The new artisan

Rob Fraser and Andrew Thomson FRSA write that if modern crafts are to thrive, they need to attract young people. That means developing a language that both inspires and informs.

In the Winter 2011 RSA Journal, Sir Christopher Frayling argued: “If the crafts are to move centre stage, as some of us fervently hope they will, and if recent public statements about productive industry turn out to be more than rhetoric, there is an urgent need to find new ways of talking and thinking about such concepts.” He is right, and far from alone in thinking that we need a new language to inspire people, particularly the young, when it comes to modern crafts. One thing that would help is a name for how we work. Meet the ‘new artisan’.

‘New’, because we need to borrow a term from the past to invent the future, a future in which it will no longer be about taking A-levels if you can, and something else if you do not do well in your GCSEs. ‘Artisan’, because it encompasses the functional, technical and creative capacities that are essential if we are to sustain our quality of life, let alone improve it. The new artisan embodies the cross-disciplinary skills and entrepreneurial aspirations that are pivotal to economic growth, and specifically to wealth-creation opportunities from the digital economy.

To illustrate the idea, consider cloud computing, which is rapidly becoming a cornerstone of the digital economy. The cloud is characterised by vast data centres in which companies rent IT infrastructure, in which software apps are developed, deployed and marketed, and in which software is catalogued, purchased and consumed as a pay-by-use service.

As a social phenomenon, the cloud is about ubiquitous connectivity. It connects people in extended social graphs, and it connects the devices that people use with the innovative apps and services that they increasingly depend on. It is enabling the explosion in novel and innovative internet-connected devices – what we call the ‘Internet of Things’.

Economically, the cloud is about democratisation. Start-ups and small businesses can use a credit card to access the kind of global infrastructure formerly available to only the largest enterprises, and thereby take advantage of global economies of scale. This reduces barriers to participation in the digital economy and provides access to global markets and the free distribution of digital goods. The cloud is a platform for economic growth and innovation, especially where this can be driven by small and medium-sized firms. This innovation engine for growth is dependent on trans-sector and cross-disciplinary skills applied creatively with entrepreneurial thinking. 

For an example of the new artisan in action, look to Microsoft. It directly employs 3,000 people in the UK, but within the 30,000-strong Microsoft Partner Network there are 260,000 people working with its technology. This ‘Microsoft economy’ contributes £23.7bn in revenue to the UK economy and generates £7.8bn of investment. Whether building apps, cloud-based services or novel cloud-connected consumer devices, this type of organisation requires creative, ambitious individuals with a mix of artistic, design, technological and commerce skills.

Redefining intelligence

The first step is to recognise the different types of intelligence, understanding how people learn what they can do and how these things are seen. Logic skills, for example, are seen as characterising the basis of training in professions such as law, accountancy and medicine. Then there are the ‘creative’ skills – such as lateral thinking, imagining and spatial awareness – which the education system generally assumes to be suited to making and doing, and to be somehow less important. 

Yet creativity, imagination and conceptual skills are essential to success in the physical and digital worlds and to the future economy. In the past, various attempts have been made to ‘value’ creative skills: new types of school, new exam systems and curriculum reform. All have been attempts to make different things seem equal. They have not worked. The current remedy is a mix of liberty and orthodoxy: the freedom to create new types of school and to ‘privatise’ the curriculum, with an emphasis on academic subjects and ‘harder’ examinations.

While this philosophy may drive the school curriculum, the introduction of high fees for degrees will boost demand for good courses that lead to good jobs. Perhaps now is the time to take up Sir Christopher’s challenge and devise an educational system that inculcates ingenuity, capitalises on diverse creative abilities, and shapes attributes and skills that will be valued in the socio-economy of the future. 

The aim is to produce the new artisans of tomorrow: young people who can contribute to the jobs of the future and change the way we work. People who can be entrepreneurs and enterprising innovators at work, who understand new technologies and their powers – and who are drawn from the whole of what we still call the ‘academic ability range’. 

Why should this work? Economics drives the need and creates the conditions in which such an education could succeed. In the globalised economy, our best hope for sustaining a high quality of life, a low cost of living and a brighter future is to provide goods and services enhanced by advanced knowledge, skills and creative capacities. And work that cannot be outsourced abroad – such as retail, beauty and construction – will operate in markets where customer expectations always rise.

The new artisan will bring craft, design, science, art and ingenuity to the task. The new artisan will find good work in a world that prizes, rather than relegates, these attributes to second best. No longer will they fall into trades and occupations because professional life is inaccessible. The key is the language, elevating the status of the new artisan. It will only be a worthwhile enterprise if the term itself is desirable and inspirational.

Industry can take the lead. A vital part of the future growth of the ‘Microsoft economy’ will be success in widening the participation of people in that economy who have the technical and creative skills to take advantage of the democratisation of access and opportunity that the cloud represents. 

However, the significant point about Microsoft is that, while it is recognisably at the forefront of the ‘STEM industries’, it is also at the forefront of the creative industries. This is because of the indistinguishable mix of intelligence needed to succeed at the company: logical thinking skills and creative capacities. This mix of craft, art, science and design will be indispensable to the future economy.

For example, in the STEM industries, a current trend is the ‘professional technician’, with the associated movement to ensure that the UK builds its capacities in the quality, status and quantity of these people. The professional technician is merely a subset of the new artisan, a particular type of professional that the STEM industries require. The message is the same: we must make applied, creative intelligence attractive to the next generation.

The new artisan will be found in all areas of the economy. If this concept is developed, promoted and used to change the way we educate our young people, it will ensure that they are attracted by the idea of developing the attributes upon which they and their country will depend for a decent future.

Rob Fraser is Cloud Computing Strategist for Microsoft UK. Andrew Thomson is a freelance management consultant specialising in organisational development and innovation.