#001 / 1997


No design in the making

"Make more, cut less" is the political elixir being promoted to sustain economic output and allow for "peace in the woods." The main ingredients of this provincially formulated cure are strategies to develop new wood product manufacturing ventures that will produce more wealth per unit of timber harvested. But in all this rhetoric about planning for making, where is the design content that sophisticated manufacturing requires in order to survive?

Credible design initiatives are essential because the products we export are the tangible evidence of our commitment to a sustainable environment (even though the majority of forest economic activity will, by its nature, remain "land-based"--silviculture, restoration, logging, etc.).

Three years ago this month the BC government established Forest Renewal BC (FRBC) to provide the emergency care required to implement this radical change in the way we do business. While the media gurus prattle on about skills for today's "information revolution," FRBC must contend with a local culture that in many ways has skipped the learning experience of an "industrial revolution."

This gap in our historical cultural psyche is reflected in our educational institutions where the specialist structures of universities and trades apprenticeship programs take precedence over multi-disciplinary applied art, design and technology programs. In contrast, since 1987 in Britain "design and technology" has been offered as a subject for girls and boys in each school year from kindergarten to graduation and in 1996 became compulsory. UK post-secondary institutions graduate 20,000 designers every year and similar statistics apply to other countries where manufacturing is a vital component of their economies.

In its three years of existence FRBC has taken tentative steps down the value-added road. So far policies have been timid and unequal to the task of developing the quality and professionalism required for international standing. Funding has largely rewarded the institutions (Ministry of Forests, UBC Forestry Faculty, Forintek, etc.) that for decades have shown little interest in developing innovative design-led manufacturing. Related projects (woodLINKS, Beyond Boards, WoodInfo Net, etc.) have not fared much better.

The Vancouver Sun, Friday, January 17, 1997.

Solutions lie not in the past but in innovative policies that accept the degree of risk inherent with change and that discount self-serving bureaucracies:

Public education can provide students in all grades with an interdisciplinary curriculum to provide a foundation of "life skills" that encompasses a problem-solving attitude towards design, technology and the environment. Young people can be encouraged to see the rewards of an industry that involves them in the making of necessary, beautiful and sustainable products.

Research can focus on enhancing the aesthetic characteristics of wood that directly influence the end user: density, colour, reflectivity, lustre, grain pattern, fit and finish, etc.

Manufacturing networks, wood marketing boards, industrial incubator sites and other infrastructure projects can be assisted through the start-up phase by the provision of sympathetic financing and marketing co-operatives.

The viability of the "value-created" manufacturing sector (which does not produce "ordinary" commodities as do "primary" and "secondary" sectors) can be promoted to explain its essential role in economic development.

If "value-added" is to be more than just hype, FRBC must recognize the historical biases inherent in our industrial development thinking and create a project team to act on behalf of value-created (design-led) wood product manufacturing. When we have policies that genuinely support design in the making, we'll see the trees in the forest for what they are--a resource to be used responsibly and creatively.

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