13 November 2006
Luisa Collina and Giulano Simonelli
Luisa Collina and Giulano Simonelli

Often the term innovation is linked to white coats and laboratories full of unknown machinery. There is another perception that innovation comes from the market; from listening to people for whom the products are intended. However, are there other forms of innovation which go beyond the already well known 'technology pull' and 'marketing push' innovations? Recently the definition of a new innovation concept, defined as 'design-driven' innovation, has developed and is being established. This innovation is not necessarily linked to technological innovation or to sophisticated market analysis, but its driving force is design capacity.

Design-driven innovation
Design-driven innovation refers to reconfiguration processes of value creation that are the result of the generative interface - that is capable of giving birth to unexpected solutions - and social potential (the 'field of what is socially possible'). In order for this to take place, a special ability to straddle the borderline between disciplinary, organisational and linguistic areas that are normally considered different and distant (technical, economic and managerial skills, on one hand, and socio-cultural, aesthetic and communications skills on the other) is called for.

What is needed is a kind of innovation that involves not only products but also, in a broader view, fields of services and communication. The importance of these is evermore relevant within the whole process, from the definition and anticipation of needs to the ways in which the product is launched nowadays as well as consumed by the users. One good example of this kind of innovation can be seen in the Italian production system where the success of 'Made in Italy' products is seldom related only to technology and where the real strength is given by the design of new qualities that often crosses all the above-mentioned borderlines. This kind of innovation allows these Italian companies to acquire a competitive advantage over firms - in many cases bigger and better structured - involved in other national economic systems.

How can innovation be transferred?
Even in Italy, where awareness of the potential of design-driven innovation and competitive value is higher, many enterprises are still far from these innovative dynamics. Next to the so-called 'design-oriented' enterprises there are a multitude of SMEs (a productive force which represents a great richness for Europe), for whom innovation is seen merely as process innovation - production with lower costs. These costs are mainly seen in economic terms, as human resource investments and risks by micro and small enterprises that are not able to bear these costs on their own. Hence, in order to 'overcome the barriers' between design and enterprises and meanwhile contribute to local development through design, it is important to address attention to those enterprises able to offer a 'leapfrog advancement' and potential for innovation.
At this point, the role of institutions, innovation centres, chambers of commerce together with universities, education centres and design associations who work in this field is crucial for directing enterprises towards design through practical projects, for example:

-- Building trust through design with demonstration and experimental projects;
-- Involving groups of enterprises and designers;
-- Making design economically accessible to SMEs.

As a second step, for more mature companies able to express 'design demands', it is possible to organize more structured projects in different forms, such as:

-- Empowering education processes, focused on different specific realities;
- Offering design services to companies, through the organization and tutoring of design
creative workshops, internships, combined design studios, etc.

-- Enabling the birth of design companies through projects focused on:
- The empowerment of design entrepreneurship;
- The stimulation of the designer's entrepreneurial role;
- The creation of incubators for design companies.

Two Italian case studies
DxD Design for Districts

The project DxD - Design for Districts is an experimental design studio born early in 1999 through the connection of the Design Study Course at Politecnico di Milano and Lumetel, the agency for the local development of one of the most important and oldest Italian industrial districts located near Lumezzane, close to Brescia (supported by the Region of Lombardy and the Chamber of Commerce of Brescia). The aim was to lead the firms belonging to the district through product differentiation policies as well as policies for the improvement of their communication systems and through the development of services tied to product distribution and marketing, in order to better face the medium-high market demand.

The DxD project (1999-2001) project initiatives:

-- Final Year Design Studio: more than 60 students for two semesters have studied the local reality (from its product, production and distribution processes to the structure of the industrial community) and designed for its improvement;
-- Work Placements: all the students have been involved in work placements in 22 district companies and institutions;
-- DxD Design Award, 2 Seminars And 2 Exhibitions:
all the projects designed by the students together with the companies within the placement, participated to a Design Award and have been discussed and presented in seminars and exhibitions;
-- 46 Degree Thesis: most of the students graduated with a dissertation on subjects related to the district.

This model has been replicated and adapted afterwards in other Italian, as well international contexts.

Design Focus
Design Focus is a cultural institution formed by different actors - Politecnico di Milano Foundation, Chamber of Commerce of Milan, and the Design Research Agency of the Politecnico di Milano. It is a meeting place, where it is possible to compare and thoroughly talk about design issues, aimed at facilitating research, innovation and competitiveness within the project field and the Lombardy economic and productive system.

Some of the actions being promoted at the present moment are:

-- Adopt a designer : the creation of a standard of excellence for young designers within local enterprises;
-- MIDES - Milan Design Scenario Innovation an initiative to involve and stimulate Lombardy enterprises to structure a common path of strategic research, encouraging companies to identify project scenarios and develop a series of proposals up to the realization of prototypes. This is supported by young professionals and developed with the active support of enterprises;
-- Research Project and informative Network: an Informative System shared among the actors involved in the Design
-- A Focus Observatory that has been built in order to share, through the web, relevant information for improving the territorial design-system.

In order to overcome the barriers between design and SMEs it is important to start specific actions which are focused on communities of enterprises, more than single companies and intended to force the companies to 'try', to 'touch', to 'taste' design rather than to 'listen about' design. These should be supported by universities, institutions, designers associations, local development agencies or organizations, as facilitators of this convergence process.

About this article
This article is re-published with permission from Design Issues in Europe Today, a White Book published by The Bureau of European Design Associations (BEDA), ISBN: 1-905061-04-08. Please visit the BEDA website for more information or download a pdf of the White Book

About the authors

Luisa Collina Is Associate Professor at the Politecnico Di Milano. She is responsible for international activities and projects in the field of design.

Giuliano Simonelli is a professor at the Politecnico Di Milano. He is the Director of SDI, the Italian design research network.

About BEDA

Founded in 1969, incorporated in The Netherlands and headquartered in Barcelona, BEDA exists to ensure permanent liaison between design organisations - the professional societies, promotional, educational, research, social and design management networks - and the authorities of the European Union. The organisation's objective is to develop long-term policies on design for Europe, to promote the use of design across the continent and by so doing, to help industry compete in world markets.