Marques-ism today

Design - Hugh Aldersey-Williams on surgical gloves and raspberry mousses

The first fatal traffic accident of the new millennium happened days ago. By now, somewhere around the world, the first human life has been senselessly destroyed by a British-made weapon. The country may not yet have lost its first species of the new millennium but it probably will do within a month or two, thanks to the intensive use of pesticides or some other accidental effect of human innovation (perhaps as many as 500 species, most of them never known to us, have been lost this year from the more biodiverse rainforests). So it goes.

Naturally enough, though, it is the other blade of technology's double-edged sword that features in the Design Council's selection of Millennium Products, a thousand-odd products and services recently brought to the market by British ingenuity. It is a fatuous idea. The millennium has even less meaning as a date in the history of innovation than it has for other fields of activity. Look at this rather as just a random year, the Year of Our Ford 92 (it being that many years since Model T Fords began to roll off the production line). Still, any date's as good as any other for a celebration of our commercial inventiveness. Among the real products of the millennium one might include the flying buttress, the clock, the printing press, the telescope, the train, the internal combustion engine, flight, radio, the telephone, television, central heating, contraception, the computer. Were British companies of the 1990s intimidated by this record? Nah. They came back with carrier bag handles, DIY aids and carpet underlay. The range of Millennium Products is stupefying not only in its breadth but also in its banality. There are some remarkable innovations, but too few for the length of the roll-call.

There are clearly areas of solid strength, such as in medical developments and entertainment software. Strange sub-themes surface, too: there appears to be an obsession, either among manufacturers or the competition jurors, with fire detectors. There is a preponderance of devices for monitoring this, that or the other as well as for generating, storing, converting and conserving energy that is more revealing about the contemporary zeitgeist. Some brainwaves have an edge of madness. Take Waterbeds for Quadrupeds, which really are what they say they are, intended for farm livestock. It's not that they crave the luxury. The design could be the solution to sores and disease picked up from soiled straw. I expect you'll be hearing about them in The Archers any time now.

Part of the problem lies with the outmoded idea that an innovation is a national creation. The Design Council had trouble rustling up qualifying products because so many of the Britons who designed them work abroad or the products are made by foreign companies. A flyover in Hong Kong or a parliament building in Germany qualify because they are the work of British engineers and architects working in Britain; the Apple iMac is out because its British-born designer works in California.

The scheme's judges complain that it was hard to scrape together the requisite number of products to break the thousand barrier. Even of the winners, only a small fraction are clearly world-beating innovations of undoubted benefit to all: surgical gloves that discolour automatically if pierced, so reducing the risk of passing infection; bionic limbs; a water container for Oxfam; hi-tech refugee shelters. It does ideas such as these poor service to have to share their limelight with the greater number of merely adequate products (good in their class, likely enough to succeed in the market, but in no way special) and the majority of dross. Designers moan that many of the innovations, great as they might be, aren't well designed. Certainly the Millennium Products marque is no guarantee of good design the way that the Design Council's once familiar Kitemark was. A more worrying trend is that some companies appear not to know or care what real innovation is or are simply trying it on.

Among the rejected entries were items such as Marks & Spencer's low-fat raspberry mousse. This is surely not the type of company to take the piss out of a "prestigious" national initiative. So Marks must have felt it was in with a chance. What surer indication could there be that the company is in need of a takeover? Other items such as the new Nescafe jar shape speak only of the terminally limited imaginations of many of those who devise and produce mainstream consumer goods.

Meanwhile, the real business of innovation goes on. As well as DERA's landmine neutraliser (a Millennium Product, and a useful gold star for the pre-privatisation defence research agency), there are DERA's advances in offensive weapons which are taken up by manufacturers and exported around the world. As well as cancer therapies, there are British American Tobacco's cigarettes. As well as the Scottoiler bicycle chain lubricator, there are the gas-guzzling racing cars of Lotus and Williams and the murdering grimace of bull-barred Land-Rovers. So it goes.

Some Millennium Products are displayed at the Spiral outside the Millennium Dome; www.millennium-products.org.uk