6.1 The creativity gap? bridging creativity, design and sustainable innovation

Simon O'Rafferty , Ecodesign Centre, Cardiff, United Kingdom
Dr. Frank O'Connor , Ecodesign Centre, Cardiff, United Kingdom
Hannah Curtis , Ecodesign Centre, Cardiff, United Kingdom
Full Papers
  • o'rafferty et al - JAOCC09.pdf (324.8 kB)
  • The call for a radical transformation of global socio-technical systems to avert the worst potential impacts of climate change, global financial shocks, social inequality and resource depletion is growing louder by the day. Innovation is represented as a key mechanism for productive growth in the economy and there is an extensive body of literature addressing the interface between innovation and sustainability. Until recently, design as a creative process and business strategy has been underrepresented in the innovation literature. Design has also been underrepresented in the sustainable development and sustainable consumption and production literature. There are a number of reasons for this. Thomas suggested that political scientists, economists or environmental scientists, with little or no design expertise, dominate the research field (Thomas 2008). But it is also true that design and creativity are elusive concepts and can evade formal measurement and analysis.

    The general focus in the literature on technological innovations fails to prevent a complete picture of the role of design insofar as many innovations are based on novel designs or concepts as opposed to technical novelty (Tether 2005; Whyte 2005).  While the 3rd revision of the manual has extensive treatment of innovation outside of or ancillary to the development or use of technology it remains limited in scope (OECD 2005). The understanding of design is reaching beyond traditional perspectives on the design of products, services and brands towards more strategic considerations. This is also reflected in the discussion on the role of design and sustainable development. The discussions have evolved from primarily ecological concerns to integrated discussions on sustainable consumption and production, social innovation and economic development in the broadest sense.

    Design has always been an inclusive process involving many specialists, communication channels and often large organisational structures. It is an increasingly fragmented and geographically diffuse activity that crosses international time zones and cultural barriers. Research on product and service development has been dominated by linear, staged and endogenous models. These models, while providing useful frameworks, are increasingly insufficient in portraying the complexity of product and service development in the context of global supply chains, distributed manufacturing, disruptive innovation and ecodesign[1]. Design often has an exogenous organisational structure, complex relationships, distributed communication channels, multiple stakeholders representing potentially higher risk.

    Within these models there are a number of management frameworks and tools that are geared towards providing insights on the outcomes or analytical processes of designing in a more sustainable manner. These frameworks are often challenging for designers and design managers as they incorporate processes and technical requirement outside of traditional design expertise. These include full life cycle impact analysis, full life cycle costing, new material considerations and increased standardisation. There are a number of areas that often remain overlooked in the literature such as adaptations needed for business organisations to put this knowledge into practice and the key capacities and competencies required by designers to implement these frameworks and tools. This latter point is important because the success of any design or innovation process is dependant on the quality of the people involved.

    The issue of capacities and competencies for ecodesign is increasingly important in the discussion on public policy interventions to improve the sustainability of design practice. To date the discussion on rationales for intervention in economic systems has been dominated by the market failure perspective. Recent discussions emerging from the evolutionary economics and innovation systems literature place a greater emphasis on systems failure as a rationale for intervention (Chaminade & Edquist 2007; Woolthuis et al. 2005). As identified by Smith, some of the areas of concern include failures in infrastructure provision and investment, lock-in failures and institutional failures as opposed to recreating market conditions or optimum economic efficiency (Smith 2000). Some of the key characteristics of systems failure interventions include increased collaboration and interactivity, learning and tacit knowledge, innovation capacity building, flexible and responsive policy frameworks and increased policy coherence.

    This paper will seek to highlight the “creativity gap” in the discussion on sustainable innovation as a response to climate change. To do this it will discuss the issue of intervention to support ecodesign with a specific emphasis on capacity building[2], systems failure and ecodesign practice. It will focus on key but inherently difficult entry points for intervention within small to medium sized enterprises. The paper will draw on insights from the literature alongside empirical insights from a pilot programme of ecodesign intervention in. The paper will also propose a conceptual framework for interpreting capacity building for ecodesign and highlight how this framework can inform future policy interventions in the UK and Europe.


    Chaminade, C. & Edquist, C., 2007. Rationales for public policy intervention in the innovation process: A systems of innovation approach. Available at: http://www.proact2006.fi/chapter_images/303_Ref_B207_Chaminade_&_Edquist.pdf.

    OECD, 2005. Oslo Manual: Guidelines for Collecting and Interpreting Innovation Data, OECD Publishing.

    Smith, K., 2000. Innovation as a Systemic Phenomenon: Rethinking the Role of Policy . Enterprise & Innovation Management Studies, 1(1), 73-102.

    Tether, B., 2005. Think piece on the role of design in business performance, London : DTI.

    Thomas, A., 2008. Design and sustainable development: what is the contribution that design can make? A case study of the Welsh Woollen Industry. In Proceedings of DRS2008 .  Sheffield, UK.

    Whyte, J., 2005. Management of creativity and design within the firm, London: DTI.

    Woolthuis, R.,  Lankhuizen, M. & Gilsing, V., 2005. A system failure framework for innovation policy design. Technovation, 25(6), 609-619.

    [1] It is important to note that when the authors use the term ecodesign they include all perspectives on the role of design in sustainable development e.g. sustainable design, social design and potentially transformation design.
    [2] Capacity building is an iterative process that incorporates the building of frameworks, work cultures, policies, processes and systems enabling an organisation to improve performance to achieve successful outcomes.