Brexit or Not, the UK’s Design-Led Creative Economy Is Booming

One out of every six people working in London is employed in the creative industries. That’s 900,000 talented individuals, making London the biggest creative economy of any major city in the world.

In contrast to industrial sectors like pharmaceuticals or automotive, which depend primarily on raw materials and scientific or engineering skills, creative industries like art and architecture, music, design, fashion, film, publishing, and software, all have their origin in individual creativity, skill, and talent.

Birds of a Feather

“Creativity is talent-led and international. It thrives in a majority environment with like-minded people,” says Ben Evans, one of the most influential people on the London design scene and co-founder of London Design Festival. “People from around the world are drawn to London because of its reputation. It’s not just about making things, but where the ideas are.”

Dubbed “the swinging city” by Time Magazine in 1966, London was the epicenter of a revolution that changed the world well beyond the 1960s. That’s when the Rolling Stones were giving concerts in Hyde Park, the first “supermodel” Twiggy burst on the scene, London’s Carnaby Street was the fashion center of the world, and the first credit card was introduced by Barclaycard.

The creative explosion of those times kickstarted London’s shift away from long-term economic decline.

“The transformation of London into an idea-oriented, creative-driven, tech-based economy is remarkable,” says Evans, who worries about the impact of Brexit. The diverse and prosperous nature of London’s creative industries has long been a draw for EU citizens but Brexit could make life a lot harder in a number of ways, such as travel restrictions, visa requirements, and work permits.

“While the government was slow to recognize the creative disciplines as an industry in the past, the potential for wealth creation through the generation of intellectual property has become more and more apparent,” he explains. “Today, even small towns have a creative industry officer.”

Design Is Everything

For Evans, design has been part of the story from the beginning. After all, design is part of the basic human need to organize the material environment for survival purposes and has shaped our world since the rise of humanity. It’s a very powerful tool that can determine how we feel, how we look, and what we do. And it plays an extensive role in how we live, communicate, commute, solve problems, and get things done.

MultiPly by Waugh Thistleton Architects in the Sackler Courtyard at the V&A, London Design Festival 2018

When Evans co-founded London Design Festival with Sir John Sorrell in 2003, design was a more fragmented discipline and it was hard to hear any one voice through the abundance of choice. Now, the festival is one of the highlights of the year, as it brings together many of the greatest thinkers, designers, retailers, and educators in the design industry in London each September.

“We own London for that week,” says Evans, whose brainchild draws 1 million visits to the festival and contributed £99 million to the UK economy in 2018.

He goes on to add that design is a tool and reputation is everything: “There is a direct correlation with migration of talent. Talent does not go to the business, like it did in the past when automotive workers would go to Detroit, for example. Now, investment follows talent.”

Design Thinking for a Better World

Evans believes that technology and design go hand in hand. Take BMW as an example: According to Evans, people do not buy a BMW because it’s reliable; today, all cars are reliable. People buy a BMW because they feel an affinity with the design, and consumers vote with their wallets.

“BMW has an army of designers that are reacting to the biggest change to the car industry in 100 years. It will be almost impossible to buy a combustion engine in 10 years,” he asserts.

Evans also believes that design-focused technology companies like SAP are the ones that can set a benchmark for addressing key sustainability challenges. He is creating a group exhibition called Design Frontiers in partnership with SAP as part of London Design Festival 2019. The exhibition will tell 20 stories of sustainablility projects, products, and initiatives from companies on the frontiers of design thinking, a unique approach to problem solving centered on human meaning and empathy.

One such initiative is the UK Plastics Pact, which is bringing together businesses, government agencies, non-profits, and other stakeholders to create a circular economy for plastic. The project aims to tackle the scourge of plastic waste and by 2025 replace single-use packaging with reusable, recyclable, or compostable packaging. The organization partnered with SAP to create the “Plastics Cloud,” a platform to collect data across the global supply chain.

After conducting an extensive survey of how consumers use plastic in the UK, an SAP team led by Stephen Jamieson, head of SAP Leonardo in the UK and Ireland, invited 25 key companies like Coca-Cola, Unilever, and Marks & Spencer to a three-day design thinking workshop to develop solution strategies to address different types of consumer behavior.

“By weaving itself into the networks of the city, SAP is becoming an anchor in the ocean of opportunity,” says Evans. “Consumers today are design competent and aware of the world around them. People recognize and understand the contribution of good design to sectors, cities, and, ultimately, themselves.”


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Top image: Trashpresso by Pentatonic in the Edmund J. Safra Courtyard at Somerset House, Design Frontiers 2017.