By Dr Benjamin Reid
Europe has a thriving design industry with an annual turnover of more than €36bn, and the EU has a long track record of developing and promoting innovation policies. But it’s only relatively recently that they’ve started to consider these elements together: the role of design in innovation policy and the connections between the EU’s design expertise and its ability to formulate and implement innovation policies across Europe.
So while the EU might be a tad late to the design party, it’s certainly moving now, with EU Commission Veep Antonio Tajani outlining a ‘vision for design embedded, by 2020, in the innovation systems of Europe and making a difference in society’, and the creation of the European Design Innovation Initiative (EDII) to effect that change.
Far-reaching changes for embedding design in EU-nation innovation polices were recently laid out in a major report by this group, emphasising the role design as an approach and a discipline, as well as an industry, can play in achieving the EU’s ambitious innovation targets:
‘Design is perceived as an activity of people-centred innovation by which desirable and usable products and services are defined and delivered. Design has a role to play in business processes and metrics (such as value-adding or cost cutting). Design is considered as a sector in its own right of specialised, professional economic activity by trained and qualified practitioners and as a tool for business and organisational growth at the highest strategic level.’
One of four new projects under the auspices of the EDII is the ‘DeEP’ project: ‘Design in European Policy’. It will continue the work of mapping design (innovation) policies across the EU, as well as understanding and articulating best practice in evaluating design innovation policies across these jurisdictions. The Big Innovation Centre, an initiative of the Work Foundation and Lancaster University, is one of the partners delivering this project. Other partners include Politecnico di Milano, ImaginationLancaster, Malardalen University in Sweden, and Concordia Design based in Warsaw. Ultimately the DeEP project will look to produce a practical online tool which can direct policymakers towards varied examples of design innovation policies across Europe than can spur them to be innovative in their own policymaking, as well as encouraging best practice around evaluation when they look to develop and implement design innovation policies.
Turning to the UK context, one of a prior round of EU-funded projects on design policy found that the UK had – at least by expert self-assessment – one of the most sophisticated of Europe’s design policy infrastructures (see ‘design policy ladder’ below), alongside Finland and Denmark.
But we can’t rest on our laurels just yet. A recent workshop with design and design policy leaders in the UK – held at the Big Innovation Centre in London as part of the DeEP project – found that, despite our relative policy sophistication, there has been a distinct lack of systematic evaluations of design policies in the past, and also emphasised the paucity of suitable of metrics and measures currently available to evaluate and assess the impact of design. Involving the vast number of Small and Medium Enterprises in the design industry in the innovation policy process was also seen as a key challenge.
Another significant challenge is the complexity of the policy landscape: there are policies specifically aimed at the design industry or at firms, but also those which are aimed at developing the broader system, and can be used by the design industry and firms but not directly targeted to them. Working through a framework for teasing out these differences will be crucial to helping policymakers and other stakeholders make sense of the design innovation policy landscape and create effective new policies.
What is clear is that design has a crucial role to play in the innovation ecosystem of both the UK and Europe, if it can be embedded sufficiently effectively to be used by a wide variety of stakeholders within policymaking. Building on the UK’s strength in this area gives a great opportunity to maintain our leadership within the EU and, through thriving exports, broader world markets.
Dr Benjamin Reid is a Senior Researcher at the Big Innovation Centre, and co-ordinates the ‘DeEP’ project on behalf of the Centre.