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An Experiment In China

By Chuan Li & Pau Rausell (UVEG)

Universities usually play a key role in the national and regional system of innovation, according to many theoretical and empirical studies over the past half-century around the world.

As matter of a fact, the industry-academia collaboration has been widely considered as one of the most important mechanisms for the transfer of knowledge and technologies, which is indispensable for a wide range of innovative practices, from product and process technological innovation to marketing and organisational innovation.

Yet, in some other types of innovation such as social and cultural innovation, universities even become the major player in generating enormous social value and impact through supporting and engaging in the exploration of new ideas and solutions towards urban challenges directly. The SocInnoLAB of the Universitat de Vàlencia is a good example.

In general, the contribution of universities to innovation is achieved through three main channels:
● Providing qualified employees in the form of university graduates and through training programmes
● Direct collaboration in knowledge exchange
● Indirect exchange in academic journals

According to Nordic scholar Elena Zukauskaite, these channels not only facilitate knowledge transfer in technological developments and industrial Research & Development (R&D) but also strengthen joint competence building of the changes in market concepts and new social responsibility initiatives in the cultural and creative sectors.

New challenges of Design-enabled Innovation
For sure, this proposition also is applied in design-enabled innovation. Every year, thousands of students graduate from arts and design colleges and universities; numerous articles and books are written by university teachers and researchers; it is also common that some joint projects, just like the project Designscapes, are launched to bridge universities and creative and design industries practitioners. All these activities can contribute to a certain extent design-enabled innovation through design-related knowledge spillovers to innovators.
As the concept recently proposed by the design community and supported by the European Commission, the design-enabled innovation aims to leverage design methods and tools so as to provide a systematic approach to conceive user-driven innovation.

Meanwhile, there also is an argument that today’s higher education system and academia-industry collaboration does not offer sufficient grounds or knowledge to meet the immediate needs of innovation in the design community.

First of all, design education has been undervalued within the education system and beyond. Second, the subject and curriculum system focuses mostly on industrial design, graphic design and interior design, failing to pay sufficient attention to strategic design and design thinking of this kind. Third, there is a shortage of a multidisciplinary approach, which can facilitate the integration between design and engineering, technologies, entrepreneurship, and so on.

As a consequence, these limitations not only restrict the degree to which the design community engages in innovation practices but also weakens the capacity of design-enabled innovation of society as a whole.

Photo: Tina Zhang

The experiment of a China’s university
Under the invitation of China Academy of Art and on behalf of the consortium of the project Designscapes, professor Pau Rausell and Dr. Chuan Li from the Econcult of the Universitat de Vàlencia visited the Faculty of Design and Innovation at the Nanshan Campus in Hangzhou China, with a view to learning lessons and good practices from our Chinese peers.

The Faculty of Design and Innovation is a newly-established teaching institution with the aim of developing multidisciplinary talents. Different from conventional art universities that concentrate exclusively on the arts and humanity field, China Academy of Art attempts to break traditional boundaries of academic disciplines and focus on the cutting-edge and interdisciplinary subjects such as arts and design for socially-driven storytelling, business and entrepreneurship design, and the integration of arts and technologies.

To do so, they adopt three main measures:
● the enrollment of students from three backgrounds: fine arts, engineering and humanities.
● the reform of teaching system towards a project-oriented approach.
● the introduction of university-industry-science partnerships.

According to professor Yu Jiadi, assistant dean of faculty, those moves are simply a response of the university to increasing demand of local society on design experts in recent years.

Undoubtedly, the result of such innovation in education remains to be seen. But it doesn’t prevent us from considering it as a potential model for strengthening the role of European universities in favouring design-enabled innovation because it begins to value design from a strategic perspective.

Such a response is not the result of happenstance or emotion, either; instead, it has roots from its ‘urbanscapes’. We observe that Hangzhou is not only a UNESCO City of Crafts and Folk Art but also China’s ‘Capital of Internet’ and the birthplace of the global internet giant Alibaba.

On the one hand, the rapid growth of city’s Internet economy calls for a large number of creative innovators; on the other hand, how to make full use of urban arts and creative resources to support Internet-based innovation and entrepreneurship is one of the most important functions of the regional system of innovation. This suggests that the contribution of universities to innovation is still reliant on an urban environment, which is at the heart of the Designscapes model for Design-enabled innovation.

Beyond China, there are regional cases in other Asian countries including Singapore, South Korea, and India, that have also experimented with design-driven innovation, which we can learn from as we do the same in Europe.

*Lead Photo: Lv Hengzhong. Nanshan Campus designed by the professor of CAA Wang Shu, who also is the winner of Pritzker Prize.