Multidisciplinary approach to design key for successful products that provide a better human experience.



Disruption has become the new normal and in order to harness technologies for better outcomes, creatively designed solutions are required. Design-led innovation can bring about environmentally sustainable solutions that lead to a better human experience.  


Singapore has been at the forefront of design-led innovation and in 2015 it was designated a UNESCO Creative City of Design. This designation supports the development of a creative culture and ecosystem in Singapore that fully integrates design and creativity into everyday life. 


Several speakers at IPI Singapore’s TechInnovation, a part of SFF x SWITCH (Singapore Fintech Festival x Singapore Week of Innovation and Technology), stressed on the importance of design-led innovation in order to ensure sustainable growth. The central point that came across was that design is an enabler for transformational change that improves the quality of life of citizens while protecting the environment.


Dr Dan Widmaier, Co-founder and CEO, Bolt Threads, which develops sustainable textiles and materials, shared that over the past three years, society has hit an inflection point and people are willing to pay more for something that is sustainable and, in general, are keener to support brands that embrace sustainability.


He noted that there are now many small and clever ways of becoming sustainable through design. “For this to have a broader effect, and change the narrative globally, the scale needs to change and countries like Singapore can be good examples of how to be sustainable and still be profitable on a large scale.”


Deep diving into what design-led innovation is all about, Tim Kobe, Founder and CEO of Eight Inc and designer of the first Apple Store, noted that an idea is not innovation; it is the start of a process to create. Design has to be more than being unique and original. “Really good design needs to focus on the human experience and how to make it better,” he observed.


Talking about design-led innovation in the context of building future cities, architect and designer Emma Greer noted that the natural sciences are concerned with how things are. “Design, on the other hand, is concerned with how things ought to be.


“I like to see our work as something that contributes to the production of mutations, accelerating the transformation of the present into how it ought to be. I think design can be used as a systematic germination of possible futures, intervening at the interface between people, technologies and the city,” expressed Greer, a partner at Carlo Ratti Associati (CRA), an international design and innovation office.


Giving a business perspective to design, Tze Lee, founder and director of Singapore-based design firm STUCK, noted that while designers “would like to believe that design is essential for business success, in reality design is only a small part of a successful business”.


However, he added, design still plays an important role that can range from strategy to execution. Design can help to understand and clarify user values, needs and challenges. “It can identify design opportunities for businesses and create a culture of inquiry, of asking the right questions and searching for potential opportunities,” he said.


Kobe noted that we are living in a time where things are changing so rapidly that there is a need to look into new ideas. “The old idea of super hero architects is gone. You have to start modelling the business differently than you did in the past. What we see today may not be very relevant in a short while for now.”


Sharing her experience as director for Unilever Foundry Asia, Unilever’s interface to connect with start-ups in this region, Barbara Guerpillon shared that the design-led methodologies adopted by her organisation to create a successful incubator were being agile and adaptive.


“It is important for us to challenge existing legacy assumptions that might hinder the development of innovative solutions. Cultivating a culture of innovation and a strong bias for action in the organisation is one of the Foundry’s key success and change enablers.”


Emphasising the importance of design-led innovation, Greer observed that we live in an era of networked rather than compartmentalised knowledge. “Fresh ideas can only come out of encounters and clashes between disciplines, and companies should enable interaction between departments and employees in order to facilitate this.


“At CRA, for example, architects work alongside journalists, singer songwriters and interaction designers. We push each other to become champions of different skillsets from spatial data analytics and digital fabrication to freehand sketching,” she added.


Discussing how governments and organisations such as IPI can help in developing a culture of design-led innovation, Greer noted that these organisations should develop programmes and spaces to bring people together and open creative channels for interaction and exchange of ideas.


Sharing the Singapore perspective, Mark Wee, Executive Director, DesignSingapore Council, noted that the TechInnovation stage showcased how designers are working at the intersection of design and technology.


He noted that design-led innovation is the ability to shape more desirable products and experiences for people. Design is a critical element in technology. “If the product or service is not desirable people will not buy it, however good it may be,” he said.


“I think the techies who are very focused on making the technology come to life need to be open to working with designers and people from cross-functional disciplines so that they can make products which people find desirable,” Wee added.


The DesignSingapore Council was established in 2003 to help develop the nation’s design sector. The vision of the council is for Singapore to be an innovation-driven economy and a loveable city through design by 2025.


Its work focuses on three areas. One is to help organisations and enterprises use design as a strategy for business growth; and for excellent delivery of public services. The second is to nurture industry-ready talents skilled in design and innovation and enable a design-minded workforce for the future economy. Lastly, it advances the Singapore brand by raising design appreciation among Singaporeans and making emotional connections with people across the world.