Radical design processes for systemic change

Authors: Sigrun Lurås and Kjetil Nordby

Radical innovation involves a change of frame. A change of what is possible, and what is desirable. When a radical innovation has been presented to the world, status quo has moved resulting in changes in human activity systems at different levels of society. To engage in such wide ranging change is a challenging and messy process.

In this presentation we report on a design research and development project within the maritime domain, the Ulstein Bridge Concept (UBC) project. By introducing new design proposals, the project has changed a number of other systems peripheral to the designed system. This has been necessary for making a foundation for further development of radical innovation.
Marine design has a long tradition. Humans have travelled the seas for thousands of years, and improvements of ships, propulsion systems and navigational aids have continuously occurred. In the UBC project, which is presented here, we seek to redefine the bridge environment of offshore vessels . Our aim is to radically redesign everything from the room layout to furniture design, and from fundamental interaction techniques to detailed screen layouts.

Today’s bridge design is to a high degree defined by rules and regulations developed to ensure operations that pose no harm to human life, property or the environment. The working environment of the ship’s bridge is characterised by highly advanced technology delivered from numerous vendors, and a holistic view of the bridge environment has been lacking in many ships. In order to innovate the bridge environment, rules and regulations must be challenged, collaborative partners from different companies must commit, financial partners must take the risk and fund projects with uncertain outcomes, and potential ship owner and ship operating companies must get involved.

The UBC project has sought to appropriate Ulstein for change through influencing management and employees in general. Another aim has been to affect external parties, like end-users, governmental bodies, regulators, competitors and other stakeholders. This has been done by communicating visions of possible futures through the initial development of a ‘concept bridge’ that has later been detailed to become a more realistic future vision. Through this efficient communication of concepts, our design proposals have provided the project team, the collaborating partners and external parties with a shared vision.

The project has produced three such interventions. The first intervention happening in spring 2011 was purely internally, where the first version of the concept bridge was developed and presented to the management of Ulstein and AHO. These presentations worked as a catalyst and made the management commit to a greater design research project that would last for three years.

The second intervention, happening 1 1/2 years later, was externally oriented. In this we had refined and detailed the concepts, and put a lot of effort into presenting the project in ways which the industry and general audience would easily comprehend and appreciate. The video at the beginning of this abstract was the most important part of this presentation, and it was immediately made available online. The video resulted in a number of positive unintended consequences. Not only did mariners start discussing the design online, with remarks like “I want me one of them!” and “I’d probably take a (slight) pay cut to play with those toys full time.” In addition the design community, the maritime industry, regulatory authorities, other professionals and even politicians started to referring to the project. They used it as a starting point for discussing topics like innovation, the role of design, the appropriateness of existing bridge designs, application of new technology and even software safety in the backend part of the systems. Internally at AHO, the presentation also led to unforeseen changes to the research organisation and how we work with projects.

A third intervention is planned for second half of 2013 and will involve even further evolved design proposals. This intervention will allow users to have a close-up look at the designs and experience interactive demonstrators.

What we have experienced in the first and second intervention is a reinforcing feedback loop (D. H. Meadows, 2009). The more we talk about our ambitions, the greater expectations the outside world places on us, and the greater is the pressure on us and our partners to deliver. Due to our experiences we expect the third intervention to have a similar effect.

In the presentation we will discuss these design interventions with regard to Donella Meadows ‘places to intervene in a system’ (D. Meadows, 1999). We will address how our designs and the means by which we communicate our designs, have affected both the greater system our project is part of, and neighbouring systems. We will introduce barriers that pose a challenge to these kinds of changes, including organisational cultures and a lack of tradition for using designers to take a holistic view on the design for maritime workplaces. We will also discuss enablers that support these changes, including the culture for technological innovation within the Norwegian maritime industry, potential across new technologies and the power of involving multiple design disciplines in the design team.

We argue that influencing what may at the first glance seem like peripheral systems through design visions, is an important means of achieving radical innovations processes. This applies to both to the invested organisation internally and externally through for instance regulatory authorities and collaborating companies. We suggest that such influence can be achieved through strategic and careful communication of early phase design proposals.

Presentation & paper

Posted: Sep-2013

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