SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas, is one of the world’s biggest conferences on new technologies, design, new markets and media – and it is where some of the most creative and innovative actors on the planet meet to find world-class inspiration. The programme for this year’s SXSW conference had a particular emphasis on design thinking, as evident in titles such as Human-Centered Design For Future Needs; How Smart Urban Design can Shape Space for Civic Life; Humans, Machines & the Future of Industrial Design; Design Intelligently for Artificial Intelligence and many others. Very fittingly, the Danish Design Centre put Nordic design on the agenda, in part through a series of sessions staged in cooperation with our sister organizations from Finland and Sweden, DesignForum Finland and SVID, Swedish Industrial Design Foundation.
This joint Nordic initiative included two workshops and a panel debate that focused on the use of strategic design within three areas: health care, urban development and sustainability.
Urban design is about people
Together with Mette Søs Lassesen from Rambøll and urban design expert, associate professor in interaction technology Martin Brynskov from Aarhus University, Fjord Copenhagen Group Director Katrine Rau took part in the first workshop, which dealt with co-creation of urban design and urban spaces. A theme where Denmark, for example, by virtue of Copenhagen’s strong position as ‘most liveable city’, with many examples of human-centred design, has an obvious place at the international table and can expect to find an interested audience.
Rambøll has worked intensely with urban development and user involvement over the past four to five years, and Mette Søs Lassesen opened with three key observations: rather than a classic tender process, private and public actors should be brought together at a much earlier stage, and both private companies and private citizens should be involved to ensure real co-ownership; there is a need for a holistic approach that dismantles the silo culture that often characterizes the public sector; and a design thinking approach with prototypes and short iterations is a good way to pave the way for a balanced long-term scaling of the solutions – because it allows for involving, testing and taking better-qualified and more user-centred political decisions in the development of new urban spaces and solutions.
Martin Brynskov pointed out that genuine involvement of private citizens in an urban development process is not merely a matter of altruism: it is a necessary condition for ensuring relevance for the future residents and for ensuring that the development is sustainably anchored in existing local structures and resources. However, it is no easy task to derive a universal model directly from specific experiences, since, as he pointed out: ‘… culture scales with great difficulty.’ Hence, Brynskov is aiming to develop tools capable of rolling out design thinking in all cities or local communities – and to find common denominators for translating approaches that worked in one context into something that will work in a new context, somewhere else in the world. As he put it, ‘How do you structurally support an experimental mindset?’
Katrine Rau from Fjord Design commented that although the scaling of design solutions for cities can be observed on many different levels, from individual products, architecture and services to the overall strategy of urban development, in Fjord’s perspective, it is ultimately the same necessity that permeates all aspects: ensuring that empathy and the human perspective are deeply integrated in the design process. That may sound easy, but it is not to be taken for granted. Thus, the key question in Katrine Rau’s presentation was, ‘How can we make sure it all comes down to designing for people?’
Sustainability as part of the Nordic DNA
The finale of the joint Nordic design push was a session at the EU’s SXSW venue, a cosy atrium on Austin’s main stretch for cafés and concert venues. The topic was design-driven sustainable business, and the event was titled From waste to profit: Creating business cases from circular thinking. Alex Liebert, director of Swedish SVID, gave the opening address, arguing that we need to move from viewing sustainability as a cost to viewing it as a potential source of income. Linear economic thinking does not recognise that the planet’s resources are finite – the cyclical economy does. The cultural transformation, which can be design-driven, involves a shift from take –> make –> dispose to re-use –> re-purpose –> repair.
This opening statement was followed by a panel debate between Swedish Katarina Holmdahl, an environmental biologist and film-maker, Danish Anders Buchmann from B&O Create and Christian Bason from the Danish Design Centre. Holmdahl, who has founded her own sustainable company, Plantty, by gamifying gardening, advocates using design as a way into the so-called ‘blue economy’, which is characterised, among other qualities, by sustainability through local, eco-friendly solutions. Anders Buchmann presented Bang & Olufsen’s new concept under the sub-brand Create (a sort of start-up within the corporation), which is focused on upcycling: using simple, reusable tech components and open-source software to rehabilitate old, but well-designed speakers. This marks an example of the use of design to make sustainability and recycling attractive and engaging, reversing the trend from throwaway consumerism and turning upcycling into a lifestyle marker and a competitive parameter, apropos designing a cyclical economy as a platform for new business models.
Christian Bason pointed out that sustainability and optimal material use are core values in Danish and Nordic design DNA – and, in a sense, in the Scandinavian model. He offered several examples of companies that are already seeking new paths as a central part of their business approach – including VIGGA’s cyclical model for sustainable design children’s clothes and Skagerrak’s concept for high-quality outdoor furniture that can be returned when people wish to dispose of it, and which is then resold with the story of the previous owner’s happy summer days in the patio chair as part of the brand story.