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Doors are wide-­open to Danish design
9. February 2017
By Marianne Kristensen Schacht, Mandag Morgen
Nations and companies are investing massively in design competencies. Although many of the most highly valued design competencies have their roots in Denmark, other countries now seem to be taking the lead. Danish design has to be reinvented and scaled up for us to take advantage of the wide-open doors and generate growth and sustainable change, say design experts from Denmark and abroad.

Originally published by Mandag Morgen (in Danish) 

Nations and companies are investing massively in design competencies. Although many of the most highly valued design competencies have their roots in Denmark, other countries now seem to be taking the lead. Danish design has to be reinvented and scaled up for us to take advantage of the wide-open doors and generate growth and sustainable change, say design experts from Denmark and abroad.

Accenture, Deloitte and IBM are not generally considered among the world’s largest and foremost design companies. Nevertheless, these three companies have been some of world’s biggest buyers of design agencies in recent years, closely followed by the consultancy firms McKinsey and PwC, which have also boosted their design investments considerably. Big tech-firms such as Google and Facebook are also seizing the potential of design and have bought up at least 27 designer-founded firms, and the number of designer-led ‘unicorns’ – private companies valued at 1 billion US dollars or more – such as Airbnb, is rapidly growing.

In entrepreneurship too, design insight can make a crucial difference. Thus, tech start-ups with designers on the team have an easier time securing growth capital, and they have a higher success rate than competitors without designers closely associated with the company. Moreover, a growing number of venture investors in Silicon Valley now have a design background.

‘Design is undergoing a tremendous renaissance right now. Design has proven to be a key factor and an effective link when companies face transformation. The field has expanded at a time when both nations and companies have proven ill-equipped to deal with change and disruption, because design has the capacity to make companies more innovative and thus better able to absorb and handle disruption,’ explains Banny Banerjee, founder and director of Stanford ChangeLabs at Stanford University and one of the world’s leading experts in innovation strategies capable of shaping sustainable transformation.

Ongoing technological development is making the world increasingly complex. Technology lets us generate new data and combine and involve in new ways, but all these new possibilities only make sense when they can be translated into something that is relevant to people. And it takes design thinking to translate these digital possibilities into something that makes a difference on a human level. Or, as Christian Bason, CEO of the Danish Design Centre, puts it, ‘No one in the world can outperform Google and Facebook, and it’s not because they have the best engineers; it’s because they create the best user experiences.’

According to the DesignIn Tech report, designers now bring in so much value that the ideal ratio calls for about four to five engineers for every designer. Designers who are knowledgeable about UX, user experience, are particularly sought-after in a time when digitisation affects everyone and everything.

‘It is no coincidence that major management consulting firms and VCs are acquiring design agencies, as seen in Silicon Valley: design thinking is coming of age in terms of business innovation and strategy,’ says Manuel Toscano, CEO and co-founder of the New York-based design agency Zago.

Emma Benameur concurs. She heads the Programme Development Team of the World Economic Forum, which recently hosted this year’s Davos summit meeting. She mentions the so-called fourth industrial revolution, which is driven by the inherent possibilities of digitisation, robotics, big data and the Internet of Things, as the key catalyst for new design competencies that are needed to connect the many new possibilities into something that makes a positive and meaningful difference for people.

‘All countries need to get into a higher gear when it comes to using design in new technology. There are huge possibilities in the interface of technology and design. And it’s an obvious area for Denmark to be a front-runner,’ says Emma Benameur.

Bringing Danish design into the world
Banny Banerjee, Manuel Toscano and Emma Benameur are members of a new panel of international advisors to help bring Danish design and design thinking into play in response to the global demand for design competences. Many of the competencies that are currently in demand from nations and companies have their roots in Denmark. This includes user-involving design, which is about creating solutions by including the users who are going to make the solution successful, whether it is a physical product, an app, a service or a process aimed at changing people’s behaviour in a more sustainable direction; and it includes design policy, which is about shaping processes, for example initiatives within democracy and politics aimed at increasing citizen involvement.

‘Seen from an international perspective, it’s puzzling that Denmark – given its extremely strong design brand and tradition – seems to be struggling to capitalize on its design talent in areas outside furniture and architecture. Considering Denmark’s role as one of the founders of the very concept of participatory design, one would expect your country to have quite an edge,’ said Manuel Toscano of the design agency Zago.

The new advisory panel comprises ten international top advisors with expertise on different aspects of design. They have all agreed to offer their input to help Danish design increase its global presence, generating growth for Danish companies and helping the world to find answers to some of the urgent challenges facing our planet.

‘If we combine Danish capacities within areas such as energy, welfare, urban development, water and health with our design competences, which involves the users in the development of creative and ambitious visions, our contribution will be second to none. And that is where we need to be: second to none,’ says Christian Bason of the Danish Design Centre, who initiated the new panel together with the Danish Design Council.

‘We have a real to contribution to make out there, so it’s a shame that we don’t have a stronger global presence than we currently do. As things stand now, we fail to capitalise and scale our potential and leave it to other players to take the lead. Design had made it into management now, and that’s an area with a huge economic potential. Here, Denmark needs to play a bigger role,’ says Jens Martin Skibsted, chairman of the Danish Design Council.

Design opens new possibilities
Design-hungry companies outside Denmark are not blind to Danish design competencies. In summer 2015, Indian Wipro Digital bought the Danish design agency Designit at a price tag of DKK 635 million. And in summer 2016, the consultancy firm ReD Associates established a partnership with the American firm Cognizant. ReD Associates specialises in customer behaviour. Generally, the Danish strategic design industry is smaller and fairly fragmented, and to play a role in the international arena, the field needs to scale up, Christian Bason points out.

‘Singapore has a national design council, and in Silicon Valley, everyone is investing massively in design. To compete on a global level, we need to know what our unique contribution is,’ he says.

In Denmark, many companies have embraced design in one form or another. A recent study by the Confederation of Danish Industry and the Danish Design Centre found that six in ten Danish companies now use design. Most companies do not use design systematically, and only 13 per cent apply design in business development and strategy. Thus, Denmark too has a potential for using design more strategically, as a driver of innovation and new business opportunities. See Figure 1.

Most people associate Danish design mainly with beautiful furniture and architecture. Key words used to describe Danish design include ‘quality’, ‘craftsmanship’, ‘functionality’ and ‘sustainability’. These words should now be made relevant in relation to the design of public services, digital solutions and future companies.

‘There are many new applications for design that hold promise, not only for Danish design agencies, which stand to gain market shares, but also for Danish companies, which have an opportunity to generate new business by using design in new ways,’ says Christian Bason.

The design ladder
Figure 1: Few companies use design in a strategic capacity

Figure 1: The design ladder

Step 1: Non-design
Design is not applied systematically

Step 2: Design as form-giving
Design is used as finish, form-giving or styling in new products/services

Step 3: Design as process
Design is an integrated element in development processes

Step 4: Design as strategy
Design is a key strategic element in our business model

Forty-three per cent of the companies that work with design use design in processes and strategy (Steps 3 and 4). Forty per cent do not apply design in a systematic manner.

Source: ‘Design Delivers − Sådan rykker design forretningen’, Confederation of Danish Industry and the Danish Design Centre, 2016 (in Danish).