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Why Sri Lanka needs design more than ever

There has been a lot of discussion of late about the Sri Lankan economy and what can be done to help create a stable situation with regard to the countries finances.

One of the problems that has been highlighted by various people during the Sri Lanka Economic Forum, including a bunch of Harvard experts, is that Sri Lanka still (largely) relies on the same export pool that it has done for the last fifty years, i.e foreign remittances (by way of maids in the Middle East), Garments, Tea, Rubber and Tourism. More recently there is also an amount of programming and development for websites, applications and so on to add to the mix – have a read of this presentation to get an overview.

There are a number of problems that can be seen with relying on each of these industries with the expectation that they will continue to grow and support the economy. For starters, many of these export countries are now experiencing their own economic problems, namely the Middle East, Russia and China, huge markets for labour, tea and tourism.

Furthermore, there has been little in the way of creative value addition in any of these sectors. Tourism is probably the one where at least some effort has been made by way of luxury villas and improved service… but there’s still a lot to do!

An added factor is that the per capita income in Sri Lanka is relatively high compared with the neighbouring and global competition, and the cost of living continues to rise, pushing up labour costs and thus reducing the competitiveness of the country.

So what can be done?

It’s time to get creative!

Long term investment in design and innovation has been shown to be an excellent way to create a stable and lasting economic platform for companies and countries alike. Take Apple for example, design and innovation are at the CORE of the business. The same can be said for automotive companies such as Tesla, BMW, Mercedes, Toyota to name a few. As for countries, we can look just a few hundred miles North to India, who have invested in design education and have a flourishing design economy. Never mind counties like Taiwan and Korea, where companies like Samsung are giving Apple a run for their money with well designed products.

So what’s the problem here in Sri Lanka? Well, from our experience at Colombo Design Studio it seems there is little value placed on design, with many companies focusing their budgets on advertising and marketing instead, and even this at the quick-fix budget end. There seems to be little national pride in the creative industries, other than a few cases such as BAWA architecture and a few photographers. A lot of work has been done to try and address this by people such as Linda Speldewinde through the Academy of Design, but this is largely focused on the fashion and accessories market.

This recognition of the value of design needs to start at home before it can be exported abroad. Companies need to either have their own design departments, or employ design consultancies with experience and expertise, and be willing to pay a fair fee for the work. And to be fair, there are some such as MAS Innovation who have started down this route…. but I’ve noticed that they’re happy to pay consultancy fees to expensive overseas creative agencies, but don’t place the same value on home-grown talent. Which means more money pouring out of the country, and renders it impossible to run a design consultancy locally since the fees that can be commanded don’t cover the time and effort required to come up with great design innovations.

Examples of little or no design are everywhere; logos and websites, transport systems, shop layouts, apartments and living spaces and so on.

It’s time for that to change, Sri Lanka needs design, and it needs it NOW!

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