Saturday, May 26, 2012

On innovation

Design, innovation and the making of things have been hot topics of late. Whether it is from the perspective of the manufacturing industry, the designers or commentators, many words have been split. Take for example a session on RN's By Design this morning.

It began by addressing some of the structural problems design and innovation face in Australia, but very quickly the two 'industry experts' began talking about what Nike do, what IBM do, what Apple do - what it is that drives their success.

I have two significant problems with this sort of response.

Firstly Apple, Nike, are transnational corporations. They buy skill, materials and assembly processes irrespective of where their board may happen to meet. They are by dint of the sheer size of their customer bases, able to disrupt supply chains, manipulate markets, pressure the prices for raw materials. They also intervene in the process of governance in sovereign states when their economic interests may be perceived to be under threat. Are they successful? So successful that design experts breathlessly inform us continually that they are models we should follow. But they are not ethical businesses, they often act in such a manner as to have negative impacts on other sectors of the economy, and they do not overall benefit either design or innovation outside of their own perceived narrow fields of operation.

Secondly, the scale of such operations is completely ridiculous to offer up as a model for start-ups, or even for governments looking at how to promote innovation. Indeed it is more than likely that behemoths such as Nike in fact stifle innovation as they dominate potential markets, spending more on marketing in a month than most start-ups could raise as investment capital over their entire lifetime.

Innovation is not about privileging business practices and governmental planning which insists on the right to make profit, regardless of the damage or medium and long term problems such decisions will cause. The market is not right, nor rational. Business will demand conditions that best suit them - whether it benefits anyone else is of no interest.

Innovation does not derive from copying someone else. If you want to find out what might drive innovation, I'd suggest start by reading Jane Jacobs, and then move onto Stephen Hogbin or Pat Kirkham on the Eames  design practice. Or perhaps answer the question of why does Lend Lease have to import the laminated timber products it is using in the Forte Apartments project in Melbourne. We ship our forests offshore as wood chips and buy in return tertiary processed building materials.

If we do want to foster innovation, it will come by supporting makers, designers and skilled tradespeople with tax arrangements that support R+D, establishing  innovation hubs, substantially improving design education (instead of allowing universities such as ANU to slowly kill off once vibrant learning environments), utilising opportunities proffered by shifting to a low carbon economy to come up with new ideas, new processes - a future where filling containers bound for Australia with poorly designed and made products will no longer be profitable.