As many of you know, I traveled quite extensively in 2009 (US, China, Denmark, Australia). I did about four continents in three months, which did give me Premier Executive status on United Airlines. :) One of the great pleasures of travel (on University business) is that I get to find out what other design schools are doing exciting things. In Denmark, I got to visit SPIRE at the Mads Clausen Institute at the University of Southern Denmark and the Architecture and Design department at Aalborg University. First, I must say that Jacob Buur and Nicola Morelli were perfect hosts in Denmark. When you are extremely tired from travel (this was the last trip of my global tour) and in new two a town where you don't speak the language, having a perfect host makes all of the difference. So thank you Jacob and Nicola, I promise to extend the same welcome when you visit in Melbourne.
First, I will say that I was truly impressed by the work at SPIRE and Aalborg, where there is a lot of cross-pollination. I hope to be able to structure the curriculum at Swinburne so that we have the opportunity to conduct more exchanges between students and faculty at both institutions. One of the things that I realized is that the scale of Swinburne is off the charts compared to any Danish design education institution, so any exchanges would require that we scatter our students among many institutions.
Jacob Buur is the quietly dynamic leader who came from Danfoss to run SPIRE . I first encountered SPIRE at the 2008 Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference in Copenhagen. At first blush then, I thought that their work felt very ID@IIT or D-Schoolish. But now having had the opportunity to have a closer look, there are some significant differences, which makes their work more exciting. SPIRE is a "participatory innovation research centre" that brings together the Danish tradition of participatory design, with design anthropology, user interaction studies, and user innovation studies. Three things makes SPIRE unique and very appealing to me.
The first is their emphasis on the importance of the tangibility of knowledge. They have this wonderful project on the tangible business model, where students create these games/models that outline the possibilities of business. I assume this comes from the Danish craft/engineering culture where the knowledge gained through the hands is still valued.
I always make the statement that "Design translates values into tangible experiences." The fact is that business models are value statements and the ability to translate them into tangible forms serves two purposes. First, as Jacob describes, the tangible model allows for iterative discussions on the "prototype" of the business itself. Second, and most importantly to me, the making of the business model into a tangible game allows more people to participate in its formation. Business models are always approached in the distancing language of economics. By giving the key aspects of the business an interactive form, you could engage people who are economically illiterate into the process of defining the values of a business.
The second thing is their advancement of the use of video in the design process. Having come to user-centered design through E-lab/Sapient, which had at the time, in my opinion, one of the most sophisticated use of video in the ethnographic research/design process, I have generally been unimpressed with how design institutions have used video. As side note, Jacob and I had this wonderful conversation about how both coming from leading UX/PD companies like Danfoss and E-lab/Sapient, the work that we are doing in the education sector seems so far behind what we did in industry, yet at the same time, industry (mainstream) is not ready for the types of students that we are producing, whose thinking and practice is far beyond what company managers are wanting. But I digress, I was impressed by their Video Design Specs project, which seeks to develop video as "design material" for action, not just for user observational insight or design inspiration. I recommend getting Salu Ylirisku and Jacob Burr's Designing with Video (2007, Springer Press) to read more on the topic.
The third thing is their truly transdisciplinary focus. When you meet the "employees" at SPIRE, they are truly a mix of designers, engineers, linguists, anthropologists, and business managers. The projects at SPIRE reflect in the conceptualization and their final output the hybridization of perspectives and attempts to find a common language beyond those of the "home" disciplines. It helps that many of the senior leadership are really quire transdisciplinary figures themselves (official shout out to Jacob, of course, Christian Claus, Wendy Gunn, and Ben Matthews). Any design institution that collaborates with a theater group, Dacapo, understands transdisciplinarity
Again, I am deeply impressed with the work at SPIRE and intend to establish forms of collaboration with them in the near future. Next is part two: Aalborg University and Service Design