Design thinking and regional cities: Christian Bason

Christian Bason is the CEO of the Danish Design Centre, a government-funded organization that promotes design services to businesses and industry. He is a visiting associate professor at the Oxford Saïd Business School, the European School of Administration and the Copenhagen School of Business. He has also authored seven books on design innovation and management. Here he talks to ArchitectureAU editor Linda Cheng about leveraging design thinking and local cultures, skills and capabilities to help regional centres regenerate after industrial decline.

Linda Cheng: What role does design have to play in regional towns and cities?

Christian Bason: The way we look at design is to focus on the skills, of methodologies and mindsets that designers bring into developing new solutions hor society. Those solutions can certainly be physical products and architecture, however, the way we view design is a more general process of problem solving and finding new opportunities that ultimately create value for people, citizens, customers and society at large.

At the Danish Design Centre and also in my own research, when we look at design, not least in a public sector, government or societal context, we’ll look at what are the ways that, for instance, regional cities and communities can leverage these tools, the methods, ways of working to find the types of solutions they need.

For example, in Denmark we have a region, which is quite a marginalized area. The town in the area has 7,000 inhabitants and young people and families tend to leave the area and move to the nearest city, which has about 200,000 people perhaps. The CEO, the mayor and political leadership that region is now working with us at the Danish Design Centre to explore mobility in the region: how might we think of new types of solutions that could make it easier for older citizens to get around for families to commute, etc. It’s a community that has a lot of islands so how would one be able to design new solutions with electric autonomous ferries that could bring people to those islands. We’re using designers’ ways of working and thinking to gauge both citizens and the business sector to work with the local government to find innovative mobility solutions. That also means bringing in a lot of different and unusual agencies including by the World Economic Forum and the Council of Global Cities to work with the local government.

LC: When you talk about design methodologies and design thinking, what does that entail?

CB: Design thinking as a term has become the new black in the business community. However, I speak more broadly about design as a profession that is engaged with shaping and making new futures. In terms of the elements of these methodologies, there are three dimensions or three sets of activities.

First is exploring problems and opportunities from a human perspective. Rather than the usually very data driven and very analytical processes that decision makers often use, designers would usually take a very human-oriented, situational perspective. That means taking time to explore daily living, relationships, behaviours, actions and context. Basically, it’s taking a very qualitative, rich and contextual exploration of how people live their lives, what are their actions, what are their behaviours.

The second is co-design or co-creation: bringing in all the expertise in a collaborative process to come up with innovative new ideas and new concepts. That means expanding the ideas, options and choices we have as a community or a city before we make decisions. This is process of divergence and ideation. It could include citizens, artist communities, and individuals from different industries or sectors.

The third dimension is taking abstract ideas and concepts and suggestions and make them tangible. Of course, a designer’s unique skill is to give form and shape to ideas, not only of physical products or buildings but also of what a service experience would be like. How would citizens or customers travel through an experience and how would they interact with services or the physical environment, and what’s the value that we want to create out of that?

It is really making an idea tangible, however, we’re working across both the physical environment, services and very often today experiences. Making the future concrete, you could say. It is making prototypes, testing tentative ideas, involving citizens, businesses, city bodies and giving feedback to early ideas and prototypes of what we might create.

This is an iterative process. It is not at all a linear process, when it comes to designers ways of working. It’s much more of an iterative, sometimes quite messy, difficult and explorative process. However, bringing these types of processes into societal challenges holds potential for much more real citizen engagement and much more action-oriented decisions and the way I’ve been framing it in some of my research and books is this is how we collaborate to create a society that’s better than the one we have.

Guggenheim Bilbao.

Guggenheim Bilbao.

Image: Pixabay

LC: In terms of a lot of regional centres, in Australia, some tend to be towns where they have evolved around one industry or sometimes a single employer, when that employer or industry is no longer there or there’s a rapidly changing economy, it creates a situation where there’s very high unemployment, and then the economy wanes, lots of people move out of the town, and it then creates a ghost town situation. In those situations, in trying to regenerate and transform those places, how would one apply designs skills in order to co-design a better future for that town in a way that is bottom up rather than top down?

CB: Around the world but also in Denmark, there are numerous examples of how cities and regionals that have been hit by industrial decline have been able to revitalize themselves. We’ve actually worked quite closely with the people of Bilbao and the Guggenheim Museum there. That is of course an example that is extremely well known, but if you look behind that, it all comes down to a question of leveraging local skills, local cultures, local energy around building something new that is actually quite natural to the area.

To give you an example from the Danish context, we had a region with a single employer 10 to 15 years ago when Denmark had huge shipyards. It was one of the leading manufacturers of large ships for global transportation. When the shipyard closed and thousands of people were unemployed. In collaboration between local government, the state and the wider business community and the labour unions, there was a very fast and active process to explore how we might transform those resources, which are large physical infrastructure for ship building, into something for the future. This then became a hub for businesses in renewable wind energy and technologies that support the wind and renewal sector. And now today, thousands of people are back at work using some of the core skills that they actually had around constructing things but they’re now building windmills instead of ships as well as other types of renewable energy infrastructure. We’re leveraging the skillset that they had in a very different industry that has a long term future rather than decline.

It’s about engaging and tapping into the local resources that are there but of course doing it with a long-term perspective for the industries or sectors which would have a longer term future. I’ve actually worked with some Australian visitors a couple of years ago who came to Denmark to explore our way of working with design. They were from Victoria, from areas where they could see the automobile industry was in decline.

I’m not saying it’s as easy or as obvious as it was in Denmark in that case but there are ways of going forward from this.

LC: And Denmark is now one of the biggest exporters of wind turbines now, isn’t it?

CB: Absolutely. And we’re not just big exporters, we’re also a place where companies like Siemens, Mitsubishi and heavy industries invest in Denmark and we have a cluster of excellence around the whole sector. It’s quite massive but the point is that in this particular region where the workers were unemployed, there was nothing there. The [renewable energy industries] were elsewhere in Denmark but not in that location, and we were able to leverage the infrastructure there to make this happen.

LC: You mentioned the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao by Frank Gehry earlier. Could you talk about the so-called “Bilbao effect” that it had on the town?

CB: The interesting part is – and this has come from the conversations I’ve had with some of the people behind the museum and also with director –fundamentally, what the museum did was become a catalyst for the local culture and the local work ethic. It wasn’t so much about the museum itself, although of course it’s an iconic building, but it was very much about something else.

The culture of hard work and working with materialss one example. The titanium in that building – that was almost impossible to manufacture and nobody in the world knew how to do that.

The local artisans and metal workers, who were part of the industrial decline in Bilbao, started experimenting with how to create those building materials for the museum. They didn’t know that is was impossible, they just thought, “we’re going to show that we can do this here and of course we can do this.” Today, Bilbao has one of the leading – probably the leading – manufacturers of titanium globally. It has world-class skills in that area.

The building seems to have tapped into local cultures, mindsets and resources that were then transformed into quite significant business opportunities. This is one of the hidden stories. It’s not just tourism that put Bilbao on the map but the transformation is also about reigniting local skills, pride and capabilities in new ways.

LC: How would a town find their unique skills and capability? Obviously not every regional city can have a Guggenheim.

CB: I don’t know if there’s a singular process. But it will require a true interest in the skills, cultures and what motivates people in that location: understanding what’s behind the past successes, not in terms of industry but in terms of what characterized the underlying skills and capacities and connecting that with the future.

One way we worked with that is using future scenarios to explore these things where you look at what are the longer term plausible future for the area.

The challenge is to orchestrate the processes where you as a city, as leaders and as the government recognize that it is the meeting between your past, present and future that the new can arise. But very few cities and localities have those process or design skills to make this happen. Traditional planning and city development doesn’t cut it. Traditional data collection and analysis doesn’t cut it. That’s why I’ve worked so hard to bring design thinking and design methodologies to policy makers and government officials because that’s where we also need it.

LC: On policy making, in Australia, we have much less of a healthy culture of design than Denmark and communicating the value of design to policy makers and sometimes business can be quite a difficult thing. How do you quantify the value of design for governments and businesses that are increasingly driven by cost-benefit ratios and other economic factors?

CB: It’s also difficult in Denmark, it’s an ongoing challenge and part of our reason to exist as a government-funded organization that works to advance the value of design for our society. You have to use the language that decision makers understand, which is the language of quantitative metrics, showing the business case, using design in different contexts.

When it comes to the business sector, it’s actually quite easy because there are so many studies out now that demonstrate that companies that work with design methodologies and become more design driven and more human-centred have 50 percent morerevenue compared to their peers.

When it comes to governments, cities and regions, it’s harder. Here you have to, on the one hand, work with concrete examples. When you share the case studies and the experiences, you bring in the real stories from individuals. Ultimately the challenge is you have to bring people in to have them experience the process and the ways of working for themselves. That’s the big challenge we have here. It’s often quite hard to explain how it ultimately works.

The challenge with Bilbao is, while I respect tremendously the courage they had in what they did, and the leadership they demonstrated, people will dismiss it as, “well, it’s the Guggenheim.” Of course, this can never happen anywhere else. It’s a one-off. This is why some of the people in Bilbao have been doing some really interesting work on how that’s not the case, and actually you can decode what happened and you can use it elsewhere in a very different context.

We have to look at the past to see what happened and how we can learn from it. That’s why we run not-for-profit programs and experiments. You really have to bring people in to get them engaged. The way we do that is by providing resources and grants. We know this might sound different, challenging and this is not the way people are used to working but we’ll make it easier and attractive for them. We’ll support them, bring in the skills they need for them to get going because we all know if they continue working in the way they do today they’re not going to find the next solution they need.

Christian Bason will present a lecture titled “Enabling transformation through design” at the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre on 20 March as part of the 2019 Melbourne Design Week. For more information, click here.

He will also present a lecture titled “Design for society - a critical perspective” at the Melbourne School of Design on 19 March.

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