When design takes centre stage

Jo Caruana - 23rd February 2020

The European Commission is encouraging member states to boost design-driven innovation through the creation and implementation of Design Action Plans.

Design isn’t just about the way things look but also about the way things work. With this in mind, the European Commission (EC) places great importance on accelerating the take-up of design in industrial and innovation activities at European, national, and regional levels because it knows that design creates value and contributes to competitiveness, prosperity, and well-being in Europe.

In fact, the importance of design as an activity to bring new ideas to the market has been recognised by the Innovation Union – a flagship initiative of the Europe 2020 Growth Strategy. Through it, the EC hopes to be able to increase the use of design for innovation and growth across Europe, raise awareness of how design-driven innovation increases efficiency in public services and drives business growth, and create capacity and competencies to deliver these policies.

As a result of this, the EC has encouraged all its member states to develop Design Action Plans, translating political vision into programmes and actions that develop national design resources and encourage their effective use in their respective countries. Locally, the design sector is composed of more than 600 enterprises employing 1,269 individuals, of whom around 40 per cent are self-employed. Notably, the sector generated a healthy €26 million in 2010, and numbers have continued to rise since.

anna whicher

Anna Whicher, Head of Design Policy at PDR

Explaining the concept behind a design policy, Anna Whicher, Head of Design Policy at PDR – a design consultancy and applied research centre within Cardiff Metropolitan University – in Wales, highlights that it is a government intervention aimed at stimulating the demand for, and supply of, design in a country or region or city. “The increasing awareness and use of design by government is arguably due to two trends,” she explains. “Firstly, there’s a paradigm shift in government understanding of innovation, and, secondly, there’s the stronger and changing nature of evidence making the case for design.”

Dr Whicher highlights that, since the early 2000s, the remit of innovation has continuously expanded and evolved from a purely technical standpoint to a relentless focus on the user. “As part of this broader definition, design is being recognised as a driver of user-centred innovation that can co-create solutions that are desirable, viable and usable in the private and public sectors,” she explains.

Moreover, she continues, “policy processes are also changing. Policy will always be data-driven, and researchers have been able to build an economic case for government intervention for design. Beyond that, design advocates have been able to convince policymakers, by involving them in design projects, to gain a tangible and practical experience of the added value that design can bring. Data opens the door but it is the wider impact of design that enables policymakers to take those first steps through the door on the journey to a design policy.”

There are some very clear statistics as to why it is recommended that design policy should be implemented by policymakers and governments across Europe. To begin with, according to Maeda’s 2019 Design in Tech report, since 2004, over 100 design agencies have been acquired by multinational companies such as Google, Facebook, Accenture, McKinsey, Deloitte and IMB – with 60 per cent of them having been acquired since 2015.

“Big business is recognising the value that design can add to products, services, systems, processes and strategies,” Dr Whicher continues.

Locally, the Valletta Design Cluster has been a partner in Design4Innovation since 2017, joining seven other innovation agencies from Spain (Galicia and Barcelona), Poland, Greece, Belgium, Latvia, and the UK with the aim of supporting mutual efforts to promote and sustain design activity.

“In this project and at the Valletta Design Cluster we understand design as a problem-solving tool that can be adopted by business and by the Government to focus on real needs and to provide user-centred solutions that effect positively the well-being of the target users and of society at large,” explains Caldon Mercieca, Manager of both Valletta Design Agency and Design4Innovation Project.


Caldon Mercieca, Manager of both Valletta Design Agency
and Design4Innovation Project

“One of the early steps we undertook through the project was a mapping exercise wherein the local design ecosystem was assessed in terms of where it stood and how this compares to

our partner regions. Over the past three years, we have also had seven workshops hosted by the various partners, aimed at developing solutions to address some of the gaps that were identified.”

In Malta, it was found that these gaps related to three main areas. “Firstly, we have a lack of dedicated facilities to assist newcomers in the creative sector, including design-intensive practitioners, coupled with a lack of concrete space for networking and collaborations between new and established operators as well as between practitioners coming from various disciplines and practices,” Mr Mercieca notes.

“Secondly, while we have generic financial support for start-ups in practically all sectors of the economy, we have noticed how several European countries and regions are using design vouchers, which are locally unavailable, to facilitate the provision of design services and solutions to businesses that do not traditionally engage with design.”

“Thirdly, we have an underrepresentation of the sector within constituted business bodies that needs to be addressed if we want to maximise the benefits of design within the wider economy.”

Meanwhile the Malta Business Bureau (MBB), which is tasked with a key role in the development of enterprise policy and which provides support in the tapping of EU funding opportunities, has recently been involved in a couple of EU design-led innovation activities.

The first was the MBB’s appointment as Ambassador for the European Commission’s Design for Europe initiative, wherein it successfully piloted the first Design Support Programme in Malta. “At the time, the programme was set out to showcase to business and public services the benefits they can achieve by integrating leadingedge design,” Ana Vella, Senior Executive at the MBB, says.

Ana vella

Ana Vella, Senior Executive at the MBB

“We joined a network of international ambassadors which was vital to extend the reach of the project, ultimately helping more of Europe’s enterprises to understand how design can help them provide better products and services, and increase the standard of living for EU citizens.”

The MBB later completed the ‘DesignShots’ Horizon 2020 project, together with two major Design for Europe partners in Luxembourg and Greece. “European cases have shown that design support initiatives are being implemented in some countries. This is a response to the increasing recognition of the importance of design. In general, governments have started to understand design as a tool for innovating products, services and systems,” Ms Vella continues.

“However, challenges still need to be faced in order to introduce design as an overarching approach within SMEs. Since SMEs represent the majority of the European economy, governments are to raise awareness and enhance the understanding of design by promoting and sponsoring design support programmes. These programmes can focus on raising demand for design in SMEs as well as on building capabilities among designers: from consulting or advisory services and mentoring, to training and dissemination of information about the economic value of design.”

This is an extract of a feature published in the Winter 2019/2020 edition of the Malta Business Bureau’s bi-annual publication, Business Agenda

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When design takes centre stage