Continued political and economic uncertainty across the EU has raised concerns about levels of innovation and competitiveness in the region. Yet, new research on innovation indicates that Europe is actually exceeding in expectation when it comes to the state of design, while there are warning signs for the UK. Research and Evaluation Manager, Stephen Miller unravels the latest research and discusses why there is reason to be cheerful and cautious about the state of design in Europe today.

The good news

Despite its recent problems, Europe remains an innovative continent. The latest research from the European Commission’s InnoBarometer (an annual survey of over 14,000 companies about their innovation practices) found more than two thirds of EU companies have introduced at least one innovation since January 2013 (67%). Design also remains incredibly relevant to European businesses, and across the EU more than six out of ten companies said design plays a role in some way, mirroring the steps in the "design ladder". 

Companies that use design as a central element in their strategy, are more likely than those that do not to have introduced new or significantly improved goods or services.

As part of the survey companies were asked: "Which of the following statements best describes the activities of your company with regard to design?”, and the latest InnoBarometer shows:

  • 12% say it is a central element in the company’s strategy
  • 18% say design is integral, but not a central element of development work in the company
  • 14% say it is used as a last finish
  • 17% say it is not used systematically

While more than a third says ‘design is not used in the company’ (37%), there is actually little movement in these figures since the 2015 survey. 

This is relevant as the same survey shows that companies that use design as a central element in their strategy, are more likely than those that do not to have introduced new or significantly improved goods or services (73% vs. 42%). Thus design continues to be a driver of innovation across Europe. 

Figures produced by the European Innovation Scoreboard (EIS; previously Innovation Union Scoreboard) add to this picture further, enabling a comparative analysis of innovation performance in EU Member States, other European countries, and regional neighbours. It assesses relative strengths and weaknesses of national innovation systems and helps countries identify areas they need to address.

It shows that while Switzerland is the most innovative European nation, Denmark, Finland, Germany and Sweden are the most innovative nations in the EU, with innovation performance well above that of the EU average. These findings were supported by the release of the Global Innovation Index (GII) this week, which also ranks all of these countries in the top 10 most innovative countries in the world. 

Design is not explicitly mentioned within the EIS, but is included under the title of ‘Non-R+D expenditure’. The EIS shows:

  • 1.9% average growth in non-R+D expenditure, between 2014-2015, for 28 EU countries 
  • The greatest growth in non-R+D expenditure was experienced by Lithuania (8%) and Germany (6.3%).

These figures, from both the InnoBarometer and Innovation Scoreboard, suggest that there is continued recognition of the value of design across the EU, and potentially increased expenditure on it.

The not-so-good news

The same research also provides some early warning signs that there is work to do to promote innovation and continue the use of design across the EU, particularly given the continued economic challenges and political uncertainty the Union faces. 

Two of Europe’s biggest economies still have a significant proportion of their businesses not using design in their work, accounting for 50% of businesses in Italy and 45% of businesses in the UK.

The InnoBarometer highlights a handful of countries where a significant proportion of businesses do not use design in their work, such as in Estonia (58%) and Lithuania (51%). Perhaps more pertinently given their different economic and political challenges, two of Europe’s biggest economies still have a significant proportion of their businesses not using design in their work, accounting for 50% of businesses in Italy and 45% of businesses in the UK. 

Added to this, since the 2015 InnoBarometer survey, there has been a decrease in the proportion of companies introducing at least one innovation in 21 EU countries. This exposes a pattern masked by the headline figures – while a few EU countries, such as Sweden and Germany, continue to innovate, the majority are actually innovating less than they were a year ago, and some markedly so. The largest decreases can be seen in Croatia (-16%) followed by the United Kingdom (-12%), Latvia (-11%) and Luxembourg (-11%). This finding is compounded by the results from the Global Innovation Index, which also suggests the UK has experienced declining levels of innovation in the past year. 

Given the InnoBarometer also demonstrates that design is a driver of innovation, this suggests a challenge in need of remedy for the UK in particular.   

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