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Better by Design Conference (

Auckland, 30-31 March 2005, New Zealand

Report by Annick Janson

The high-profile Better by Design conference was boldly aimed at changing the way New Zealanders think about design. It was a unique effort, at a high level of engagement, to effect a deep change in attitude and behaviour toward Design. Tom Peters commended us for taking up the challenge. WOW.

How does one design large-scale change? Through public relations and communications, of course! A passionate Helen Clark, New Zealand Prime Minister, talked not only aboutdegrees of must and should do better by design, but added we can and moreover we will.

Jim Anderton, NZ Minister for Economic Development and Minister for Industrial and Regional Development, furthermore described this conference as a springboard to a new way of working. He supported the launch of a national, design-led business strategy. Both Anderton and the PM gavestrong clear messages that the NZ government is serious about design. (Better by Design is administered by the government's economic development agency,New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, but isguidedbyindependentdesign-led business experts, the Better by Design Advisory Board.)

Jeremy Moon,Icebreaker CEO and Chair of the Better by Design Advisory Board, described this conference as the first step in a journey of cultural change which our nation as a whole is embarking upon. This endeavour is unique in at least two ways. Initially, it implies surfing the new economy wave while designing the surfboard (or rather a novel contraption?) we are on. Secondly, it represents a unique opportunity to develop collective leadership capability, which the conference organisers embraced. This is depicted below in the mosaic of portraits of the visionaries who created the movement by putting their ideas together and acting on their beliefs.

Better by design: Collective vision(aries)

The conference was developed as part of the grand Growth and Innovation Framework (GIF) strategy to raise New Zealands economic performance and build up collective design capability. The conference organisers created this picture and distributed it widely to interested parties. To social science researchers, this visual is an important artefact of collective leadership building, which has been traditionally challenging to identify or measure. I wonder why the ?collective portrait is cut off at the edges… Perhaps it is an open-ended invitation to join? Perhaps it represents the ongoing leadership quest?

There are two French homonyms that translate into the word design: dessin which means ?drawing and dessein which means ?intent. It is unquestionably about having a plan and a picture in mind of how to carry it out. Such were the diverse perspectives expressed throughout the conference.

For a start, Tim Brown, IDEO President and CEO talked about redefining the role of designers in not only products but also organisational and human processes. To harness new creative powers, IDEO developed a cross between focus groups and brainstorming which they coined unfocus groups. Inter-disciplinary teams such as social psychologists, ethnographers and engineers designed, in addition to products, new environments around the human interactions they observed. Partnering with its clients, IDEO helped them redefine the very core of their businesses. In this process, IDEO also redefined itself as a designer of these organisations rather than a designer for other organisations.

One by one, narratives of design-led paths and business transformation unfolded. Peter Zec, President, Design Zentrum Nordrhein Westfalen, Germany demonstrated how sophisticated corporate communications coupled with innovative design adds value. He was followed by other storytellers-practitioners from the New Zealand innovation forefront, such as Fisher & Paykel Appliances, Formway, Macpac, Navman, Methven and Icebreaker.

It was disappointing that the audience was not more actively called to engage during the conference itself. In one activity, however, we were challenged to write (and wear) a personal statement about the Design movement on special T-shirts. Post-conference solutions were offered to accompany people in their change journey. These included design audits, mentoring, internships, special project funding, academic fora and other organisational tools. These solutions suggest practical tools for building competency and getting the right kind of help along the way. They offer different possible action path and are result oriented.

Among the academic speakers, Simon Fraser, Victoria University School of Design, presented an innovation and strategic analysis as part of a case study using future forecasting methods; Thomas Bley, University of Otago, demonstrated how these processes create sustainable value; Rod Oram from Unitec concluded: great design… only happens when it goes right down to the soul of the company that produces it. And such a company thrives only when its roots go right down into the culture and country that inspire it… this will require nothing less than a fundamental shift in our approach to design. Other academics included Roy Fleetwood and Peter Haythornthwaite, Victoria University of Wellington, John Heskett, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong and Yrjö Sotamaa, University of Art & Design Helsinki, Finland.

Individual leaders can make a fundamental difference by facilitating the emergence of collective, from the ground up, leadership. In so ?re-designing their own organisations, leaders channel waves of creative energy that rush through the whole company while fostering business revitalisation and harnessing social capital. Note the change from the top-down ?re-engineering movement that became equated with letting loose firing squads that spread destructive energy throughout victim companies.

The Better by Design strategy is about building on positive energy. It is not, however, a quick fix. It will require enormous commitment and hard work. The difference is that it has both the vision and the plan for the next steps. It was D-signed and ?signed by New Zealanders.

I was iNZpired.

Annick Janson
Research Director
Excelerator ? New Zealand Leadership Institute
University of Auckland Business School

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