A conversation with Mette Freisner, Global Innovation Partner at Vestas, Århus, Denmark
When working in a field like building wind turbines, the technical requirements for being able to innovate are often very high. So what good are regular users in these cases?
"Well, first of all, who are the users?" Mette asks and answers herself: "I, as a regular person, am not a user of wind turbines myself. I am, however consuming the electricity they produce. The link is the electricity companies, the engineers and technicians that work with the turbines every day. These are the users of both Vestas’ services and products. ‘User’ can in this sense be defined as any person who is in contact with the product; the whole value chain of the product or service. In Vestas’ case that means that the users are naturally what Eric von Hippel calls lead users. It also means that the users are partners of the company."
"Generally there is a belief that the "users/buyers" of the wind turbines, naturally don’t know what the next generation of wind energy producing device shall look like and be. It is due to the complexity in such a device and that it takes a great insight to know what is doable and what isn’t. Vestas’ involving of its users/buyers is pretty unconscious as I see it", Mette says and continues; "But it doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening."
Mette’s experience is that there is a great amount of trust in the employees and their capability of generating user/buyer insights. Her reflection is that this trust naturally means that the employees have been given a great responsibility to do so. “This responsibility is communicated between the lines. And the people in Vestas - Technology, Global Research and Innovation (where I work) are, due to their nature and the research and innovation focused culture, using every opportunity possible to have a chat with other people in the value chain of the products in Vestas. The harvesting system for getting their thoughts and experiences spread internally in the company is random, but I believe that it is getting around some way or another and is creating new questions and new insight, that sparks new ideas that can be developed, tested and converted into new business advantages for Vestas. So the conclusion is, that any kind of user/buyer can be good to our innovation process, whether it is a conscious or unconscious action. And my belief is, that users/buyers could be playing an even bigger part of the innovation process in Vestas - with great benefits for all parts”.
Vestas is working on creating a strong platform. “We are momentarily working on an open innovation platform where every user, co-producer, co-researcher, supplier - people from every part of the value chain - will be invited to become a part of developing next generation of wind energy producing devices. We have about 350 universities, institutes and other knowledge fora in our innovation network with whom we continuously start up new development projects. Vestas continuously team up with other companies representing immature but promising technologies and create common projects to exchange knowledge and insight. This also goes with companies that are producing bits and parts of the turbine today. They are continuously invited into collaborative projects where both parts gain from the work that is being done. And then there are all the people with whom our about 23.000 employees speak daily gaining new insight. Mette Freisner believes that this new platform will give a lot more attention to these people, their insights, and their ideas.
A service that was actually developed through collaboration with one of Vestas’ users that is also one of their collaboration partners is the Power Plan Solution, where Vestas’ experts as a service help DONG measure wind speed and direction and all the subtle changes in the weather that happen all the time, and that has a huge impact on the productivity of the wind turbines in the Wind Power Plants. Vestas became aware of the great value in this service through their dialogue with DONG Energy. “Vestas is doing these tests on every Power Plant in which they are involved. But actually making it into a separate service, that you can buy an advanced version of to your Vestas Wind Power Plant, or maybe to a Wind Power Plant with competitors’ wind turbines, was an idea that was born in the close dialogue with DONG Energy,” Mette tells. This is another example of how innovation is likely to happen, when you allow multiple perspectives on the same thing.
Mette is expecting to see more and more initiatives of this kind in the future, both in Vestas and in the rest of the renewable energy sector. “I believe it is the way things are pointing. I know that a great source for inspiration for the engineers in Global Research and Innovation in Vestas is YouTube videos where people around the world have uploaded their more or less tested ideas,” she says.
In Mette’s perspective there are a number of things you must consider and ask yourself if you want to implement a strategy of user-driven innovation:
- Consider the mindset of your company. Are you regarding your users as passive consumers or resourceful human beings?
- On what level is implementing a user-driven innovation strategy a priority? Is the CEO backing this up or are you on your own?
- How can you create a consciousness of your company in the users? How do you make it interesting for them?
- To what extent do the users need training to participate in the innovation process - both when it comes to skills and professional lingo?
- What should the communication platform look like - physical, digital or both? And how loose or tight are the frames?
- How long are the time cycles in your profession? Does it take a lot of testing before a product can become a reality or can you go from idea to action in one day?
- What exactly is it you want help with? People give better answers when the questions are also good!
Whatever you are working with, you will always have a user or some other kind of receiver of what you are providing to the world as with building wind turbines. If you allow their perspectives to become part of yours, innovation will happen. Maybe not as the first thing, but every interaction counts.
A conversation with Rebekka Høy Biegel, Consultant at ChangePilot, Aarhus, Denmark
The users don’t drive anything! What matters is understanding what matters to people. This is what Rebekka calls user logic.
User logic is all about seeing things from the users perspective. It is a human-centered approach to design and innovation that has its roots in anthropology and ethnography. At its base is the acknowledgement that users are also human beings - you don’t wake up as a user! The goal of practicing user logic is to formulate the right and relevant questions for innovative processes, and to do that you must have a deeper insight in what drives the people who are going to use the product, process or service you are designing.
There are three phases in exploring user logic. First, you scope the projects. How many resources do you have? What do you want to explore? Also, decide which methods and persons are relevant for the research. Second, you collect data by observing and interviewing the selected people using the chosen methods. Third, you formulate the main insights by analyzing and categorizing all the data from the second phase.
A methodology Rebekka mentions as a frame for choosing the methods for this process is triangulation, which is the combination of different perspectives, for exploring the same thing and coming to the same conclusion. It is a means of heightening the quality of the research process and can be used to support the relevance of the possibly unspoken needs of the users that appear as main insights during the user logic process. The way Rebekka uses it is, for example, by exploring via making interviews and observations on different locations and doing it with more than one person.
After what Rebekka defines as the user logic process comes the creative development. User logic serves as the fundament for the innovation process.
A conversation with Carl Damm, Co-founder of Strong Bright Hearts, Aarhus, Denmark
Innovation without meaning and motivation makes no sense - it might happen, but it won’t create long-lasting value!
Carl Damm and Strong Bright Hearts collaborated with Aarhus Main Public Library a couple of years ago on a project to involve and engage its users more. What he learned quickly though, is that there was an even more pressing need; for the library to engage itself. The employees needed to first create a culture where collaborative innovation was part of it, before they could invite others to do the same - or it would lead to nothing - was Carl’s argument. As is the case for most of us, we tend to focus on others before we focus on ourselves, but that is in fact a problem because how can others then count on your contribution? There is a Native American expression for this, hazro, the meaning of which is something like everyone’s responsibility to take care of his/hers own needs for the benefit of the tribe.
So through co-creation workshops where the employees changed their physical spaces, they were also being taught by example the tools and methods of involving others into projects. The rooms were changed so that they now invited more open collaboration. Some of the employees later became innovation consultants for the library themselves. What Strong Bright Hearts did was to start where the real need was and then work from there to ensure the effects would have greater chance of being anchored.
How might one sense the real need? In Carl’s perspective, it starts with a genuine interest in other people as well as the realization that people are not something to be managed and controlled. You must meet people empathetically; heart - to - heart. Really listen to them in order to be able to hear what they are actually saying thereby creating the conversations that matter. That is the case when you are working with softer, less definable things like organizational culture, but it is also the case when you are working with hands-on projects. If you are not working with the real need, the energy and motivation to carry something forward simply won’t be there.
Next is to work with the motivation to innovate and create change. As a consultant you can motivate and inspire which can somewhat feed into the whole culture. This was true for the collaboration between Strong Bright Hearts and Aarhus Main Public Library. But to create something new that will have long-lasting value, you must bring forth people’s passion. They must feel that their own sense of purpose links into the project’s. This is what Carl means by meaning-driven innovation.
Innovation is change and change happens one person at a time. To know where and with whom to intervene, and to amplify the beginning change process, you must keep the perspective of the whole system at all times. You tune the field by looking at the informal patterns, interactions and constellations among all the elements in the system. You work with where the energy is going and lead it from there. You build momentum from people’s motivation and support them when they are ready to take the leap from the known to the unknown, when they’re ready to go for something new - in other words, to innovate.
A final point is that the innovative leap is not linear. There are an infinite number of paths you could jump onto. The question then becomes which path do you have the courage and the incitement to follow. What is for certain though is that all things live and die and that a seed will always leave its shell to become a tree.
A conversation with Bo Schiønning Mortensen, Research Assistant at Aarhus School of Architecture, Aarhus, Denmark
Bo Schiønning Mortensen, together with his friend and colleague Mikkel Lindskov Pedersen, has taken cultural probing one step further.
Cultural probes as a concept were developed in 1999 by Tony Dunne, Bill Gaver and Elena Pacenti. They are a means for the designer to get valuable personal insights from users, us regular people, in order for him or her to design better and relevant solutions. It works like this: You give a selected group of people a documentation kit (could be in the form of a camera, video camera, post cards, sketch book, etc.) and a theme or topic you would like them to explore (could, for example, be where they feel safe in their home or what annoys them when traveling). The whole point is that when you give people the voice, and you listen, your insights are of a qualitative higher level than when you simply ask or observe. This way you get a chance to see everything from a user’s perspective.
What Bo and Mikkel have done is to take the concept of cultural probing and then asking the question: Can you do it in a way, where the user is unaware and therefore more intuitive and, you might say, honest?
The answer took the form of artifacts, something that is put into a local context and where people can interact with it. It is unfinished in its’ design. For instance, it could be a rough bench in a common green area, where the elements can be split and moved around, thereby encouraging people to do so and thus making them take the first step towards taking action and designing their own community. Cultural probing 2.0 is as much about empowering people to take ownership of their local community as it is about getting raw information. You obviously need to monitor the changes that happen with the artifact, maybe by engaging one of the local people.
Besides giving the designer valuable information about the local culture through the personal traces of activity that people leave, Bo and Mikkel’s method will also potentially change the behavioral patterns of the people taking part in the interaction. The ultimate goal is for the artifacts to become superfluous.
There are three important design parameters for making the artifacts. First, they must be simple, obvious and fit into their context. Second, they must be easy to interact with. Third, they cannot be too long-standing for they are meant to be temporary observers and change agents; not design icons or works of installation art.
The question of how any changed behavioral patterns will be anchored naturally arises, and to this, Bo’s answer is that of course there are no guarantees. You are working with people in a context and with both elements being complex and constantly changing entities, there are no givens. However, when you choose to meet people in their context and at a scale where they feel at home and confident enough to take action, chances are people are more likely to engage and take ownership. Cultural probes 2.0 is an open-end solution where the space will not be created until the user takes part in it.
With this bottom-up approach, the architect or designers role is changing. Instead of being the decision-maker of every thing and every detail, the designer is here a facilitator of action and interaction. It takes courage to walk this path, as the designer becomes less of a hero and more like a host.