Make Shift, the biennial conference about craft and the future of making, kicks off in Manchester today. Annie Warburton, creative director at the Crafts Council, which organises the event, told us about some of the subjects it will explore
ICON This is the second Make Shift conference. Is there a different thrust to this year’s event?
ANNIE WARBURTON The first Make Shift in 2014 laid open a world of disruptive innovation in craft. This year, we’re going a step further – we will not only showcase an extraordinary array of disruptive innovation in areas ranging from social innovation to sustainability and health, but we will also ask, to what end?
The issue of why craft innovation matters is a crucial one. This conference comes at a critical time for the craft sector and its place in Britain’s economy. The KPMG report ‘Innovation through Craft’, published July 2016, shows that makers are the ‘hidden heroes’ of this economy – playing a central role in science and tech innovation. But these people need to be understood and supported or we risk losing a £3.4 billion industry to global competitors. Britain has a burgeoning movement of makers who, given the right support and network, will take their micro-concepts and turn them into macro-innovations in everything from biotechnology to wearables to robotics.
Both government and business need to better understand what a craft is, how it can be commercialised, and how it fits into the research and development process of established businesses. If this doesn’t happen, the UK risks witnessing an investment and brain drain as innovative ‘makers’ move to US, China, Scandinavia and other growing innovation hubs, which have seen the potential for craft and innovation and have strategic investment already underway. We want this week’s conference to act as a broker, bringing together a diverse line up of speakers and providing an inspiring environment in which to explore, debate and connect with experts from other fields.
ICON The word ‘craft’ has quite traditional connotations. Do you think that’s changing?
AW It does for some people, but actually craft and innovation have gone hand in hand for decades. Across material disciplines, craft processes have always driven breakthroughs that have passed into other field. Bill Gates launched a new research fund a few weeks ago and cited the example of John Harrison, the self-taught carpenter and clockmaker who revolutionised seafaring by solving the problem of calculating longitude at sea. Wedgwood was a company of craft makers, but it was also an innovator in its use of materials, transportation and marketing. Not to mention its progressive approach to abolition of the slave trade. Crafts are more often progressive than conservative.
Today we can see craft innovation in our Parallel Practices programme, where we partner makers with scientists. Or on a commercial level in the impact craft professionals are having in global companies such as Bentley. It’s clear to see that craft’s ‘traditional tag’ is a bit of a misnomer.
ICON What are the most important trends and developments happening in the world of craft at the moment? What themes are likely to emerge in future?
AW There are probably four key themes we are seeing. First, is the increasing access to new materials and processes. At the highest level we’re talking about areas such as graphene, but we’re also talking about benches made out of pine needles, or Pinatex, the innovative, natural and sustainable non-woven textile made out of pineapple leaves. And on processes, digital tools and manufacturing are facilitating new ways of utilising these materials and making and distributing products. The second trend is social change. Makers are increasingly exploring, experimenting and facilitating social change by developing new systems for sharing skills. The emergence of an open exchange of skills and knowledge and creative participation of the community is an exciting development that is building momentum.
The third trend could be termed ‘mass customisation’ with makers being inherently interested in materials, their provenance and developing new systems for production. The final trend is sustainability. The design industry is seeking ways to utilise its by-products and manufacturing waste. In the field of bio-design, makers are engaging with organic materials and living technologies, observing nature and adopting sustainable patterns and structures to develop solutions. Makers can bring deep material specialisation and a problem solving mind-set to the creation of a new wave of sustainable products.
ICON How will these be covered at the conference? Is there anything in particular you are looking forward to? Is there an overall message?
AW All the areas above will be discussed at the conference, and all of these discussions will feed into the overall theme around craft and innovation. The UK can retain its position as a global leader in craft and innovation but we have to get better at catalysing this through fostering better connections between craft makers, tech, and industry. And by better funding the sector more generally. If we do this, then the results can be incredible. Just look at some of the products which will be on show at the conference this week: clothing made from mushroom mycelium, liquid lighting, 3D printed hearts and the use of smart textiles and embedded electronics for blind and partially-sighted people. All innovations which emanated from craft interactions and all in the UK. This is the key message that will be coming out of the conference. Craft as innovator.
ICON What might designers and architects take away from the event?
AW We hope that they take away a desire to push their own practice into the direction of collaboration and openness that can lead to exciting development across industries. At the conference we will have surgeons, technologists, engineers, social entrepreneurs, and many others who have already made connections with craft makers – we would like to see designers and architects join that group.
Annie Warburton is creative director at the Crafts Council where she leads on exhibitions, education, innovation and research