Italy has long been known for its design. Just think of fashion names Versace or Armani, and Italy immediately comes to mind. Denmark has built an entire national identity around well-designed household items, thanks to the likes of Georg Jensen, Børge Mogensen and Hans Wegner. In fact, Danish design has become the archetype of 20th century design. For both Denmark and Italy, aesthetic objects with form and function have become some of their biggest exports.

In economic development circles, many equate design with innovation. It is something companies want and locations are more than willing to promote.

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Emerging opportunities

Take Michigan-based Herman Miller, a manufacturer of office furniture, equipment and home furnishings and one of the first US companies to produce modern furniture. Several years ago, the company chose Hong Kong as a place to connect with industrial designers and capture opportunities in emerging markets. “We chose Hong Kong because we wanted to have all of our core functions based in one place to speed up and align decision making in Asia,” says Jeremy Hocking, vice-president Asia-Pacific at Herman Miller Hong Kong.

By 2011, its team base had expanded to 175; it had co-located all key business functions to Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district and opened its Asian R&D design studio in Wong Chuk Hang. Recently, the company completed the acquisition of large independent local furniture manufacturer Posh Office.

Other companies, such as Dutch product design studio Fang Studios, have followed suit. Founder Danny Fang chose Hong Kong because it afforded him a cluster of clients, raw material suppliers and manufacturers.

“As all the resources we need are close at hand, we can design in any preferred materials and production techniques, and the speed at which we develop products is unheard of anywhere else in the world,” says Mr Fang.

Hong Kong promotion

The Hong Kong special administrative region government has a policy to promote the wider use of design in industrial and business processes as manufacturing moves up the value chain from original equipment manufacturer to original design manufacturer and then to original brand manufacturer. As such, there will be increased demand for product design consultancy services.

“Through various government funds, such as the previous HK$250m [$32m] DesignSmart Initiative and the current $300m CreateSmart Initiative, we have been providing funding support for initiatives that meet our seven-pronged strategies,” says one government source.

Those strategies are: nurturing a pool of creative human capital; facilitating start-ups and the development of creative establishments; generating demand for innovation and creativity, and expanding local market size for creative industries; promoting creative industries on the mainland and overseas to help explore outside markets; developing creative clusters in the territory to generate synergy and facilitating exchanges; fostering a creative atmosphere within the community; and promoting Hong Kong as Asia’s creative capital.

The Hong Kong Design Centre has been operating as the government’s strategic partner in promoting design since its establishment in 2001. The government sees Hong Kong as a design hub in the region and a key conduit to mainland China’s flourishing market.

Innovative positioning

What sets companies, countries, cities and regions apart is an ability to innovate. “Innovation is at the core of the global competition for FDI and in-country expansion, with much of that core being design,” says Gene DePrez, founding partner of economic development consultancy Global Innovation Partners in New Jersey. “If we’re going to compete in this growing competitive world, the developed countries, in particular, have to find a way to position themselves ahead of everyone else.”

Locations such as New York, London, Milan and Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region have long been associated with design. Emilia-Romagna has a long history of manufacturing networks. Modena, Parma and Ferrara are particularly renowned as centres for food and automobile production, thanks to the likes of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, De Tomaso and Ducati.

“The region has been studied [extensively] to understand how those manufacturing networks work and how they build the context of design into their whole operating scheme,” says Marty Grueber, research leader at Battelle, a global R&D organisation headquartered in Columbus, Ohio.

Turin, in Italy’s Piedmont region, has embraced industrial activities connected with design, while integrating client needs with technological opportunities provided by research. Many of Turin’s competencies focus on the local tradition of car design, but also fit with other industries in the Piedmont region that uphold the ‘Made in Italy’ ethos. These include house wares, jewellery, food and drink, communications and IT.

“Few may realise it, but in the automobile industry, outside design studios such as those in Turin, have been assuming a much greater role in new model development,” says Mr Grueber.

Even the world’s largest furniture retailer, Sweden’s Ikea, uses its national identity as part of its brand promotion. Noted for its innovation and design, Ikea has also created an image for Sweden, both in terms of the products it sells and the marketing of its retail establishments with the colours of the Swedish flag.

Good design

“The better the design, in terms of function, the more likely the company is going to enjoy market success,” says Mr DePrez. “Not only does design add function, it adds aesthetic and creates a brand image.”

One well-known example is electronics corporation Apple, which employs British industrial designer Jonathan Ive. As the lead designer of many of Apple’s products, including the iPod, iPhone and iPad, Mr Ive has implemented Apple’s product strategy with design as a chief focus. “Its branding shtick is design and innovation from a user perspective, but also how Apple operates as a company,” says Mr Grueber.

The location of Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino in California's Silicon Valley adds weight to Silicon Valley’s reputation as a hotbed of high-tech innovation and development, and a metonym for the US high-tech sector.

Using design as a differentiator, however, depends on the company and the products involved. “More and more, product, application and software design are coming from a creative class of young educated people who want to live in cities and urban areas,” says Mr DePrez.

Consequently, companies are looking to locate in such areas to access that innovative talent. The prime candidates are urban centres close to universities with strong design programmes. “These programmes can range anywhere from architecture to graphic and industrial design,” says Mr DePrez.

One of Mr DePrez’s clients, the city of Newark in New Jersey, is looking at these issues to attract companies that can tap talent from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, with its major design programme. In fact in December 2012, the institute launched a major initiative to call on the university’s myriad levels of expertise – design, architecture, urban planning and environmental engineering – to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which wreaked particularly severe damage in the state.

Site branding

Some locations are literally rebranding their locations with the ‘Made in...’ label. The intent is not to identify where products are made so much as foster innovation and design. In some cases, these qualities are embedded in a historic tradition of fine craftsmanship in that region.

One example is Sheffield, UK, long noted for its fine craftsmanship in silver. “For many years the 'Made in Sheffield’ brand was put on silverware to create a hallmark in the same way Champagne or Parmesan cheese [was],” explains Andy Curtis, founding partner in the UK and Europe office of Global Innovation Partners.

Now a registered brand with the UK Patent Office, ‘Made in Sheffield’ is a mark of origin and quality on the city’s manufactured products. The goal is to promote the entire city as a world-class place for advanced manufacturing, materials technology, creative and digital industries, and food, biomedical and healthcare technologies.

“[Companies in] the Sheffield city region now have the opportunity to declare their proud Sheffield credentials through the use of the new 'Made in Sheffield’ mark, a symbol of the city’s ongoing commitment to quality and excellence,” the Made in Sheffield website states.

Other initiatives are also under way. The EU is promoting innovation and design through its Innovation Union – a Europe 2020 flagship initiative, the result of the European Design Innovation Initiative launched in January 2011. It maintains that design should be embedded in innovation programmes and business incubators across Europe; and that harnessing design as a tool for innovation processes will boost prosperity and wellbeing across the continent. To assist in the effort, the SEE (sharing experience Europe) platform was formed with the objective of engaging with 100 public authorities across Europe over three years. The platform holds free workshops on design policy, business support for small companies, service innovation, social innovation and academia-industry collaboration for innovation policymakers and programme managers.

Widening definition

Today the concept of design is taking an even wider approach. In the health sector, for example, new designs in how health information is stored and processed are emerging.

“Medical information is being designed specifically so that the National Health Service in the UK can convey information to patients so they can understand it,” says Mr Curtis. That can be anything from hospital maps to brochures explaining what happens when a patient goes for an operation. “It is all about interpreting information and medical technology effectively. Here design is very academically focused as well as commercially focused,” he adds.

Where the economic development hook comes into play is the ability of such processes, or 'designed information', to attract businesses and industry. Technology corporation IBM uses design in a holistic, integrated way to create consistency throughout the company, ensuring customer interaction with IBM is consistent around the world.

“It’s important we do that on a global level,” says Lee Green, IBM’s vice-president of brand experience and strategic design. “We do not want to create just brand expressions. We want design to be consistent worldwide. We want to leverage the best of our design and the best of our presentations around the world, particularly in new growth markets.”

IBM is expanding, particularly in Africa. Last year the company opened R&D centres in Kenya, and recently opened offices in Mauritius, Tanzania, Senegal and Angola. Today, IBM is present in more than 20 African countries.

Although IBM spends much time on technology and industrial design, Mr Green says the company wants customers to have the same experience through its websites, products, industrial designs, brand presentations and IBM client centres around the world. “When we think of design, we take a systems approach,” he says.

While Mr Green is not certain if design impacts site selection decisions, he sees it as an enabler when the company makes decisions on how to focus on new growth markets or open new client centres. “When we bring you in, we want to make certain your experience is engaging and inspiring.”

After all, that is what design is all about.