Design and innovation in the British Empire: a historical consideration of the innovation ecosystem

Project: Research

Description

"Design is a constantly evolving discipline, tied to the economy and playing a strategic role in the innovation ecosystem. This research will combine academic expertise in contemporary product design and history to explore the social and cultural drivers of innovation in a historical context to provide new insight into the factors promoting innovation, its application and impact. It will explore the nature of creativity in the industrial context, and the opportunities and restrictions provided by technology and business to the creative process. Additionally, it will provide a pathway to greater understanding of business development through the application of research knowledge and illuminate the prescriptive use of technology to understand how cultural and social groups at home and overseas, adopted products and processes to meet their own requirement - or rejected them in favour of established methods. This process of 'taming' technology (domestication) by peoples in a wide variety of imperial contexts has been underexplored by designers, historians, anthropologists and cultural theorists and this research will both expose this area and appeal to a broad range of disciplines.

By constructing a series of historical case studies, based on contemporary technological innovations such as steam power, the work will build a route to the greater understanding of and exposure to the nature of British imperialism and responses to it via a manageable research context and structure. It will also uncover insights into the nature of the Industrial Revolution and the industrial economy, with opportunities to apply the thinking behind this research to more modern industrial change in the developing economies of the world. By mapping these processes in an historical context, this research will shed light on contemporary design issues in a globalised economic context.

The research questions addressed by this research are:
1. What components constituted the innovation ecosystem in the mature industrial economy of nineteenth century Britain?
2. What was the impact of design on this economy and its wider imperial context?
3. How, and in what ways, were these technologies and innovations 'domesticated' by the colonised and what can this tell us about the nature of imperialism in this period?

Taken together, this research will provide a model for a new interdisciplinary approach, bringing together historical and product design methodologies and theoretical frameworks to build a fresh perspective on the nature of innovation and the impact of design. For design practitioners, this research will also provide historical precedents for the contemporary reception of new technologies across a globalised marketplace, as well as provide space for a critical interrogation of the purpose and consequences of these processes."

Key findings

"We intended to conduct five case studies (sugar production, steam ploughs, railways, bridges, minting) shortlisted from eleven potential case studies we had identified through a series of scoping exercises. We felt these five would provide a balanced overview of the technical, social, and business factors throughout the domestication process. Further research into the five studies, however, highlighted the richness of the archival resources for three of them (sugar production, railways and steam ploughs) and, given the limited timeframe and developmental nature of the funding, we have made these three studies the principal focus for our intended published outputs. We will, however, include the information we gathered during the scoping exercises on the other case studies where appropriate.

Characteristics of innovation

From the completed case studies and indicators of the other identified cases, we have identified key characteristics and findings of innovation during this period in relation to the broader socio-economic landscape.

We have also narrowed our focus. It became clear early on that the story of the transfer and diffusion of technology and innovation was vast, with a potentially huge chronological and geographical reach. Our work makes an original contribution by identifying the five stages of technological development (see chart below) and applying the case study technologies to it is a nuanced and complex way.

Answers to the research questions
1. What components constituted the innovation ecosystem in the mature industrial economy of nineteenth century Britain?
The innovation ecosystem was one driven by entrepreneurial activity. Companies tended to be smaller in scale, and were driven by engineering activity. There was a close link between the decision makers and the workshop. This resulted in a highly responsive setting - the expertise that was still general enough to allow a company to cover a range of mechanical contexts.

2. What was the impact of design on this economy and its wider imperial context?
The impact of design was designers had to acquire knowledge on the design problem through correspondence or infrequent visits. Detailed photographic or drawing information on settings was not readily available. This meant that designs were

3. How, and in what ways, were these technologies and innovations 'domesticated' by the colonised and what can this tell us about the nature of imperialism in this period?
We have not answered the question on domestication. As described above, our archival findings did not allow us to pursue this direction, and so instead, we have developed thinking on how the British Empire provided opportunities for technologies and innovations. Captive markets were met by companies who had drive and ambition. This resulted in designs that met the technical challenges posed by logistics and the environment of use, but did not necessarily consider the broader societal impact or end users. As such, our revised research question is:

How far and in what ways, were opportunities in place to allow the migration of innovation and technologies and what can this tell us about the nature of imperialism, 1850-1914?"
StatusFinished
Effective start/end date1/03/1430/11/14

Funding

  • AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council): £38,444.80

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Innovation
Ecosystem
Imperialism
Steam
Domestication
Railway
Product design
Exercise
Factors
Expertise
Decision maker
Resources
Business development
Funding
Pathway
Entrepreneurial activity
Transfer of technology
Industrial revolution
Creativity
Charts