Design in Britain: Coming up with the goods

From chocolate to needle-free syringes, each Millennium Product encapsulates a specific aspect of innovative British design. By Nonie Niesewand

For many, it will come as a delight to discover that the brave new world opening up at the Dome will feature British inventions that are having a global impact. Nowhere else will you be able to take such a wide-ranging look at the achievements of our creative industries - advertising, architecture, fashion, music and industry.

Good designers look at everyday things with new eyes and work out how they can be made better. They challenge existing technology. The Millennium Products which sport the swooshing logo of the Design Council vary from the titanium Rolls Royce Trent engine that will lighten loads on the wide- bodied planes of the future, to Norman Foster's E66 wind-powered electric generator (built on the aerodynamic lines of the albatross), to Reuters' charity website which gets help and action to disaster zones.

The Lotus Elise demonstrates why Britain is still at the forefront of motorsport because, as David Williams of Williams Grand Prix engineering says, "We produce extremely versatile designers, engineers, craftsmen and management - free-thinking people who like to work with minimal restraint and get involved in all areas."

Inventiveness has traditionally been one of the UK's great strengths, and if you take scientific research as a yardstick, the picture is still bright. "We are only about one per cent of the world's population yet the UK carries out 5.5 per cent of the world's research effort," Michael Bichard, permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Employment points out.

Scale models and photographs of buildings by British architects demonstrate the truth of Norman Foster's observation in Time magazine: "Since Stonehenge, architects have been at the cutting edge of technology. And you can't separate technology from the humanistic and spiritual content of a building."

Millennium Products will be showcased around the world in trade shows, exhibitions, expos and at British embassies. In addition, all Millennium Products will be represented at the Millennium experience in Greenwich, both inside the dome and in the Design Council's "Spiral of Innovation" outside. A web-based programme of activities called Sharing Innovation is also in the process of being developed for schools, businesses and colleges.

The Foreign Secretary's cabinet in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is also getting a reshuffle to display a selection of Millennium Products. When Robin Cook moved in two years ago, he cleared out the Hansards stacked in the handsome 19th-century walnut cabinet and used it as a showcase for designer playthings. A banana-shaped underwater camera designed by Seymour Powell made in Japan for Minolta, Pet Shop Boys' orange bubble CD cover, and a Fisher-Price childrens' camera that digitises images to print out instantly on fax paper were some of the products to engage visiting dignitaries.

Now the Foreign Secretary is changing his collection over to a selection of Millennium Products. The Design Council only accepts submissions from businesses that are registered in the UK or which are identifiable units of the British economy, with their own employees and distinct products. And, according to the rules, "businesses must own the intellectual property of the product or service being submitted". So the world's largest airport, Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok, designed by Norman Foster, is on display.

Green, recyclable, and a tad earnest - frivolity won't do for heads of state - Robin Cook's choices will come under scrutiny for their entertainment value as well as their export drive. Anything embarrassing is out. The condom for those allergic to rubber, and the breast pump (both Millennium Products) are unsuitable. Nor would Robin Cook easily pass the time of day chatting about Cyberlife Technology (cyber creatures with characteristics ranging from physical appearance to sex, which learn from their computer environment and pass on what they have learned to new improved generations of themselves). Artificial life technology has application in computer simulations and robotics but it may be a little out of place on display in the Foreign Office cabinet.

Products that improve life, save life and that make the future more secure are a safer bet on a world stage awash with new products. So the Intraject syringe, the Oxfam stackable water carrier and that Foster-designed Chek Lap Kok airport are much more diplomatic choices.

Hong Kong's Chep Lap Kok airport, by Foster and Partners with Mott Consortium: one of the few man-made buildings visible from space.

Electric Paper, by TDI Advertising Ltd: electric paper makes the panels on the side of buses light up as advertising billboards. Luminous chemicals that coat the paper are activated by a mild current, turning posters into light boxes.

Intraject Needle Free Injector, by Weston Medical Ltd: healthcare staff are injured by needles more than anything else. The world's first pre-filled, disposable, needle-free syringe injects using pressurised gas.

Remarkable Recycled Pencils by Remarkable Pencils Ltd: a pencil that writes and sharpens like an ordinary pencil, but which is made from recycled polystyrene cups. Companies collect vending-machine cups, then buy them back as pencils.

Divine, by the Day Chocolate Company: an example of what is meant by a millennium service, Divine Chocolate gives the producer a chance at profit sharing. Cocoa beans bought from small-scale Ghanaian cocoa farmers, who own a stake in the Day Chocolate Company, produce chocolates that are marketed all over the world.

Oxfam Stackable Water Carrier, by CORE Plastics Ltd: designed to meet the needs of famine relief, 180 of these durable, stackable, lightweight water buckets occupy the space of 40 Jerry cans. Road-tested in Botswana.

Hot Springs, by Bisque Ltd: traditional radiators stand about in rooms looking awkward. Paul Priestman designed these energy-efficient loops of warm tube like slinky coils to have a presence in a room.

Gecko Marine Safety Helmet, by Gecko Headgear: until now speedboat racers had to wear motorcyclists' helmets. The Gecko helmet's close-fitting shell protects the neck against high-speed impact with the water. Also used by lifeboat crews.

Electric Violins, Cellos and Double Basses, by Bridge Musical Instruments Ltd: these instruments won't buckle under the heat of stage lights - they're made from Kevlar, a substance that can be moulded into startling violins.

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