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Why designers hold the key to restarting Denmark
8. April 2020
In the beginning of the 1970s, the famous furniture designer Charles Eames was asked by a French journalist if there were limits to the problems designers have the ability to solve. To that, Charles answered with a question: “What are the limits to problems?”
corona dansk design center
Andy Beales

Today, we can argue that the limits to our problems are expanding, day by day. We have already used billions to support our economy. This has not been an easy decision, but it has been relatively simple to implement in the short term: send more money. Now Denmark approaches the second and more challenging stage. As Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen plans to reopen Denmark, she emphasizes the importance and need for creative solutions as an essential way out of the corona crisis.

But where should this creativity come from? 
Since 1978, Danish Design Centre has operated on the premise that Danish businesses, regardless of size, sector or industry, become more competitive through the use and implementation of design. They do this because designers are able to offer a unique perspective to the development process, which dramatically increases the likelihood of innovative solutions.

Designers like Charles Eames question the fundamental problems a company tries to address and solve. They develop creative solutions from the customer's perspective, for example by spending time with people in order to understand their behavior and needs. Through the combination of curiosity and imagination comes the ability to rethink products and services. Designers are able to find comfort in ambiguous, complex and open problems. It is in their professional DNA to work with tasks that cannot easily be defined.

Today, more than 40 years later, the premise still holds true. Three out of five Danish companies that work systematically with design say that they see the value of design directly reflected on the bottom line. According to the Confederation of Danish Industry, “we export over 300 billion DKK annually, in upmarked products, goods and services, where the provider can ask a significantly higher price than their competitors because of their high quality and design.” Design is, in short, a force for change. 

Our design resources need to be activated
In the midst of the global corona crisis, it is time to activate Denmark's design resources at a whole new level. 

Luckily, in Denmark has over 50,000 design professionals, including people with a formal design education and those who have trained and worked with design competences and initiatives. They embody the special Danish design DNA that we have been promoting across the world for decades. From groups such as LEGO and Danfoss to medium-sized companies such as Lakrids by Bülow and Moment, to startups like Pleo and Vivino, Danish companies are winning with good design – both in the physical and digital world. Denmark's design DNA is more than a Nordic aesthetic; it is thinking sustainably, socially and transformatively.

Companies are crying out for new and more creative approaches, not only for their digital business development, but also for their green transformation processes. This is especially relevant for experience, retail and transport industries, which are among those most affected by the crisis. It is not surprising that the SMEs, we are currently working with, are demanding new insights into customer behavior and needs, so that they can tailor new (digital) products and services to them. In the short term, many are looking for new ways to deliver or support their existing services digitally (e.g. through online sales); In the longer term, they will need to implement further initiatives of basic digital business development if the company is to survive. Here, companies need to completely rethink their interfaces and channels, as well as collect and process digital data much more systematically.

For some companies, the supply chains are fractured, and the future lies in local production and in local markets. A shift in which the city once again becomes the framework for production – only on a smaller and greener scale.

20 times return
These types of problems and opportunities are what designers are experts in working with. Their first step is not to build the technical solutions, but to put customers at the center of the way companies seek to create value. Experience from our current efforts to digitize SMEs through design also shows that over 80 percent of the participating companies get ideas for new digital products or services, and that over 90 percent get inspiration for new business development.

It is evident that designers can help generate new innovation power in companies. This is why it pays off when public finance programs allow designers to collaborate with companies who would otherwise not have the opportunity to make use of a designer's skill sets. 

An impact assessment conducted by the Erhvervsstyrelsen design program PLUS, shows, for example, that for every Danish krone invested in longer collaborations between designers and companies, the company can realize an average of 20 times more in new value added, in subsequent years.

Don't forget about public innovation
The benefit of designers in our society does not end with private companies. In the coming years, we will probably have to rethink our healthcare sector fundamentally and here  designers can contribute as well. Several designers have already adapted to creating 3D-printed safeguards or communications and behavioral designs that promote corona-safe behavior in the public space. In the long term, citizens must be even more at the center of public service. Funding and governance models must be rethought in an era of incredibly scarce resources. The interaction between the public and private sectors must be aligned, and the public must itself be the frontrunner in the green transition.

Experience shows that public organizations highly benefit from using service design to rethink their interaction with citizens. Powerful public design solutions can reshape services from scratch, radically reduce wait time, create consistency and eliminate redundant processes. Design is also the ability to reinvent our physical space, not least urban spaces and involve citizens in the development process. Isn't that something that will be needed in the public sector of the future?

New markets for designers
For me, there is no doubt that many designers will be in demand more than ever before due to their ability to creatively solve problems. Many of our strongest design agencies are already busy advising their customers on digital innovation and business development. New markets and new types of needs will emerge, which designers must navigate in. Perhaps this will challenge even the best designers' skills and ability to think broader, and be even more ambitious than our classic Danish design DNA suggests. Now, it is not solely the customers or the market that are changing – it's the context of the customers and the market itself that has changed, perhaps forever.

When we celebrated the 40th anniversary of Danish Design Centre a couple of years ago, we also launched a strategy in which we encouraged designers to shape the next society. At that time, no one had imagined that the our society at the beginning of this decade would be shaped by a pandemic. The problem may have expanded, but it is still a design problem that calls for innovative solutions. Let's restart Denmark together.

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