DESMA Course #2 – Design-Driven Innovation


The Department of Management, Economics and Industrial Engineering Politecnico di Milano hosted the second full course of the DESMA program. A change of pace from the intimate format of Gothenburg we experienced, this course was open to current PhD candidates at Politecnico as well as candidates in the European Institute for Advanced Studies in Management (EIASM) circuit.

Around 70 students enrolled in the course with backgrounds and research interests in economics, organizational studies, management, product development processes, design, innovation, and engineering. At the start of the course we each stood up and introduced ourselves and our research interests, revealing a large portion of the class with backgrounds in the sciences, and only a few of us from the DESMA group with experience in the arts. As with any multidisciplinary course, the (apparently) alternate perspectives brought forth many questions about control, processes, structures, creativity, and meaning. Indeed, much of the course revolved around the work of Polimi professor Roberto Verganti, a leading scholar in design-driven innovation through meaning.

Day I

Roberto Verganti introduces innovation

Roberto Verganti introduces innovation

On Monday, professor Claudio Dell’Era introduced and managed the course, orchestrating a well-organized and stimulating week that included lectures and activities from five innovation researchers across two modules. After Claudio’s introduction we spent the remainder of the first day with Roberto discussing the evolution of the scientific field of Innovation Management. Building on some pre-readings assigned before the course, Roberto took us from two definitions of innovation through research trends in innovation management over time. The scope of the Innovation Management field laid out by Roberto engages a wide array of disciplines such as technology management, industrial design, engineering, knowledge management, marketing, and cultural anthropology. While Roberto recognized that each of these areas connect with innovation management, the first module of the course focused primarily on innovation related to business, management, and technology.

From these perspectives, he described two primary approaches of research in innovation management: strategic and operative. The two-levels of research, which generally reflect macro and micro perspectives, became threads that ran throughout the course — often as a subtext to comments, questions, and concerns from people with both design-oriented and business-oriented backgrounds. For me, the first day in general leaned towards a strategic understanding of innovation. Although Roberto alluded to the growing interest of innovation researchers in idea generation, much of the discussion revolved around economics and firm strategies. Indeed, a key driver of research into Innovation Management comes from the fact that an increased investment by an organization in Research & Development does not have a strong correlation with its level of innovativeness. In other words, innovation management research seeks to explain the surrounding circumstances that contribute to innovation beyond the direct investment in developing new technologies.

After Roberto’s brief framing of Innovation Management, we split into groups to piece together the rest of the story ourselves. Each group took a different stream of literature — I was in a group that combined literature around Organizing for Innovation and Learning / Knowledge Management — and mapped out some of the key texts, topics, and questions in the existing research. Before the class we were each asked to bring in some articles related to the topic we had chosen. Perhaps, in part due to the breadth of our topics, we had a challenging time creating our map. Additionally, we came with different language and perspectives about “learning” and “organizing”. Our map eventually reflected the composition of our group and took a relatively macro perspective on learning and organizing for innovation. My two articles based on individual interactions and experiences didn’t quite make it onto the final map, however I didn’t feel like I had the time or words to explain my own fuzzy understanding of how they fit into the landscape we had created.

Sara Jane writes up the literature on user-driven innovation

Sara Jane writes up the literature on user-driven innovation

After we had created our maps each group presented to the whole class, with a few follow-up comments from Roberto. It was a nice way to get a picture of the landscape of literature related to Innovation Management, however it was also a lot to take in. At the end of the first day I felt I had a much better grasp of how business and management viewed innovation. The PhD students from Polimi led many of the discussions and questions and appeared generally comfortable with the topic. Our DESMA group seemed a little quiet, as I think many of us with design backgrounds were trying to get our bearing among a class of students with strong opinions and knowledge about business and management.

Day II

Reinhard Prügl talks about  user-driven innovation

Reinhard Prügl talks about user-driven innovation

Day two featured lectures from Reinhard Prügl of Zeppelin University on User Centered Innovation and Federico Frattini of Polimi on Open Innovation. Both lectures stimulated lots of questions from the entire class, with the DESMA group appearing much more vocal than the previous day. Reinhard started with a description of the pressure that companies face to cut costs and increase their chances of developing successful innovations. As a response, many companies are searching for external knowledge to help them cope with pressure to innovate, aka “open innovation”. Reinhard’s research focuses on users as one important source of knowledge for innovation. In particular he described how they innovate based on use experience, making unusual discoveries, and develop totally new ideas. [To me, user driven innovation relates strongly to the concept of “everyday designer” developed by Wakkary and Maestri (2008).]

Pursuing user centered innovation means that R & D involves an extensive search process for the right kind of users. Reinhard described two types of search processes: direct search, or pyramiding, and indirect search, or broadcasting. The pyramiding approach is based on the concept that people in a certain area knows someone who is better or more knowledgeable than them, and through a chain of interviews and referrals companies can find external sources of knowledge for innovation. Broadcasting on the other hand poses a problem to a large group of people with the hope that casting a wide enough net will lead to people who already have a solution, or have the ability to develop a solution to it.

According to Reinhard, the best approach may be to combine the two search processes. Through a pyramid approach a company can find communities of people with the expertise to solve a problem that they can then broadcast a question to. A key aspect of the pyramid search is that once a company locates a top expert in a field, that person will start to refer across domains, leading to new and unexpected sources of knowledge. Additionally, Reinhard proposed the importance reading into the implied statements people make in interviews to uncover interesting and analogous areas to explore. In broadcast search, he suggested the framing of the problem that is posed to a community limits the space for possible solutions. For me, both approaches represent a certain level of craft, as companies or researchers need to act, reflect, and revise their approach throughout the search process. User centered innovation is an interesting area, as it recognizes that everyone is creative in some sense. A few people remarked on the potential problems of fairness and compensation, which to me highlights the need for companies to develop traits such as authenticity, balance, clarity, character, honesty, and openness.

In the afternoon we met Federico Frattini who took us further in depth into Open Innovation. Federico did an excellent job of providing an overview of open innovation and took us through how and why it has developed in Innovation Management research. He stressed that although open innovation has recently been packaged as a holistic approach for business and management, openness has always been a part of innovation and that it is impossible to say that an “open” approach is better than a “closed” approach. Instead he suggested that there are degrees and types of openness that organizations should consider in their innovation processes. Federico also framed the discussion of openness using some impressive statistics about the growth of buying and selling knowledge as a business model.

Federico Frattini discusses the history of open innovation

Federico Frattini discusses the history of open innovation

During a time when huge amounts of revenues are generated through the sale of patents, Federico described a shift in organizations moving from know-how to know-where. This shift is associated with the absorptive capacity of an organization that needs to be able to identify, acquire, and transform (use) external knowledge. In order to manage this, companies may maintain key people with expertise to recognize and incorporate technological developments into internal innovation processes. These people at the boundaries of an organization serve as intermediaries and deal with in-bound and out-bound knowledge. Cross-fertilization also becomes a key driver of innovation as organizations drive innovation by finding new or unforeseen applications for technologies. As organizations interact, the people serving as intermediaries may need to recognize their role in acquiring and integrating knowledge. Roles such as intermediaries and knowledge brokers also have implications for competencies to develop or nurture in an organization.

Federico ended the class with a few suggestions for future research. Using Coleman’s (1990) general model of social science explanation, he pointed to the need for further investigation at the micro level of individual action and how that affects the macro scale. The goal of researching the micro/macro scale can help link individual characteristics with social outcomes. I was excited to hear this because this is exactly the arena I hope to explore in my research. In particular, how might design methods connect the project level with the community level?


On the morning of day three we had another lecture from Roberto with a more in-depth focus on design-driven innovation. He opened the presentation describing how design as a discipline defies definition and has a constantly shifting agenda. However, in the 1990s, the influence firm IDEO started to get attention because they codified their process, and process is what innovation management research focuses on. Additionally, the creativity associated with IDEO’s process linked with an increasing interest in innovation management in the front-end and idea generation phase of new product development. All of these factors created hype around design, culminating in several books and articles in business and management circles in the late 2000s.

However, despite the growing interest in design, Roberto showed that in much the same way as R & D, increased investment in design does not guarantee innovativeness. For him, the question is how to use design to drive innovation. How to create products and services that people love? Roberto suggests that the answer lies in meaning. Going back to the root of the word designare (to designate, give significance to), he suggests that design plays a key role in changing relationships among technologies and meanings. He also pointed out that the prominent practice of human-centered design only leads to incremental innovations because it is based on the market pull of existing user needs. To reach radical innovation, rather, design should be focused on re-interpreting technologies — proposing new meanings that push or create new markets. According to Roberto, the Wii represents a strong example of design-driven innovation through meaning. Rather than pushing hardware to provide gamers with better graphics, Nintendo utilized other technology (gyroscope sensors) to propose new types of gameplay that invited a whole new audience to participate. The Wii, along with other examples such as the iPod and iTunes, an Alessi teakettle, and Whole Foods Market, have led Roberto and his team to research into how radical changes in meaning can lead to radical innovations.

Claudio on design, innovation, and interpreters

Claudio on design, innovation, and interpreters

Wednesday afternoon Claudio took the stage to present some further research about the process behind radical changes in meaning, specifically focusing on the role of interpreters during the design process. In his overview his presentation Claudio mentioned that he wanted to give some practical examples and lessons from his PhD research. Throughout his presentation he did field many questions from the class, and it was nice to hear some of the rationale behind how they structured their studies and analyzed their data.

Before diving into his research, Claudio presented a model of the process of design-driven innovation laid out by Verganti in his 2009 book. He then broke down three key areas surrounding interpretation in design-driven innovation: listening to interpreters, interpreting, and addressing interpretations. While he suggested that each of the areas played an important role in driving innovation, Claudio primarily presented his research on identifying, selecting, and attracting interpreters. As he presented research on innovation in Italian furniture companies, several questions came up about how they measured innovativeness in the research. For instance, in one study they measured innovativeness by the number of Compaosso d’Oros — awards for excellent industrial design in Italy. In another example, the asked design experts from different companies around Europe to rate their perspective of design in other countries. Both studies generated a good amount of discussion, which highlighted that metrics are not perfect, however they provide a baseline for comparison and further investigation.

Claudio wrapped up his presentation with the proposal that all interpretations are not equal, and that there are ways to find and work with the interpreters to foster innovation. We finished the third day of the course (and thus the first module), with a group activity around interpretation. Claudio split us up and assigned each group a product to reinterpret for the future. Although we never wound up sharing our interpretations, the exercise was a nice segue into the work of Åsa Örberg, who presented the following day on critical thinking in design-driven innovation.

Day IV

Thursday morning we met Åsa. She started the day with an intro activity where each person in the class shared a personal sports item. When we were all acquainted, Åsa presented some of her PhD work on design-driven innovation. She provided several examples of organizations that had innovated by proposing alternatives meanings for their technologies, one of which was a robotics manufacturing company. Typically, the company designed robots for the assembling of industrial equipment. However, one day an employee who happened to love roller coasters proposed that the company use their robots as thrill-rides for theme parks. Reinterpreting the robots as rides created a new market for the company while also bringing robots into the everyday lives of people, making them less intimidating and more humanistic.

Using hermeneutics as a foundation for analyzing innovation, Åsa built on the importance of interpretation in order to create new meanings and open up new markets. According to Åsa a key aspect of the innovation process resides in critical thinking to envision new meanings for a product or technology. Rather than simply describing the importance of critical thinking in innovation of meaning, Åsa and Claudio built the second module of the course as an “Innovation Gym” for us to exercise our critical thinking abilities. The gym started with a share-out of a homework assignment, where we each chose a “theory” that somehow related to critical thinking. As each person in the class presented his or her theory, Claudio and Åsa started to cluster them on the board based by affinity. At the end of the session they had created several groups under headings ranging from “Lean Supply Chain” to “Paradoxical Thinking” (my group). The headings of the groups became what Åsa referred to as “thinking frames” and for the next few hours we analyzed the frame in relation to critical thinking.

Claudio and Åsa cluster theories related to critical thinking

Claudio and Åsa cluster theories related to critical thinking

Working with two Politecnico students, a student from Umeå, and Sara Jane, I had the chance to discuss paradoxes and paradoxical thinking in regards to problem solving and innovation. After re-introducing ourselves, and our theories — mine was based on “designerly ways of knowing” — we started sharing several examples of paradoxes. While finding examples of paradoxes came relatively easily, defining “paradoxical thinking” proved a bit more challenging. Eventually we concluded that paradoxical thinking involved overcoming paradoxes by first recognizing a situation as a paradox, and second reframing the paradox in a solvable way. As an example, we presented a case from Star Trek, where captain Kirk overcomes a lose-lose combat simulation by hacking into the computer at night and changing the outcome so he would be victorious the following day. We felt that Kirk shifted his perspective on the simulation, stepping back from the paradox in order to find a way to solve it. In addition to the example, we also had to critique the concept of paradoxical thinking. We concluded that paradoxical thinking represented a bit of a paradox in itself, because there is no clear way to describe how to do it. Thus it represents a desirable skill that is extremely difficult to teach. Finally we created a small illustration of a “machine” for exercising paradoxical thinking. Our goal was to represent a process that built on personal experience and direct “sculpting” of both analytical and synthetic skills.

Day V

The final day of the course was spent presenting and discussing each of the group’s thinking frames. Each group had a chance to lead a critique of another group’s frame in order to enrich the concept. It was a long day, but a valuable chance to build our understanding of the work. Listening to the presentations there seemed to be a shift in tone from the beginning of the week. More and more I heard reference to the personal and intangible aspects of management and innovation. By the end of the day I felt that many of the groups had described critical thinking in a way similar to discussions around design and design thinking. Although time ran long, the presentations provided a nice wrap-up to the week. It would have been nice to have a group reflection, especially with the students from Politecnico, in order to share how our perspectives on management, innovation, and design developed throughout the course.

Group presentation on framing in problem solving

Group presentation on framing in problem solving

After the course ended the DESMA group gathered together to discuss the development of the network. Naiara had prepared a room prepared the agenda based on input we sent her before arriving in Milan. We began by discussing our vision. Several weeks ago a few of us had met in Gothenburg during the European Academy of Design conference. Together we had reflected on how we hoped the network would evolve, which led to a sort of vision statement that we thought could start a discussion with the rest of the group: A meeting place for everyone interested in design and management. You’re warmly welcome to involve yourself in this ongoing conversation. Without dwelling too long on the statement, the conversation quickly turned to our personal hopes for the network. For at least an hour we went around the room sharing what we considered our vision of DESMA, and the role we would play now and in the future.

A large part of the conversation focused on the scope and tone of the network. Who is involved? How do people contribute? Who is our audience? What are we trying to do? We shared a few examples of other networks that we admired, but in the end there was some confusion about what exactly we meant by “vision.” It turned out that some people were describing the need for us to envision the organization of the network, and others were more focused on the vision of the content of the network. Of course, both the organization and the content of the network are linked, and at this stage it is clear that we are still trying to figure out what we are trying to say and how we are going to say it. We ended the vision discussion with a commitment to write two short articles about topics we are interested in for the next time we meet in July. We also decided that it was time to actually brand the DESMA network. I see both of these as important steps in the development of the network. More than anything, the conversation helped solidify the need for action and production.

DESMA group hashing out the first network event

DESMA group hashing out the first network event

The second part of the meeting focused on the DESMA event in December. Ariana filled us in on some practical details regarding our report to the EU on our progress, and then together with Ulises presented some ideas for the structure of the two day meeting at Aalto. Taking what we learned from the kick-off meeting last November, we discussed ways to balance the needs of all the stakeholders that would attend the meeting. While we will need to present our work, we also want to provide an engaging and fruitful experience for the company partners. Additionally, we see the event as an opportunity to continue developing the network by bringing in guest speakers and inviting students from Aalto University. With only a day and a half to work with, we had some interesting discussions around how to balance expectations with different activities in a limited amount of time. For instance, I think we recognized the challenge of having all twelve of us present a year of work in an efficient format that provides for everyone in attendance. During the discussion I personally reflected on the need to foster expectations leading up to the event, so that people know what to expect and why. As we continue to develop the DESMA network through the vision and branding exercises I think we will also get a better grip on how the event will unfold.

Final Thoughts

Overall the course on design-driven innovation provided yet another example of the strange dance we do with partners from the worlds of design and management. During the first couple of days of the course, the value of innovation was frequently described in relation to profits. For instance, competition and growth frequently came up as key reasons that companies need to innovate. Due to the rapid pace of technological progress companies must innovate in order to stay commercially competitive. As the week went on however, I did hear people describe concepts such as the triple bottom line and socio-emotional wealth. Yet, there always seemed to be a general aim towards growth. For me, the complex challenges facing management and design should be connected with issues of ethics and politics as well as economics and technology.

At the end of the day we are talking about people driving the innovation process and it seems important to ask, “towards what end?” Of course, scale plays an important role in the theoretical and practical frames that guide our work. Large corporations almost inevitably demand structure, the shape of which affords different possibilities for action. Coming away from the course, I feel even more strongly the need to link the micro and the macro in my research. So far, my education and training have taken place primarily at the micro scale of individual interaction and experience. This course on design-driven innovation highlighted the importance of recognizing the heritage of research that investigates innovation at a much larger scale. As I take the next steps in my research, I plan to maintain the link between individual action and organizational change. The final part of the course involves a literature review of concepts related to design-driven innovation, and I look forward to digging deeper into critical thinking and learning as a way to connect design and innovation, individual and collective action.


Wakkary, R. and Maestri, L. Aspects of Everyday Design: Resourcefulness, Adaptation, and Emergence. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 24(5), 478-491 (2008).