Birmingham used to be known as the city of a thousand trades but with rival industries overseas and the lack of interest many people have in where their goods are produced, the same cannot be said of Birmingham today.
There doesn't seem to be a month that goes by without a report being published or either a government minister or business leader advocating the need for British industry to be willing to become more competitive or innovative.
There is no doubt that we are still in challenging times. Our industry faces the threat of increased competition from parts of the world where the costs of production - especially that of labour - mean that it is becoming harder and harder to maintain customers who can purchase cheaper alternatives.
The days when there were people like my dad who only ever bought a British car (Austins and Rovers) are long gone. In the contemporary world we make our decisions based on achieving value through maximising the level of quality (never the easiest word to define) and features available whilst minimising the price we pay.
I would suggest that, sadly, people are largely uninterested in where the goods were produced.
Nonetheless I believe that most consumers would happily buy British goods as long as there is no more effort required in finding them and, crucially, they don't cost any more.
It has to be acknowledged that in a world of plenty it is unlikely to turn the clock back to the time when imports were largely made up of goods that we were unable to produce domestically.
That said, there is no reason why our producers shouldn't strive to enhance the features of what they produce.
And anything that can be done to create conditions which will stimulate economic activity through using design to achieve both innovation and greater creativity has got to be worth trying.
So, at the risk of derision, I make reference to a report produced last year which advocates precisely that.
Design for Growth and Prosperity is a report by the European Design Innovation Initiative (through the European Design Leadership Board) in which it makes recommendations it believes are essential to ensure that, as the foreword states:
"Member States and regions to take bold action to enable a new level of awareness about the importance of design as a driver of user-centred innovation across Europe."
Their brief from the EU Vice President responsible for Enterprise and Industry, Antonio Tajani, was that they should explore the way in which it would be possible to create a shared vision which would identify the 'priorities and actions' to ensure could more fully be integrated into all aspects of policy of the EU.
The European Design Leadership Board (EDLB) was established just over two years and consists of 15 members who, over a twelve month period, met with 50 key stakeholders from governments, industry, academia, the design industries and the public sector across Europe.
In Design for Growth and Prosperity the EDLB make 21 policy recommendations which are grouped into six 'strategic design action' areas.
As always with such reports, there is a tremendous amount to be gleaned. However, at 74 pages (excluding the appendices), it is not a particularly difficult report to read and though some may suggest it is an example of the profligacy of the EU it deserves to be widely read and appreciated for the import of the message it contains.
Though the authors of Design for Growth and Prosperity accept that getting Europe 'back on track' is not going to be easy, they believe it is now more essential than ever to concentrate on a concerted effort to ensure that design capability is used as the way to create distinctive products which deliver 'attractive, desirable and sustainable products and services that can compete on the global stage.'
Given the prevailing economic circumstances and high unemployment in the 17 countries which make up the EU and which on Friday stands at 19.38 million (and is worryingly high among the young), anything that can be done to create potential improvement is worthy of consideration.
As the report recommends, design should be the 'driver of people-centred innovation' and that 'non-technological innovation' including the design of all aspects of products, processes and services as well as 'culture-based creativity' should be seen as the key tool to facilitate the report's title; growth and prosperity:
"Design as a driver of user-centred innovation contributes to getting good ideas to market. It enhances agile and focused product and service development, strengthened and made more effective and desirable through good design management."
The report goes on to assert that design and what I would call strategic design-thinking can be used to great effect in not only the private sector provision of goods and services, but, in the enhanced delivery of public services to ensure 'social innovation' which will raise the of life and potentially develop solutions to 'complex societal problems.'
What is fundamentally clear from the overall tenure of the report is that whilst the authors believe that there is some recognition of the role that design already plays in the large companies across Europe, its potential it to contribute in an even more significant way is huge; especially in the 23 million SMEs which collectively are the engine of progress:
"[....in these companies] not yet aware of design's potential as a contributor to smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, that a raising of design awareness and a change in perception of its value needs to take place."
Anyone interested in knowing how design and innovation can bring economic benefit should travel no further than to one of our European 'partners', Germany where manufacturing among the small engineering and manufacturing companies are experiencing the growth and prosperity that the EDLB believe is possible.
For example, Volkswagen which was once derided as a motor manufacturing marque that was perceived as being too conservative is now the most profitable car maker in the world (making almost £10 billion). It achieved this by dedicating itself to investment in innovation and quality.
In the 1980s and 1990s whereas much of the western world - this country included - became obsessed with finance and investment in illusory 'dot coms', Germany concentrated on what it did best; being a manufacturing economy with dedication to excellence.
Germany's network of SME companies (the Mittelstand ), which form 'backbone of its engineering expertise, is vital. As well as supplying big companies such as Volkswagen, they produce an amazing array of high-quality products which make up a significant proportion of the country's exports.
And as well as employing well over two thirds of the Germany's workforces and the vast majority of apprenticeships that are offered to school leavers, the Mittelstand is constantly searching for innovation; these companies owning almost half a million patents.
Wolfgang Streeck who is the director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies based in Cologne argues that this is what has saved Germany from the fate that has befallen other EU economies.
Given that design is recognised as being crucial to the future prosperity of Europe, you might reasonably ask why the title of this blog suggests the concern is about Birmingham.
As every child taught history may currently be aware, Birmingham used to be known as the city of a thousand trades.
The industrial revolution awakened a spirit of enterprise and creativity that enabled individuals with the ingenuity and imagination to make products that were desired by the increasingly industrialised society that Britain was becoming and the export markets that opened up across the world.
And Birmingham was a place where these individuals came to make their products in the workshops and factories that used to be so characteristic of this city.
The announcement that mass production of cars would cease at the Longbridge plant seemed to epitomise the belief that Birmingham's great industrial heritage was over.
However, though the era of vast corporations like Rover carrying out traditional manufacturing - what some refer to as 'metal-bashing' - may certainly be over, there still remains a multitude of trades based upon creative expertise and innovative thinking which means that Birmingham is still a citadel of, albeit smaller, manufacturing and design-based solutions to contemporary customer needs.
I have heard it said that Birmingham people are not as 'showy' as those from other cities and that their reluctance to this be in the limelight is one of the key reasons why outsiders to this city are often unaware of the latent talent which exists.
So, a forthcoming event, 'Birmingham Made Me' Design Expo 2013' , which is being jointly organised and sponsored by Birmingham City University, Birmingham City Council, Business Birmingham, Idea Birmingham and Millennium Point, can only assist in drawing attention to the creative people who are involved in the design and production of a wide range of amazing products and services.
This event is intended to act as a showcase for the multitude of products and service that are made in Birmingham and the Midlands.
It explicitly celebrates the importance of being design-led.
The 'Birmingham Made Me' Design Expo commences this Thursday (6th) and runs continuously until 21st June at Millennium Point in the centre of the city and will feature seminars including eminent industrialists and thinkers on design and economics, exhibitions and film shows; including a screenings of the James Bond film Skyfall and Prometheus.
Given that this is a free event and includes activities intended to appeal to all age groups this is a wonderful opportunity to put Birmingham back on the map as a place where incredible things happen and, more importantly, where inventive products are being made to be sold around the world.
For all of our sakes - especially subsequent generations - let's celebrate what we currently do and hope that we can learn how to build on this expertise and rediscover a reputation which means that design-led companies in this region are seen being equal to those that are part of Germany's Mittelstand or located in the likes of Milan.
For more information follow the link:http://birmingham-made-me.org/