Craft skills

Let me introduce Betatype: set up by Sarat Babu, the company recently created synthetic tissue replacements for use in medical science. Combining knowledge of materials science and engineering, as well as skills in design and craft, Babu founded two companies that develop materials for applications from orthopaedic implants to aerospace. By fusing different disciplines and skills into a single practice, the economic value of such innovations is significantly increased.

When I say the word ‘craft’, you’re probabIy thinking of something like this: expert makers, using traditional tools, working in familiar materials: metal, glass, wood, ceramics and so on. And of course all this is craft, but increasingly we are seeing innovation through craft, as makers collaborate with medical researchers, chemists, mathematicians and engineers to create breakthrough materials and stunning new products.

Yet, a new report points to evidence that the UK is at risk of failing to take advantage of its expertise in craft. Innovation through Craft: Opportunities for growth describes the way in which collaboration drives innovation and how we can make the most of its economic potential. Working with partners the Knowledge Transfer Network and the University of Brighton, the Crafts Council commissioned KPMG to investigate the processes and impact of innovation through craft. Report authors, KPMG, say that ‘Craft skills and knowledge have a strong economic impact and significant potential to drive further growth and innovation in other sectors, as this report demonstrates.’ 

Looking at the wider application of craft skills in the automotive, healthcare, construction and textiles industries, the benefits of cross sector innovation and collaboration are clear.  The evidence, and our innovation graphic, demonstrate how the fusion of craft and technology skills can lead to significant multiplier effects in the GVA accrued to companies further down the supply chain.

This ‘fusion’, the combination of creative, technological and enterprise mindsets, is enabled by collaboration across sectors and is a key driver for successful businesses. Yet more than half of those replying to KPMG’s survey said they had challenges identifying the right people to collaborate with. Innovation through craft - in which makers facilitate or catalyse innovation elsewhere, creating spillover effects in other industries - is hampered by lack of understanding of the value of craft innovation and a degree of risk that leads to under-investment in innovation by individual firms, and in craft education and skills. All this at a time of increased economic uncertainty, following the EU referendum.

KPMG highlight the need for investment in enhanced activity to showcase and publicise the value of innovation through cross-sector collaboration. Brokerage and co-ordination of business-to-business collaborations between craft experts and businesses from other sectors is vital. We need lead bodies, for example, in engineering, technology and manufacturing, to work together to help energise the kind of R&D needed to catalyse more successful businesses like those set up by Sarat Babu.

The potential rewards are great: improved productivity, development of new products and services, and differentiation of UK output, enabling us to access new global markets and reap both social and economic benefits.


Julia Bennett

Julia Bennett is Head of Research and Policy at the Crafts Council. Julia’s recent research projects include Studying Craft, a time series analysis of trends in craft education and tra…