DESIGN: Design of the times - The launch of Millennium Products proves there is a new impetus for British design. Is it enough? Nigel Morris reports

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 manufacturing.

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

manufacturing.



It is a direct challenge to British industry to become the world’s

creative powerhouse for new product development in the next

millennium.



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

millennium.



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

accompanying kudos.



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

lines.



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

millennium.



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

technology.



The perception is wrong and it is bad for business and bad for

Britain.’



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

policy unit.



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

poorly-paid workers’.



During the 80s, high interest rates throttled British manufacturing and

discouraged investment in research and development. This culture stifled

homegrown talent.



James Dyson, inventor of the highly successful dual cyclone bagless

vacuum cleaner, could not persuade one single British manufacturer to

back him.



He was forced to get help from Japan before he could launch. In under

two years his product overtook those of rivals Hoover and

Electrolux.



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

success.



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

benefit industry.’



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

developments.



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

market.



The Design Council hopes that being declared a Millennium Product might

encourage funding bodies to consider products and services with more

interest.



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

market led.



’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

triceratops.



- 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

pattern.



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