This report collates some of our observations from this year’s EPIC conference in Tokyo. Examining the notions of hyper-skilling and internal ethnography, it looks at the potential implications these ideas may have when employed in design research – and indeed the extent to which they mirror practices here at STBY.
The best way to learn a new skill or a new way of working is to actually do it. This does not mean however that you have to start from scratch and figure everything out by yourself. Collaborative experimentation and dedicated coaching can offer a valuable scaffold to experiment, learn and improve.
Enterprising professionals in any organisation are likely to take up ambitious projects and tasks that are relatively new to them. They are already mature experts in their particular line of work, but may have come across a new approach or method, and want to try this out. They are confident that they can eventually pull it off, but also aware of missing the foundation that previous experience and foundational knowledge provides.
An obvious and useful solution is to hook up with a collaborator who can offer guidance through reflective conversations that help deliberate potential courses of actions and taking considered decisions. If such a person is not available in the organisation, it makes sense to look outside of the organisation for a mentor or coach who can offer such guidance during the course of the project.
Over the past years we have built up a lot of experience with coaching such enterprising professionals on service innovation projects with their aim to use more design research methods. And we very much enjoy doing this. We are glad to see so many in-house professionals picking up new ways of approaching early stage exploration and strategic discovery. We see it as a positive sign of market maturity that not all such projects are fully outsourced to agencies like us, but that also in-house teams feel confident to take them up.
Initially our coaching was part of the training programs we for instance delivered together with the Amsterdam Business School at the University of Amsterdam. As part of the executive course Design Driven Business Innovation we have guided about 80 professionals working on innovation projects for their respective organisations. Their projects spanned many different sectors, such as Healthcare, Transport, Media, Finance, Government, Utilities, IT, Fashion, Food, Education, Retail, and Publishing.
Since a while we are also offering this type of coaching directly to professionals and organisations. Recent coaching involvements have been with two international IT startups, a financial institution, and a governmental advisory body. For some we arranged ad hoc coaching sessions, whenever their project asked for it. For others we set up coaching calls for a fixed time each week. The rhythm of the coaching is always a bespoke arrangement depending on what the person and the project needs.
Other coaching activities by STBY have been part of a wider learning and development programs. One of these programs is Open DOTT, a EU funded research program on the Internet of Trusted Things, where we delivered design research training and coaching to 5 academic research fellows. And as part of the national innovation program IDOLS*, funded by the Dutch government, we coached 2 out of the 10 projects that focused on tackling wicked societal challenges.
Combining training and coaching is also one of the key principles of This is Doing, the online learning platform of which STBY is one of the founding partners. Learning does not only happen through absorbing theory from courses and webinars, but by applying what you are learning in an actual project. You then encounter more precise questions and choices. Navigating these in practice will make them stick much more stronger. And, you’ll actually get a tangible result from your learning process. A win-win situation!
HIVOS asked STBY to collaborate on the creation of a practical and inspiring Playbook for Social Enterprise Support. In an intensive and co-creative 3-day sprint with a strong international team from HIVOS Hubs, we brought together a wide range of resources from several years of their successful work with social enterprises. In the weeks after the workshop we further developed the format for the playbook and crafted the final content.
Innovating for social change
HIVOS is an international NGO seeking new and creative solutions to persistent global problems. Solutions created by people taking their lives into their own hands. They offer a positive counterbalancing force against discrimination, inequality, abuse of power and the unsustainable use of our planet’s resources. Their mission is to innovate for social change. With smart projects in the right places, they work towards more open and green societies.
Tackling societal challenges
Hivos sees social enterprises are purpose-driven businesses that tackle societal challenges. These entrepreneurs aim to promote, encourage and trigger social change by creating financially sustainable solutions. Social enterprises are managed in innovative, resilient, transparent and accountable ways that involve their stakeholders. Hivos supports the growth of these social enterprises, with a focus on creating societal versus private wealth. In addition they also advocate for policies that support scaling these solutions in multi stakeholder platforms.
Internal resource for inspiration
Hivos has a long history and a variety of programs that have made a difference for society. The social entrepreneurship playbook is a first attempt to bring these programs together, so that institutional knowledge embodying this rich experience is captured and shared. It will be an internal source of inspiration for Hivos staff who support social entrepreneurship that brings about societal change.
Tested and proven methods
The playbook offers inspiring examples as well as tested and proven methods of how Hivos supports social enterprises around the world. It was a big joy to tap into such a rich repository of case studies and experiences from Costa Rica, Egypt, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Indonesia and Netherlands. And it was a special joy to create the playbook in such a collaborative way. STBY prepared and facilitated the 3-day co-creation workshop, and then developed a format for the playbook that enabled the team for HIVOS to craft to the contents in a way that is accessible and inspiring for their colleagues around the world.
The Reach Network of professionals in design and innovation has brought its seasoned practitioners from around the world together to create 5 masterclasses on the This Is Doing learning platform this Autumn.
Most of us have more than a decade, some several decades, of experience in Human Centred Design or related innovation practices. Learning has always been a key driver in our careers, in particular learning with others, which can be clients, colleagues or peers. At this moment in time we feel that learning is even more important than ever since we are faced with crises that affect everything, from our personal lives to the entire planet and everything in between.
Many of us are not facing their first crisis though, having gone through the financial crisis in the first decade of this century, and even the dotcom crisis at the turn of the century. The current health and environmental crisis does ring a few familiar bells and one is that the need for innovation and change is larger than ever.
How to apply our skills as professionals in this context, is what we will focus on in the master classes that we have set up. There are 5 directions that we will explore: research, care, work, planet and business. Each class is independent and can be attended as a one-off 3.5 hours online course.
The content of our Master Classes is focussed as much on methods as on purposes. The methods we will discuss build on many years of experience in design and innovation projects in East Asia, South Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. The purposes we have set ourselves over the years, and set together with our clients, often relate to improving work for people, bringing more attention to care as a force of change, and more-than-human design that considers the limits of our planet. Across work, care and planet as main themes, we will address methods to create change in personal, social and business domains. The holistic approaches we take, in the tradition of human centred design, do demonstrate that the personal, the social and business are connected in many ways.
The five master classes are:
Deep Dive Design Research (28 Oct): Creating knowledge is crucial in change and innovation processes and your research will have to deliver that knowledge. Do you know about design research and do you use it in your projects and teams but would you like to go deeper on its methods, processes and applications? This masterclass will help you to get more out of your design research.
From Human Centred Design to Life Centred Design (4 Nov): From cradle-to-cradle to sustainable design to circular design to frugal innovation and jugaad: all of these approaches to design and innovation inspired this masterclass. Here, we no longer take humans as the only reference in our work, and include the ecosystems that sustain us too.
Creating Caring and Meaningful Organisational Cultures (11 Nov): COVID19 shows us once more the importance of care in our societies. Appreciation and recognition of care has grown now. But how can we use this to determine the new care practices that have sprung up, and bring them into our current projects and our organisations?
Applying HCD to build and learn from resilient communities (18 Nov): How can people organise themselves around societal problems? This masterclass focuses on HCD-driven practices that unlock the potential in communities around the world to create solutions themselves through co-creation.
Doing Business Innovation: Creative, Collaborative and Customer-Centric (25 Nov): Business innovation is multidisciplinary by nature. Strategy, research, product & service management, marketing, communication, implementation, change processes, and more, can be pulled together by mastering creativity, collaboration and customer-centricity however, as this class will show.
Each masterclass comes at a price of €149 (exclusive of VAT). If you order all masterclasses as a package you can apply for 2 hours of personal coaching on top, at a rate of €249 in total. You can then choose two from the total 11 tutors involved in teaching these master classes, for a personal coaching session of one hour with each of them.
All of our masterclasses are about learning through reflection on what we do. They are not lectures, they are structured conversations with peers. Each class is taught by at least two different practitioners, some even by four, offering perspectives from at least two countries and mostly several continents.
We have all learned important lessons over many years of practice and pioneering, and we will use our own practice and projects as examples throughout to illustrate and underpin these lessons.
But your own practice or projects will be part of the material we work with in the masterclasses too. We will look at your work as much as ours, to see where we can apply lessons learned. This will leave you at the end of each individual masterclass with new ideas to try out in your own work, and a certificate on top.
Do join us on this journey, we would love to have you involved!
The practitioners’ handbook: This is Service Design Doing, applies service design in the real world. It includes short descriptions of some of the core service design methods.
We contributed to the book by writing about two case studies, together with our clients Google and Vodafone. The first case is about the Service Experience Design methodology Vodafone developed and fine-tuned. We did deep-dive design research on several of their customer journeys. In our article you can read how customer journey mapping for specific projects can be linked up to customer life cycles with a more strategic scope. The second case is about building up service design knowledge across projects at Google. Over the past few years we have collaborated with Google on a series of design research projects. This case focusses on how we jointly identified a few principles about agile collaboration with interdisciplinary teams in large organisations.
You can order the handbook on the website of This is Service Design Doing.
A STBY case study is published on the website of ExperienceFellow. STBY used the mobile ethnography tool ExperienceFellow in order to get a better understanding of the perspectives of Dutch people on health and sustainability in food.
The article shows how diverse private and governmental parties worked together in order to better understand the eating habits and attitudes of Dutch people. The focus of the research was how to best encourage people to eat more sustainable food. Although most people in the Netherlands are aware of the importance of a healthy diet, many have difficulties getting their heads around the relatively new concept of ‘sustainable food’. We decided to go for an auto-ethnography study, because it would allow to cover a longer time span and involve a much higher number of participants. Read the article Mapping the Dutch’s’ perspectives on healthy and sustainable food to learn more about our approach.
In order to create a cleaner and greener world we have to join forces and collectively come up with new ideas and solutions. That is why it is important to STBY to engage in sustainable projects and organise co-creation sessions focussing on climate action. An example of such an event is the Spring House Climate Summit in Amsterdam we organised in relation to the Clean Energy Challenge of What Design Can Do.
Amsterdams clean energy issues
The Clean Energy Challenge calls on designers and creatives to come up with new and creative ideas to tackle pressing energy issues in five different cities. Amsterdam is one of them. As the research partner of WDCD, we researched the local energy issues in the five different cities. We found that in Amsterdam there is little space for clean energy infrastructure. Solar panels and other visible interventions are not permitted on historic buildings. Other infrastructure necessary for the transition are too big to fit in the narrow and dense urban plan.
Need of creative brainpower
There is not enough space on land nor water to meet the electricity demands for the future of the region through renewable sources. Aesthetic concerns play a role in much of the wider metropolitan area, too. The city of Amsterdam needs some creative brainpower to invent creative solutions to make the energy transition to clean energy possible. Design has the power to approach the energy problem of Amsterdam with multipurpose concepts, products, services, and spaces.
Members club for innovators
Spring House is the shared office building where STBY is based in Amsterdam. And as Spring House is bursting of creative brainpower, it is the perfect place to organise a Climate Summit focussed on design. STBY is an active member of Spring House and makes use of the workspaces together with other Spring House members who all have the same desire: a more social and sustainable society. Spring House is also a lab and platform to collaborate and complement each others projects when relevant.
Motivate and inspire each other
Lots of Spring House members are involved in projects that strive for a cleaner and greener world. Some members work on national climate projects such as self-driven transport, others are involved in local projects, like urban agriculture in Amsterdam. At the Climate Summit we shared stories about current projects concerning energy and climate and mapped a wide range of existing initiatives by Spring House members.
Overview of all climate related projects
The network map helped us to make connections between projects and people and also showed us which projects could be complementary to each other. As a result of the summit, Spring House now have an overview of about different climate projects. It shows us how we can collectively make a difference as a Spring House community.
Seven different impact areas where included in the network map, which gave us a direction for forming groups during the workshop part of the summit, in which we used the workshop package STBY prepared for the Clean Energy Challenge of WDCD. The provided Cluster Board and Value Map supported the Spring House community with brainstorming on new ideas to tackle the energy problem in Amsterdam. After the pitches of the results of the workshop, it was once again clear that in order to make a real impact, it is important to connect with others and join forces.
Climate change is a global problem, yet we can locally design interventions that really make a difference, especially in cities around the world. It is well known that cities use lots of energy. To be specific; cities use over two thirds of the world’s energy and contribute to more than 70% of global CO2 emissions. This is why What Design Can Do (WDCD) is focussing its second Climate Action Challenge on urban energy issues. WDCD, IKEA Foundation and other partners are calling on creative professionals, students and start-ups around the world to come up with innovative solutions. As the research partner of WDCD, STBY conducted the design research behind the Clean Energy Challenge.
Focus on five cities around the world
The design research in preparation for the challenge, focused on finding out where designers can make a difference in five different cities – Mexico City, Sao Paulo, New Delhi, Nairobi, and Amsterdam. STBY initially explored the topic to set the scope and agenda for the design challenge, and then worked with our local research partners from the Reach network to define the final briefs that are most relevant to each location. These briefs are the starting point for the participants in the challenge.
Local relevance and urgency
The local relevancy of a design challenge is very important. That is why the local partners of the Reach network played a key role in the research. Throughout the initial desk research, we identified 5 key topics that seemed to be relevant to most cities. Together with the local partners we organised co-creative workshops with the objective to get insights on local energy issues from experts in the field. This way we jointly identified the topics that were most relevant to their cities. For instance, in the case of Nairobi we decided to focus on the topic of ‘Eating in the City’, while in Mexico City the focus is on ‘City Waste’.
Wider scope on clean energy
Initially we uncovered 10 different topics relating to clean energy where designers could make a difference, but we had to bring these down to five when it was decided to focus on the five participating cities. From that point on, the research focused on establishing a briefing package for each city that had both local relevance and a clear link to one or more of the wider topics defined. The workshops carried out in the five cities by our Reach partners were instrumental to this.
You can download the briefs we made for the Clean Energy Challenge on the website of What Design can do. You can choose one of the following challenges: Eating in Nairobi, Moving around in Sao Paul, Building in Delhi, Waste in Mexico City, and Cityscape of Amsterdam.
While working on a series of projects aimed at improving the experience of pedestrians and bicyclists, I was reading Andy Clark’s book Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action and the Embodied Mind. This proved an unusually fruitful combination, even though the book is about perception, not about design. But in the context of these design problems, Clark’s explanations became interesting points of departure which often reshaped my perspective.
His phrase: ‘a web of humans and machines, each of which are now busily anticipating the other’ seems to me a perfect description of what our busiest urban public spaces are becoming. As ‘smart’ systems become more prevalent, physical touchpoints are being minimised or disappearing altogether, from whole cashier-operated checkout counters to familiar everyday features like taps, handles and buttons. Displays of information are also becoming more fluid and dynamic, as printed posters and signs are replaced by screens with moving images, some of which invite direct interaction through touch. Augmented reality seems poised to become more practical, which means it will soon play a bigger role in the digital layer we use to make things findable with our mobile devices. All of this is driven by algorithms which attempt to both predict and steer our behaviour. And some algorithms are now becoming more than smart assistants – they’re becoming agents that act independently on our behalf, without much intervention on our part.
This raises interesting questions…
As physical touchpoints vanish or minimise, they take affordances with them. How might we add affordances and make the most of the remaining ones? The bicycle parking facility entrance we recently piloted has no doors – sensors identify the type of bicycle and user and initiate interactions. We realised that the sense of a boundary had largely vanished with the doors, so we paid special attention to the sculptural and visual qualities of the remaining components, so that approaching bicyclists would clearly perceive that they were approaching a boundary where some kind of interaction might take place.
What is the right way to make use of the virtual and physical realms for wayfinding? Serial mono-tasking – switching between the real and virtual worlds – is typical of mobile device use. This means less attention for the real world and its affordances, as people’s attention bounces back and forth between their mobile devices and surroundings. Clark mentions experiments that reveal that while doing a relatively simple task, people make more continual and intensive use of the world as an external buffer, than we might imagine. Will augmented reality stitch these two realms back together?
How smart should a touchpoint be? When should it work more like a tool, an assistant, or an agent?
I’ve often thought of this while observing the transformation of route information signage in public transportation. I rather miss the old ‘dumb’ printed overviews of whole bus routes. These have been replaced by screens that show only small parts of the route as the bus progresses, mixed with extra information and advertising. The result is that if I don’t know the route, I can’t pinpoint my present location and determine the number of stops to come so I know when to prepare to get off, and must rely on apps, announcements and asking fellow passengers to orient myself. I now also have to wait for ads to finish to see whether a stop is coming up, so I’m actually forced to spend more time watching the screen. What are the best practices for these kind of screen-based systems?
A place where a ‘smarter’ approach might work well is the subway map. Real-time, data-driven interactive subway maps can be smart assistants, using location info and predictive text to make finding a path easier. But they can also act as agents. For example, they might use real-time traffic data to change the visualisation of routes and nudge people to use less crowded alternatives, distributing traffic more evenly and avoiding blockages. Or the maps can offer these as defaults during peak times. (One of the advantages of Mr. Beck’s original schematic London subway map is that it distorted real-world topography, making the far-flung stations look closer by.) The maps could also offer more detailed information for first-time travellers than to experienced ones.
But public spaces must work for everyone, not only those with the most sophisticated technologies. How might we keep options open for old-fashioned, ‘dumb’ touchpoints where they provide more clarity to users?
Clark’s book is a tough read for the non-neuroscientist. The basic idea of predictive process – that perception is prediction minus a kind of ongoing correction based on back-flowing error signals, weighted for accuracy – and its ramifications, can be difficult to grasp.
The main thing I took away from reading it is that the see-think-act paradigm we’re used to is a good model for interaction, but shouldn’t be mistaken for a model of perception itself. Understanding the central role of prediction in perception and the way the brain, body and world form temporary ‘coalitions’ to solve problems, might help us to design the external buffers and supports our embodied, moving brains need to create optimal behaviours on the fly. This can help us create, in Clark’s words, ‘a world worth acting in’.
More about the ideas…
Clark presents a new theory of perception different from the basic sense-think-act model most of us are used to. The core idea is ‘predictive process’: that instead of passively sensing and interpreting signals, the brain pro-actively sorts out the incoming sensory barrage in advance and checks the accuracy of its prediction on the fly. So what we perceive is what our brains predict, minus a kind of constant correction based on incoming signals that don’t seem to match the prediction. If you’d like to know more, his interview with Ginger Campbell on The Brain Science Podcast is a fun and accessible introduction. For those of us working with robotics, the book also contains interesting examples of the theory’s application in that field.
The development of wearables is continuing apace. Established luxury and tech brands, newcomers, startups, have all begun creating serious offerings. Consumers can already choose from a range of products, from wristbands to watches to rings and other kinds of devices.
Consumers’ expectations seem to fall into two categories: smart and pretty.
‘Smarter’ means that just raw data is not enough any more. We seem to expect recommendations or a program tailored to the individual. Even simple data like numbers of steps needs to be interpreted and can mean very different things, depending on what a person’s goals are. So customisation as well as contextual data analysis are important areas of development.
‘Prettier’ wearables prioritise fashion, and are being created by fashion brands mainly in the form of hybrid rings, watches and jewellery that include selected smart functionalities.
Here comes the dilemma: sophisticated software and hardware, by definition, is dynamic, fluid and changing while luxury products like jewellery keep their value precisely because they don’t change and are meant for a lifetime (or more) of use.
It will be interesting to see whether and how designers go about combining these two aspects into successful hybrid forms. And how these, in turn, might change people’s behaviour and perceptions of smart wearables.
I was recently involved in service design research to support an initiative that involved potential changes to the client’s staff’s way of working, but also to the design of its program of activities and to part of its interior.
As we explored the problem, I found myself re-reading the work of seminal thinkers including Jane Jacobs, Jan Gehl, William Whyte, Christopher Alexander, and Kevin Lynch. Their ideas about the relationship between spatial design and human interactivity proved particularly useful, though they date from decades before we and our environment become digitally enhanced and networked in a ‘world-wide-web’.
Their work provided our team with the key to understanding the complex ways in which spatial design, organisational culture and activity impact each other, enabling us to make next steps.
Gehl’s (Life Between Buildings) insights about the ways in which ‘low-intensity contact’ underpins the growth of deeper, ‘high-intensity’ relationships – and his observations of the ways the built environment can help or hinder its flourishing – helped us create design principles for the new space and activities. Alexander et. al’s approach (A Pattern Language) – gave us a form to use in creating a conceptual model of the built space based on the way users experience it and interact in it, as opposed to relying solely on functional requirements or style conventions. Lynch’s (The Image of the City) abstraction of edges, paths, nodes and other elements that make up users’ mental model of a space, helped us interpret user input to form a realistic idea of the constraints and opportunities offered by the building’s interior design.
What we can learn
One striking feature of these pioneers’ approach is their lean integration of quantitative and qualitative research. This enabled them to create strong evidence for findings which otherwise might have been dismissed as nostalgic fantasies or subjective impressions not rigorous enough to base design interventions on. They deployed a rich set of instruments: measuring the number and duration of encounters, the speed of walkers and traffic, and using mapping, path-tracing, interviews, time-elapse film and photography. They used these to create solidly evidenced models that revealed the relationships between behaviours and environments. Their visualisation of their findings was also innovative and thought-provoking.
How many? Who? Where? What? How long? They showed us how these seemingly simple questions, when answered through rigorous data collection and combined with qualitative insights, can reveal new kinds of order that are hiding in plain sight.
Some reading tips
How to Study Public Life by Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre contains many cases with explanations of the methodologies and results, from the 1960s up to very recent ones. For a great example of quant-qual integration and visual representation of results, see Appleyard and Lintell’s visual explanation of the relationship between the traffic speed and social life of three San Francisco streets on page 114.
If you don’t have time to read Jane Jacobs’ work at length, read the section about her in James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, entitled ‘The Case Against High-modernist Urbanism: Jane Jacobs’.
I attended a workshop at the Open Data Institute in Shoreditch, an organisation with the important mission “to connect, equip and inspire people around the world to innovate with data.” My day-long workshop focused on finding and preparing data and got me thinking about how we as design researchers can take advantage of all the data sets publicly available to us across sectors, from healthcare to product design.
Before diving in to how to make sense of a data set and communicate this to others, we began by looking at the important differences between big data, open data and personal data – and where they overlap. Important to note here is that not all “big data” is ‘open’. Here, open means “anyone can freely access, modify, share and use for any purpose…” (opendefinition.org).
Two methods: story-first and data-first
When you use data as a source, there are two main methods. One is story first, where data is used to enhance, fact check, or dig deeper on the story. The other is data first – while looking at a data set, something seems surprising, interesting, or worth investigating further for patterns or anomalies. For example, a data set from Illinois in the US back in 2012 showed that 89% of those arrested for jaywalking (illegally crossing the street) are black. Upon further investigation into why this may be the case, reporters went to these neighbourhoods and saw that many streets didn’t have sidewalks or indicated crosswalks – people were essentially being forced to jaywalk, and then were getting arrested. Officers were then going specifically to these locations, knowing that they could find people jaywalking to arrest them. Often, as in this case, a data set on its own doesn’t tell the whole story.
As design researchers, we start with exploring the experiences and perspectives of individuals, often in relatively small numbers. From this (often) qualitative data, we draw insights to feed future design work. In our research and analysis, can we also be drawing on these large quantitative data sets to feed our insights? Would they add something valuable to the picture?
In our future projects, it will be interesting to see how we can use ‘open data’ to broaden our skills (and our insights) as researchers. It’s also an exciting time to be asking these kinds of questions, as more emphasis, legally and otherwise, is being placed on organisations and governments to make their data easily accessible to all. Take for example data.gov.uk, the European data portal, or the World Bank’s data catalog. These are just three online databases with a huge amount of data for us to filter through and add to our own research and insights. Trial and experimentation will show the value of open data for design research.
The Design for Europe conference is the main way the European Commission implements its Action Plan for Design-driven Innovation. STBY participated in a session on social innovation, with a presentation about the Refugee Challenge at the What Design Can Do Conference.
The focus of the Refugee Challenge was to see if the period between arriving in a host country and waiting for approval to stay can be improved. STBY’s role was to make sure the design brief would trigger and empower applicants to come up with relevant, realistic and creative ideas for solutions.
A recent survey among all 600 applicants revealed that half of them are still working on further developing their ideas. They are highly committed. The challenge clearly tapped into a strong urge for designers to be engaged in solving wicked social issues.
The Design for Europe’s website contains a video with an impression of the conference, and a very rich collection of resources on business, public sector and policy innovation.