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From 2020 to Brighter, Greener Times

04. Jan 2021

As we leave 2020 behind and look to the second year of this new decade, it is tempting to stop and reflect. To consider what happened, how we responded, and what we learned. But most of all the temptation is to look to what the future will bring – and how we aim to shape it through design

Quick insight

Being antifragile

When I consider what we learned during the pandemic, I keep returning to three experiences. The first is how it is possible to grow and become stronger in spite of a crisis.

When Denmark and much of the world shut down in mid-March, like many others, the Danish Design Center pivoted to digital. This was not only a fast shift from hands-on workshops to virtual sessions; we focused a major set of our resources to support digital business model innovation: For instance, in our Sprint:Digital program, which we run for the Ministry of Business, we made participation free of charge and in a matter of days on-boarded over fifty small- and medium-sized companies, matching them with design agencies. This enabled them to rapidly build digital solutions ranging from new products and services to online sales channels. For many of these firms, the crisis accelerated what was already a much-needed move into the digital world.

Ultimately, however, the lesson for me was this: Only because we had a team that was inherently tuned to the digital world and its tools and resources; and only because that team was open-minded, agile, and fast to learn, could we change our way of working so quickly. In a crisis, more than ever, it all boils down to the people.

Taking the future seriously

Another lesson is that the future cannot be taken for granted; it must be taken seriously to an entirely different degree than many of us used to do. In January 2020, our international conference Experimentation by Design focused on the intersection of design, storytelling, and foresight, and involved over 130 experts and decision-makers in shaping a set of scenarios for the world in 2050. That exercise turned out to be more than timely, as we soon found ourselves navigating uncharted waters and realizing that the future in a sense had already arrived in a very different shape than most had expected.

Drawing on the conference’s outputs, we built what is now the Living Futures toolkit; a narrated set of stories from four future worlds that organizations can draw on to rehearse their ability to work with uncertainty and complexity. The kit has already formed the basis for sessions with themes from the future of work, to social interventions in our My Way Home project, to the future of cities post-COVID-19. We now offer the Living Futures resource as an intensive executive course for innovators – delivered online, naturally.

It’s all connected

As we started 2020, the Danish Design Centre had become a larger organization as we merged with the D2i – Design to Innovate cluster organization from Kolding in the southwest of Denmark. Simultaneously, we had a new Board and chairperson appointed. All this called for a strategy exercise to set our direction; made all the more timely as we considered our position in the newly restructured business and innovation support system in Denmark. Working on our strategy for 2025 we saw three major trends influencing the roles design can play to drive innovation and change:

  1. The transition towards a climate-neutral, green and circular economy
  2. The technological and digital transformation
  3. And the shifting social landscape of health, education, and welfare.

As the force of the pandemic hit and evolved during the year, one thing stands out as a key lesson: These trends cannot be separated into discrete silos. Rather, they are intimately connected and mutually reinforcing. The health crisis has impacted our digital abilities and ways of working, which in turn has affected the social fabric of society, including mental health; and the way we live raises new questions about our relationships not only to each other but to the planet and also the sustainability of our patterns of production, consumption, and lifestyle.

A brighter 2021

So, we got through it – so far. Even though the pandemic is not over yet, we can see the beginning of the end, and start building for a post-COVID world. What are the building blocks? I cannot say for sure, but there are some hints in the range of projects we currently undertake, and which might also be opportunities for collaboration with you, our reader:

In the Circular Climate Neutral Cities Challenge (CCNCC) program, we work with the municipality of Copenhagen, the coming COP26 city Glasgow, and a range of other international cities to accelerate their transition to a circular economy, driven by new business solutions. Funded by the Danish Business Authority and with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as a partner, this innovation challenge opens in February for contributors from around the world.

With the Digital Ethics Compass we collaborate with a broad range of design agencies and experts to explore how new technological products and services, many of which will be powered by artificial intelligence, can be based on ethical principles. Funded by the Danish Industry Foundation, a philanthropic foundation, this project involves companies from life science, mobility, and finance to build and test a new toolkit that can help designers inside and outside client organizations integrate ethical considerations as a differentiating, competitive factor in new solutions. The program goes into development mode early in the new year.

The Future Now another Industry Foundation partnership, brings our Living Futures foresight toolkit to several dozen small- and medium-sized companies to empower them to work more strategically with the future. The project focuses in particular on sustainability as the overarching driving force which companies need to embrace fully if they are to remain relevant, and stay antifragile.

So, more than anything, 2021 will be the year when we expand our efforts to make design the ultimate approach for addressing the green transition to a climate-neutral, sustainable society. This mission will spearhead our new strategy. Together with a range of partners, including the Ministry of Business, we will build a new multi-year program focused on the design of new circular business models. Of course, being design-led, the program will be co-created with its users. So stay tuned for news on how to get involved in shaping this effort.

Wishing you a safe, bright, and green New Year!

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