Is international collaboration and innovation the key to reviving the UK textiles industry?

By | February 20, 2014

Christos-KalantaridisLast year, the Bradford Research in Innovation Technology and Entrepreneurship (BRITE) Lab won a £700,000 funding bid to help create innovative cultures and accelerate economic growth in the two former communist countries, Ukraine and Belarus.

More about the project here: Will innovation help Ukraine and Belarus to join the European Union?

This month, as part of the project, academics and students from five universities in Ukraine and Belarus joined University of Bradford and Bradford College students in an innovation challenge to revive Bradford’s textile industry.

What can Western and Eastern Europe learn from one another, and is international collaboration the key to building a successful and sustainable manufacturing industry in the long term?

Image courtesy Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Why did we organise The Bradford Textile Challenge?

The aim of bringing together students studying in Bradford, Ukraine and Belarus together was for them to learn from one another and share ideas, raise awareness of the themes of innovation and sustainability in business (something we are focusing on in a number of projects with Ukraine and Belarus universities and businesses) and to inspire new business ideas around these themes.

Student groups were tasked to come up with a sustainable business idea using local industry knowledge and skills. The ideas were scored on novelty, visibility and impact by a panel of experts from The Society of Dyers and Colourists and The Bradford Textile Society, and Bradford entrepreneur Farnaz Khan.

The project has been a great success: students came up with some brilliant ideas, including an innovative new fabric called “Ramie+” that absorbed damp and mould in buildings and “Woolford”, an M&S-inspired textile and clothes shop that encouraged people to recycle by giving 20% cashback for items returned within six months.

How did the project come about?

The textile challenge was organised by SPACE (formerly Bradford Challenge): a social enterprise set up by University of Bradford graduates. The week-long textile industry programme was held in the Bradford University re:centre, which is involved in initiatives to bring together textile industry representatives to discuss the challenges and opportunities the industry is facing.

Support from other academic institutions and Bradford Council has also been key. Mark Clayton from the council talked to the students about the context of Bradford’s history, economy, latest developments and why it is it important to consider the textile industry as part of the solution for economic regeneration.

Do former Communist countries have a history of textiles industry innovation?

The history of textiles innovation in Bradford is well documented, but perhaps less well known is the role that innovation has played in former Communist countries. Karen J Freeze’s 2007 paper on Innovation in Communist Europe examined the role of management practice and Western partnerships in a revolutionary technology from former Soviet Bloc country, Czechoslovakia. Open ended spinning debuted in 1967, and machines based on this technology tripled productivity in cotton spinning, making life easier for textile workers worldwide. When Freeze began her research at Harvard Business School back in the 80s, she wondered, “How could this machine emerge from a Communist system, generally so inimical to innovation and incapable of commercial success?”

mariusz-kosMy colleague at the school, Mariusz Kos is currently working on a number of projects looking at innovation and the circular economy in post-Communist countries, including one with Kozminski University School of Management in Poland, which will bring together innovative start-ups to debate the topic at a conference in March. We hope to cover this in more detail in a future blog post.

Can Bradford lead the UK textiles industry renaissance?

The textile trades were at the forefront of the industrial revolution, with Bradford playing a leading part. However, the subsequent demise of UK manufacturing industries has been well documented, and the growth of the Asian textiles industry with its cheaper production methods has, over the past couple of decades, priced many UK manufacturers out of the market. But with mounting consumer concern over “sweatshop” conditions and recent media coverage of factory fires and poor worker conditions, many consumers are now prioritising ethics and sustainability in their buying decisions and are looking to “buy British” once again.

This combined with increased transportation costs, and an increased need to respond quickly to changing consumer tastes are changing again the global geography of textile production.

Now is therefore an ideal time for a renaissance in the UK textiles industry.

But for UK manufacturers to succeed in today’s international economy, and for production methods to be both sustainable and affordable, a re-think is needed of the way we approach the development of new technologies and ways of working.

Image courtesy of  chomnancoffee / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of chomnancoffee / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This can not be achieved in isolation from global trends. Therefore, I believe international collaboration and innovation for mutual benefit is key, and will play a vital role in reviving the UK textiles industry.

Bradford University School of Management hopes to facilitate this through innovation projects, platforms and events led by the BRITE Lab. The Lab leads a number of externally funded projects that aim to develop good practice in university business and community engagement internationally. Researchers in the Lab currently conduct research in this area not only in the UK, Ukraine and Belarus, but also India, Russia, Estonia and Portugal.

There are future plans to invite textiles companies from around the world to Bradford, including one from Sri Lanka. And on 26th March, Bradford will be hosting a TEDx conference on the theme of ‘progress, curiosity and innovation.

What role – if any – does innovation play in your organisation?

Does your organisation work internationally? If so, do you have examples of collaborative good practice you can share?

Can Bradford lead a UK textiles industry renaissance? What would this look like?

About Christos Kalantaridis

Professor Christos Kalantaridis, a leading academic in entrepreneurship and innovation, joined the School in 2011. Prof Kalantaridis leads the Innovation Club which helps businesses to break down barriers and share ideas on innovation. He is keen to hear from businesses, entrepreneurs and organisations about their issues and barriers to innovation and carry out research to identify how to ensure good ideas are sustainable.

Christos got his PhD in Economics at The University of Salford where he alsoworked for three years as Professor of Entrepreneurship & Regional Development & Director of the Centre for Enterprise & Innovation Research.

He is a much published academic and recently worked collaboratively with Aalto University in Finland – a world leading centre for helping businesses to innovate, particularly in technologies – and with partners in four European countries to develop best practice in transferring knowledge from universities to organisations.

Specialties: Innovation, Entrepreneurship, Problem solving for businesses, Knowledge transfer, Business engagement

2 thoughts on “Is international collaboration and innovation the key to reviving the UK textiles industry?

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