BDI challenges university innovation funding and effectiveness

    150 150 Daniel Fountain
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    Is the funding of universities to deliver design, innovation and prototyping to industry a good investment of public money?

    British Design Innovation (BDI) unequivocally supports the government’s promotion of innovation and manufacturing. We believe it is an effective means of driving economic growth – after all, it’s what we ourselves were set up to do. And therein lies the rub.Over the past few years the government has invested many millions of pounds of public money in initiatives that fund some universities to offer subsidised or free design and innovation services, particularly to small and medium-sized businesses – and setting them up in unfair competition with our members.

    BDI represents Industrial Design companies and individuals involved in commercial product, service and interaction development. Throughout the UK, BDI members help entrepreneurs, businesses, universities and public sector organisations to develop ideas. We create intellectual property and new technology in the design of innovative products and services.

    Is funding a duplication of what Industrial Designers already do worthwhile?

    We think not. With so many talented Industrial Design businesses already in existence (thanks to their massive investments in training and technology), it is surely unfair and anti-competitive to publicly fund new entrants. In most cases we find no evidence that funders properly consider the displacement impact of their interventions on the private sector or the local skills base. Most BDI member companies work without subsidy, and many are based in the most economically disadvantaged areas of the country. In these areas – and particularly in the Midlands and North of England – they report that the ability to grow has been stifled.

    Do the organisations that engage in Higher Education Institution (HEI)-delivered schemes receive best practice support?

    Not necessarily. BDI members report that these same institutions, although publicly funded to provide design services to SMEs, request academic staff internships – ironically to learn about the very professional design practice they are subsidised to offer. This lack of commercial experience reveals why so few university-based design and innovation centres survive once public funding runs out. If they were providing real value, surely the millions invested would give a competitive advantage (albeit an unfair one) in the open commercial market?

    Has the government’s focus on funding HEIs become confused with support for business?

    We think so. Many of our members believe that the relationship between some academic institutions and the bodies charged with supporting business has become too close. Furthermore, the failure of some HEIs to consider, or care about, the impact of their activities on design businesses has driven a wedge between parties that previously collaborated well. Endemic in all of this, the BDI board has observed, is the fact that public investment for innovation is provided by a bewildering array of sources.

    Britain cannot afford to reinvent something it already has – there is, quite simply, no need to. There is not, and never has been, a need to publicly fund the setting-up or delivery of design, prototyping and innovation services in HEIs and other publicly-funded bodies.

    What is BDI’s role in all this?

    In all regions of the UK, talented people in small businesses have a track record of working with industry to develop new products and services, using the latest technology and employing best practice in innovation.

    BDI members are well-connected and informed about innovation policy, and are actively engaged in advisory and implementation roles for publicly-funded design and innovation interventions. BDI has also taken positive steps toward creating better industry/academic relationships, by forming the University Design Industry Partnership (UDIP) to enhance collaboration between HEIs and the commercial design sector.

    So what do we need to do now?

    Surely we could all benefit from a more joined-up approach? Too much funding from too many sources cannot be the most effective way of engaging the most competent providers.

    ● BDI calls on the government and its agencies to support universities by concentrating on education – their core competence – to advance the teaching of design, thereby improving the career prospects of their graduates and enriching the economy.

    ● BDI calls on the HEIs to join BDI’s efforts to develop more productive collaboration between Industrial Design professionals and education by becoming involved with UDIP.

    ● BDI calls on industrial designers to become more involved, and be represented by BDI – the only national membership body focused on promoting and representing the Industrial Design profession.

    Daniel Fountain / 09.04.2012

    Editor, Hotel Designs


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