This keynote talk for the inaugural Irish Wood and Furniture Manufacturing Network (IWFMN) conference was delivered by Dr. Frank O’Connor on the 22nd March 2018, Galway, Ireland. It was written by Frank and Jude Sherry of anois.
It was prepared as a call to action to the Irish wood and furniture sector. Its aim was to motivate and mobilise all the key actors to rethink and reimagine the sector, around four core elements of integrity, responsibility, design and collaboration, applying a quadruple helix model.
Title of talk
Leading the way globally – a vision for Irish furniture
Transcript of talk
Good afternoon everyone. I wish to start my talk with an apology. My message is positive. It’s about opportunity. It’s about thinking big. It’s about believing. To start this process of believing I want everyone in the room to close your eyes. When you have your eyes closed, breathe in mindfully, then take a few deep breaths and relax. Now imagine a Time Magazine headline, 20 years from now, going something like this:
The small country with a big idea that spawned a global furniture revolution
Now open your eyes. I believe this headline is truly achievable. I believe that we have the qualities to be the best, the determination to be the best and the will power to be the best.
So how can Ireland lead the way?
I believe that we, Ireland, can take the lead in co-creating a global brand for the furniture industry. I believe the time is right. The time is now. We need to work together to create this future. That is business, government, education and wider society working in partnership. This is the only justifiable way forward. I believe that this new Irish Wood and Furniture Manufacturing network can be a great platform to help create this future. Not just for Irish furniture but the global furniture industry. If we have the will we can find the way.
So who I am to have such a belief?
I am a values-based designer-strategist with a multi-disciplinary background. Furniture has been a key part of my professional journey that has taken me across the globe working with all types and sizes of business. I founded, and led for 7 years, an internationally renowned organisation, the Ecodesign Centre (EDC), that focused on making ecodesign happen in business, in government and in education. Through numerous projects I have demonstrated that a responsible approach to business makes commercial sense. My clients have included multinationals and SMEs, the United Nations, the European Commission, national and regional governments and NGOs amongst others. And while I am not a furniture or wood specialist I have helped produce successful global strategies, build international brands and develop award-winning products. What I have seen on this journey has convinced me that the time is right to create this new future for the furniture industry.
Now there is no doubt that global industry has to change, and is changing.
These changes are driven by global challenges such as resource depletion, climate change and ageing population, and trends such as urbanisation, customisation and localisation. It is crystal clear that the furniture sector has to re-think and re-imagine its future. Leading global players are already making these changes. For example IKEA are investing €3 billion towards creating their responsible and sustainable future. The European Commission have re-jigged their priorities over the last few years placing an even stronger emphasis on creating resource efficient, closed-loop economies. And crucially they have allocated significant money to support these policies. We are seeing lots of new standards and codes of practice enter the picture. For example last year, in 2017, we had the emergence of a new British Standard, BS 8001, to guide businesses to move towards a resource efficient and low carbon economy. This standard has already gained a lot of profile. And there is no doubt that the legislative landscape will get much stricter. Mark my words this is something that will not go away. Resource scarcity alone will ensure this is the case. While climate change predictions are that storms, like recent ones experienced throughout Ireland, will get far more regular. I only found out recently that Ireland is at the edge of the hurricane pathway.
So I propose that Ireland takes a lead role in re-imagining the future of the global furniture industry.
Over my career I have experienced first hand how strategies with global ambitions are created, launched and sustained. There are no unique features or traits of any country that I do not see in Ireland. No inherent superiority, nothing in the DNA or culture that cannot be replicated or surpassed. The Danish are renowned for their furniture, and deservedly so. They have long taken the lead in producing high quality timeless pieces. However we need to remember that they too had to start somewhere. And they too were not always so internationally renowned for their work.
From my experience I can see four key approaches that are crucial for a global ambition:
I believe that we, Ireland, can grasp the mantle and become the new global leaders. We need to believe and then apply ourselves. In doing so we need to understand where and why others have succeeded and failed. And we need to collaborate with and learn from the best to become the best. I cannot emphasize these points enough.
So what would a global brand originating from Ireland comprise of?
I see four fundamental elements to this brand. These four elements are key to making the brand authentic, purposeful, resilient, profitable and sustainable. These are:
These elements are mandatory and non-negotiable. They form the core axes of the brand and are the basis for a sector wide manifesto that should be built on deep foundations. We need deep foundations to weather the next two decades of uncertainties in global economics, geo-politics and the natural environment. Anything less will ultimately fail.
So what do I mean by these four fundamental brand elements?
Honesty and strong moral principles should be at the core of the brand, which is why I have placed integrity at the centre. All products and services under the brand have a responsibility to improve the everyday life of customers and the entire value chain. No doubt this is a tough ask. This includes the appropriate use of materials that need to be produced, sourced and manufactured in an ethical and responsible way. And designing objects of beauty to last rather than being flippantly replaced. While products with inherent shorter lives should be designed to be circular, repairable, remanufacturable and eventually recyclable.
In this World, products will be produced by a thriving multi-disciplinary furniture sector that openly collaborates and shares. A sector that has so much confidence in what it is doing that it is fully transparent. A sector that proactively and openly collaborates and shares learning within and beyond these shores, to inspire and enable other regions to also embrace this model. This global brand will only succeed if its part of a wider collaborative structure, involving business, government, education and wider society.
I am not alone with these views. This collaborative approach has long been recognized as international best practice. It is commonly referred to the quadruple helix model, where business, government, educators and civil society work together for a better future.
So what does this mean in practice for a business?
Let’s focus in on one business that has embraced this way of working. Orangebox is a Welsh-based office furniture company who are leading the way through their ecodesign-led responsibility philosophy, which is employed as part of their core business strategy. I have had the privilege of working with and supporting Orangebox from 2007 to 2014 through a helix-based model.
I helped them design and develop products and services that not only greatly reduced their environmental and social impacts over the value chain but also helped them become industry leaders. Typical product strategies applied included part reduction, modular design, removal of toxic substances and design for disassembly and repair. While typical service strategies have included closed-loop production, localization and remanufacturing.
There have been many challenges along the way – none more so than making collaboration work for all parties. However as a result of the process Orangebox have significantly reduced costs, saving up to €1million on one product range alone. And crucially they have built a strong and resilient brand. They have grown from a Welsh SME, to a globally leading office furniture player.
So what about today?
We have already listened to others speak about managing Brexit, expanding international trade, up-skilling the sector and the challenges of business growth. All key topics. All vital to grasp and understand if we are to create a vibrant wood and furniture sector. And while we may not have asked or wished for Brexit. Many British did not either. However it does present us with a great opportunity to move further away from the shadow of Britain and British design and manufacturing. And establish our own way of designing and making furniture products.
Yes there is no doubt that the future is uncertain. But the future has always been uncertain. And like many before me I have learnt that the best way to predict the future, is to design and create it yourself, the way you want it. This is not to ignore the risks involved. And it is understandable to be fearful of the unknown. Some of you today will be wondering how you will pay your bills next month or next year. However I would argue that the greater risk is the one of being left behind. We may not have a choice in the not so distant future.
So where are we starting from?
Look around the room. Take some time to look at those sitting to your left and to your right. What do you see? Competitors or allies or what? I see significant knowledge, expertise and skills within this room. We already have excellent designers, makers, crafts people and manufacturers in Ireland. And we have advocates for change such as Bill Vernon with a wealth of knowledge and international experience and a huge network of global contacts. And of course we have many reputable educators and trainers, with Letterfrack and DIT represented here today. But of course its not just about educating design and makers, we really need all disciplines to embrace this philosophy. And this mindset will have to reach much deeper into our culture and people. And while the sector may not currently be as high profile as many others sectors in Ireland. I firmly believe we can mobilize the support of Government and others with a clear and shared vision and an ambitious but achievable strategy. Everyone wants to be associated with success. I learnt that lesson with Orangebox and the Welsh and UK Government. And this brand concept I am proposing has the potential to be a massive success.
Of course it takes hard work, huge commitment and massive self-belief to become a success. It will not happen overnight and you can’t sit back and wait for others to create it for you, so you can then jump on the bandwagon. Joe Schmidt and the Irish rugby team didn’t win the grand slam through their efforts on Saturday alone, or over the last 5 games. They won it over the last 5 years. From 2013 when they began to develop a team, not just of star players but a team of team players, each of who are replaceable but together form the perfect team. They won by creating a team with the self-belief that they can turn things around and win, despite the odds, even when they are losing when the clock is in the red. Together they created a resilient, winning team that has the potential to be best in the World. How often have we truly believed that this is possible for an Irish national team?
Look again at those sitting around you. What do you see now? Can everyone stand up? Please link arms with the person sitting either side of you. Do you still see competitors? Or like me do you see a family linking arms, ‘shoulder to shoulder’ ready to answer this call? You can sit down again now, thanks.
So why aren’t we already working together?
To-date we are missing a shared vision, the core values and the vital threads to pull this together. As well as the will and self-belief to make it happen! This is one of the key reasons why we need this network. To provide a platform to bring us all together. To build up trust amongst us all and to enable us to co-create a shared vision of the future.
Once we have a shared vision, we can then start creating the building blocks of the brand. And help turn the vision into a reality. Of course the process of creating a shared vision and establishing core values will take time and will need to be expertly facilitated. The vision and values needs to come from all of us. They need to be truly shared. I have no doubt if we can pool our resources together and mobilize all the key actors we can create a successful global brand, a global brand originating in Ireland. We all need to believe this is possible. Without buy-in from the sector, government, educational establishments and society it will not happen. Without the core brand elements of integrity, responsibility, design and collaboration it won’t succeed.
Of course this will require new government policies, significant investment in business and education and major changes in how we design and make and offer goods. As well as how we view and work with other related sectors such as textiles and new technologies such as additive manufacturing and 3D printing. And of course we will have to rethink how we design and manage our forestry and other natural resources.
It will require a change of mindset where we eat, breathe and sleep integrity, responsibility, design and collaboration. And where we encourage creativity and freedom of individual expression. We will need to make great furniture. Not average, not good, but great. Beautiful furniture that people really want to use. Furniture based on honesty and strong moral principles. Furniture that improves everyday lives through appropriate use of materials sourced and manufactured in an ethical and responsible way. That are made to last rather than be replaced. Products designed for repair and adaption, think modular designs. Furniture that is desirable enough to retain like a heirloom, think Dieter Rams, think 606 Universal Shelving System. And while there are guiding principles there are no hard or golden rules here. There is no such thing as a truly sustainable material. It is all context specific.
So I believe this is a road worth travelling.
A road that will lead to job creation, export and a sustainable and resilient industry. Of course it won’t be easy but it’s one we have to travel to compete and dare I say survive. But can you imagine a world where Ireland is not only associated with friendly people, the craic, great stout, tasty, local food, beautiful surrounds but also a sustainable movement of high-end timeless furniture. Let’s think again about that Time Magazine headline.
The small country with a big idea that spawned a global furniture revolution
What will the article say about Irish furniture? How about something like this?
“Hard to imagine now how Irish furniture was relatively unheard of 20 years ago, except for glimpses of what was possible from talents such as Joseph Walsh. Now the blueprints are even copied by the Gods! The movement began in 2018 in Galway when a group of designers, educators, strategists and makers came together creating a network for wood and furniture. While there is nothing too significant about setting up a collaborative network what followed is truly remarkable. As a reaction against what the group perceived as poor quality design and irresponsible business practices the Irish decided to create an alternative model of furniture production. A model where the foundations are responsible, with integrity at the core. This was not to be greenwash or a tokenistic box ticking exercise. In doing so they somehow managed to incorporate what was great about Danish and Italian furniture, in terms of form and function, but with a responsible twist. Let me clarify. I’m not talking about a Brand Ireland. Or a brand solely inward focused or nationalist in its nature. I’m talking about an outward facing brand that embraces a truly sustainable philosophy, people, planet and profit: open, inclusive and global. A brand that has become synonymous with beautiful timeless furniture pieces, of unmistakable high quality, responsibly made that advocate where possible the use of natural and indigenous materials. A brand other regions have aligned themselves to, and become part of, including the Danish and the Italians. A brand that has become a global movement. An international brand with its distinctive Irish roots. A brand that has come to define 21st century business, way beyond furniture. How remarkable is that?”
Wow! What do you think? Wouldn’t that be something! I really believe we can do it. I believe now is the time to grasp the mantle and create a new World-view for Irish furniture. I am calling every one of you to action. My challenge to you today is to go away and draw a line under what you have achieved to-date. Think how collectively we can be even better than we currently are. How collectively we can become the best. It’s about believing. Believing that we have the qualities to be the best, the determination to be the best and the will power to be the best. This is my dream. What is yours? What do you want your legacy to be?
Thank you for taking the time to listen. Good luck with the network and with your organisations.