Central Research Laboratory
What does the future of innovation look like and who will be designing the products of the future?
At the launch of our first ever Plus X Innovation Design Week, we gathered a team of innovation and design leaders to discuss the future of their industry.
Mat Hunter, Co-CEO of Plus X, Sarah Salter, Head of Innovation at Wavemaker (WPP), Gareth Owen Lloyd, Lecturer in Design and Product Workshop Manager at Plus X and Toby Kress, Programme Director at Plus X, led a rich discussion, exploring a variety of topics from the effects of emergency innovation to the future impact of shared and open access design.
A brand new innovation speed or a temporary emergency?
The conversation had to begin with the pandemic and specifically, emergency innovation. From rapid medical global collaboration for a Covid19 antidote to Vietnam being cited as a poster country for outstanding cross organisational innovation to contain the virus, we are all witnessing examples of urgent necessity revolutionising old systems.
Sarah Salter shared her experience of working with government, where she is seeing a step change in systemic innovation. As she explains, “processes that traditionally would have taken 5 years are expedited in 6 weeks. It has certainly opened my eyes to (how we can) move more rapidly. One of the key positives I’ve seen come out of it is a ‘start again’ mentality. A recognition that innovation doesn’t have to be slow and incremental but can come from ripping up the paper and starting from scratch. Organisations believe they can be bolder and braver, and I can’t see that changing when we come out of Covid”.
Toby Kress adds that as we’re facing such an imminent challenge to transform, this focuses a lot of smart minds and unlocks new funding. “This has happened at both higher level and lower startup level. Normally there’s a lot of process involved to ensure funding isn’t wasted, but now the priorities have changed. Covid is a good example of societies making huge changes that are needed. Its proven we can do this but Covid has also given us some major economic challenges, which might conflict with the investment we need for climate change innovation for example.”
Mat Hunter argues that whilst governments now recognise their ability and responsibility to focus minds on shared issues, typically, government doesn’t do speed very well. “They are criticised very heavily when they make mistakes but as all innovators know, there’s a fine balance between success and failure! Once the pressure is off, will people remember to move fast? – I am not sure”.
Who will be driving design led innovation of the future? Could this economic downturn, unemployment and a demand for re-skilling unleash a new generation of talent?
Gareth Owen Lloyd who leads the workshop and maker space at Plus X Brighton digs deeper into the definition of design innovation. “Quite often people’s default is that innovation is driven by profit but design for emergency innovation shows there are other drivers for innovation such as war and space race. The pandemic is just one of those. We should think more about the role of innovation in society”.
He reminds us that most of the technology in the Plus X workshops has come about through the open source movement and the FabLabs network is a great example of open design access in action. “We now talk about distributed design and manufacturing. Instead of designing something to be made in a factory far away and shipped back, you design things that can be made locally in a digital manufacturing hub like Plus X Brighton. One of the big blockers about innovation driven by profit is patents. Often innovation in big corporates is just about navigating patent law. You can plough through innovation if you move some of the restrictions caused by patent law”.
Mat Hunter shares this hope for democratisation in product making and design. “We know the UK is very good in terms of design and engineering education and I do feel that one of the silver linings of this crisis has been all of the narratives around local people making things, such as printing protective equipment for the NHS. Over the past 20-30 years, so much of our making was off shored. One thing I hope for is that we will see more people shopping local, building online stores, driven by the inspiration that you can make products more locally”.
This optimism is endorsed by Sarah Salter who recognises that “innovation comes out of people discovering problems or having frustrations. There are a lot of problems right now which could be a huge opener to more people wanting to create solutions”. Toby Kress adds further “Looking back to the last recession, we saw a big upswing in entrepreneurship. People who had talked about starting their own business for years, got their redundancy cheques and had the time to do that. Hopefully we will see another upswing here”.
But there’s a parallel movement that Mat Hunter expresses a note of caution around. “So much innovation has been driven by Silicon Valley. Big commercial players like Apple and Google are highly innovative but they have a particular world view. Entrepreneurs generally fix problems in the world informed by their own experience. Unless we encourage a very diverse range of people to become the entrepreneurs and the innovators, solving problems as they see them, we will always be solving a very narrow set of problems that push forward the world in a particular direction, that is not necessarily beneficial to everyone”.
Sarah Salter shares that many of her global clients are now thinking differently about innovation. “They recognise that the customer and customer behaviour has changed. Digital transformation is accelerating fast and they need to feel on top of that. I’ve seen incredible collaboration between corporates and startups that sit outside of their traditional realm”.
So who are the design and innovation leaders of the future and what skills are needed for these positions?
“Every innovation role is different” says Sarah Salter “but the role that I interviewed for isn’t the one I am doing now. The type of people going into these roles have really diverse backgrounds. In the changing world that we’re moving into, we need people to respond around problem solving, using real life experiences”.
Mat Hunter agrees and references the World Economic Forum’s ‘Future of Jobs Report’ which cites that complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity and people management are the skills of the future. “Interestingly, since 2015 the skill for creativity has gone from 10th to 3rd place. Creativity is important but learning in the field is also important and there is still too much emphasis on the classroom. These days everything is connected. Design thinking needs systemic thinking”.
And finally, how well does UK plc support design and innovation? How well are we doing compared to other countries?
“You could argue we do a less good job of connecting design and technology and business together. Certainly a lot of our most successful design schools are small specialist institutions although the Royal College of Art is a good example of bringing design and engineering together by linking with Imperial College. I personally think we could a lot more about blending together the designers, the business students and engineers. But to find those who can collaborate is not always easy”.
In summary, despite their different backgrounds and perspectives, our design and innovation leaders agreed that the global crisis is already igniting new innovation methodology. Processes in large organisations are being transformed and startups are benefitting from new funding and collaboration opportunities.
Whilst collective hopes are high, a note of caution lies behind the narrative. Rigid structures are still blocking innovation and design led thinking – from patent systems to old fashioned education frameworks.
To echo the words of Steve Jobs, let’s hope this crisis does indeed unlock opportunity. Let’s hope that innovation design leaders of the future will be modelled from new systems, inspired by today’s rapid and collaborative innovation process and not held back by restrictive conventions.