British Design Innovation (BDI), the trade organisation which represents some of the world's best strategic designers, has called on Lord Mandelson to clarify where the government stands on the issue of university research and innovation centres competing against the private sector design industry.
Earlier this year the organisation published a major review of the relationship between the government's innovation strategy, the strategic design industry and universities in the UK. Delivering the Innovation Dream: The BDI Report highlighted the disruption caused to the commercial design industry by competing university innovation activities, and the lack of engagement of the strategic design profession by some universities.
BDI's member companies generate £200m turnover and work alongside innovation partners in aeronautics, biotechnology, consumer electronics, food and drink, consumer health, medical, nanotechnology, telecommunications and transport.
The organisation is concerned universities are being put under government pressure to staff product design and innovation centres in order to commercialise their research results at the earliest possible opportunity; placing publicly-funded universities in direct competition with private sector design companies and experts, with subsequent distortion of their industry.
"The government appears to be expecting disruptive innovation developed from university research projects to lead to the ‘next big thing'," said BDI chairman Paul Pankhurst of PDD product innovation consultancy. "However, they also appear to be seeking results within a one- or two-year development period, rather than the five-year norm such complicated research commercialisation often takes.
"Research projects leading to big discoveries and new, world-beating disruptive technologies cannot suddenly be restricted to such short-term, government-imposed, discovery-to-market schedules, as this will only result in incremental improvements to existing products and services, or some new-to-market or new-to-sector successes."
Such development activities are already undertaken by the private sector and do not comprise original in-depth research, he explained. "That is why the private sector does not receive the public funding made available to universities to undertake basic research on the path of discovery."
BDI proposes the creation of a formal University Design Industry Partnership scheme, tasked with commercialising promising university research results by turning them into user-led market applications and licenses to industry.
"A strategic national University Design Industry Partnership scheme would help deflect pressure from the universities, which appear to be viewed as a kind of innovation remedy by the government but whose connections to the most suitable industrial partners are somewhat unstructured," said Maxine Horn, BDI's CEO.
"By acknowledging and engaging the directors of top strategic design firms as knowledge providers, both university research commercialisation and the government's innovation strategy alike would be hugely stimulated, with a much greater number of positive outcomes.
These strategic designers are engaged as key product, service and brand development contract advisors to the world's biggest companies, she added. "Their knowledge is vast, yet their access to established SMEs and start-up companies should also not be underestimated."
Strategic design is regarded as an effective way to bridge innovation, research, management and design by applying design principles to increase an organisation's innovative and competitive qualities. Through the analysis of trends and data, it enables design decisions to be based on facts rather than aesthetics or intuition,
"BDI members have already demonstrated highly successful collaborations," said Professor Phil Gray of Quadro Design Associates, a BDI director who was involved in starting the UK's first university innovation centre at Loughborough in 1972. "Universities and private industry should build on existing successes as complementary partners, not competitors.
"The sooner everyone agrees a transparent, unified position on this fundamental issue, the better it will be for universities, private industry and the government's innovation strategy alike."