Future needs the past

Published in: Exhibition Catalogue, ‘Between Art and Industry’, National Craft Gallery, Kilkenny, May 2012, pp. 8-11.

text version follows:

Is it not strange that a book, first published in 1923, which describes the working lives of craftsmen in 19th century England, The Wheelwright’s Shop, seems so topical?  Their ancient craftwork, fascinating art more than reasoned science, held true to local wisdom and customs:

….in them was stored all the local lore of what good wheelwright’s work should be like.  The century-old tradition was still vigorous in them.  They knew each customer and his needs; understood his carters and his horses and the nature of his land; and finally took pride in providing exactly what was wanted in every case.[i]

The industrial age of mass production, scientific methods and globalisation heralded the loss of intimate knowledge that mattered so much to traditional craftsmen.  Mass production of meaningless objects kills creativity, essential as customers’ specific tastes assume more importance.  In our networked digital world, the essence of an innovative learning community is not as usually presumed, the science lab, but the small-scale craft workshop, ideal for co-creating value through continuous interaction and feedback between customer and supplier.

Meaning is the key, and becoming more crucial as society undergoes a paradigm shift from the techno-economic age of physical goods to the sustainable age of intangible experiences.  In their quest for self-realisation, individuals want to spend time and money on compelling personalised experiences, not commoditised goods and services.  As the significance of the material diminishes, it is capacities of the mind, meaningful experiences emanating from right-brain aptitudes like empathy and interpretation, that foster innovation.

Imagination, the most valuable resource of all, is driven by emotions and feelings, the heart rather than rational mind, and mostly nurtured through the arts.  The scientific mind tends to simplify and narrow experiences into manageable principles whereas the arts emphasise complexity, critical if entrepreneurial imagination and innovation are to flourish.[ii] Embracing and exploiting ambiguity is crucial, also best cultivated through arts and crafts.

In the experience economy, value rises as meaning deepens, as knowledge moves from scientific knowledge founded on information and rationality to understanding which centres on conceiving, anticipating, valuing and judging, to wisdom which is informed by purpose, ethics, memory of the past and projection into the future.[iii] While information is mechanistic and abundant, wisdom is holistic, conceptual and scarce.  Here again, the arts excel as primarily promoters of understanding and wisdom.

While certainly a source of competitive advantage, the nature of knowledge is difficult for those trained in industrial age thinking to grasp.  The innovative idea and its development have many inputs, not just scientific research.  Breakthrough ideas require intelligence of the heart and hand as well as intelligence of the head.  Innovation is shaped by deep characteristics founded on values, norms and habits.[iv] Emotions, taste, sensations and feelings are its primary drivers.  The new usually begins with an unspecified emotion or feeling which then morphs into an insight or idea that is then related to a problem or context; only then does it get framed by a rational structure or form.[v]

In essence, two fundamental processes lie at the heart of innovation.  One is analysis or rational decision-making.  The other, irrational, inspirational or intuitive thinking, called interpretation or improvisation, is more about orchestrated conversations that emerge from a rooted community.[vi] What is required is balance between the analytical and interpretive processes but policymakers, North and South, view science-based research as key to achieving the vaunted knowledge economy.  Such thinking is more suited to the industrial age of the past than the experience economy of the future.

Corporate value is increasingly tied up not in tangibles like buildings but in intangibles like culture, relationships and brands.  Progressive businesses realise the best way to differentiate their goods and services is to infuse them with emotion and artistry.  No surprise that even many high tech companies spend more on the symbolic aspects of their products than on technical developments per se.  The late Steve Jobs of Apple was brilliant at embedding passion and poetry in products to create engaging experiences.  One commentator put it:

Steve was always, if not an artist, then someone who was charmed by style.  He has this dream of something beautiful . . . his legacy will be the blending of technology and poetry . . . he shifted the industry and changed our lives through this amalgamation of culture and technology.[vii]

Valuable knowledge depends on a distinctive point-of-view or cultural perspective, and plays an important role in the music people hear, clothes they wear or food they eat, exemplified by French fashion or Italian cuisine.  For both producers and consumers, customisation and personalisation of personal tastes emerge from knowledge rooted in the values and experiences of specific cultures.  This is becoming more important as trends in digital media, social networks and global services illustrate: for example, content in digital media, originality in crafts, local expertise in food recipes and tradition in farming practices.

Take Sargadelos, one of Europe’a most distinctive porcelain design and creation companies.  Its success has been connected for over two hundred years with Galician culture and history.  Harris Tweed is another.  Produced for centuries in the tiny Outer Hebrides island of Harris, and once the favoured attire of upper classes and country sports enthusiasts, with the advent of softer fabrics and fashion changes, tweed producers fell on hard times.  Yet recently, Nike, the giant global sportswear manufacturer, chose a Harris Tweed design to adorn a range of designer trainers, generating a turnaround in the fortunes of a unique but ailing industry.

Tradition works!  It’s not some dead artefact but a living national resource that drives the creation of economic value by fostering meaning.  By presenting a compelling view of the past, it provides a guide to the future.  Situated between reason and experience, tradition offers people an opportunity to reflect on their place in the world, helping them better manage uncertainty, which harnesses a spirit of self-discovery and innovative mind-frame.

In today’s economy, where almost anything can be made anywhere, identity really matters.  Consumers have a renewed interest in methods by which products were made, materials used in their creation and where they come from; in other words, the story behind a product.  This means an expensive location might still compete in manufacturing where products possess characteristics such as prestige, originality, aura or are identified with a special place.

Apart from functionality, what matters to the user is a product’s emotional and symbolic value or a system of values, personality and identity that often goes beyond style.  Italy illuminates the importance of such experienced feelings in a product.  Italian design is invisible, a heritage that cannot be shared; the country’s arts and crafts resources have developed over generations and successful manufacturers have developed a superior capability to understand, anticipate and influence new product meanings:

[Italian manufacturers] search for radically new design languages by looking at socio-cultural phenomena that are not so visible now but that will be trends tomorrow and reality in the future.  They do not look at the phenomenon of the ‘bandwagon’.  Instead they detect the whispers of the current socio-cultural models, identify those feeble voices that are likely to get louder in the future, select from among them those whispers that best meet their own values, and help those voices become understandable and meaningful in a new product offering.[viii]

Authenticity, the heart of heritage, is seen, felt and sensed.  Highlighted in this Exhibition by Molloy & Sons, there is a future in the past, though not often recognised by Irish businesses in emerging markets like Asia.  Yet as head of Italian luxury goods company, Salvatore Ferragamo, after years selling goods in the East, says: “China has a desperate need of the past.  It is really important to them to find something that is authentic – they want to go back to original roots.”[ix]

Modern economic policy should nurture pride in the distinctive cultural and natural resources of special places; to inspire creation of quality work of world class repute that helps satisfy universal needs.  Valuable insights may be gleaned from the history of the Kilkenny Design Workshops (KDWs).  Though lasting only from 1963 to 1988, the KDWs had an enormous impact on Irish industrial design and aesthetics.[x] Harnessing the ideas of leading international designers, products had distinct characteristics inspired by all that was good in the native tradition.

If Ireland is ever to make its knowledge economy more than mere rhetoric, it must draw on its own rare, unique and inimitable resources, no matter how ‘soft’ these are.  For this to happen, a critical mass of indigenous, place-based enterprises is critical.  Inspired by culture, mediating between the traditional and modern, both local and global, these represent an essential element of a well-functioning and balanced economic system.  Distinctively Irish, such global enterprises compete fiercely in international markets, selling to the most sophisticated and demanding consumers, while battling world-class rivals.  Linking past and the present, they build on tacit resources and tradition, creating valuable products for the 21st century experience economy.

[i] Sturt, George, The Wheelwright’s Shop, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993, p54.

[ii] Chia, Robert, ‘Teaching Paradigm Shifting in Management Education: University Business Schools and the Entrepreneurial Imagination’, Journal of Management Studies, 33 (4), July 1996, pp409-428.

[iii] Hock, Dee, One from Many: VISA  and the Rise of the Chaordic Organization, San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2005.

[iv] Lundvall, Bengt -Åke (ed), National Systems of Innovation: Towards a Theory of Innovation and Interactive Learning, London: Pinter Publishers, 1992.

[v] Scharmer, C. Otto, Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges, Cambridge, MA: Society for Organizational Learning, 2007.

[vi] Lester, Richard K. and Piore, Michael J., Innovation – The Missing Dimension, Boston: Harvard University Press, 2004.

[vii] New York Times, ‘How Jobs Put Passion into Products’, 7 October 2011.

[viii] Verganti, Roberto, ‘Design as Brokering of Languages: Innovation Strategies in Italian Firms’, Design Management Journal, Summer 2003, pp34-42.

[ix] New York Times, ‘Heritage Luxury: Past becomes the Future’, 8 November 2010.

[x] Quinn, Joanna (ed), Designing Ireland: A retrospective exhibition of Kilkenny Design Workshops 1963-1988, Crafts Council of Ireland, 2005.