Why we need collective innovation. A case for design.

The team from Porthmadog Incredible Edibles map assets with Design Council Expert, Darren Evans

Image: The team from Porthmadog Incredible Edibles map assets with Design Council Expert, Darren Evans

The transition to a low-carbon and nature-positive economy will require us to re-design almost all products, places, and systems. Design can drive the net zero transition because it turns policy to practice, innovation to adoption: enabling is to create the places, products and services that make it easy and attractive to live sustainably.

The environmental benefits of new ideas and technologies can only materialise when innovations are adopted and used. Traditional policy approaches of backing moon shoot high-tech innovation like hydrogen or carbon capture won’t be enough alone. We need another model – collective innovation.

Why innovate collectively?

Quite simply because we all have a stake in the design of a sustainable, just world. We all have a role to play in creating the regenerative products, places, and services of the future.

If we are to address some of the biggest challenges, or ‘wicked problems’ of our time — across energy, food, housing, transport and waste — we need businesses, public servants, policymakers, and communities to understand how each can work with each other better. Design has a critical role – acting as a convener to facilitate collective approaches to the innovation we need.

Design, differently is a Design Council project that supports collective innovation through design at the meeting point of community and climate action. We teach skills and methods to improve design capability while also going deep on individual projects to help them go further, faster.

What could policymakers learn from Design, Differently as an approach to supporting innovation which addresses the climate crisis?

1. Themes, missions, connections

Our current innovation ecosystem could do more to consistently and systemically incentivise innovators to collaborate around shared, urgent challenges. Biomaterials innovators might design an alterative to plastics, without ever talking to a high-value manufacturing innovator who could produce it at scale.

In the Design Council programme Design, Differently, we group organisations together into theme groups or innovation missions (food, energy, transport etc) to overcome this. This is fertile ground to help grow networks and enable collective learning.

Some of these challenge areas are so complex that we need to support interventions at different points across them. For example, on the one hand we are working with the community team of Porthmadog Incredible Edibles to design opportunities to build food-growing into the local landscape; while on the other we are working with a Council team in Derry and Strabane to create a market that draws producers into an intelligent network — selling produce and building community through a new 21st century, walled garden.

2. Public and private practice

The public sector is rarely taken seriously as an innovation partner in mainstream policy debates: businesses innovate, the public services adapt. Design, differently is exploring how collaborative design can instead narrow the gap between public and private sector approaches to climate innovation.

We are helping the public sector learn how designers create ‘sticky’ brands, services and products that go on to become globally recognised experiences, while respecting the vitality of local community context.

At the same time private sector designers and organisations can learn from community-led organisations too. Spending more time with people and projects that are typically under-served by the design industry.

We want to create an environment where it’s easier for public and private to connect, giving the best chance possible of scaling up what we think are some of business and community models of the future.

3. Future business models

What if borrowing products was as easy as popping out to get a loaf of bread? Innovation isn’t just about making stand-alone new products and services, but the future sustainable business models we need to support and scale them.

One of the teams the Design Council is working with the are the Welsh Benthyg Cymru (‘borrow things’) library of things network. We are helping them unify and simplify the user journey for borrowing to grow it into a scaled-up national offer that is as easy as shopping online.

We are also helping teams develop new models for community energy, home retrofit, furniture renewal and even how to bring communities on the very difficult journey of managed retreat from an under-threat coastline.

These services and processes are growing and will become some of our everyday customer and citizen experiences, they are quite literally some of the business models of the future across every sector.

4. Models of circular community

Local, collective change will be a vital part of how we can mitigate and adapt to the climate emergency. Throughout the Design, differently project we have seen how climate mitigation and adaptation projects are so often built around a passionate, grassroots community-led approach at the neighbourhood level. Local places, communities, and industries should be nurtured as centres of collective innovation.

Communities where our houses and neighbourhoods generate, store and share clean energy; where we intelligently connect producers and consumers of sustainable food into happier, healthier networks; where borrowing and repairing become the norm and are as convenient and attractive as buying new; and where we build, improve and future-proof the fabric of our neighbourhoods with strong local skills and with the co-creation of the community itself.

5. A different kind of design

Conventionally, design is often used to promote excess consumption of products and services, it is used to sell. Design has been a big part of the problems we face but has the power to become an equally big part of the solution. Facilitation the innovation we need to imagine, articulate and make-real a sustainable and just future.

Design sits at the heart of almost every customer and citizen experience. It has the power to shape everything from “the spoon to the city”. By bringing different stakeholders and practitioners together through collective innovation, and by exploring emerging design practice, we want to show that it is possible for us all to think in new ways about how and why we design, about what outcomes and impacts we want, and contribute to forging thriving, circular community.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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