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The Craft of Innovation

Annie Warburton

Digital technologies are revolutionising how things are made, where they are made and who makes them.

At the same time, craft is driving innovation in other sectors. Today we see the tacit intelligence of the hand stimulating innovation in such diverse fields as digital technology, aerospace and bioscience, and in examples such as an embroiderer collaborating with a roboticist to develop wearable sensors for medical and sports applications.

As the fusion of physical and digital accelerates, could the UK, with its twin strengths in tech and craft, become the new Silicon Valley of making?

Innovation through craft is nothing new. Across material disciplines, craft processes have always driven breakthroughs that have passed into other fields. This might seem counterintuitive. For some, not least marketing copywriters, ‘craft’ calls up notions of tradition at odds with the idea of innovation. Yet what David Pye called ‘the workmanship of risk’ (1968) – the skilled manipulation of material that affords unplanned breakthroughs – is an enduring characteristic of craft that gives it its innovative edge.

What do we mean by innovation through craft? Innovation in craft refers to evolution of technique, discovery of new materials, and application of new tools. Innovation through craft refers to makers facilitating or catalysing innovation elsewhere. It concerns the so-called ‘spillover’ effects of craft into other industries.

At the Crafts Council, for many years, we’ve tracked, profiled and driven craft innovation through exhibitions, research and interdisciplinary collaborations. And, it’s this intersection of craft, technology and innovation that is celebrated in the V&A’s Digital Design Weekend. This year, the Weekend features makers from Parallel Practices, a Crafts Council project that, in partnership with the Cultural Institute at King’s College, London, aims to demonstrate the reciprocal benefits that arise when makers and scientists work, and play, together.

It is also these innovations generated by collaborations between makers and other sectors - how they occur and how we can make the most of their potential - that form the focus of Innovation through Craft, a 2016 report commissioned by the Crafts Council and authored by KPMG.

In KPMG’s view, ‘Craft skills and knowledge have a strong economic impact and significant potential to drive further growth and innovation in other sectors.’ There are, though, barriers that stand in the way of realising that full potential. They occur in three broad areas: lack of understanding of the value of craft innovation, an underinvestment in innovation and collaboration, and the threat to craft education and skills.

Alongside the report, we published a suite of case studies and, as we’re a visual sector, we worked with creative and cultural consultants From Now On to produce an accompanying graphic to illustrate the potential for craft to stimulate innovation in the biotech, digital and engineering fields.

The report, case studies and graphic are timely on several counts. Recent years have witnessed an acceleration in collaborative open innovation, and a transformation in making, whose scale of impact is conveyed by the label, ‘the fourth industrial revolution’. Alongside this, UK governments have given increasing attention to the creative industries’ considerable economic contribution. At the same time, ‘fusion’ – the combination of creative, technological and enterprise mindsets – has been shown to be a key driver for successful businesses.

The UK’s strengths in the creative industries and, specifically in craft, are currently unrivalled. However, international competitors are fast catching up, investing heavily in creative education, in research and development, and in facilities that bring the physical making and digital worlds together. China is a case in point. But the same is happening to different degrees in other parts of Asia, as well as in the US and Scandinavia.

Unless we take action now to invest in collaborative innovation and in supporting craft education, we will experience a talent drain and lose competitive advantage, as well as the potential to generate solutions to pressing environmental and health challenges through the fusion of physical making and digital skills.

Currently most innovation through craft happens through happy accident. Our vision is to move, through strategic investment, to an established culture of open innovation and collaboration. The potential rewards are great: improved productivity and development of new products and services, enabling us to access new global markets and reap both social and economic benefits.

Parallel Practices

Tiffany Radmore, Talent Development Manager, Crafts Council

Parallel Practices forms one part of the Crafts Council’s Innovation strand, and is run in partnership with the Cultural Institute at King’s College, London. The project aims to demonstrate the mutual benefits and value of collaboration between medical and scientific academics and makers.

The 2014 pilot project consisted of four collaborations, with each collaboration lasting four months and involving a team of at least one maker and one medical and scientific academic. These pairings stimulated learning and innovation through a focus on the body, materials and processes.

Now in its second phase, a longer six-month Parallel Practices programme, ‘Learning Through Making’, allows maker-academic collaborations more time to explore the benefits of their partnership, giving consideration to the pastoral and educational outcomes that were touched upon in the pilot project. Makers John Grayson, Shelley James and Celia Pym worked with academics, researchers and students from undergraduate to post-graduate level to encourage students to play, use their hands and take risks to push the boundaries and enhance their learning experience.

The partnerships for Parallel Practices ‘Learning Through making’ are textile maker Celia Pym and Richard Wingate, Head of Anatomy at King’s, who will question the qualities of haptic experiences evoked through touch, the feelings of care and the of patterns of wear in material; Glass maker, Shelley James and physics lecturer Dr Riccardo Sapienza, are investigating making and problem-solving through glass techniques and experimentation to broaden learning and confidence; and lastly automata maker John Grayson and Robotics lecturer Matthew Howard are exploring synergies and movement between synthesising analogue and digital technologies within the realm of robotics and automata.

A further collaboration between the nursing and midwifery team at kings and textile maker Angela Maddock, whose practice explores emotional and physical intimacy, will start in September to enhance haptic and simulation skills for undergraduate studies in nursing and midwifery.

Image: Annie Warburton Image: Annie Warburton