The first steps towards a strategic "design agenda"

Is it possible to demonstrate in an easily comprehensible way the innovation potential of the design field and how design research can help society develop for the better? One prerequisite is to increase cooperation between the various actors so as to increase its visibility. And then to jointly formulate a vision – a strategic research and innovation agenda. That is what the project called "Design for increased competitiveness" aims to do.

Design research and methodology are being carried out in many fields but not always with the visibility one might like. The research is funded in part by government initiatives that are seldom categorised as "design".

Since the autumn of 2012 the project "Design for increased competitiveness" (within the framework of Vinnova's programme "Strategic research and innovation agendas 2012") has worked to produce a strategic research and innovation agenda in the field of design. So far the result is a "design agenda" in A3 format.

Project extension

The project has just been extended until the autumn of 2013. In the next few months this design agenda will be the foundation for yet another step towards increasing the visibility of the design field's innovation potential.

The aim of the strategic research and innovation agenda in the design field is to increase cooperation between various actors in the design field and to create the conditions for many people to use design, understand it, or do research in the design field.

A number of actors were brought together last autumn to formulate a shared vision. The vision would in part include how design and design research can be made more visible, how design methodology can be used to develop new service functions, and how various actors might work together to realise these ideas.

Important points for discussion

Workshops and discussion meetings focused on questions like: How can the existing resources and infrastructure for innovation ventures be used more effectively to produce more innovations in the service sector? How can design contribute to more such innovations? Why is Sweden good at design? The research situation both at universities and outside them was assessed. The idea was to produce a broad-based analysis that could withstand the passage of time and be supported by the participants, who came from a wide variety of backgrounds. There were design researchers, practising designers, private and public sector educational coordinators and representatives of funding bodies, as well as people from SVID, which organised the gatherings.

Gradually it was possible to agree on nine different needs that must be met in order for society to be able to benefit from the design knowledge and research that already exist, and to develop it. These needs were grouped under three key words: knowledge, leadership and awareness.

Within the theme of knowledge, it is necessary to "use and find already existing and published design research and design-relevant research", to have interdisciplinary expertise and to be able to "explore future possibilities".

Within the theme of leadership, the aim is to promote the existence of priv-ate and public sector decision makers who have an awareness of design, to find "structures for design as a process for innovation and development" and to develop knowledge exchange in the design field.

Within the third theme, awareness, the needs involve "initiating a debate to develop and broaden the concept of design and increase awareness about design", to "be able to describe the value of design" and to present "design as an alternative prototype-driven working method that proposes relevant totalities."

Measures and actors

Suggestions for measures were developed for all these areas of need and suggestions concering possible actors were listed. This information can now be found on the design agenda's A3 sheet, together with the jointly formulated five-point vision for the future. This is what a desired future in the year 2020 looks like:

  • Sweden is a nation that takes design seriously and acts accordingly. We achieve stronger Swedish competitiveness via increased insight into the potential of design in the private and public sectors.
  • A strong user focus in the development of public and private products and services.
  • Awareness that design is a user-centred development process in which exploratory prototype work produces suggestions for relevant totalities.
  • Strong and internationally competitive design education programmes.
  • Well-known design research that is used.

More actors

During the work with the agenda it emerged that there are even more actors who it should be possible to involve in future work, and that it is important to have an open process. Everyone must feel involved; the design agenda is not owned by anyone but by all of the stakeholders involved.

Bo Westerlund, Sten Ekman and Anna Romboli were some of the participants. What did they think of the working method and end result?

"I feel that the agenda document is a reasonable presentation in this limited format and I felt that I could contribute based on both my experiences of design research and the teaching I do of doctoral students in design. Continued work on the agenda must be shared, cohesive and inclusive," comments Bo Westerlund, professor of industrial design and currently head of the Design Faculty.

He took part in a number of email discussions, a workshop on design research and a working meeting on design research and cooperation – a total of two days.

Sten Ekman, who has a doctorate of innovation technology from the School Of Innovation, Design And Engineering at Mälardalen University, took part in the workshops on developing ideas.

"The design agenda in an A3 format functions well and is clear. My perspective and research field is innovation, unlike the others in my group. I could probably expand the perspective to also include innovation and design.

"A more detailed application to Vinnova this autumn would be a good idea in order to get resources for a larger project based on the design agenda. Design and innovation are being integrated more and more nowadays but I believe that SVID is the organisation in Sweden that can best get this to work as a larger project thanks to its extensive network. Most of the others who will be applying for funding will probably do it only from the 'innovation perspective'. We must give design a higher profile within innovation processes. The application process should involve both design expertise and innovation expertise from both academia and industry."

The A3 sheet clarifies the situation

The final participant interviewed, Anna Romboli, works at Veryday, a design and innovation consultancy, and has contacts within both Swedish and international companies and organisations that are working strategically with design. She was involved in the think tank that functioned as a sounding board and presented knowledge about and various ways to approach how design contributes to the force for innovation and development in Sweden.

"The initial aim of the agenda work was to formulate 'why design is important to Swedish competitiveness'. In order to involve the key actors who are needed to drive the issue further, the private sector's knowledge and interest are crucial. That was why it was a very important angle for me in the work. In terms of design research, our company is both a party that produces and contributes to research whilst also being a recipient of the design research being done. In this way I have been able to have differing perspectives on research issues."

With regard to the end result, she says:

"I believe the A3 'map' simplifies and clarifies the situation. There is a lot to be included and it is a real challenge to fit in everything in a way that can be grasped. I feel that the 'agenda' is sufficiently concrete without being too detailed. I hope it will serve as a good foundation that can be used to further this work."

"The work on the agenda has been a good initiative and can hopefully be regarded as the start of something that we lack in Sweden today. I hope that the work will continue so that we can also see results in the future. Some ideas about how to continue the work already exist and I believe one of the big challenges is to set up a shared and unifying force that will drive this and prioritise so that the work doesn't stop. Many of the required measures are not the type that can be implemented overnight – long-term commitment is necessary."

The work continues

Of course that is the case. Making the innovation potential of the design field and design research generally recognised needs more than a vision written on one sheet of paper. But the groundwork has been laid.

(By Lotta Jonson, published in Design Research Journal no 1 2013)

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SVID, Swedish Industrial Design Foundation | Svensksundsvägen 13, 111 49 Stockholm | I +46 (0)8 406 84 40


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SVID, Swedish Industrial Design Foundation | Svensksundsvägen 13, 111 49 Stockholm | I +46 (0)8 406 84 40