Thursday, 29 October 2009

Can the Midlands Creative Industries Revolutionise the UK economy?

How it is: The city of Birmingham has represented different things to theBritish at different times. It is, above all, a city of purpose, grown in the whiteheat of manufacturing when industry¹s natural resources of iron, coal, waterand people, were on its door-step. From here it played a key role in worldhistory, an international powerhouse. Industry literally shaped the fabric of the city,causing it to be described by Birmingham born H.V.Morton in 1926, as that monster.

The past, as they say, is another country and in the past cities (monstrous or not) had distinct roles. Coventry made cars, Nottingham made fabric and lace and Birmingham made stuff of steel : the nibs and type faces to inform the world alongside the weaponry to fight for our current freedoms. In turn the Nazi air force of the second world war disfigured the face of the city with repeated bombings. But like a great-undefeated heavy weight champion its scars of missing buildings and altered features simply lent it more character and the space to develop infrastructure, leading it to be cited as one of the best cities to live (2007 Mercer index).
More recently, the city has suffered from the global shifts in manufacturing, a lack ofinvestment, strained transport links, as well as the British inherit snootiness about Œtrade¹. If you add a recession, a bit of complacency and the kind of national inverted snobbery that other world manufacturing city¹s such as Milan, Berlin, Barcelona, Chicago, Shanghai, Houston, Singapore, Osaka simply do not face,(their populations also speak with distinct accents) you end where we are now. The region has the highest unemployment rate in the UK (10.5 %) 282 thousand people, 55 thousand of whom are 18 years of age.Yet the city boosts some amazing advantages, a virtual tool kit for world success, so why is it not exploiting them? Two European comparisons are worth considering: The Randstad region of the Netherlands, and the Italian approach (faulty but interesting).The Randstad manufactures everything from tobacco, and underwear to information technology. It has survived by taking a holistic approach to its use of creativity, visual communication and manufacturing. It uses its young designers, making real and permanent connections to the country¹s excellent design schools (a blind spot in the UK - where graduate leave either the country or the industry they were trained in to find work). This has resulted in an impressive array of R&D facilities, linguistics (the Achilles heel of the British), logistics (another difficult area for us) and a commanding grasp of visual and graphical communication (information design and typography has always been the USP of Dutch art schools). Together this means that they communicate to the world in a global and sophisticated manner.

The Italian approach is interesting too - the journey from concept (idea and visualisation) to prototypes (one offs or limited editions) through to finishing and marketing and branding is a rapid one. New ideas and products are developed and market tested in small regional batches, a kind of Couture Fashion approach to design and manufacture. This allows the designers to see if their product sells at home and test how they might sell abroad. These products are then aggressively marketed in extremely sophisticated ways. They use British know-how, both employing our graduates and/or agencies. As a result the use of adverting and branding, graphic communications and the grasp of web-based marketing is impressive and organised. Try putting into ŒItalian Manufacturing Google and you will arrive at :

While not quite a one-stop shop of firms, designers, suppliers and developers for all your needs, it not bad.If, conversely, you put British manufacturing into Google you get a diatribe of depressing newspaper reports on the dire state of our economy. There is no mention of the positive achievements in the economy by both industry and University sector.

In my University faculty at BIAD, for example, we have enjoyed substantial and sustained investment in world leading research and teaching. Many students and businesses have already benefited from access to the most up to date analogue skills and traditional vocational skills, attributes that form the creative hub of any economy. These have been enhanced by the provision of cutting edge digital technology and teaching that was rated as excellent in our most recent inspection. This is not supposed to be an advertisement for the University or my school, but it is important to see what is available as a potential resource for the whole region in these challenging times. Going to study at Art school did change my life and has positively changed the lives of countless students. Businesses nationallyand internationally have benefited from my school¹s activities. Traditional skills are back and needed in the changing face of the city.If we are a monster or at least a giant, let us act on the advantagesthat this size might bring us. We have the world leading jewellery school,the fabulous Conservatoire of Music, one of the best architecture courses inthe world boasting Ruth Reed as the first female President of the RoyalInstitute of British Architects - the Art school on Margaret Street which predates the Slade and is still sexy and vibrant, the wonderful School of Fashion and Textiles - a world force, as is three dimensional design, the TID which focuses on some of the most sophisticated engineering in the world and the faculty of media – a one-stop shop for all forms of broadcasting. My own school of Visual communication in BIAD is the biggest in Europe and one of the most successful in the world.This has helped to place the graphic practitioner at the centre of the wider creative industries debate. Businesses of all sizes and content are starting to understand that, without the appropriate and contemporary use of branding, photography, animation and moving image, illustration indeed all forms of visual and graphic design and communication, their businesses cannot survive.

We have partners all over the world and we do not lack the means to help theeconomy from student placements to knowledge-transfer partnerships. From a student / graduate perspective the courses in my school have provided treasure houses of teaching, sector leading research and resources. Students need to know that when they leave they can stay and draw business into the city. They need business mentors and opportunities to make places like Fazley Street and the Custard Factory national centres of excellence, promoting this new wave of talent. Their perspective is already international and their skills and ideas know no limits .The next generation are highly motivated, organised, with skills in both traditional skills such as drawing ­ to digital design. They are already here with ideas that could shape the future again and they are the platform from which the Midlands can play an important role in stimulating the future creative economy.

Mario Minichiello, is Head of Department of the School of Visual Communication at Birmingham City University with fifteen years national and international illustration experience. His artwork, which has covered everything from Beirut hostage releases to spy catcher trails has engaged audiences visual attention to high profile news events and his contribution to BBC Newsnights reporting contributed in them winning the BFTA Award for news and current affairs. Mario is active within the graphic and design community and contributes widely to research for animation and illustration.

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