Come on Britain, get creative (or why the arts can save us from robots)

The creative economy is the UK’s GDP powerhouse, with related employment growing at three times the rate of the workforce as a whole. But we can’t sit back and relax: we need to encourage it by breaking out of the disciplinary silos imposed by this country’s education system – science, technology, engineering and maths education, or STEM – and adding arts, turning it into STEAM.

Come on Britain, get creative (or why the arts can save us from robots)

Nesta, the leading innovation charity of which I’m a trustee, believes that talent needs access to a multidisciplinary education system. Creativity, innovation and original thought is required to generate competitive advantage, and the lines between what is considered to be practical and what is creative are becoming increasingly blurred: Coding requires both logic and creativity.

This is why it’s so worrying that Nesta’s research revealed only 8.4% of students accepted for creative arts and design degree courses in 2011 had taken an A-level in maths, while a mere 5% accepted for maths and computer courses had studied art or design.

Its research also revealed that the UK’s productivity is 17% lower than the average within the G7, and that there’s a gap in our economy as manual and admin jobs are automated out of existence. The more productive creative economy can change that. It already makes up a tenth of the value of the UK’s economy, worth 2.6 million jobs. That’s bigger than the financial services sector, manufacturing or construction.

Adding creativity to our work will save jobs from automation, be it robots in manufacturing or software taking over admin roles in the next years and decades. If you’ve got a job sifting through data or doing basic administration, it’s highly likely a robot will take that role in the next decade or so.

But there’s an alternative: Nesta’s research suggests 87% of creative jobs are at no or low risk of automation versus 40% for the wider economy. Original thought protects against automation.

Creative roles can also cut regional income differences: at the moment, most creative roles are based in London and the South East, but access to cloud-based computing and communications solutions means that work is now something you do rather than somewhere you go.

The creative economy is also good for our wellbeing: Nesta reported that those in creative roles have higher-than-average life satisfaction, worthwhileness and happiness – as well as higher wages than other industries.

Britain is a nation of small businesses, and that’s reflected in the creative industry. Many creative firms aren’t big businesses, they’re founded by entrepreneurs. If you’re looking at developing a business, something that has a creative output is far more likely to succeed into the more distant future.

The risk of missed opportunity and even terminal disruption applies to big businesses too, of course, as more mature and often risk-averse organisations struggle to attract or identify and support creative talent. Many traditional companies will face their “Kodak moment” and lose their market dominance unless they evolve and find ways to add more value for their customers via their products and services. This will increasingly involve the development of software. Otherwise, they’re going to find themselves disrupted by a 20-year-old kid with few creative or technical boundaries.

The future of our economy, where most of our GDP will be created, is high-tech, and that’s creative too. Writing code requires imagination. You can give anyone a pile of bricks, but they’re not going to build St Paul’s Cathedral. It takes creativity and an ability to translate vision into a working reality.

All of this is why we need to remove those disciplinary silos and teach students the full range of skills they need to succeed in our future economy and labour market. The modern education system has its roots in the industrial revolution, where reading, writing and counting were required to read instructions to operate a machine and then to count and record the widgets that come out at the end. That’s not good enough – robots and software can now do that. We need to do more to match talent with opportunity and demand.

You can no longer say to students: “Are you going to go arty or are you going into maths and sciences?” We have to get over that nonsense. You can’t go down that technical route, especially into technology, without being creative. In the US, they have a system of major and minor at college, which allows students to mix disciplines.

So I back Nesta’s call for the government to end its bias against multidisciplinary education. We need to forget STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths education – in favour of STEAM, and put the arts and creativity back into education.

After all, no startup, entrepreneur or successful business – tech or otherwise – can survive without creativity. The UK economy needs it to survive, and employees need it to keep their jobs safe from automation. Britain: it’s time to get creative.

Piers Linney is co-CEO of cloud experts Outsourcery, a former BBC Dragon and a future Virgin Galactic astronaut. He is also trustee of Nesta, an innovation charity with a mission to help people and organisations bring great ideas to life.

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