Crafts, Design and Innovation by Julia Bennett

Analysis of the latest government figures for GCSE and A Level entrants in arts subjects shows a dramatic decline. Arts Professional reveals a drop in the last year of 46,000 entries for GCSEs in art and design subjects, design and technology, drama, media film and TV studies, music, and performing/expressive arts – an 8% fall compared to growth in the total number of entries of 0.3%.

Yet in the same week a new Nesta report – The Fusion Effect: how firms gain from combining arts and science skills – finds that firms that deploy STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) alongside art and design skills (STEAM) experience faster employment and sales growth than STEM firms.

This apparent contradiction may have serious consequences for the creative industries’ continuing track record of economic growth. Craft is a case in point – the Crafts Council’s new report commissioned from KPMG, Innovation through Craft: Opportunities for growth, shows the emergence of a market for craft innovation skills in industries as diverse as healthcare, biotech and the automotive industry. Yet underinvestment, few opportunities for collaborative R&D and a failure by big business to understand how to engage with the micros that typify the craft sector is adding to the growing crisis in making skills revealed in our education system.

These market failures are exemplified by the experience of Oluwaseyi Sosanya, featured in the report. Fusing new technological developments and craft to deliver new commercial opportunities Sosanya, a craft practitioner from an engineering and materials science background, has effectively combined his skills in one of his principal developments, a 3D weaver. This loom is specially designed for weaving structures with unique properties.

In spite of interest from a number of firms, both UK and international, recognising the commercial application of his 3D woven fabrics – in sectors including health, architecture, aerospace and clothing – Sosanya has faced difficulties in securing funding to take his innovations to the commercial level. It was only through financial support from the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust and, later, the James Dyson Foundation that Sosanya was able to develop his innovation. Access to business support and the legal advice to protect his intellectual property continue to create obstacles to Sosanya’s commercial success.

It’s hard not to conclude that we’re failing to understand the economic role of making skills and fusion across disciplines and industries.  How do we address this? KPMG highlight the importance of ensuring that government industry strategies on, for example, manufacturing, synthetic biology and additive manufacturing actively involve makers and materials experts. In addition, they point to supply chain interventions, such as the need for brokering and co-ordinating of business-to-business collaborations between craft experts and other sectors, for example, engineering, technology and manufacturing.

The report findings have particular resonance where research institutions and science innovators are in close proximity to creatives and makers, such as in the Kings Cross Knowledge Quarter. A craft innovation collaboration between partners in one of the greatest knowledge clusters in the world could offer really exciting opportunities.

In order to harness the economic potential of cross-sector innovation and fully realise the benefits of new technologies, we need to see enhanced investment in such opportunities and a renewed emphasis on creative education as a matter of urgency.


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.