“Why is Ireland falling behind in Design innovation?”

A recent Irish Times article asked the question – “Why is Ireland falling behind in Design innovation?” The author left the question unanswered – but asked several more.

In truth Ireland is not simply falling behind in design innovation, it is falling FURTHER behind and not just in innovation or design innovation but right across the a range of areas generally referred to as the Creative Industries. Opportunities are being missed every day.

The Irish Times writer points to Scandinavian design and says: “So why haven’t we got what the Scandinavians have got?” It isn’t accurate to refer to Scandinavian design as if design is the same throughout Scandinavia, design in the Scandinavian countries – Denmark, Norway and Sweden – is not homogeneous.

Finland provides a better model for comparison in addressing the question:

  • Finland’s population is 5.4 million and around 1 million Finns live in Helsinki
  • Finland established its National College of Art and Design in 1871, the Irish College of Art added ‘design’ to its name one hundred years later
  • Finland established its Design Forum in 1875– we have yet to follow suit
  • Recently the Finnish University of Art and Design became closely associated with the Finnish Innovation networks. The Finns know that design and innovation are inseparable so they amalgamated three Universities – University of Technology, Helsinki School of Economics and the Aalto University of Art and Design – in 2010. Our design innovation education system is not world leading and does not produce world leaders in the field
  • Helsinki has a vibrant, extensive, successful design quarter (called Design District Helsinki) – a creative hub and retail zone
  • The Finns value their place on the international stage and (among many initiatives aimed at reinforcing its importance as a world player in the design innovation field) are participating in this year’s Tokyo Design Week
  • The Finns successfully bid for World Design Capital 2012 and preparations are well under way – they stated in their bid document that ‘design is in the Finnish DNA’
  • The Finns passed a law in 2009 (it came into effect this month) making access to broadband a legal right for Finnish citizens – guaranteeing every home in Finland a one-megabit broadband connection.

Similar points could also be made about South Korean, about Singapore, about the Dutch and many other countries … the countries we are ‘falling’ behind … and about cities like Shanghai, Dubai, Seoul, Melbourne, Berlin, Cape Town, San Paolo, Lisbon, Chicago and many others.

The question posed in the Irish Times requires a response. “Why is Ireland falling behind in Design innovation?” … because while other countries put in place the environment and infrastructure needed to support and develop their creative people and their creative industries, we do not.

We certainly have the talent, we have a community of creatives that are hungry for success and for the respect of their international peers, we speak English (it’s far more widely spoken than Finnish for example), we are well located geographically. Companies operating in the creative sector are typically small – often sole traders or partnerships and seldom do they develop the scale (serving the small Irish market) to make the breakthrough into international markets. We need to build support infrastructure that will allow them to do so … we have so much potential …

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