Earlier this year, we proudly launched our ground-breaking research, Design Economy 2018, at the Great Exhibition of the North in Newcastle. Launching the research, I said that the North can lead the fourth industrial revolution as it did the first. To achieve this however, we need to invest in design and, importantly, design skills.

There has been an alarming drop in the number of teenagers being entered for a creative art subject at GCSE. According to Ofqual, this has dropped by more than a quarter in the past five years.  Furthermore, a BBC survey earlier this year found that schools had purposely cut back on lesson time and facilities for creative arts subjects in order to increase emphasis on core academic subjects and to help alleviate funding pressures. There is no doubt in my mind then that we need to reverse this trend and ensure design skills are being taught in schools.  However this is not just an issue for our education system. If the North is to fully take advantage of the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial revolution, employers must take responsibility and ensure people are developing design skills.  

Commentators from Nesta and The World Economic forum found that when it comes to using the advanced skills and knowledge that are predicted to be required in our future economy, the majority of the UK workforce does not have access to these skills. The UK is ranked 54th in the world for the capacity of its workforce to deliver high-value outputs, and 51st in the world for the deployment of these advanced skills and knowledge. The 2017 World Economic Forum study also found that out of the top ten skills needed to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution, five are design skills (complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence, cognitive flexibility).

Our pioneering 2018 research ‘Designing a Future Economy’ found that designers embody the skills needed to create the intelligent products services and systems of the future. Designers fuse knowledge of design and cognitive abilities, such as visualisation or problem solving, with technical skills, such as drawing, coding and modelling. We therefore need to not only invest in these design skills in schools but invest in design across the economy as a whole if we want to instigate growth in the currently envisaged post-Brexit future and maintain our position as a destination for design.

Our Designing a Future Economy research also revealed that there are over 2.5 million people who use design skills in their day to day work. These people are 47% more productive than the average UK workers and the total value of design skills to the UK economy is £209 billion in GVA. The demand for design skills is growing and at a faster rate than jobs generally; there has been an increase of 14% in four years, compared to 6.9% growth in the overall UK employment rate. Our 2018 research ‘The Design Economy’ found that 60% of firms use design in some way, ranging from using design to bring a final finish to a product through to design being fundamental to their organisation’s strategy. Designers operate across the whole economy with 68% of those with design skills not working in design, but in areas such as finance, banking, aerospace and transport. They shape the built environment, the digital world and the products and services we use, creating better places, better products, better processes and better performance.

The opportunity for design to drive growth in the Fourth Industrial Revolution is clear. We need to respond to the evidence to make this change happen. While the government has a key role to play in securing design skills for the future through education policy, our evidence suggests businesses and other employers could also do more to take responsibility for developing and maintaining the skills they require. Designers are less likely to receive the additional training they require after leaving formal education, and when they do they are more likely to meet the costs than their employers. If not addressed, skills gaps among the existing workforce in design skills industries (i.e. all roles using design skills) will cost the UK up to an estimated £4.3bn in GVA and a further £1.6bn lost through skills shortages in candidates seeking employment in the design economy. (See Designing a Future Economy page 50)

It is time to turn to design. By focusing on design skills in businesses and retraining programmes as well as a reversal on the current priorities of subjects in the education system, we will equip people with the right skills for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. A revolution that can, once again, be led by the North.

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News & opinion

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