In or out of Europe, the UK is an innovation economy - here's how it can stay that way

Annie Warburton
Workers Make And Renovate Neon Signs
While manufacturing may be on the way out, Britain is going through a craft-making boom (Source: Getty)

Forget Brexit for one moment and allow yourself time for some good news: Britain is going through a craft-making boom.

Far from a hobby industry, it now contributes over £3.4bn to the UK economy annually – helping design and create everything from surgical implants, to drug catheters, to cars. And with targeted support from government and big business it could be even bigger.

Brexit continues to dominate the news but as the implications for industries ranging from manufacturing to banking are played out there is one area that is thriving and could become a new, major comparative advantage for Britain outside of Europe.

Read more: Why innovation should be top of every business' agenda

Today there are over 150,000 craftspeople operating across our economy. These ‘hidden heroes’ are driving huge innovation across every sector of our economy, yet this has happened largely organically without government or commercial support and without the kind of fanfare seen in the UK’s tech sector.

We will likely never be a large-scale manufacturer again, we may lose our status as the world’s leading financial centre but if we act fast to support its growth, we can carve out a position as the world’s leading economy for craft and innovation.

Britain can still make “things”

Up until now the UK’s creative industries policy has been focused on media entertainment and digital with less focus being placed on the physical, material creative industries. As a result Britain has built a thriving entertainment and digital economy churning out best selling movies, music and apps but imagine if that was mirrored in the crafts sector. Government and business need to better understand the potential of crafts and how it can be commercialised.

Read more: These are the most innovative businesses in the UK

Other economies are looking to move ahead of the UK with craft makers already considering calling other innovation hubs their home. The US, China, and Scandinavia have all seen the potential for craft and innovation with strategic investment already underway – Britain has to catch up.

Crafts are a profession, not a pastime

Bentley benefitted from a groundbreaking partnership with highly-skilled craft makers who combined to drive cutting edge innovations in the company’s latest luxury cars. The collaboration is estimated to have added over £1.1bn to the company’s gross value add to the UK economy in 2014 alone.

We have to get better at brokering and co-ordinating business-to-business collaborations between craft experts and businesses from other sectors, with lead bodies in engineering, technology and manufacturing working together with bodies such as the Crafts Council and Innovate UK. And we must develop the role of Higher Education in creating hubs for driving innovation and collaboration between craft and industry. This has happened in the digital and entertainment space. Why not in crafts?

Read more: What can the public sector teach firms about innovation?

Brexit may well have huge long-term impacts on the UK economy but where there are challenges there are also opportunities. Over the last decade, as we have seen the rise and rise of the financial and tech sectors, the quiet growth of crafts and innovation has been left in the shadows.

If we do not support craft makers now then innovation will be driven from Beijing rather than Birmingham. We have the opportunity to lead the world – we should take it.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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