Concepts and Contexts of Design for Sustainability: (Coincidentally) Piloting a New Course at Aalto PhD Summer School

It’s been ten months since I started working for Aalto University, Department of Design. As a new professor in exploration of my new environment, with the aim of finding the best opportunities to contribute into Aalto while progressing my career, I raised my hand up to run this year’s departmental PhD Summer School few months ago. I was told that summer schools are more experimental than winter schools and good opportunities for testing new curricular and pedagogic ideas or piloting potential new courses. The course I wanted to run was of course going to be about design for sustainability. Nevertheless, I spent around a month thinking in the background processor of my mind what specific content I should bring together and how that content should be structured and delivered. My ultimate goal was to introduce design approaches for systemic sustainability transitions to students but given in our department there has not been systematic teaching on sustainability there was a need to build such knowledge base first before introducing this emerging, complex topic.

With this in mind, I designed the program to start by introducing theories relevant to sustainability, then move into issues and intervention contexts and finally present design approaches. The school would last for five days, so this plan meant that the students would be exposed to a substantial amount of new knowledge with a series of intense lectures. To balance such intensity I decided to allocate afternoons for reflections and activities relevant to the topic of each day. Then I contacted several lecturers and researchers to deliver the lectures. This was an enjoyable exercise as this way I got to engage with my colleagues in Aalto, in Helsinki University and found out about several experts in Finnish Environment Institute. I also invited two international researchers but only one of them was able to accept the invitation. The original program design had only minimally changed.


Designing the program and engaging lecturers was one thing, organising the school itself was another; it required a lot of coordination and planning. Luckily I had an amazing teaching assistant, Maria, who pretty much took charge of all tasks including finding and booking a venue, organising catering (yes, we fed the students for free to keep them focused), booking flights and accomodation for Joanna Boehnert, the international guest lecturer, photo-documenting as well as note-keeping during the running of the school.

The school started with high energy both from students and from lecturers. The days went fast and were full-on in terms of ranges of topics covered. Afternoons had been good to synthesise learning but also to do some experiential learning with less need for cognitive stretch.


Stefan Fronzek from Finnish Environment Institute SYKE lecturing on climate science and impacts of climate change


Cindy Kohtala delivering her lecture on emerging practices of making and production


Mikko Jalas delivering a lecture on materiality of care


Eeva Berglund talking about political economies of design during her lecture on “uncommon ground”


Me talking about roles of design in transition processes during my lecture on design for system innovations and transitions

Half of the students who participated in the summer school were in their first year of PhD studies. Feedback indicated that the three lectures that majority of the students found to benefit them most were practice theory lens for transition experiments, emerging practices of making/production and design for system innovations and transitions: positioning a new field. Almost all students found group discussions of lectures to be the activity that helped their learning most. All of the students thought that the program as well as the days were structured well and that they would recommend this course (or a variation of it) to MA and PhD students.

As the coordinator of the course I also found the experience very rewarding. It gave me the opportunity to get to know the new PhD students in our department. In addition, I had a chance to understand my colleagues’ research in more detail and learned many new things myself. This was the first course I ran since I started working in Aalto and I am happy that I did a good job as indicated in student feedback. I also appreciated once more the diversity and depth of expertise held within the department.

Now we’re only days away from Juhannus, which marks the beginning of month-long summer holiday for many in Finland, especially those in academia. I am not planning to take a whole month off as I’d like to take the opportunity of this quiet time to write a grant application. At the dawn of my first anniversary of starting my role as Professor of Sustainable Design in Aalto I am full of ideas including developing a new course on Design for Sustainability Transitions. This summer school has also acted as a great “pilot” for this purpose. I will certainly reflect a lot more on this experience as I design this course.


An Overdue Update

It’s been a long while since I last updated this blog and major changes have occurred in the meantime. Once again, I sailed across the oceans and made a cross-country (cross-hemisphere in fact) move in July 2016 to undertake a new and exciting role as Professor of Sustainable Design at Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland. This opportunity came up at the right time as the project I was working on in Melbourne was approaching an end so while I was evaluating my options for my next career move. I started my job at Aalto on August 1st and in the past eight months I’ve been busy moving, settling, networking and learning. I feel incredibly lucky to be part of the faculty in Aalto Department of Design which is ranked as 13th best design school in the world this year.

In the meantime an article I started to work on when I was in Melbourne, together with lead author Fabrizio Ceschin (UK Brunel University), got published in Design Studies. In this article we discuss how the field of design for sustainability evolved over the years from a focus on individual artefacts to systems. This article received very positive attention, yielded a book chapter in an upcoming book from Routledge and Fabrizio and I have been quite humbled as it became the third most downloaded article of the journal in a very short period of time following being published.

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Currently I am running a two-week intensive course on design for system innovations and transitions at TongJi University in Shanghai as part of Aalto-TongJi collaboration in education. Reflections on this experience will follow shortly.

Innovating for Sustainability Transitions: Disruptive Innovation or Discontinuous Innovation?

Disruptive innovation has become a chewing gum in the mouths of the CEOs of small and big companies. Everyone wants to be a “disruptor” regardless of their market positioning or innovation approach. Unfortunately, disruptive innovation has also become a buzzword haunting the theoretical, practice-relevant and practical work of design and innovation academics who can be broadly placed in the field of system innovations and transitions for sustainability. I am not intending to argue against the general usefulness and relevance of the term within the mainstream management theory and practice. Instead I’d like to argue against its use in the context of system innovations and transitions for sustainability and propose that we use “discontinuous innovation” instead. The following paragraphs have a go at why.

The term “disruptive innovation” was coined by Clayton Christensen in his seminal book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” in 1997 (Christensen, 1997). Hoping to avoid any injustice to the intricacies of his theory, my simplified understanding of Christensen’s use of disruptive innovation puts emphasis on business model innovation (i.e. organizational innovation) by adoption and use of new technologies for offering new products/services that’ll meet the anticipated needs of users instead of focusing on meeting the current needs as an innovation strategy. This we understand as design researchers and practitioners very well albeit implement only occasionally. One could argue even, the whole premise of the non-diluted version of design thinking movement is based on this approach to innovation. If you’re not inclined to read Christensens book but would like to develop your understanding based on primary source, Harvard Business Review has an article in this month’s issue (Christensen, Raynor &McDonald, 2015) (in which the authors complain about the misuse of the term and how it has been made meaningless – just like what happened to “sustainability” and “resilience in the hands of greenwashers and whitewashers).

The theory of disruptive innovation is very relevant to system innovations and transitions as it explains how niche innovations can become successful and take over the incumbents (at least within the dominant economic paradigm). Nevertheless, the emphasis is on single companies and the “disruption” is not necessarily disruption at the level of socio-technical systems. The chances of a particular disruptive innovation being a significant factor –a core cause- in systemic transformations at the level of socio-technical systems is low, although, considered within the dynamics of a socio-technical system, one disruptive innovation may trigger a series of changes over time that could eventually add up to a systemic transformation. Disruptive innovation theory is somewhat congruous to the multi-level model of system innovation and these two could be integrated for a better leveraging of the niche-level. I’ll leave thinking of potential alignments of two theories to another time and move on.

Discontinuous innovation, although also a management buzzword, hasn’t made the mark disruptive innovation has, perhaps because no Harvard professor has yet written a book about it. According to the “lexicon” of the Financial Times, discontinuous innovation and radical innovation are synonymous and point to: “a paradigm shift in science or technology and/or the market structure of an industry”. Garcia and Calantone (2002), on the other hand, provide a more nuanced explanation and articulate that discontinuous innovations may be radical innovations or really new innovations depending on which level they influence (firm and the customer, i.e. micro, or the world or whole industry and market, i.e. macro) and whether they affect marketing or technology S-curves or both. According to them, radical innovations create discontinuity both at micro- and at macro-levels as well as embody new technologies and create new markets. On the other hand really new innovations create either technological or marketing discontinuity at macro- level and at micro-level they may create either or both (see table below). So, in this typology, the most common yet least acknowledged type of innovation –really new innovation- becomes visible and better articulated in terms of discontinuity.


From Garcia and Calantone (2002, p. 121)

Nevertheless, the problem with innovation typologies developed in management and engineering disciplines perceives the world of innovation to consist of two dynamics, i.e. market and technology, and as only taking place in firms. When we talk about system innovations and transitions on the other hand, we include innovations in socio-cultural and politico-organisational contexts (i.e. individual and group behavior, business model, governance model, institutional set-up) and several other actors in addition to firms. Therefore, framing discontinuity in system innovations with a narrow set of parameters and with references to only one actor is not sufficient, however, the strength of the concept of discontinuous innovation as understood in mainstream theory comes from its acknowledgement of the contextual changes that an innovation may create in addition to changes within the organizational boundaries where the innovation took place. For this reason, discontinuous innovation as a concept is more promising in terms of being able to take into account the complex dynamics of socio-technical systems.

Another reason for discontinuous innovation to be the preferred term in the context of system innovations and transitions is the implicational alignment of the concept of discontinuity with the required level of change for socio-technical systems to become sustainable (which is often referred to as “radical”) and the methodologies used in identifying the practical interventions necessary (mostly visioning and scenario development work to identify policy development and/or R&D investment requirements). I am hoping to write another post on creating imaginaries of discontinuities using these futures inquiry approaches in the near future.

References I cited in this post:

Christensen, C. M. (1997). The innovator’s dilemma: when new technologies cause great firms to fail. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.

Christensen, C. M., Raynor, M., & McDonald, R. (2015). What is disruptive innovation? Harvard Business Review, 93(12), 44-53.

Garcia, R., & Calantone, R. (2002). A critical look at technological innovation typology and innovativeness terminology: a literature review. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 19(2), 110-132. doi: 10.1111/1540-5885.1920110


Design for System Innovations and Transitions

For more than a decade, it is known that sustainability is not a final goal but a journey; a journey that’ll require fundamental shifts and radical changes in our socio-technical and socio-ecological systems. The accumulated knowledge on managing system innovations and transitions is now used by governments and industry to navigate these complex, long-term, multi-dimensional structural changes. OECD has recently published a synthesis report on system innovations and framed system innovations and transitions not only as an innovation challenge but also as a “deeply political project” highlighting the need for shifting away from incremental innovations and pointing to the challenge of overcoming vested interests in doing so. The report also highlights the role of technology and business in processes of system innovations and transitions.

Of course the importance of making policies to enable and steer system innovations and transitions cannot be overstated. Nevertheless, since early days of system innovations and transitions discourse, although a lot of emphasis has been put on “niche innovators” as key actors, there has not been much work on how design and innovation decisions taken by these niche innovators can be aligned with long-term, large-scale systemic transformations. Maybe it has been taken for granted that once policies are put in place, this micro-level of the system would behave in favourable ways. When we look at the broad practice of design for sustainability though, it is hard to find evidence supporting this assumption; the majority of design practice is still engaged with incremental innovation and is dangerously techno-optimisic although system innovations and transitions require technological appropriateness (not “technology development” per se, but selection and implementation of technologies appropriate for the context) AND social change to take place simultaneously.

Design is no-doubt a future-oriented activity; many designers today would also claim being “change actors” for a “better world” without being able to articulate the politics of these claims (whose future? better for who? change by what means?). Purity of intentions aside, the 250 year long history of the profession created a professional culture which has predominantly been a servant of short-term commercial interests. Therefore, the future orientation of design is still short-term compared to the temporal frames that are subject to system innovations and transitions. To cut a much longer story short, design activity and design practitioners are key elements of endeavours to create systemic shifts towards sustainability and there is a need for developing theories and practical tools to reshape the culture (and practice) of design. Not an easy task by any means but one that has started to attract attention both in design theory/practice and in theories/practice of system innovations and transitions.

An article I co-authored with Prof. Han Brezet making an initial attempt to develop a conceptual framework that can inform development of practical tools and approaches for design and business community has been published in Journal of Cleaner Production and is free to access and download until December 8th. Comments, thoughts are welcome. This is “front end” of what’s emerging as a new field: design for system innovations and transitions.

Critical analysis of design and innovation approaches

Long time in the making, my paper “A critical review of approaches available for design and innovation teams through the perspective of sustainability science and system innovation theories” is finally in press and corrected proof is available online. The paper is based on my PhD work, nevertheless further developed and expanded in the past years. I submitted the manuscript to Journal of Cleaner Production in April 2013 and the review process took painfully long; not because the paper was challenged by the reviewers (all reviewers were quite positive about the paper from the beginning and provided very helpful feedback to improve its quality) but because the journal had been super slow in processing it in the first round following submission. Anyhow… It’s out there now.

In this paper I initially developed a set of evaluation criteria for approaches available to design and innovation teams based on sustainability science and, system innovation and transition theories. The set consists of five criterion: strong sustainability, systems thinking, radicalism, long-term orientation and mind-set change. Then I reviewed legislative and regulatory measures, voluntary initiatives, and design and innovation frameworks covering design for eco-innovations, product-service systems, design for the bottom of pyramid, biomimicry design, cradle to cradle design, and The Natural Step (aka The Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development). Below is the table summarising the critical review findings.