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STEAM not STEM. Or we kill UK Manufacturing’s competitive edge.

STEAM not STEM. Or we kill UK Manufacturing’s competitive edge.

How much evidence do we need that British manufacturing needs to keep incorporating creative talent as well as scientific and technical skills to stay competitive?  It’s time to add Art to the list of must-have talents for UK plc. 

The World Economic Forum in their Future of Jobs report for 2023 have a more positive view on AI than they did when we last delved into their research in 2016. Most new technologies are expected to be job creators in the next five years, rather than removing jobs. But we still know that repetitious tasks will go to robots – albeit at a slower rate than first feared.  Tasks that call for empathy, interpersonal skills and creativity will go to humans.  Because people, let’s face it, like dealing with people. And critically, the WEF says that:

Analytical thinking and creative thinking remain the most important skills for workers in 2023.”

Artisan brands, drawing on ever more creative design, language, and marketing techniques, are impacting all kinds of sectors that have until now, been dominated by big players. 

Industry 4.0 gets us up to speed.  It doesn’t give us the edge.

Digital skill sets, urgently needed in greater supply to bring down the cost of Industry 4.0, have every bit as much to do with creative problem-solving and design as they do with scientific and technological knowledge.  It doesn’t matter how good we get at Industry 4.0 in this country if that is all we have to make us distinctive in a global marketplace.  The same technology is available the world over, to every manufacturing cell from Stuttgart to San Diego.  We can’t be first to market, because other countries are already there with vast economies of scale.  So we need to be better, or different. 

I’m biased.  I’m an arts graduate. 

In a time before tuition fees I was lucky enough to study History of Art, Italian and French so names like Leonardo Da Vinci became pretty familiar.  I didn’t ever need to question what the arts have to do with making things.  Maybe that is what made it so easy to understand the manufacturing environment at Cumbria Crystal.  Without creativity, we churn out obvious answers.  Without design thinking, we create products that reference competitor products more than they do the needs of customers. 

And yet Arts degrees are being squeezed out of many UK universities, because they don’t instantly translate into a specific job, in the way that business studies supposedly should.  If education is going to be all about immediate economic return, let’s convert ourselves into a robot race right now.  Conveyer belt through a work-focused degree, drudge through a career, retire.  Learning as a source of fulfillment, happiness and an end in itself will be effectively eradicated.  As Lord Bragg once put it: “Britain is one of the leading places for study of the arts…it’s not because of some artistic genius that sprouts out of the ground like dragon’s teeth.”

UK Manufacturing’s competitive edge won’t spring forth like dragon’s teeth either.  We need to find and nurture our inherent points of difference.  Why can’t we yet again, be a STEAM-powered nation? 

What can individual manufacturing firms do?

Make use of talent from non-standard backgrounds.  Employ people for their attitude to hard work and their skill sets, not just their experience levels in your sector.

Encourage a wide range of problem-solving techniques within your teams.  This starts with regular conversations between people from different departments, so they can cut across silo working. 

Don’t just focus on cost.  Focus on value.  The value that your products and services can add for clients and end-users.  Not all of that will be derived from technical or scientific excellence. 

To find out more about how we can help you with your innovation challenges, in Lancaster, Lancashire, the North West, and beyond, get in touch.

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