Millennium Products, the Design Council initiative launched last
week by Tony Blair, is one of the boldest attempts yet to kickstart
Britain’s flagging reputation for innovative design and
It is a direct challenge to British industry to become the world’s
creative powerhouse for new product development in the next
The Prime Minister threw down the gauntlet to companies of all sizes to
submit ground-breaking products that will change the way we live in the
21st Century. The initiative has already secured pounds 3.8m of funding
over the next four years from the Department of Trade and Industry.
Companies are invited to submit their products between autumn 1997 and
autumn 1999 to be assessed by a panel of experts in time for the
Leading figures from the marketing and advertising world are among the
judges, including John Hegarty, chairman of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, and
Simon Bullimore, managing director of Mars Confectionery. The Design
Council will announce new Millennium Products every six months as part
of a rolling programme until the year 2000.
The products that eventually win through will get Millennium Products
branding, which will be incorporated into banners, brochures and a Web
site. They will also have the use of the Design Council Millennium
marque and the chance to display their products at the Millennium
Experience at Greenwich. Although they will not get any money for being
chosen, there will be plenty of marketing capital to be gained from the
Tony Blair’s involvement in the Millennium Products launch emphasises
his enthusiasm for a concerted programme to redefine Britain’s
industrial image, so long dogged by images of unemployment and picket
The eyes of the world
It was not so long ago that Britain was responsible for world-beating
inventions such as the telephone, television and the jet engine.
Contemporary successes highlighted at last week’s launch include the
Psion personal organiser, BT’s Touchpoint interactive kiosks and
Safeway’s Shop & Go self-scanner.
With the eyes of the world turning to Britain and Greenwich at the
millennium celebrations, Millennium Products is also an integral part of
the government’s plan to find a new, more relevant identity for the
nation. It is about demonstrating there is more to Britain than castles,
cricket and country pubs. As Tony Blair recently said, creativity is no
longer a luxury; it is the key to economic survival in the new
Blair said in his speech: ’Too often people have an image of Britain
that is stuck in the past. Good at pageantry, less good at new
The perception is wrong and it is bad for business and bad for
The UK already leads the world in traditionally creative areas, such as
music and film. Millennium Products will promote the country’s
world-beating creativity in industries ranging from aerospace and
pharmaceuticals to financial services and textiles. Blair says he is
looking for ’designs that improve the quality of our lives and services
which help us create wealth and prosperity’.
NCR Financial Systems has created the PersonaS ATM, an automatic teller
machine that features a full-colour video screen and issues everything
from cash to airline tickets.
NCR’s vice-chairman, Jim Adamson, says: ’Creativity is our lifeblood and
I am glad that the government has recognised this so early in its
tenure; it can only benefit British industry.’
Millennium Products, which had been on the Design Council drawing board
for two years, was finally given the go-ahead in March 1997 by the
Tories - and on the day the General Election results were announced in
May, the Design Council sent a strategy report to Downing Street’s
This report had been put together after detailed discussions with such
people as Robert Ayling, British Airways’ chief executive, Martin Bell,
MP and former BBC foreign correspondent, and Sir Richard Greenbury,
chairman of Marks & Spencer.
The report states: ’If British industry responds to this challenge and
develops the vision to take risks it could help create a bright future
for coming generations.’ The report highlights the perception that
Britain is dying as an industrial nation.
Who’s backing Britain?
It was also critical of the negative view reinforced by politicians and
others who, in their preoccupation with mass unemployment, seem to ’hark
back to an age of grimy factories operated by hundreds and thousands of
During the 80s, high interest rates throttled British manufacturing and
discouraged investment in research and development. This culture stifled
James Dyson, inventor of the highly successful dual cyclone bagless
vacuum cleaner, could not persuade one single British manufacturer to
He was forced to get help from Japan before he could launch. In under
two years his product overtook those of rivals Hoover and
Another British inventor, Trevor Bayliss, had an idea to make a
clockwork radio after watching a documentary which showed how primitive
communications make life even harder for Africa’s poor.
Bayliss began exploring clockwork-spring technology and soon had a
workable receiver. But he could not find British backers for his
product. It is now being manufactured in South Africa and is a massive
The Design Council hopes that Millennium Products will shake-off the
image of a UK industry in decline. Millennium Products director Karen
Levi says: ’A great deal of creativity already exists in the UK and we
want to flag this up by showcasing potential products.
’We do not want this to be seen as just another award scheme or
competition; it is a way of acquiring more data and in-depth research to
The Design Council intends to build a collection of case studies in
innovation from the successful submissions, in order to build a
potentially valuable learning resource for the future.
The sort of products that the Design Council is looking to celebrate
need not be huge leaps forward; they can represent small
Aid for the start-ups
One example of this is an invention by Regent Medical of surgical gloves
which change colour if they are punctured, offering a vital warning to
medical staff and reducing the risk of contamination.
Levi says: ’Small leaps of faith like these surgical gloves are just as
important as major new inventions.’
Millennium Products is not a funding mechanism for creative ideas, and
submissions should come from businesses with products or services on the
The Design Council hopes that being declared a Millennium Product might
encourage funding bodies to consider products and services with more
But without the promise of a financial reward, some companies may wonder
if entering the scheme is worth their while. In its original report
submitted to Downing Street, the Design Council suggested the
establishment of some form of venture capital scheme aimed at innovative
companies in their early stages.
Evidence from a Bank of England report published last autumn suggests
this may be a good move. It found that start-up technology companies
were encountering serious problems in raising finance, with only 23% of
UK venture capital investments going to technology companies, compared
with 65% in the US.
Is it enough?
Despite the lack of a direct financial reward, Levi argues that the
scheme will help companies attract more funds in the future. ’It is
hoped that the Millennium Products logo will act as a form of screening
for banks and other funding bodies,’ she says.
Already, it looks like this approach may work. In his launch speech,
Blair pointed to early business interest in the scheme, including
support from the CBI and from venture capitalists which have said they
will look at ways of developing some of the products.
Some individuals and companies at the cutting edge of new product
development are sceptical that Millennium Products will solve the
deep-rooted problems within British industry.
Kevin Thompson, managing director of NPD agency Grey Matter, says:
’Millennium Products is just a showcase and that will be it. The
millennium is not going to help British industry. We are still
manufacturing led with an industry which makes what it can. We are not
’Britain’s investment in research and development is one of the lowest
in the world and this has to be addressed.’
The Design Council has recognised this in a recent report, called
’Innovations Hotspots’. Figures for growth in real terms of R&D spend by
country between 1988 and 1992 showed the UK lagging in 27th place with a
net growth of just 0.9%.
In patent activity, the UK comes 11th, with 7.93 registrations per
100,000 of population, trailing Japan, Germany, Taiwan and, in the top
slot, Switzerland (34.19 registrations per 100,000).
Richard Bell, technical director at Belfast-based RFD, and his team were
responsible for pioneering a life raft escape system which has been
submitted to Millennium Products.
He believes that industry is beginning to recognise the need for R&D:
’Good design is necessary if you are to have good marketing of a
product, otherwise the whole marketing effort is built on sand. I don’t
think that designers are seen as the backroom boffins anymore, but as an
important spoke in the wheel.’no.
PRODUCTS FOR THE NEW MILLENNIUM
- Psion produced its first digital organiser in 1984. Its latest model,
the Series 5, is a powerful palmtop. Users can create spreadsheets, use
e-mail and track share prices. There is also a Web browser.
- DK Multimedia has created a CD-ROM called Eyewitness VR Dinosaur
Hunter which takes the user through a virtual museum that brings the
history of the dinosaur to life.The user is free to roam the museum,
where animations of running dinosaurs and skeletal models are among the
exhibits. The centrepiece is a 3-D tyrannosaurus rex and
- Rolls-Royce’s Trent jet engine is being used to power Boeing’s new 777
airliners. It is lighter, less noisy, offers more payload and is more
environmentally friendly than previous engines. The turbine blades have
unparalleled strength and heat resistance. This helps them resist
impacts with objects such as birds.
- Oxfam has invented a hygienic water container that is stackable for
airlifts and easy to carry on the head. The ’Oxfam bucket’ will replace
the bulky jerry can. Its design incorporates suggestions from refugees,
engineers and logisticians.
- IP+ by Chas A Blatchford & Sons is an intelligent artificial limb that
enables amputees to move more freely. It contains a tiny computer chip
which adjusts the swing of the leg to match the user’s original walking