you think it’s fair? Do you think it’s right? Is there a better, more intelligent and more sensitive way of commenting on another person’s creative labours?

I have found no commentary which seeks to understand or inform readers about the design brief, the strategic design objectives of the commissioning body, the negotiated process of design that surely took place, the constraints put in place, or indeed anything about design itself. No, all we have are cheap barbs about the designer. There is simply no attempt in any of this so-called ‘journalism’ to explain ‘the facts’ of design.

Jilli Blackwood is by no means the first designer to be treated in such a bullying, shabby and ill informed way. “A puerile mess, an artistic flop and a commercial scandal” yelled Stephen Bayley in The Daily Telegraph in 2007. He was venting his spleen on this particular occasion on the design of the logo for the London 2012 Olympics. Designed by Wolff Olins, public reaction to the logo at the time of its launch was almost universally negative, so Bayley was very much running with the mob. But the key point here is that the mob was wrong. The logo was a central design feature in the branding of the games which history has shown to be the most successfully branded Olympic Games of all time. The logo’s flexibility, its very concept, provided a consistent visual focus and identity for the games. It worked.

The whole point of design is that in creating something new, it is an act of courage. Sometimes the process of design gets it right, and sometimes wrong. And very often you have to wait a fair time to figure out which it is. Some design is wholly the work of “a designer” or a design team. Some design involves no designers at all. Most design is a rich and dynamic negotiated process in which “the designer” needs every last atom of her or his courage to negotiate the trade-offs and compromises that are part and parcel of design.

What designers don’t need – what they really don’t need – are smart arses who should know better sniping from the sidelines, especially from fellow ‘creatives’. I am sure Jilli Blackwood is like every other professional designer I know, a person who constantly and critically appraises what she does, simply with the objective of doing it even better next time. The design community can either join the mob and weigh in with their pitch forked personalised ‘criticism’ or create a culture of ‘critical friendship’ which is in evidence in professions such as architecture. Bullying designers through global media is not a way to go.

 

Riders on the storm: navigators of new enterprise communities

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This Tuesday evening I was invited to be one of four Ideas Experts at the showcase event of Nightriders in Glasgow. Initiated and hosted by Snook, Nightriders is a mentoring and support programme for emergent entrepreneurs “designed to help people see in the dark and navigate their way through Scotland’s enterprise support landscape”. It was an inspiring and uplifting evening, and there is a Storify which captures the spirit of the evening and the reactions of those who attended.

It should be easy to navigate your way from a sound idea to a viable sustainable business. But the reality is that it is far from easy. In Scotland there are around four hundred bodies and programmes set up to support new enterprise. Nightriders has been established to help those who have a business idea, but don’t know where to start. And it draws directly on the experience of the Snook founders who had find their own way through the tangle of advice and support to establish one of Scotland’s leading Service Design companies.

Nightriders is a novel approach to enterprise support that harnesses the power of networks, design thinking and business skills. It is not seeking to replace existing programmes or support structures, but rather “we are focusing on building confident communities who will take their ideas to the next level on their own or with these existing organisations”. That’s all well and good and reads like good copy – but when one of the Nightriders said ‘This is the most confident I’ve ever felt’, and you could sense she was speaking for them all, then it’s a claim worth taking seriously.

Scotland is currently enjoying something of an enterprise revolution, with a remarkable turnaround in entrepreneurship in the last few years. Scotland wasn’t just a poor performer in terms on new business startups in the UK – but in Europe generally. But things have changed. Between 2012 and 2013 there was a 19% increase in new business registrations, and the current total of 340,000 businesses operating in Scotland is the highest since records began. Indeed I have celebrated the achievements of some of Dundee’s creative entrepreneurs in another post on this blog.

Interestingly, we have entrepreneurship going full throttle in two different age groups. Gen Y wants to control its own destiny, and sees start up culture as the indy alternative. This is an enterprise culture that is well analysed and discussed. But far less attention is paid to the enterprising Boomers. The baby boomer generation accounts for over 1.8 million people in Scotland – but 40% of them have yet to save for their retirement. With the corporate and public sectors trying to shed these older more expensive employees, there may well be over one million people financially unprepared for their retirement. Increasingly, we will see baby boomers, retiring into work. For both of these age groups entrepreneurship is driven by both individual and social motivations. From the evidence of this week, Nightriders is meeting the needs of these diverse new enterprise communities.

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Nightriders works by linking business skills together with design thinking, all underpinned by the power of networking. In doing this, it provides a highly refreshing contrast to many business start up programmes that focus purely on business skills for an individual entrepreneur. What was remarkable in Tuesday was witnessing the fearless approach of the Nightriders, presenting ambitious but well thought through proposals.

Too many businesses are simply not designed. They may be planned. They may just happen. But the priority must be to apply the thinking, ideas, methods and tools that we all use every day – those from design and networking – to helping create sustainable enterprise.

There is a considerable challenge we face – particularly in the so-called creative sector. 75% of visual artists in Scotland earn less than £5,000 per year. There are indeed many reasons for this, not surprisingly the over-supply of artists in the first place. But on the evidence of this survey reported on this week in The Scotsman, the vast majority of those working in Scotland’s creative industries do so as hobbyists rather than sustainable entrepreneurs. With the right kind of support, that could fundamentally change. Nightriders represents a new model of support that meets the needs of Scotland’s new enterprise communities.

Scotland’s enterprise culture – no longer desperate

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Scotland has a poor record when it comes to business start ups. Our entrepreneurial culture lags behind most other industrial countries, and compares far less favourably with the rest of the UK. But since 2011 something has begun to change. Our start-up rate has improved, pushing us closer to the average for northern Europe. According to research reported on in The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, published in June 2013, “the country now has a higher start-up rate than the ‘Arc of Prosperity’ smaller countries of northern Europe, which had been seen as a target for Scotland to emulate.”

Amongst young people – and graduates in particular – there has been a dramatic improvement. Indeed, most of the new start-up activity can be accounted for by graduates. Significantly, 10% of new start-ups are launched by people from outside the UK – further emphasising the long-standing value of immigrant communities to enterprise in the UK.

All this is indeed positive news, but there remain problems and trends that need to be understood and dealt with urgently. For a country contemplating political independence, Scotland must make considerably more progress in entrepreneurial terms. If it fails to do so, then while its government would belong to the Scots, its economic destiny would be determined by those well outside of its borders.

Scottish start-ups: a youth movement

The role of Scotland’s graduates in accounting for most new start-up activity is encouraging. Clearly, given labour market conditions, many graduates are realising that in recessionary Britain then you make a job, not take a job. In other words, starting up in business isn’t simply an option. It may be the only option. But it’s not a particularly difficult option. In our world of Kickstarter, social media, flexible production systems, Amazon, Etsy and the like, then it has never been easier to finance, promote, produce and distribute. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review – Economies of Unscale: Why Business Has Never Been Easier for the Little Guy – makes this very case: “in a world with economies of unscale, we are empowered to take advantage of an extensive array of new, amazing services to build sustainable companies.”

The only downside in this is that, as the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor observes, once the goal of self-employment has been successfully achieved, there is often little aspiration to grow the business or employ other people. Today’s enterprise culture is more about pursuing the values of personal and professional autonomy than wealth creation and growth. It is a distinctly un-Tory approach to enterprise.

The other problem is that institutionally and politically, Scotland has not seen the development of an enterprise-friendly economy and culture as a particular priority. So, while start-ups may emerge in Scotland, to thrive they increasingly have to head south. Professor Jonathan Levie of the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship at the University of Strathclyde has data showing that as many as 40,000 early-stage Scottish entrepreneurs have moved to England. While Scotland’s start-up rate lags behind the rest of the UK, allowing so many of its emergent entrepreneurs to move to England, suggests a wholesale policy vacuum in Scotland’s business support infrastructure. 

This vacuum is gradually being filled as Scotland’s Universities have begun to recognise that their emphasis on employability must be complemented by a focus on enterprise. This has led to new incubators and other welcome initiatives to support the enterprise of their graduates. Universities Scotland, the umbrella organisation representing the sector, recently published a report suggesting we look west for inspiration. It highlights Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), whose enterprising alumni have created 25,800 companies employing 3.3 million people and turning over $3 trillion. MIT’s success is as much about entrepreneurship as it is about world-class research, and despite ambitious words, the former remains a weakness in Scotland’s educational culture. As one recent commentary observed, the real issue is much more fundamental than knowledge transfer mechanisms: “How can Scotland’s education system be made more entrepreneurial? The issue most commonly identified is the way that schools, colleges and universities approach failure.” 

It is indeed. Most of our educational culture only recognises and encourages success. It is risk averse. 

Learn from Scotland’s makers

If Scotland really wants to accelerate entrepreneurialism then the solution is clear – look to its thriving craft economy, and learn its lessons. Scotland’s makers are doing it for themselves; they are fearlessly crafting a new economy. And most of them are doing this because they have been educated in a culture that encourages risk and does not penalise failure: the culture of Scottish art schools.

Across Scotland there are some excellent examples of enterprising design, craft and other creative practices: an entrepreneurial strength upon which Scotland’s future must be built. They may be small-scale, and emergent, they may operate on tight margins and face challenges of growth – but they are giving form to a new entrepreneurial spirit, providing inspiration to those following them, and breathing a new cultural vitality into our towns and cities. They are demonstrating that there’s more to visiting Scotland than seeing the landscape and visiting the Edinburgh Festival; there is a sparky, proud and uniquely creative culture that now infuses our once down at heel urban spaces.

Dundee is not just a microcosm of this but, I would argue, is at the heart of a new Scotland in the making.

Every year the Professional Jeweller magazine reveals their Top 100 world jewellers – these are the people changing the face of jewellery, creating its look, defining its spirit. And this year two of the Top 100 were from Dundee, both relatively recent graduates of DJCAD. Jane Gowans has developed an enviable world reputation as jeweller to the stars, providing the jewellery of choice for Emile Sande and others. Harvey Nichols provided Jane with her own pop-up shop at their flagship store, demonstrating how craft-based makers can supply successfully to retailers who operate on the world stage. She has every intention of retaining her studio and home in Tayside while she increasingly supplies to a world market.

Kate Pickering is the second Dundee based Top 100 jeweller, not that she’s best known for her jewellery. Kate has created the Vanilla Ink jewellery incubator that each year supports and mentors 10 recent graduates to establish their businesses. This is a unique enterprise that has attracted not just attention from around the world, but now has jewellers applying to work at Vanilla Ink from throughout the UK and overseas. Kate has made Dundee a highly attractive location to establish your jewellery business. The whole ethos she has encouraged is refreshingly ambitious and exploits to the full the new business support tools of our time. The Inkers couldn’t afford the £6K to hire a stand at their industry’s top Earl’s Court trade fair. But as one of Scotland’s first Kickstarter campaigns, they raised the funds in two months and succeeded in building a local support network that will help propel the next batch of Inkers into their chosen career.

Vanilla Ink isn’t just an incubator: it’s a social network in itself, digitally connected, and innovative. It is a designed business. Universities take note: if you want to establish a ground breaking incubator, forget MIT, just go visit Kate Pickering and she’ll show you how it’s done. And spend what you save on the plane fare on some stunning jewellery.

Working in the same building as Vanilla Ink is the woman who won Young Designer of the Year at the 2012 Scottish Fashion Awards. Hayley Scanlan was recently selected to be the sole UK designer to feature in Topshop’s flagship Oxford Street store. With clients who include Jessie J, Hayley has shown how Dundee is also reinventing itself as the place that the stars come for couture. Who would have predicted that, eh?

But there’s part of Hayley’s story that makes her more than an inspiration for just aspiring fashion designers. As the single mum of two young twins, she has responsibilities that the old models of entrepreneurship like Alan Sugar and Richard Branson simply didn’t have. As she told The Scotsman “You just do it,” she says, shrugging. “I want to do the best I can and no one else will do it; it has to be me. It’s hard sometimes, but I just get on with it. I’m happy, even though I’m on my own. They go to a child minder who is absolutely brilliant; I totally trust her. I do miss them sometimes, but everyone has to work.”

Cities need communities, and today more than ever they need creative communities. Such communities provide collective inspiration, they help each other’s Kickstarter campaigns, they celebrate each other’s successes. And – most critically – they help people through the failures, the set backs and the disappointments. Business start ups are not created and sustained and mentored by the market. No, it is the community that does all that. Gillian Easson should know. She and her partner and collaborator Lyall Bruce have been behind some of the key initiatives that have helped forge a real sense of a creative community in the city.

The Creative Dundee network, the Pecha Kucha nights, the mid week meets, these and other initiatives have helped give form and reality to Dundee’s creative community. From my perspective, they provide art and design students with positive reasons to stay in the city. Because Dundee is a place where you make things. Like a creative community for a new city. Gillian was a key member of the NESTA team based in Dundee. But she’s now given that up and gone freelance. She has taken a risk. That’s what folk do in Dundee.

Dundee’s entrepreneurship is different. It’s not just about making a viable business – it’s critically about making vibrant go-ahead cities that enterprising people want to live in. It is not about making money. It’s about creating autonomous meaningful work, new ways of living and supportive communities that sustain this.

Oh and something else about all the examples I’ve given.

They are all women.

Historically, Dundee was built on the social initiative and enterprise of women. It would appear that 21st century Dundee is following in this proud and unique tradition.

The Jam Experience

GSJ_dundee_logo-1

We had 48 hours to change the world. Seventy people in Dundee divided into seven project teams, working to a design brief set by the Global Service Jam. And from Kampala to Kathmandu, Beirut to Bogota, Los Angeles to Loughborough, Stockholm to Sydney, there were 2952 people in 122 cities jamming through the weekend to produce 500 projects. It was a remarkable experience that engaged and excited everyone involved.

The Dundee Jam was the 8th best attended in the world, with only two attendees fewer than the UK’s largest jam in London. This was a significant achievement, indicating the interest and passion in service design that has been developed in Dundee. It is also a consequence of having a highly committed and effective organising team.

I’m not sure we changed the world, but we changed something about ourselves, and that is what I will try to explore in this reflection on the Global Service Jam Dundee. The value of the Jam lies not in the outcomes, interesting and inventive though they are, but much more about the experience created and how it challenges and changes our preferred ways of working. And I say this as one of the organisers rather than a participant, but even in that capacity it changed me.

1. It’s about learning

Adam St John Lawrence makes the point that “It’s about learning by doing – and this does not only mean learning skills. I might learn more about how I work, who I work best with, who I might be friends with.” And it is. A jam is an intense learning activity. What you learn from it depends on how open and flexible you are prepared to be, and how far beyond your comfort zone you are prepared to step.

Some jams appeared to shoehorn in keynote speakers, reading lists and expose participants to a range of design tools and methods. We chose not to do this. The five talks we had at various points were each around 10 minutes long, and the methods and tools were very loosely defined. So the emphasis is on inspiration and encouragement, and participants learning from each other.

2. Leave status outside

We are all learners and teachers, and what we have to offer each other is equally valued. Despite doing this within a University, we succeeded largely to reject hierarchy and encourage team working that embraced diverse experience. We had highly experienced public sector professionals working alongside undergraduate design students – and learning from each other. We had marketing executives sharing ideas equally with sociology postgraduates. That ethos was also in the organising group, and is essential for the process to work. Indeed it was personally liberating and refreshing to work in equal partnership with my own students. I rather think that this is how Design Schools were meant to be.

Partnership underpins the whole idea. While Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee supported the venture by providing facilities and technical support, they fully agreed for the Jam to have its own autonomous identity. The Master of Design for Services course supported us with materials and expertise. We were also hugely fortunate in having Taylor Haig as our main sponsor. Their financial support was crucial for success, but the company’s senior partners also attended the Jam, became honorary Jam Doctors, and helped sustain energy and enthusiasm throughout. Partnership and commitment infused all aspects of the jam.

3. Doing not talking

doing

This is the Jam Mantra. Mind you, from the noise generated you wouldn’t really have known. But having spent considerable time in a past life trying to change the world politically through the time-worn method of sitting around tables or in meeting halls talking and getting nowhere, this was a highly productive contrast. Being practice-centred brings to the process all the advantages of practice-centredness generally, as in research. It also enabled teams to play with ideas, propositions and approaches in a flexible, responsive way. The physical crafting of problems and strategies, and in particular its use as a storytelling device to engage the public and the jam community, demonstrates a further characteristic of the jam….

4. Jamming is connecting

skyping

Farrah Berrou was the blogger for the Beirut Service Jam. In her blog she wrote “Highlight of the Event: Skype call with fellow Jammers in Dundee, Scotland”. To be honest, it was our highlight too (although I really regret not actually talking to them myself). During the course of the Jam we skyped with Los Angeles, New York, Stockholm, Mumbai, Auburn Alabama and Melbourne. To begin with we did this from a large TV in the studio. This was fine and helped largely to enable some good conversations between organisers, but it set limits on engaging our participants. So the ever resourceful Ross Crawford (holding the laptop in the photo on the left above) became our SkypeMeister, carrying a laptop around the studio to introduce jammers across the world to each other. Above on the right we see Ross on the laptop in Beirut. This transformed the sense of internationalism in the jam. In future we should probably build on this further. All of our international Skype buddies brought a great sense of global connectedness to the occasion, but when we hooked up with Beirut, it was particularly magic.

street

Stuff gets noticed. Stuff gets seen and engaged with, and so this helped the key objective of getting close to users by exploring ideas with them. Some teams rose to the challenge of connecting with people most effectively.

5. Jamming could be more inclusive

48 hours to change the world is a great opportunity. If you can take it. For single parents, seniors, people who have no choice but to work at times at the weekend, it is an opportunity denied to them. So, what do we do about that?

At the start of the jam we made the point to participants that creativity and inventiveness is a direct product of diversity – the more diverse the community, the more perspectives and cultures they bring, the more experiences they can draw on, the more creative and relevant the ideas they will generate. We brought together 56 people, some from very different backgrounds working in very different areas. But most were in their 20s, worked in creative disciplines and had the benefits of University education. Providing mini jams within the two days, or spin off satellite jams or other initiatives to broaden participation most be a priority next time.

In short, it was a wonderful liberating and creative experience.

Can’t wait till next time.