DESIGN LAB ONE: CHALLENGES
The Design Lab was a constructive attempt to engage with challenges, rather than revisiting historical failures or missed opportunities.
The following are issues that were highlighted as major issues, for which solutions needed to be found.
They are not a list of grievances but an attempt to map the sector, in order to understand ways forward.
An important part of the exercise was to reveal the bigger picture. Putting all of the issues together allowed an understanding of what might be called the sector ‘ecosystem.
In the right-hand boxes, there are specific and practical issues that need to be addressed and are seen as necessary areas for investment.
On the left are equally essential cultural issues that need attention and action.
The Design Lab worked hard to avoid personalising the debate and blaming perceived failures by people or institutions. Nonetheless, it recognised that leadership is essential to drive forward the sectoral agenda.
Leadership comes in many forms.
One essential need is leadership by example.
The sector needs inspiring stories of success and role models that convince people, particularly emerging talent, that their goals are realistic and achievable.
That kind of leadership is particularly important in building on our diversity. People need to see themselves in the leadership of the sector and to believe that they can follow the same path. While building pathways are important, those who have succeeded need to illuminate the way.
There was also recognition of the need for political leadership on a national and international stage. The region needs champions, who will be listened to at decision-making levels in government. Criticism of a top-down system does not mean naivety about the need for strong advocates at the the highest levels.
But the message from the Design Lab was that high-level public-sector leadership needed to join up with industry initiatives to create effective pathways to success.
There is no trickle-down effect from investments at the top and real leadership needed to be about a much more open approach that listened to industry and was able to create engagement and momentum across the whole sector.
The West Midlands has not been short of workshops and skills initiatives, or of expensive consultancy reports and analysis.
But a theme that ran through the discussions at the lab was that activity was too often piecemeal and disconnected.
Some suggested that analysing the problems of the West Midlands creative screen sector providing workshops and training through public funding had become an industry of its own.
Yet too many interventions raised enthusiasm and hope but then led nowhere: A piecemeal approach was frequently cited as an obstacle, not just to individual development but to sectoral growth.
Getting a small number of people in a room for a workshop on any given subject may have some value but that value will diminish if it is not given context and provided with next steps.
And training without the infrastructure to build businesses and careers simply meant that the West Midlands was creating capital for other regions to exploit.
Coordination and collaborative planning clearly emerged as vital to any aspirations for a sustainable, diverse and competitive sector.
The need for a “compelling narrative” for the West Midlands is repeated so often that it has become an empty cliche.
There has to be a cause, around which the sector can rally. To an extent Channel 4 represented that sense of purpose but the Design Lab suggested that even a winning campaign would not have resolved critical questions about how to build the sector.
The strongest sentiment exists around individual cities and less so around a sense of the Midlands. But the West Midlands has a much less clear identity. An important example of the issue is the Leamington Spa games cluster, which will be essential to the growth strategies outlined here. It fits within the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP but is not part of the West Midlands Combined Authority.
National institutions have their own regional policies with responsibilities to cover the region. But those can be confusing too: the BFI’s Film Audience Network, for example, covers the West Midlands but is based in Nottingham, looking after a whole Midlands strategy.
The confusion about geography was raised by a number of frustrated delegates and it fed into a bigger story of the idea of the “unique DNA” of the region. The sense that emerged from the workshop was that we needed to design our future and create our own DNA, rather than relying on past glories or on myth.
That Design needed to be a holistic strategy that could come together as a distinct regional plan, integrated into national and international networks.
The WMSB, for example, has been encouraging the idea of cross-sectoral IP development, where the region becomes a powerhouse of storytelling and ideas development, and the entrepreneurial ability to turn those ideas into IP and sustainable business.
Such ideas cannot be immediately resolved within the region, and we should be looking for inspiration, best practice and direct partnership from elsewhere across the UK and abroad.
One delegate captured the knowledge challenge perfectly: “We don’t always know what we don’t know.”
That insight is essential to the development of the sector. The biggest gaps to sectoral growth are often knowledge gaps. Other issues, such as lack of studios, skills or finance, often have their roots in ignorance.
At the basic level, the lab highlighted missing information about other businesses in the region, about available finance and about developments across the sector.
The overall argument (although the term was not used) is that the West Midlands needs to become a Knowledge Economy.
In practice that means research and development, network creation and, crucially, a culture of information sharing.
A critical part of the argument is that we need to begin learning from failure. The argument is a mixture of agile methodologies of project development, testing and analysis of projects and sharing of results.
One delegate said the region needed to stop conforming to the traditional definition of madness: “Doing the same thing over and again and expecting different results.”
The session called for a clear method of analysing and sharing knowledge from a wide range of sources in ways that were relevant to the regional sector.