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Write up of the recent All-Party Parliamentary Design and Innovation Group's (APDIG) Spring Reception

The Design, Innovation & Technology Spring Reception was hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Design and Innovation Group (APDIG) and the Design Special Interest Group - a Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) programme. Featuring a series of talks from high-profile public sector, industry, academic and policy speakers, this event offered a showcase of design in innovation and how it creates UK competitiveness and social impact. This article is submitted by our Creative Industries Associate, Simon Hopkins.



On April 26 I was lucky enough to be invited along to Shoreditch Town Hall for the Design, Innovation and Technology spring reception, hosted by the All-Parliamentary Design & Innovation Group (APDIG) . The evening was to comprise a series of short, 5-minute presentations from a wide variety of perspectives, but all looking to answer key questions about the role of design in all aspects of contemporary life. Crucially, how does design thinking drive innovation in manufacturing, service provision, policy making and more generally in business? It proved to be a fascinating evening.

The evening was introduced by my colleague Beatrice Rogers, the KTN’s Head of Design and Design SIG (Special Interest Group)  lead. Beatrice briefly introduced the work of the KTN and the Design SIG and discussed the notion that for her, design was about making technology work better for real people, rather than applying “lipstick to a pig”. 

But the core of her talk was a provocation. All this talk of “the future” is all very well - the KTN’s strap line, after all, is “the future faster” - but what kind of future are we headed towards? To outline some dystopian possibilities, she looked to science fiction film, something to gladden the heart of this particular nerd. 

Elysium was one possible end point of the income disparity arc we seem to be on, with a super elite living (literally) the high life in an orbital space station high above the earth while the rest of us languish on a resources-deprived planet. Then there’s The Minority Report, which depicts a world of “big data gone wrong”, when every action or even thought we have is available to government and business alike. (It’s an area, of course, that Jaron Lanier explores deeply in Who Owns the Future? )

Gattaca is, Beatrice said, “a film all geneticists should see” with its depiction of a society where only the genetically perfected have access to the best jobs (and, if memory serves, to the opportunity to go to space in particularly natty suits). Finally, there’s WALL-E, in which a lone robot attempts somewhat quixotically to tidy up a post-apocalyptic Earth while the human race, off in a spaceship elsewhere in the galaxy, have become to pampered to do anything for themselves and, indeed, and too fat even to walk.

Of course, these were all extreme visions, but they each represent a logical conclusion to certain technological and social routes we’re arguably on currently – indeed, popular science fiction often articulates our shared anxieties not necessarily about the future but about the present. It’s “time to design a better story for the future”, Beatrice said. By using the deep underlying techniques of user-centred design we can create technologies benefit humanity rather than threaten it: “Design is increasingly being recognised as tool to embed values such as sustainability and resource efficiency within product, service and systems innovation.”



Beatrice finally introduced Innovate UK’s futurology/sustainability tool Horizons before leaving us with a more positive sci-fi take on the future Gene Roddenberry’s deeply humanistic Star Trek. She quoted Roddenberry: “The human race is a remarkable creature - one with great potential.” Star Trek, at its best, showed us that that potential could be realised if technological advance was allied to - and infused with - creativity and imagination.

Beatrice was followed by Policy Connect’s Head of Group, Manufacturing, Design and Innovation, Naomi Turner. Naomi introduced the work of Policy Connect and its drive to create a business environment that’s friendly to SMEs, and then more specifically talked about the APDIG Manifesto: Thinking, Testing, Making. Design, she said, "Equips people to think in terms of complexity, user needs, of not being afraid to prototype and test, and beyond the present…"



This kind of thinking is beginning to resonate not only in business but also in the public sector, with the Government Digital Service representing clear design principles - not to mention Agile methodology. More generally, design is the faster growing of the Creative Industries in the UK, growing by 34% in the last 7 years.

But there are problems, not least with the halving of pupils studying design tech in secondary school. She also pointed out that there are complex underlying circumstances out in the marketplace. The Warwick Commission  pointed out, for instance, that a third of UK design agencies regularly use unpaid interns.

In order to drive the design agenda, then, and to tackle some of the problems, Policy Connect are arguing for the creation of an Innovation and Design Chief Advisor role, for “design thinking” to be core to all levels of education and for design to be viewed as sustainability now is: not as a nice to have but as core to business and government strategy.

The final bit of scene setting came from Sebastian Conran, who, among many things, chairs the Design SIG Advisory Board. He set out his stall immediately. He wants to transform “technology, science and engineering” into “user experience, lifestyle and culture.” 

Companies like Porsche, Apple and Dyson are exemplars that illustrate this kind transformation, combining beauty and functionality seamlessly. Indeed, Apple products have become almost “essential” in the modern world, making the company not only the richest in the world, but twice the size of the next! And this is surely a result of Apple’s insistence of design at its core, with Sir Jonathon Ive and a team of around 16 designers constantly “weighing intangibles and tangibles”.



Conran went on to point out that he favoured a “real world” view of design, as opposed to an academic one. It’s all well and good for theorists to discuss constant iteration and a circular process, but for him design will always be a linear process comprising: scoping, creative, development, implementation, and distribution. Nonetheless, some level of design thinking needs to be present in each of these phases. Finally, he discussed how design needs to be unpacked into both the rational and the emotional. And he left us with a couple of equations: that value = desire/sacrifice or, expressed more prosaically, = brand+design+quantity/cost.

We then moved on to five presentations from five very different companies and organisations discussing the role of design in their work. First up was Sam Adlen, the Head of Business Innovation at the Satellite Applications Catapult.

Sam started out by making it clear that he’s not a designer, but rather a technologist. He was first introduced to design as a discipline while at Imperial and collaborating with designers from the Royal College of Art. And once exposed to design, he’d begun to “see it everywhere” and come to think of designers as “heroes”.

He introduced the concept of the Catapults, which aim to stimulate business-led innovation and to join up Universities and Research Centres with Business. Specifically, for the satellite industry, this is a time of tremendous disruption, with new market entrants, new technologies and a general increase in competition. An exciting time, for sure, but one that has to be approached with an open, agile approach.



For Sam, design is key here, and in several areas. For a start, the Catapult’s work will be infused with a user-centred mindset. Design will be key to visualising the huge datasets produced by the satellite industry. It will also be used in storytelling - in helping to communicate what the Catapult does and in sharing its research and knowledge. Rapid prototyping will be essential in the Catapult’s work and, finally a design-led approach to innovation will something the Catapult seeks to put at the heart of the satellite industry’s culture.

Tony Kypreos, founder and CEO of Dupl followed Sam, and introduced “the next generation of communication that brings visual content simply and elegantly into conversation”. Tony said from the outset that he’s a physicist who wants to be a designer, and underlined Beatrice’s point that we needed a humanist approach to design. Indeed, he discussed “empathic design” and name-checked the international design consultancy Ideo as a source of real inspiration in this regard.




The development of Dupl has been indicative of this approach, starting with two key insights: that it’s natural for human beings to do things together, and that conversations have to have content - specifically visual content. The comms industry has in many ways ignored 1 to 1 communication; Dupl sets out to right this with an app that brings visual content into live 1 to 1 communication.

But “empathy” and “insight” shouldn’t only inform product and service design - it should inform everything that you do in business, not least your strategic approach. Although a working prototype of the app currently sits in the App Store, key insights about the health and fitness sector have made the Dupl team refocus their attention here and the results - Dupl Life - will launch this summer. As a fitness nutter and self-tracking geek, I for one can’t wait to see how it develops.

Next up was Adrian Tautscher. Adrian is the Group Manager of Sustainable Aluminium Strategies at Jaguar Land Rover. Following Tony as he did, this rather underlined just how diverse the industries are that now consider design thinking so essential. Adrian, like Tony and Sam before him noted that he wasn’t a designer, but an engineer. But he went on to talk about a fascinating project with design at its core: Materials & Design Exchange - End-of-Life Vehicles, or MaDE-ELV.



When vehicles come to the end of their life the represent an ongoing impact on the environment - but they also represent a potential opportunity. MaDE-ELV set out to assess this opportunity, with a study of 42 scrapped vehicles that set out to improve the “understanding between materials selection and vehicle/component design and their impact on CO2 life cycle.” This has become increasingly pressing as modern cars have so many more - and more complex - parts than their predecessors. (To illustrate the point Adrian showed us photographs of the component parts in driver’s seats in Rovers, one from 1988 and one from 2010. With only a couple of decades between them, the components were barely recognisable as performing the same function.)

One of the key elements of the project was a student project to design a new product from the component parts of a car door; the winner was a rather ingenious take on an anglepoise lamp. Of course, this is design at its most specific. More generally, design thinking has been at the heart of the entire project, and will inform future decisions about Jaguar Rover’s circular economy strategy. Lastly, Adrian left us with the thought that one of design’s key tenets - collaboration - had been essential to the success of the project.

The penultimate talk of the evening came from another “couldn’t be more different” corner. Andy Williams is Coventry City Council’s Resources and New Projects Manager and discussed how he and his team are “using design and innovation to create solutions for our city”. 

He started by outlining some of the familiar headline problems facing future cities: population growth, congestion, critical health and environmental issues. Unpacking these huge issues to create the “smart future city”, he said, would involve asking the questions: what are the people’s needs? And what would make people happier, prosperous, productive, and secure? Local authority thinking hadn’t always taken this approach; indeed it often seemed characterised by “user inconvenience design” (a term that made everyone in the room chuckle).



Among other things, the future city should: adopt new technologies; positively address investment around communications, energy and environmental issues; improve community well-being; install and use connecting infrastructure; and collect, share and utilise data. 

Of course, these are laudable aims, but they’re a tall order too (or series of tall orders). Andy talked about various schemes and initiatives in Coventry that set out to address them and observed that, of course, design thinking was critical throughout. Specifically, UCD principles were being applied to understand the city’s and the citizens’ needs of a local authority, whether this be in transport, health or even the simple provision of local information. Finally, Andy discussed the need for this to be done very much in collaboration with the private sector, which set us up very nicely for the final talk of the evening.

This was given by the evening’s only actual designers: Ben Fehnert, founder of Eclipse Experience, and Emily Glazer, Eclipse’s Design Researcher. Their talk was entitled “ Humanising Public Services: Contextual, person-centred approaches to design across public services” and discussed recent research work they’d done in this area. 

Eclipse concentrate on 5 key areas: education, healthcare mobile tech, public services and infrastructure - each one of which, on its own, is huge. Recent research includes “citizen science” (in this case, dementia research and the use of design in care improvement) and how to make public consultation better through truly user-centred principles.



They finished with something of a manifesto. Eclipse are passionate about reforming public services; public agencies should accept (embrace even?) the complexity of people’s live and should work with and not just for the people. And finally, echoing both Sam and Sebastian earlier in the evening, Ben called for designers to be given more decision making within local and national government.

So in some senses then, the evening was book ended by provocations - albeit rather different ones. I for one was left with the feeling that if more aspects of both the public sector and the business world were imbued with the kind of humanistic, people-centred and ultimately design-led thinking on show this evening that maybe, just maybe, Beatrice’s sci-fi nightmares might not come to pass.




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