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Design Can Help Lead Britain’s ‘Bounce Back’ from COVID-19, But The Economic Threat Is Huge

Design Can Help Lead Britain’s ‘Bounce Back’ from COVID-19, But The Economic Threat Is Huge

16 June 2020 Written by By Matthew Young Senior Policy Advisor

Data published by the Creative Industries Federation (CIF) on the impact of COVID19 has illustrated what we all knew and feared: many of our most cherished sectors are under enormous threat. The scale is hard to grasp even as we become used to such huge statistics. The creative industries face a potential loss of £74billion in turnover by the end of 2020, which could cost over 400,000 jobs and result in a 25% reduction in the creative sector’s Gross Value Added (GVA).  

As a sub-sector of the CIF study, the elements of design which are traditionally seen as part of the creative industries bears a relatively modest slice of the pain, with a possible loss in GVA of £2billion, but that statistic is sadly far from the whole story. That figure is based on projections by the renowned forecaster and quantitative analysis body, Oxford Economics, who have also gone further to use Design Council’s more comprehensive methodology from our pioneering Design Economy series, the previous report of which was published in 2018. They have extrapolated the potential impact on the entire design economy, which includes businesses and individuals who are outside DCMS’s creative industries’ definition of design. 

With this methodology, Oxford Economics have projected that, from the end of 2019 to the end of 2020, there could be a reduction of £37billion in GVA, to £42billion. Design Council’s last estimate of the sector’s size was made in 2016 and stood at £85billion. They further warn that 300,000 design jobs could be lost.  

A design sector that had been flourishing is now under unparalleled pressure. And we know that the effects of the lockdown and the impact of the resulting unemployment will be felt across the nation, presenting a major challenge to the levelling up agenda. The CIF analysis shows that there could be disproportionate impacts in different regions, where there are different specialisms, such as craft in the West Midlands, and data from Cambridge Econometrics shows that those outside of London may take longer to ‘bounce back’. The benefits of a flourishing design economy is already uneven across the UK, with nearly half of the UK’s design-intensive firms being based in London and the South-East of England. But there are still over a million jobs in design outside those regions (when last measured in 2016) and the risk of increasing this inequality between regions is great if there is an insufficient policy response to the recession.

This catastrophic collapse would not only be devastating for those who lose their incomes but could set back the UK’s economic and social recovery by many years. The loss of great businesses, skills, knowledge, and passion in the approaching recession would be disastrous and our capacity to innovate, create, adapt, and thrive would be hugely reduced.  

Every part of our economy would be hit, as so many designers work outside the traditional ‘design sector’: new products would be harder to develop and get to market; the UK’s productivity would take a hit from the loss of design workers who are £10 per hour more productive than average; business will suffer as each link in the supply chains that rely on designers to find new processes and systems would be damaged; and the public services we rely on could become less efficient and responsive without the service designers who already deliver creative solutions with limited resources. The quality of the places we live in, which, as the Place Alliance recently highlighted in their National Housing Audit need significant improvement, would continue to suffer. In short, we could experience a major loss of some of our most dynamic and innovative people from our workplaces. 

What Designers Have Been Doing and What We Risk Losing 

Designers have responded with incredible ingenuity and speed to the challenges the world has faced over these grim months, reworking our shared places, adapting IT systems, and delivering PPE and ventilators to the hospitals where they were desperately needed.  

Service and policy designers are coping with huge challenges in education delivery, and will have to address the much-delayed reform of social care, of future public health issues, reworking NHS services to cope with the inevitable backlogs as well as seismic shifts in the way we use public transport.   

Sustainability has become even more of an issue during the crisis, forcing an increase in single-use plastic, while so many of us have thought harder about our impact on the planet and whether we are extracting too much, just as we have looked to nature to provide respite and wondered at its ability to regenerate once our polluting reduces. New ways of reducing our impact through manufacturing, distribution, recycling and reusing, and retailing need to be found, and designers will be a vital part of how we do it, but only if they are not lost to the economic shock that is now on our doorstep.  

We have heard much about the with-COVID world, with its uncertainties and its aspirations. From the cleaner air we have breathed to the changing world of work, from the rethinking of our streets and public spaces to the need for social distancing in shops, restaurants and bars, we are now thinking more about the long-term. And it is designers who will be at the heart of the collaborations needed to deliver them. Architects, engineers, and planners will adapt workplaces, roads, shops and communities to the fact that many more of us may need space at home to work and change to the offices and retail space we were used to.  

What Do We Want Government to Do 

In addition to supporting the CIF call for funding for the creative industries, that will ensure resources are in place for designers and design firms during the coming months; Design Council calls on government to:

  1. Encourage and incentivise use of design by businesses, building on the government's support packages for business.
  2. Engage with designers to rebuild a more inclusive and sustainable economy for all, generating a commanding lead for UK business
  3. Invest in design skills to meet the challenges of today, and for the jobs of tomorrow 

Government support has been crucial in preventing the economy from going into an immediate nosedive, and it has been most welcome. That support needs to be scaled back only carefully, and with full recognition of the uneven nature of the economic shock which will be unwinding in coming months. Some sectors have struggled far more than others, but we need to be aware of the time it will take to get back to where we were. Design and designers have an almost infinite capacity for regeneration, regrowth, and finding new opportunities to innovate and improve our world, but they can only do so if they are working. We urge the government to maintain flexibility in its support packages and be aware of how different sectors are progressing and to incentivise the use of design by businesses through this support. 

As the government’s recent election manifesto made clear, design is one of the key sectors in which “we can generate a commanding lead.” This truth speaks loudly now, and ministers must not overlook design’s ability to support a “bounce back” that harnesses cross-sector creativity to re-imagine how we can build a more sustainable economy.  It is vital government engages with designers as plans for economic rebuilding are made and implemented.  

For the longer term, we need greater recognition of the core skills that will be crucial for people from all walks of life in the years and decades to come. Nurturing design skills in our workforce today and for the jobs of the future will equip our nation for the challenges of an automated future that will not be delayed and may yet be accelerated by the crisis we are living through.  

Design Council’s formation in 1944 came as Britain looked forward to a new and uncertain world, emerging from the ashes of a devastating conflict, to exploit the potential of design for progress, new jobs, and national revival. We have always promoted and supported design as the key to renewal, not just for business and economic reasons but as a way of making our lives better in so many aspects. We at Design Council are as certain now of design’s capacity to change our world for the better as we ever were, and we need that capacity to remain undiminished as we build a future that we can all share, sustainably and healthily. 

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