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

Lead Research Organisation: University of Strathclyde
Department Name: Design Manufacture and Engineering Man


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.

Planned Impact

Impact on project team
The skills of the researchers will benefit by being exposed to new areas. The PI will be exposed to intricate archive research and the sourcing of primary sources for historical research. The CI will learn about the design process and how groups of people collaborate to innovate new designs. This provides a new and strategic academic link between distinct fields, and the intention of the project team is to build long-term collaboration between their institutions. Both partner institutions are admirably situated to support the development of this research, and its expansion into other networking and collaborative activities. The CI has already made links with the Duncan and Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee, to access further expertise in the design field and situate the project into a positive institutional context. Likewise, the PI's institution, the University of Strathclyde, has as its mission to be among the leading technological universities in the world and its Department of Design, Manufacture and Engineering Management has extensive industrial contacts through Knowledge Exchange activity where the project findings on innovation can be applied.

Impact on society
The project team would establish relations with each of the participating archives during data collection, while the project workshops will allow these organisations to input ideas on the project direction and progress. The basis of this public engagement component will be organising and hosting of two stakeholder workshops, to highlight the research being completed under the development grant, but also to begin an engaged dialogue with future potential collaborators in the academic, museums and design business worlds. A larger-scale research programme is planned which will move beyond the case study findings to identify contemporary businesses, processes and environments where similar situations of domestication of technology may arise. This will result in a better understanding of how innovation can be harnessed not just in economic terms but for the benefit of society. As well as commercial organisations, the future findings would be of interest to educational and statutory groups such as the Design Council and the Higher Education Academy for wider industrial and educational use. These would be potential collaborators in any larger future grant application. Both the PI and CI have extensive experience of public engagement through research, and this would be a priority of the project. British-wide museum and archive links (Museum of English Rural Life, Scottish Rural museums Network, V&A Dundee) have already been made with a view to (1) to provide the RA with valuable public engagement and impact experience (2) to promote the project and awareness of its findings among key stakeholders.

This would be supplemented by use of social media to reach a wider audience: a project website and Facebook page will be established, and as research networks were built, project awareness would be increased via partner organisations' media outlets.

Other key beneficiaries are both teachers and pupils, and the CI's establishment and administration in 2011 of an online network for academics and schools and colleges (the Scottish History Resources group) will provide a ready-made entry point to impact on this group. This kind of dialogue between academic researchers, schools and local communities is critical to the development of future research and engagement directions, and will support the development of the Scottish Government's Curriculum for Excellence agenda. As part of this new curriculum, new History topics have been introduced into schools and colleges, one of which is Changing Britain, 1760-1900: this project will feed into work already started by the CI to enhance the resources available to teachers through the development of an updatable electronic resource pack.
Description 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?
Exploitation Route Taken together, this research provides 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 also provides historical precedents for the contemporary reception of new technologies across a globalised marketplace, as well as space for a critical interrogation of the purpose and consequences of these processes.
Sectors Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Publications The project team identified the most effective route for publication to be a short scholarly monograph. This allowed a full exploration of the themes, approaches and literature, as well as a detailed examination of the each of the case studies. We successfully approached Palgrave Macmillan (under their Pivot series for shorter monographs) with our proposal and "Design, Technology and Communication in the British Empire, 1830-1914" was published in December 2016. Conference papers March 2014, Knowledge and Communication in the Empire, workshop, University of Dundee Future funding plans The team intend to prepare a grant application to the AHRC, possibly incorporating other Design in Innovation Development Funding recipients, to explore the 'colonial side' of the migration framework. This will entail understanding more deeply the social impact of innovations utilised in the British Empire 1850-1914. Impact outcomes and plans Website As defined by the grant call, the project team established a website for the project (Figure 3) which contains content on the case studies our research has identified, as well as sections on the overall methodology and scope. We have tried to present the work in a visual and engaging way with illustrations, diagrams and narrative to guide the viewer through the aims of the project and each case study. While the three primary case studies have been populated, the remaining two have skeleton content which can be added at a future date. Education and museums/heritage engagement This project has also developed two parallel, complimentary routes to impact, links to education, and links to the museum/heritage sector. Education The project team have built links and opened a dialogue with Scottish teachers, in order to plan classes in the History and Design curriculums for excellence. Further time and funding will be required to bring this element of the project to completion. Museums/Heritage The project team have opened a dialogue with the Museum of English Rural Life [MERL] (University of Reading) to discuss ways in which our research findings can be fed into their existing galleries and collections, and perhaps found the basis of a partnership to co-create a new gallery. MERL has recently (October 2014) been successful in securing a major HLF grant to redevelop its galleries, and this will provide the project team with a real opportunity to feed their original and new research findings into MERL's collections.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Economic

Title From 'domestication' to 'migration' 
Description The research framework was developed based on the concept of domestication. This has been used extensively in the consumption of media and technology in society, typically identifying the four stages of 'appropriation, objectification, incorporation, and conversion'. It was initially felt that this framework would be appropriate to help understand how unfamiliar or strange technologies (from the perspective of the local populations) were applied in colonial settings. As the research developed, however, it became clear that the innovation and business practices in Britain to adapt and prepare technologies for use in new contexts would be a major concern during our investigations. This decision to adjust our original focus was based on the range of our archival findings, the weight of the literature on issues such as engineering practices, patenting and intellectual property (theory and practice) and the design and business processes our targeted companies and technologies utilised. As a result we have altered and extended the framework, using the term 'migration' rather than 'domestication' as it better reflects the transfer of technology from the metropole to the colonial location. The stages in this process have been identified as 'identification, preparation, assignation, incorporation and conversion'. 
Type Of Material Model of mechanisms or symptoms - human 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact N/A 
Title Design and Innovation in the British Empire 
Description This AHRC funder project (Design and Innovation in the British Empire) considers the role of design in the innovation ecosystem and provides evidence of the impact of design in its historical domestic and imperial context. We used digital photographs, transcripts and listings to create records of the historical archives. These are recorded as .jpg, .pdf and .docx files and organised by case study. While we have obtained permissions from the archives to use images for our own use, anyone else wishing to use them would need to secure permission from the relevant archives. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Not recorded 
Title Research Model 
Description The migration of technology framework provided a pathway for exploration of the case studies. As described above, our initial review revealed the motivations and actions of engineering companies in addressing the opportunities afforded by the British Empire as a rich area of study. As the framework was applied, a range of themes emerged: technical, social, business, commerce, capital and marketing factors. The topics identified across each of these themes, whether status, structure or activity, were highlighted through consultation with the literature and archive material. Not all cases address all of these topics, but instead provided us with a reference template to understand the 'shape' or emphasis of each case, and to allow comparison across cases. The five stages we identified were: Identification Maturity of technology Captive market opportunity Estimates and contract tendering Buyers' network Ownership structures and partnerships Prizes, competition and brochures Preparation Design and detailing Workforce practices Patents and IP Contracting and collaborations Investment and infrastructure Assignation Shipping and installation Labour skills and training Production efficiency Colonial agents / partners Incorporation Performance and local adaptations Labour dissent and control Sales and repeat business Conversion Long-term evolution Effect on colonial life 
Type Of Material Data analysis technique 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact To analyse the data collected by the research project. 
Description AHRC Award Holder's Design WorkshopA formal working group, expert panel or dialogue 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact AHRC Award Holder's Design Workshop

Workshop at King's Place, London to set the agenda for AHRC's funding of design.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Public lecture (Sutherland) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I gave a public lecture based on our researhc findings relavent to the region.

This public lecture promoted the research findings to a local knowledgable audience, and gave us the chance to glean local detail, as well as increase the profile of the research project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014