Design-driven Innovation and The City

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Nicola Morelli, Associate Professor, PhD Department of AD:MT Aalborg University, Denmark

At AAU Service Systems Design Research Group in Denmark, we not only work with service design, but also collaborate to link our knowledge to other areas, such as the future city. Our aim is to redefine the role and competences of design in the social and economic urban transformations.

The first critical step for the Designscapes project consists in defining the pillars of the framework: innovation, design and the city. An appropriate definition of those terms is of course beyond the scope of this newsletter, as it refers to a wide academic literature developed in the last century. The three terms would systematically characterise the nature of change (innovation), the process of change (design) and the context of change (the urban environment).

Innovation has been studied as a progressive evolution from inventions that are filtered, selected and empowered, to generate new solutions, that are eventually broadly adopted. Innovation and design cannot be separated. There is no innovation without design, even when those who operate the change process are not defining themselves as “designers”, neither are they following a structured design process.

Innovation can happen as a result of individual and diffuse problem solving capabilities, i.e. through forms of “diffuse design”. Diffuse design happens on a daily basis. Everyone, every day, aggregates a set of resources to address their personal needs: to move from home to work individuals use roads, urban infrastructure, public transport, their own knowledge and perhaps the information coming from friends. In other words, individuals create value in every moment of their life. The value creation process is a routinary way to address daily personal needs. In some cases though, this process can generate unforeseen solutions that often emerge in niches, local contexts, among small groups of people. The high demographic concentration in urban environment, speed up and multiplies this kind of innovation, providing the opportunities for accelerated communication between different initiatives.

An example of diffuse design is “Social Street”. Its goal is to help residents of a particular street get to know one another—establish enduring bonds, exchange hyper-local knowledge, and share needs, all by preparing a collective meal or carrying out projects of common interest. What started as an experiment – soon became but became an initiative to increase opportunities for meaningful neighbor interaction through self-organizing groups and inspired many others around the world to do the same.

  The original Social Street in Bologna’s Via Fondazza, in Italy — Photo:  Social Street

The original Social Street in Bologna’s Via Fondazza, in Italy — Photo: Social Street

The emergence of insurgent, spontaneous forms of innovation however, is not the only or the most frequent case of change in urban environments. Innovation is very often a planned and structured process of a change, generated by experts (designers, engineers, planners), which explicitly address emerging problems, using their own professional knowledge created on the basis of their past experience, or through the observation of other cases in different contexts.

Expert design is what is needed to generate infrastructures (products, services, technologies) that support everyday life, the urban life, the life of the individual. Those infrastructures are the resources for citizens to create value, i.e. to produce solutions for their own everyday needs. Design is, therefore, a term that refers to the activity of planning and organizing change, either by using the inherent problem solving capability of human beings, or by applying expert knowledge and skills of experts (designers).

The tradition of industrial design also indicates that the role of expert designers is critical in industrial processes, where reproducibility and scalability are the key multipliers of innovation and facilitate the process of value creation, amplifying the accessibility to products and services. This aspect has been crucial to interpret the process of mass consumption and mass customization in the last decades, but has also been the basis for an intense debate among designers, about their role in supporting the expansion of cultural, social and economic models that may also lead to undesirable or unsustainable scenarios.

Although those considerations would lead towards a deeper and broader analysis of the role of expert designers, which exceeds the scope of this newsletter, this critical circumstance has suggested that designers should not only focus on the process of infrastructuring value creation, but also on the role of design in facilitating, provoking or assisting changes in the cultural, political, social and technological landscape. For this reason, the last few years have been characterized by an increasing attention on design policies and on the possibility to make design thinking a structural part of strategies for -scape change.

So far, we have limited our definition of design to what concerns human action. The Designscapes team however is also considering the last process of change, that, although not being moved by human action, may also be considered as a design process. Together with the everyday human action, change and innovation are also shaped by institutional, cultural, social and economic contexts (or -scape). Such contexts are to be considered in turn the product of human action, the negotiation and interaction among different human agents. This context is facilitating or hindering certain innovation directions, in fact acting similarly to the selection processes that shape natural evolution. Markets, for instance, are typical instructional constructions, that facilitate the exchange of value among individuals and communities. Urban environments are themselves working as design agents, as they facilitate the development of certain solutions or block insurgent innovation that would refer to different urban configurations.

The perspective of Designscapes is, therefore, to look at all phenomena of design-enabled innovation. The focus will be on insurgent phenomena of diffuse innovation, when those phenomena will be articulated and structured into projects; Designscapes will also focus on expert initiatives, that will create resources (products, services, infrastructures) that will promise to facilitate important value creation processes. Finally, Designscapes will highlight initiatives that focus on broader -scape changes, or that will accept and interpret ongoing -scape changes into new infrastructures that will support new solutions.

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