Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Design and Design Thinking for Europe - The Commission's view

The concluding conference of the Interreg 4C-funded EU project on regional design policies, SEE, was held in Brussels on Tuesday 29th March 2011. Opened by the Director of Design Flanders, (and BEDA Board Member), Johan Valcke, the event offered the international delegates a broad range of insights into regional and national design policies from the perspectives of both cities and countries.

Presentations included insights and information from Antwerp, (Mayor Patrick Janssens), New Zealand, (Judith Thompson), Wales (Gavin Cawood – also lead organiser of the SEE programme under the auspices of Design Wales), and Denmark (Anders Byriel, Chair of the Danish Design Centre), as well as an update on design and the European Design Initiative by the Commission's then Head of Innovation Policy, Peter Dröll. (Peter moved to a new innovation position in the Research Directorate on 4th April).

I want to limit my report and comments to Peter’s speech on current progress regarding the development of the European Design Initiative as a component of the Innovation Union flagship initiative of Europe’s five year strategy for jobs and growth – Europe 2020.

As I have blogged previously, design has been included for the first time as an integral component of the strategy since October 2010.

Europe’s creative potential
Peter’s talk was set against the background of fierce international competition and a falling position relative to other countries of the EU’s innovation performance, (China’s performance is growing by 7% year on year). He also referred to the Commission’s Staff Working Document, ‘Design as a driver of user-centred innovation’, published by the Commission in April 2009< Following a very successful consultation, (with more than 500 responses), it was clear that there was overwhelming support for the Commission to take action on design. With regard to design at the European level, Dröll stated,

We need to capitalise on Europe’s creative potential. This increases dramatically the role of designers, because, if we have a broader understanding of innovation, we need more power for design and design thinking in companies as much as in the public sector'.

Incorporating the public sector is a new dimension of innovation policy and this is seen as necessary given that on average, in Europe, 45% of GDP comes from public sector services. Taking his theme further, Peter stated,
Design thinking, as it is understood here, is a human-centred tool to confront complex societal challenges for economic and social welfare.

Systemic policy gap
Moving then to policy the Commission research identified a huge gap between the design leaders and other regions within the EU. This, he declared, is a systematic gap that we needs to be addressed. The Commission also identified three main barriers to the uptake of design:
• a lack of awareness of its potential
• a lack of evaluation of the rate of return
• a need to clarify more accurately what design thinking is about

It was against this background of competition and barriers to the uptake of design, along with the mandate arising out of the research and consultation, that the Commission launched the European Design Innovation Initiative.

Peter was at pains to emphasise that this has a strong endorsement by the Council of Ministers and by Member States. The European Council also talks now about a broad concept for innovation and the need for a strong push for innovation within which design is seen as an integral element.

Indicators for success 2020
Having set out the context, the problem and the instruments with which to tackle the problems, Peter then turned to outlining what success would look like in 2020.
• There would be a shared vision for design thinking in Europe.
• Strategic design would have a common place in all policies relating to
innovation. (Currently, he added, policies are still too focused upon traditional innovation support).
• There would be a keen commitment by companies and the public sector, to use design as a tool to be more successful
• The design profession would go beyond product design to fully embrace design thinking.
• In education and academia, there would be a shared understanding of how to teach design thinking.

Whilst I may have some queries around the details, for example regarding the indicator for design consultancies, there is nevertheless, at a high level in the Commission, an intellectual acceptance of the need for design to become embedded and strengthened at the European level. We have arrived at this situation much more quickly than I would have ever thought possible.

This is very encouraging – all the more so, when reinforced by Dröll’s statement of the Commission’s vision for design.

He said,

Our vision would be that in 2020, design is a fully acknowledged, well-known, well-recognised element of innovation policy across Europe, at the European level, at the national level and at local level.

Design is on the agenda at the top table. But what is going to be done to deliver the vision?

Action to deliver policy goals
The Commission announced in September last year the setting up of European Design Leadership Board to provide the Commission with a vision for design and direction on the actions needed to achieve the vision and objectives within the design initiative.

Supported by the Secretariat established by the Commission at the Designium Innovation Centre of Aalto University in Helsinki, the Leadership Board will be comprised of 15 members representing umbrella organisations related to companies, design agencies, national and/or regional and European design organisations, academia and industry. It is anticipated that an announcement of the board membership is imminent. Although only 15 members strong, Peter alluded to the Facebook concept of ‘inviting friends’, with a strong emphasis from the Commission on the need for the Board to draw upon a far wider pool of knowledgeable, expert contributors who could be invites to Board meetings.

Resourcing policy action in design
Further to the Design Leadership Board and the appointment of the Secretariat, before August of this year, the Commission is committed to launching a call for proposals totalling €3m, (to be funded by the CIP programme), for actions to launch the first part of the European Design Initiative.

Whilst declaring that he did not know what actions would emerge, Peter nevertheless took the opportunity to outline two initiatives that he considered as indicative of what might be feasible. The first concerned a labelling scheme for responsible design which would go beyond product design and the second related to tackling difficulties in evaluating return on design investment. This latter action would engage in working upon a new kind of methodology to evaluate the return on design investment and design thinking.

Peter concluded his presentation re-iterating that Europe has a strong tradition in creativity as much as in design. We need to use that tradition to define Europe’s place in the rapidly changing, global economy. Design can provide fantastic leverage for Europe’s innovation systems to become more effective for social and economic welfare.

Concluding comments
Of particular interest in this speech was the new emphasis on design thinking, as well as the need to integrate the public sector into the programme. Both of these strands, offer avenues of approach for the Design Leadership Board to consider although in terms of European-level action whilst a labelling scheme may seem attractive in raising awareness, there may be other more fundamental drivers which whilst perhaps not as visible to the citizens of Europe at this stage, would nonetheless enable a deeper more sustainable approach to embedding design by 2020.

I am thinking here for example of methods by which Member States could be encouraged to make use of the revised Nace Code for design - M74.1, (again thanks to BEDA’s pioneering work back in 2007-2009) through which we can begin to gather comparable statistics on design activity and its economic value across Europe.

Other areas may relate to skills and competence raising as well as opportunities, for example, to strengthen Europe’s network of national and regional design promotion organisations across ALL Member States– distributing the change management process to embed design more powerfully, out to the key and established actors within the Member States.

Thanks are due to Gisele Raulik (formerly of Design Wales), Ingrid Vandenhoudt, (Design Flanders) and the other members of the SEE Programme who made this conference a success.

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