DESMA Course #1 // D + M Essay Seminar

This week the DESMA researchers gathered in Copenhagen for the second part of our first course: Perspectives on Design + Management. For two days we met at the Copenhagen Business School, in a lovely old house turned studio, where we discussed our essays that we had written following our January meeting in Gothenburg. Several of us arrived on Wednesday evening, and sitting in the hotel lobby, we immediately began exchanging stories from the past several weeks. Sitting there, sharing experiences with the other researchers, it was clear that the diversity of partnerships that makes the DESMA network unique, has also led to some intense challenges for our group. From this initial discussion throughout the rest of the weekend, we constantly grappled with the tumbleweed of institutions, perspectives, expectations, beliefs, agendas, and protocols that make up our network.

On the second day we headed over to the studio where we would spend the majority of our time together, circled around a large table in a bright sunlit room on the second floor of the studio. After a short welcome from Anna and Stefan, we went over the agenda for the seminar. Due to the tight schedule, each of person had half an hour in which to give a brief summary of his or her essay, and to receive feedback from the rest of the group. To make the seminar manageable, we decided that two people would do a close reading for each essay and then lead the discussion during the seminar. While Anna and Stefan were there to provide some perspective towards the end of each feedback sessions, we were in charge of driving the conversation. As a reminder, the prompt for the essay was to take our discussions about theory and practice in Design and Management that we had in January, and to map our research topics.

Fernando volunteered to start things off with his essay on brands and meaning. The issues Fernando addressed regarding meaning became some of the central themes we grappled with over the course of the seminar. In particular different perspectives on knowledge impact how we discuss our work and how we conduct research. And so, how we define and describe meaning influences how we research it. Taking a stance that meaning is something objective that we can define and deliver is much different than describing meaning as a constant process of construction, particular to each individual. I have to admit that coming into the seminar I had not considered meaning in much depth, but several members of our group dealt explicitly with the topic and it emerged as a central theme that we all seem to engage in one way or another — meaning-making appears to be an important human activity, who knew?

After Fernando we discussed three more essays before breaking for lunch. Discussions continued to revolve around meaning, but we also touched upon knowledge in design and management, service design as innovation management, and the meaning of technologies in radical innovation. In the afternoon we covered a few more essays, one of which was mine. We were a little bit strapped for time, but I received some good comments regarding my focus on design toolkits. Reflecting on my work I realized the importance of presenting clear and targeted ideas. A good portion of my essay wound its way through different types of examples, making it difficult to hone in on the core of my argument. While this lesson may be particularly important for me, I also see it as essential to successfully communicating our research as a network.

Thursday afternoon we took a break from the essays and participated in a visioning workshop facilitated by our very own Veronica Bluguermann. We split into four groups based on four types of stakeholders in the DESMA network: companies, early stage researchers, universities, and fans. Our task was to compose a newspaper article for three years in the future, describing what each stakeholder group took away from the experience. It was a fun and enlightening activity as we confronted where we thought DESMA was headed. Veronica kept things fast paced and continually mixed up activities, which led to a productive and engaging workshop. In the end our articles served as a starting point further discussions about developing the DESMA network. Again we found ourselves confronted with the diverse environments and expectations of different stakeholder groups as we try to communicate with industry and academia, management and design, inside and outside our network.

Veronica rocks the workshop facilitation

Veronica rocks the workshop facilitation

Pulling and consolidating initiatives from the articles, we switched rooms to prioritize our next steps as a group. Through a relatively smooth and open dialogue, we were able to nail down around a dozen items that we felt were important to the success of the DESMA network. Then, casting votes, we chose the most urgent and least urgent initiatives we wanted to address, and split up into task forces to schedule a plan for each initiative. Five main initiatives came out of the workshop: Training Representative, Boot Camps, Off-line Meetings, Summer Labs, and Website. Each task force spent a few minutes outlining a schedule for their initiative and we presented out to the group before heading to dinner. For me, the workshop helped solidify our direction as a group. Each task force seemed to take ownership over its initiative, displaying a commitment to making it work. I joined up again with the website group and we are determined to get up a website as soon as possible. All around, it seemed that we are growing together as a group: gaining an identity, setting goals, and recognizing challenges that we will face along the way.

Dinner was a chance for us to unwind after the long day. Yet, more and more these casual gatherings seem increasingly important for our network. Discussions drift from topics such as workshop facilitation to cultural differences in surnames, blending our work and everyday experiences.

On the morning of the second day we sat down to discuss the final four papers. Our discussions were similar to the first day, feedback mainly coming from the group with bits of perspective from Anna and Stefan. Again the feedback revolved around developing a sound and consistent platform for our research projects. Setting goals, taking a stance, recognizing differences in perspectives, all affect how we present our work, and how other people interpret it. Meaning-making continued to be a topic of discussion, but we also heard about the history of user-centered / human-centered design, government procurement, social innovation, and organizational structure. Throughout the seminar, the discussions around the essays went by quickly. Rather than providing deep, critical feedback on our research topics, the seminar served as an important chance to hear what other people were addressing and why. I certainly came away with a greater grasp on what topics other people were dealing with, as well as a better understanding of the position my research has in the network.

On Friday afternoon we had the chance to visit MindLab, an innovation unit working cross-departmentally in the Danish government. For two hours we chatted with Jesper Christiansen, an anthropologist and Industrial PhD at MindLab. After introducing ourselves, we heard from Jesper about the unique structure and approach of MindLab. The conversation touched upon several areas pertinent to the work of our network: communication across disciplines and perspectives, research and public policy, organizational structure, knowledge sharing, qualitative research, and systems-level innovation. During our time together, Jesper talked candidly about the challenges working in government and also presented a case for design research as a viable way to bridge the gap between citizens and governments. Indeed, established in 2002, MindLab has long outlived the lifespan of similar initiatives in other areas, proving that something about it works. While we didn’t get at why exactly MindLab has stuck around so long, based on Jesper’s description it appears that the innovation unit is planning to grow and develop for many years to come.

After the visit to MindLab Anna and Stefan said a few final words to wrap up the seminar. We had a few minutes with Anna to discuss the fall course on Design Methods that will be back in Gothenburg. A few people brought up the desire to discuss different types of qualitative and quantitative methods, however Anna emphasized the need to differentiate the DESMA course from the standard courses offered through our universities. Finally, standing outside of MindLab, Anna and Stefan told us they would send us a few final comments on our papers in the upcoming week to help us push our concepts a little further.

Before calling it a day, the rest of us decided to grab some coffee and choose a date for the Summer Lab initiative we had discussed the day before. Sitting in a cozy café in downtown Copenhagen, we took on the challenge of coordinating schedules among eleven researchers. At times the conversation was difficult, with some of us questioning if it was possible to put on the Summer Lab. Thankfully, however, the group decided it was an important part of our experience together and we made it work. For me, the conversation served as a great example of our positive group chemistry as we somehow managed to work through a challenging process with level heads and democratic conversation.

The rest of the afternoon we split up and went out separate ways to enjoy the chilly, but sunny day in Copenhagen. Later that night several of us met up for dinner where we carried on many of the conversations from the seminar and workshops. At one point, discussing the challenging, almost paralyzing effect of different perspectives on research in design and management fields, the idea emerged that we should host some debates or panel discussions among leading experts in design and management. In just the short time we have been together we have already started to recognize the chasms that exist across design, management, industry, and academia. As our group toes the line between these two worlds, we agreed that it could be fruitful to confront these issues in a public forum along with people who have deeply held beliefs about the fields of design and management. There appears to be quite a bit of potential surrounding the idea, and we may incorporate it into our annual meetings.

Another interesting point that emerged from conversations over the course of the weekend was the need to brand our network. Hosting debates or forums, creating workshops, publishing articles, all go back to our mission as a research network. Meeting for only the third time as an entire group, it was impressive to see a shared vision of the network start to emerge. While we have a long way to go in fully fleshing out our position as a network, expressing the need for a solid brand suggests that we are starting to see ourselves as a group with a particular mission. Over the next several weeks I am confident that we will make great strides in developing our brand internally and externally.

On Saturday morning we had the last formal event of the weekend, a workshop with Citymart, one of the DESMA industrial partners based in Copenhagen, and Veronica’s host company. Growing out of the non-profit Living Labs Global, Citymart seeks to increase efficiency, transparency, and impact in public procurement. We had the opportunity to hear directly from co-founder Jakob Rasmussen about the mission and operation of Citymart. A relatively small company, Citymart has big aims. Leveraging the power of the web, they help research and connect solutions to problems shared by cities all over the world. The basis for their approach is that individuals or companies have already developed solutions to many of the problems facing municipalities across the globe. However, most municipalities have difficulty seeing past their own boarders. As a remedy, Citymart provides a platform for policy makers to find solutions that already exist, rather than spending large amounts of public money procuring custom goods and services for isolated problems spotted by different governmental agencies.

While describing the company, Jakob also raised some of the difficulties facing Citymart. Still in its early stages as a company, Citymart has to manage being a small size with a global mission. Thus the website, which serves as the primary touchpoint for their offering, houses an immense amount of complex information related to public procurement that must cater to diverse needs of small business, local governments, and citizens. Due to Citymart’s size, they must balance spending resources on the in-depth data collection and network development supporting their service, and the design, maintenance, and upgrade of their web platform. After our introduction to Citymart, Veronica coordinated a short workshop around some of the challenges facing Citymart.

We split into three groups—Cities, Companies, and Citizens—and imagined accessing the Citymart website based on different needs and expectations. In a short amount of time, we filled out what was possible and wasn’t possible on the current site, and came up with a few new options that Citymart could provide. Again the workshop format worked quite well as we were able to quickly dive into the content and gain insight into company’s situation. At the end, each group took a few minutes to report out to their findings and ideas for developing Citymart further. Overall, it was impressive to see the amount of headway eleven people can make on a problem in a compressed period of time. With the final word from workshop, Jakob sounded pleased to have some concrete feedback to move Citymart forward.

I left the workshop feeling positive with the outcome, but also wondering what we could have done with more time. In just three hours we dug quite deep into the Citymart.com experience from multiple perspectives. However, as a group of researchers with expertise in Design and Management, we began touching upon issues regarding the structure and strategy of Citymart as an organization that we simply didn’t have time to address. For instance, after hearing our feedback on Citymart’s offering and user experience, how will they implement changes? What are the internal priorities and operations as a company that will either support or hinder change in their organization? These are all questions that we are equipped to engage as a group. In future workshops or “bootcamps” I see potential for us to provoke questions around a huge array of issues connected to Design and Management, and I look forward to seeing how the Bootcamp initiative develops in the future.

To sum up, the seminar in Copenhagen was another fruitful DESMA gathering. There were several times over the few days when people remarked how amazed they were with the complimentary mix of personalities in the group. Perhaps it is that we are all struggling through similar issues, or that this is such new territory that we aren’t bogged down with prior expectations. I can say that I am already anticipating our next gathering at the course in Milan — not just because it is at the end of May. I came away from the trip with a sense of excitement and responsibility for helping our network flourish. Judging from what I saw and heard in the conversations and workshops during the seminar, I believe the rest of the group is just as committed to making the most out of this incredible opportunity.

1 Comment

  1. Great to see you gaining invaluable experience during the “outset” of your PhD work. I only wish to have been part of such a network with activities connecting the network building goals, each students topic/project and organizations in the local setting

    It seems that the issues Fernando raised in relation to knowledge and meaning-making should give us some more “handles” for our discussions about context and establishing context, and other notions of whether there are sites to occupy, or rather how sites are co-constructed.

    Keep it goin!
    /brendon

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