Focussing on Design and Innovation could be Beautiful for Birmingham
How often do you hear the words 'Birmingham' and 'beauty' uttered in the same breath?
Or for that matter the words 'Birmingham' and 'great design'?
It simply doesn't happen often enough.
Yet according to Ipsos MORI 80% of people look for beauty in their built environment, with 40% actively expecting their local Council to provide this.
Just over a week ago several thousand people visiting the Birmingham Made Me Design EXPO, hosted at the Mailbox and run by Birmingham City University, were reassessing Birmingham's contribution to design very favourably after enjoying exhibits, workshops and awards involving the very best in industrial design and creative arts from across the region.
Through a cluster of great Midlands brands Birmingham remains at the forefront of designing and making things that improve our quality of life.
And this contribution is being made across a great diversity of areas - automotive, transport, interiors including home furnishings, fashion, textiles and accessories, jewellery, gaming and contemporary media, with a vibrant arts-based cultural sector.
Younger design-based businesses, such as Plant & Moss, Alice Gow, Jack Row, James Newman, Jade Devall, Opus Tessellatum, were all jostling for attention alongside more established brands and were being taken very seriously by buyers and media visiting from London, keen to access our emerging talent.
As Andy Street, Chairman, Greater Birmingham & Solihull LEP commented, 'the Birmingham Made Me Design EXPO underlined the diversity and energy of Design and Innovation in our City region'.
The presence at the EXPO of the sculpturally refined Jaguar C-X75, a glamorous show-stopper, was in good company with the Morgan Aero Coupe, the long wheel base Land Rover Defender, the Jaguar XKR and XF, the stunning JCB's, Birmingham City University's Off-Road Buggy as well as Aston University's hydrogen fuel cell, Shell Eco City Concept Car, fresh with its 2012 Eco Design Award from Rotterdam.
With over 5,000 online votes having been cast in the inaugural Design and Innovation Awards, the Best Midlands Brand was awarded to AGA, whilst the Best Midlands Innovation and Radical Design was presented to another historic brand, Acme whistles, whose 'whistle chandelier', created by Claire Farrell of EC Arts, stole the show as the most creative exhibit.
How can we build on the success of the Birmingham Made Me Design EXPO in bringing our design and innovation credentials to the fore?
In the 1980s our sister city, Milan, was renowned for the Memphis Design Group which drove a great renaissance in that City and the wider region of Lombardy.
It was a loose gathering, led by charismatic designer and architect, Ettore Sottsass, who brought together other architects and designers, local manufacturers, lecturers and students - including from Politecnico di Milano - with their collaborations launching a range of post-modern, irreverent, Pop-inspired products, harnessing technologies transferred from other sectors resulting in radical new designs.
Such 'disruptive' innovations not only invigorated furniture, fabrics, ceramics, glass and metal object designs through '80s and 90s but quantifiably drove sales and profits for businesses such as Alessi, B&B Italia and Artemide, whilst affirming their reputations for desirable, distinctive, beautiful products possessing a contemporary relevance and meaning.
This design cluster transformed the image and reputation of their City as well as Lombardy as a region, acting as a draw for investment, visitors and international talent alike. Apparently Ettore's second exhibition at the Salon del Mobile in Milan was swamped with people backed up several blocks in the hope of viewing it.
Is there a lesson here for Birmingham?
Well, the Birmingham Institute of Art & Design as part of Birmingham City University is a key asset for the City with around 5000 design students, hosting the largest School of Jewellery in Europe, the prestigious School of Art, the School of Visual Communication, School of Architecture and as well as Fashion, Textiles, Product and Interiors Design.
For me a key area for greater focus is in the graphic design and visual presentation of our goods and services - an area where the Italians excel and I believe we can do more to harness the energy and creativity of our young people and the universities to make these step changes.
Together with BIAD there is the work of the New Technology Institute in the digital media field alongside the performance and media activities of Birmingham City University.
These centres of creativity can form a real hub for cultivating emerging talent and teaming it up with larger more established businesses to form a collective research and a design driven innovation lab, lateral and new product development, work experience and knowledge transfer as well as technology, process and skills development.
It would be great too if involvement in the EXPO in future included more universities alongside Birmingham City and Aston Universities, together with schools and colleges from across the Midlands.
Given Birmingham's position with over 100,000 students and the highest proportion of young people of any City in Europe, getting young people focussed on design and innovation has been a key objective as a means of linking science and technology with creative thinking - essential for producing great new products.
With Design Council figures showing over a ten year period that 'design aware' businesses outperformed FTSE 100 businesses by over 200%, and with further research showing that 66% of West Midlands businesses saw little or no relevance to design in their business, opportunities for improvement remain to be exploited.
With 12 new entrepreneurs based in the Birmingham Made Me store at the Mailbox generating over £5k in new product sales in as many weeks, there's still more to be done to bring together these young businesses with experienced business mentors to help them access information, networks and take their next steps with increased confidence.
We need to multiply this approach many fold to really start making a big difference. I'd like to see any student interested in starting a business being able to pitch to make and sell their products locally with the mentoring and support of local business people.
Like other universities many of these students are from overseas. They come to Birmingham with little in the way of expectations and are usually amazed by how much beauty they find in the green and pleasant areas across and around Birmingham.
If we are able to get our young people involved in wealth creation earlier they may well stay on in the region and make an even greater continuing contribution to our City's quality of life, design and well-being.