National design and innovation policies: a user centered perspective

I’ve been chewing over Tim Brown’s post on Design Nations since I came across it for the first time yesterday morning.  He touches upon Aalto University and Finland in his musings viz.,

Finland is a great example of a country that has done many of the right things. It has an integrated design and innovation policy and has created new institutions like Aalto University to facilitate greater cross-disciplinary collaboration. What is not clear is whether this is actually generating increased numbers of innovative companies or increased economic growth.

Sitting here in Helsinki, on the inside of Aalto’s spearhead project to facilitate greater cross-disciplinary collaboration, the beloved Design Factory, how can I help but be tempted to respond with my 2 euros worth?

My first thought is to observe that since Aalto only came into being in the January of this year, its far too early to tell what its impact will be on the national economy. But some clarification is required,  Aalto University is at once a new institution and a very old and established one, in that it was formed from the merger of three of the most respected local institutions – the Helsinki University of Technology, the Helsinki School of Art and Design and the Helsinki School of Economics, each with decades of history, achievement and alumni.

My second thought is to ponder on the metrics of success by which Tim is assessing Aalto’s impact – increased numbers of innovative companies (was that one of Aalto’s goals?) or increased economic growth (how would we define that?)

On the other hand, he states that Aalto was created to facilitate greater cross-disciplinary collaboration, and this I can certainly attest to, having been immersed here in this environment since the April of 2009.  I’ve also met with those responsible for the publication of the 2010 National Innovation Policy with its emphasis on user driven and demand driven innovation but would like to hold back my thoughts until I’ve framed the situation from Tim’s post with more clarity.

Comparing apples to oranges

My objective is not to defend Finland’s initiatives so much as explore and evaluate comparative approaches to boosting national innovation and design capabilities.  As part of John Heskett’s Design Policy class back in ID-IIT Chicago, I undertook the analysis of Singapore’s National Design (and Innovation) policy. Finland and Singapore are comparative nations, in terms of size and resources, so lets go back to the question Tim is musing upon:

There seems to be a group of small to medium size countries that are committed to building innovation infrastructure to drive economic growth and I wonder what are the key elements for success in this endeavor?

At this point, Brown seems to lose his focus as he compares these apples to the oranges that are cities or regions, that too in countries like India and China, which while comparable to each other (a billion and some creative minds each for arguments sake) are on an astronomically different scale from Singapore’s city state of 4.25 million or Finland’s almost 6 million. Mumbai and Shanghai have neighbourhoods larger than this…

I have been wondering whether top down government policy is what really makes the difference or whether instead there are emergent characteristics that determine a nation or region’s success in the global innovation economy. When I look at places that have generated significant innovation in the past- London, New York, Paris, Silicon Valley, Florence, Rome, they all seem to have been successful ‘fusion cities’ (or regions) that benefited from ideas flowing in from the outside and the interaction of diverse populations. That’s why I think cities like Singapore, Shanghai and Mumbai may one day be seen as equally productive innovation hotspots.

What is being overlooked here is the extensive support systems and infrastructure, not to mention population pool of the hinterlands that each of these cities and regions have and a place like Singapore doesn’t. (Or Finland for that matter, unless you consider pine trees and reindeer and lakes as innovation resources). We should in fact take a comparative look at what has been happening in India, China and the United States perhaps?

Lets take a moment to step back to 4 to 5 years ago, when the first stirrings of India’s National Design policy were heard and our hopes were high. Whatever has happened since then has been moving at a glacial pace, elephants and juggernauts do not tend to be nimble and responsive, but yes, they do indeed reach their destination eventually. It was around this same time that China focused on design education and thousands of new schools opened up around the country – I remember this well as we were observing the impact from far away with awe. Its been 5 years and we’re seeing the economic end results even now.

Top down, bottom up or user centered?

Coming back to our small and medium sized countries and the question of impact of national innovation policies, from this perspective, it seems to me that the issue isn’t about whether a top down approach is better than an organic bottom up approach. Its about assessing how can the two work together. And whether its a mandate from on high, with metrics and goals that must be met, or whether its taking a user centered approach by assessing the needs and opportunities of the end users of the innovation policy?

Look at this recent article in BusinessWeek decrying the failure of Okinawa’s innovation policy attempts even before they’ve been implemented (Rule number one in creative brainstorming is don’t kill the idea before its even been allowed to bloom). I found this snippet intriguing and one that gives me hope that there’s more here that could be possible.

[… ] into a “prosperous island full of hope and dynamism.”

It plans to do this by creating info tech, biotech, and environmental science clusters controlled by the government. It has already built a magnificent university campus and recruited world-renowned faculty and researchers to OIST. In addition, the government will create a sizable venture capital fund and assign its specialists to be intermediaries between OIST and local companies. The government specialists will decide what R&D to fund and help small and midsize companies decide on what markets to enter; negotiate financing; form partnerships with other companies; do business development; and modernize their facilities.

Even as the author goes on to categorically state that this is all wrong, I’m stopped in my tracks by the resemblance to Singapore’s National Policy for a Creative Economy. Eh? What gives? If indeed government mandated innovation “is all wrong” then by what metric is Singapore’s current success being evaluated as successful? The recent spate of investment in major global design events, big brand name speakers and splashy conferences or a genuine opportunity to feel safe enough to experiment and dare failure that’s being upheld as the hallmark of genuine innovation enabling? Are they focusing on the needs of the users or on external criteria? My parents live there and so I feel the responsibility to stop my assessment right here.

On the other hand, when I look at what the article states as the key problem identified by the Japanese government,

Kiyoyuki Shimizu, head of the cluster initiative in Japan’s Gifu Prefecture, explained that the government believed its previous investments didn’t lead to innovative products because the ties between academia, which was performing the research it funded, and industry, which needed to build businesses around this, were weak. So it needs to fill this void.

and then look at what the author states is the “right way to do this”,

Clusters happen where like-minded entrepreneurs congregate, start risky ventures, and learn from one another other by networking. Innovation is a by-product of this synergy and experimentation. What is needed is less government control, not more.

and reflect upon my observations here in the midst of Finland’s Aalto and user driven approach, it highlights something interesting. The issue is “control” not “government” or “policy”. Look at the words Vanderbeeken has chosen to share in his post,

The aim of user-driven innovation policy is to raise market actors’ awareness of new innovation tools. It also seeks to create a social infrastructure supporting user-driven innovation while removing obstacles to and boosting incentives for innovation activity.

I’m not hearing mandates or directives here, I’m hearing support and infrastructure that informs and enables, thus supporting the economic boost that becoming more user oriented can give to an organization. Who here can argue against the government becoming more user centered in their approach to the delivery of services and products?

Reframing the issues

Lets do a thought experiment for a moment, given all of these myriad bits of opinion and information and the current operating environment as well as a timid look at the emerging future.

  • What if its not entrepreneurship = startups but entrepreneurial = mindset?
  • What if the policy mandates becoming more observant of customer needs and thus more responsive rather than meeting arbitrary goals of number of new companies or industries or patents as a metric of success?
  • What if opportunity means identifying new strategies for revenue generation rather than driving economic growth?

What if we said, listen the system itself needs to be redesigned so lets start over?

Lets reframe the metrics of success and the criteria for boosting the creativity and knowledge of society, lets become more user centered and responsive, lets see what happens then.

Lets experiment.

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