Designs on success

Designs on success

There’s a wind of change blowing through the design of North East products. Gordon Ollivere tells Brian Nicholls about the brainstorms required to bring that change about.

It’s hard to think instantly of anyone in the North East who is more broadly experienced in supporting business than Gordon Ollivere – a key figure in the region’s bid to improve its expertise in product design.

Known in many countries for his consultancy skills, particularly in technology transfer, he chaired over five years an EU group benchmarking EU effectiveness in that area.

Membership of professional boards has taken him to Europe and the USA – and in the North East to NETPark science centre at Sedgefield.

He’s worked with Unesco and the DTI, been a sector specialist in medical and information technology, advised on more than 100 innovation projects in small and mid-size firms, and run venture capital for IT start-ups. He has served on university bodies, two Business Links, and has chaired a national network of regional technology centres. Phew! In between, he’s appended to his BA in geography at Newcastle University an M.Litt in urban studies and an ICL computing diploma.

All that’s but a snippet from a CV he makes no great play about. His major value to our region to date lies in his activities as chief executive and director of Sunderland-based RTC North, one of the UK’smost successful independents in technology transfer and innovation. Since 1989, RTC North has helped thousands of organisations to create jobs and build business. An initial team of four has grown to 55, with offices also in Liverpool and Leeds. This year, RTC North celebrates 20 years of working with industry, education and government.

Business invariably has cynics who are sceptical towards anyone in consultancy and board membership overcoats, with phrases like “hot air” and “bums on seats” often bandied about. But besides leading his company amid fierce competition, Ollivere - in 38 years between teaching abroad and raising RTC North onto its present platform - has indeed worked in the private sector; as a computer systems analyst with Turista Travel in Newcastle, and as a computer training manager with British Shipbuilders at Hebburn.

On switching to consultancy - info technology at Newcastle Technology Centre - he devised the successful tender to install a regional technology centre here. Under his direction now, RTC North enters its third decade chosen to deliver Design Network North, to foster high value, world-class products and services.

The stimulus has already begun, working from RTC North’s Sunderland premises until Design Centre North, a £13m hub of public-private partnership serving creative firms, is built at Gateshead.

For Ollivere, at 61, it’s further opportunity, albeit opening only in January 2011 – six years after a government review stressed the need for better design to counter global competition and price cutting.

Ollivere, delighted that regional development agency One North East recognises the importance of business design, says: “Though strictly not a technology, it’s a skill crossing technologies, and it often makes the competitive difference.” He cites car buying, saying most major makes are reasonably efficient in their construction, fuel efficiency and other engineering attributes.

But design often swings a sale. The challenges facing the North East’s manufacturing and industry differ from when RTC began at the time of shipbuilding and mine closures.

Ollivere recalls: “People were very depressed in the North East and low in confidence. I remember an organisation that had been working in Glasgow and other deprived areas coming to South Shields. Their man felt that it was the worst area in the country in terms of people’s attitudes, lack of confidence and social deprivation. “Now it’s transformed, with an ever-growing sense of confidence amid an improved physical environment, more jobs, and a spirit of regeneration. Today, driving through it, I see Liverpool as most in need of regeneration and revitalisation. Yet in terms of regional competitiveness on the UK Index, the North West stands considerably above the North East. So quality of life is probably not built into that.” Our challenges now, he suggests, are the still relatively low levels of educational attainment, a comparative lack of R&D in business, and social inequalities, still, in pockets of poverty.

There’s the particularly difficult geographic challenge too: the relative lack of critical mass and isolation – far from London and other major centres - can impede.

“Our cities are relatively small urban concentrations, unlike Yorkshire across to Merseyside, Greater Manchester, the Midlands area and so on. So our regional market is limited. We’ve some good big companies and institutions, but not enough together for trading with each other. Banks and large consultancies set up in Leeds, not Newcastle, seeing more customers there.” This trend is growing, he fears.

“Organisations are reducing branches and the North East is suffering. Also, although manufacturing ismore important here as a percentage of regional GDP than in most other regions, the R&D and product development in support tends to be elsewhere.

“Yorkshire’s similarly affected. But the North West by tradition has quite a lot of big company R&D. Cheshire’s quite rich in it.” Exceptions exist like Procter and Gamble, Akzo Nobel, Black and Decker, Berghaus and Thorn. But even Nissan’s “fantastic” car manufacturing in the North East relies on R&D from Milton Keynes.

“It’s like bees around a honeypot,” he suggests. “A critical mass of people in research will attract others.

“Otherwise, it’s difficult. So our universities are more important proportionately to R&D than those elsewhere. And they probably work better together in that, too.” Thus, the urgency for an industrial design centre which, encouragingly, is also backed by business bosses such as Chris Thompson at Express Group in Gateshead and Dr Terry Sheldrake at Wellstream; Newcastle’s frontline designer and maker of offshore flexibles.

This Design Centre North project was initiated last September. The winner of the building tender could be known by Christmas. The switch from Sunderland to the Baltic Business Centre at Gateshead could then take place by January 2011.

BQ hears grumbles from the private sector about the six-year gap between alarm call and completion. But no blame lies with RTC as it temporarily hosts Design Network North.

Chief executive Mike Dowson, formerly head designer at Draeger, the international specialist in safety and medical technology, has been in post since January.

“He’s absolutely great,” says Ollivere. Dowson affirms a focus on new products and services originating from North East SMEs, through an engagement of skilled experts drawn from design and creative services, universities, industry, business support organisations, research institutes and centres of excellence.

Linked in will be the Design Council, the UK’s strategic body in the field, also Network partners and participants such as the universities of Northumbria, Newcastle and Teesside – also individuals such as the designer Wayne Hemingway, formerly of the fahion label Red or Dead.

Ollivere says: “We want to ensure that what is inside the building is worthwhile. Many buildings go up now looking wonderful outside.

Then people ask, ‘what are we going to do inside?’ The best containers in the world aren’t very interesting without contents.” A rooftop globe with panoramic views of the river will provide a national conference venue in the building conceived and detail-designed by Newcastle’s Red Box Design Group.

The design centre occupies two of the four floors. Besides incubating units there’s commercial space which, it’s hoped, will be filled by empathetic businesses. Terrace Hill property development and investment group is handling this for Gateshead Council. Inside: a mindblowing “immersion theatre”. The Royal Mail has one in Rugby, and Hewlett Packard has one in the South East.

There’s one in Scotland, and many in America, but probably it’s a first in the North East. It’s a darkened entrance area where people arriving to brainstorm are intentionally disorientated to stimulate their creative thinking. Loud music, conversations and controversial discussions simultaneously bombard them, divesting even middle aged “suits” of mental inhibition.

They move then to a much brighter “lab” with flipcharts, banks of laptops and the freedom to write on the walls. A conventional theatre for events is planned, also to showcase precedents of successful North East design. Among all this a new chapter of North East enterprise is expected to be written.