How do we overcome the barriers for craft microbusinesses, so they can reap the benefits of some amazing collaborations with other industries?
So I greeted the news of a new cross-party parliamentary group on entrepreneurship with a cheer. As the chair, new MP Alan Mak, says “The job for life is dead and young people need to be equipped with the skills to adapt to the modern working environment, including the skills to work for themselves.”
Yet as more people join the throngs of the self-employed, a new report, Innovation through Craft: Opportunities for growth, throws a spotlight on the many barriers still faced by sole traders (90% amongst makers).
The Crafts Council, together with partners the Knowledge Transfer Network and the University of Brighton, commissioned KPMG to investigate the impact of innovation through craft, to understand what stands in the way of realising its economic potential. The report reveals how hard it is to broker relationships between sole traders and big business – and how important it is to facilitate collaboration and invest in the process actively.
If you take a look at innovation through the lens of craft, it may seem like nothing new. Across material disciplines, craft processes have always driven breakthroughs that have passed into other fields.
What is changing is where and how this is now happening - makers are facilitating or catalysing innovation, creating spillover effects in diverse industries, such as digital technology, aerospace and bioscience. Lauren Bowker, for example, is a 'textile alchemist' whose colour-changing materials led to designs for devices that can monitor body and environment. Commissions from her company, The Unseen, include tracking car aerodynamics for Formula One and in healthcare creating bandages and soft devices that monitor patient conditions.
UK governments have given increasing attention to the creative industries’ considerable economic contribution, as reflected in the UK Creative Industries Council’s new strategy, published in the same week as this report. But we know that we enter uncertain times following the EU referendum. And current national statistics do not yet reflect the full value of craft, especially where it is generated through collaboration with other sectors.
KPMG’s findings show how craft businesses face a number of barriers: lack of understanding of the value of craft innovation, positive externalities (benefits to third parties) and a degree of risk that leads both to underinvestment by individual firms in innovation, and to underinvestment in craft education and skills.
The RSA’s own research has thrown a spotlight on the UK’s booming microbusiness population and the need for improved business support to this community. Unless the new parliamentary group on entrepreneurship addresses the particular characteristics of the microbusiness community and the vital role collaboration plays in fostering innovation and entrepreneurship, we will continue to see a talent drain in our making communities and a significant loss of competitive advantage.
Julia Bennett is Head of Research and Policy at the Crafts Council.
Julia’s recent research projects include Studying Craft, a time series analysis of trends in craft education and training, and Defining and Measuring Craft, a set of proposals which resulted in DCMS including craft data for the first time in its economic estimates.
As an experienced research manager, policy specialist and strategist, Julia has worked with small charities and arts organisations, as well as for the Learning and Skills Improvement Service, the Local Government Association and the Minority Rights Group.