Designit was founded in Aarhus, Denmark, in 1991 as an agency for industrial design. Today it is a company with studios across the world, working internationally for design-led innovation. We spoke with Danusch Mahmoudi, the managing director of its Munich and Berlin offices, about the VeloHUB initiative, openness, sustainability and design’s responsibility towards society.
Interview: Thomas Wagner.
Putting the question: an interview with Danusch Mahmoudi
Mr Mahmoudi, the scope of projects at Designit ranges from sustainability topics to designing services and transformation processes in the business world as well as health issues. Do you have a specific method that you use to approach heterogeneous tasks?
No, there are many methods available and each one has a reason behind it. What is more important is our consistent approach, which, with our Scandinavian origins, is steeped in human-centred design. This is why we always take a first step of getting to know which groups are relevant for the project, how we can involve them and how we can even have them help shape the project.
We are not a classic design agency that goes away and comes back to present a result three months later. We see ourselves as a moderator that obtains input from a dialogue with those involved and transfers it to a suitable outcome.
For example, if we wish to develop a service for a brand, we naturally also incorporate the perspective of its employees. We do not want to design something that might be fantastic for the end customer, but leads to dissatisfaction for employees. Unfortunately, many great ideas fail during implementation because departments such as IT, HR or the works council are included too late or, in the worst-case scenario, not included at all.
How do you manage to consolidate all the different perspectives that are contributed as a project progresses? After all, you still need a result.
Here is what we do: we take the perspectives or desires of each group and translate them into a value model that we develop. Based on it, we determine the common denominator. We call this approach “value experience design”.
What do values mean to you? “Value” is quite a malleable term. More specifically, when you ask a customer about his or her ideas or desires, what does that have to do with values?
End customers rarely know what they want. Our behaviours and needs are triggered by value systems. For this reason, we take a close look at why people might behave differently now or in future. Our translation of the shared values can be seen in the way that the products or services are experienced. These factors are important when it comes to things like the acceptance of a brand’s repositioning. This translation also needs to incorporate the brand values, with the purpose of making them tangible and specific. When employees and customers hear about a brand’s values, they often say, “Yes, but I don’t understand them. What do they actually mean?”
So, is it about weighing up different values and comparing them?
Yes, and that is because the values have a mutual influence over each other. The task is to weigh them up and prioritise them for individual target audiences. Let us remain with the example I just used. If transparency is an expression of sustainability at the employee level, how is that practised within the company? Perhaps the company might publicise its salary structures? Or does it regularly include its staff in strategic decision-making? In business, a conscious decision for sustainability might also be expressed through less growth.
A Scandinavian approach, human-centred design – what other aspects play a role?
We do not approach things with a set idea in mind. We deliberately seek to integrate all stakeholders into the design process. Our principle is and remains to say: Only from the sum of the people we bring together does the necessary knowledge emerge.
“Our principle is: Only from the sum of the people we bring together does the necessary knowledge emerge.”
— Danusch Mahmoudi
A project that aims to reduce car traffic in city centres and reclaim urban space is VeloHUB. How does the project work and what are the advantages?
VeloHUB is not a finished product. Rather, it is an initiative that we have launched. It came about through the many conversations about transforming transport that we have been involved in. When businesses promote this topic, their thoughts normally turn very quickly to a product – be it a new device or car-sharing model. We got the population involved and asked it about its actual needs. A finding we made was that there is an enormous gap between what businesses want to promote and what people actually want. This led us to say, OK, if the need to transform the urban space is greater than the need to put more new vehicle concepts in it, let us start an initiative based on this. Instead of chasing after buzzwords like “Hyperloop”, “self-driving” and “electric vehicles”, we ask people about their actual needs.
What have you learned?
In this context, for instance, we found out that many people in cities have up to three or four bicycles. That means the bicycle has been in the marketplace since 1853 and has spawned a diverse range of models. However, the car was invented about 30 years after it. And since then, our cities have become extremely car-centric. This is why we believe that cities will need to be redesigned in the future. VeloHUBs can be an initial, interim solution to this. If the number of cars in a city goes down, more space is freed up. Many people think that it cannot continue like it is now. However, what will be done with the space? Public space is very limited, especially in cities. Alongside our need for mobility, we humans also need space for recreation, interaction and sharing our interests. Space cannot serve the sole purpose of transport. Instead, it must also be supportive of social aspects. The principle behind VeloHUB is to link transport with sustainability and aspects of community. Whilst being intended for bicycles, it should also be a place where people can come together to exchange views or profit from a microbusiness.
You create a bicycle parking facility and combine it with services for users. They can drink some water, change clothes, take shelter when it is raining and even buy something. What exact mix should there be?
We decide the mix based on the needs that exist at each location. As you said, bicycle parking represents the core, then there is a range of services alongside it. These services might be simple lockers or they might include an espresso bar. Someone could say, “I’d like to sell my cakes here for two or three hours a week.” Why not? A type of microbusiness for local residents and simultaneously a venue for dialogue. It could be a fitness trail from one VeloHUB to the next or an urban-gardening project. There are different levels and they can be configured freely. While it is certainly not a solution for all roads, it can very much be integrated into streets that need more activity.
The VeloHUB received recognition at the ABC Awards 2021. Are you developing it yourself or do you have partners?
We have been able to recruit a highly regarded partner in the form of WSM, whose specialisations include bicycle parking systems. For the IAA mobility show in early September, we will install our first prototype at Königsplatz in Munich.
Do you think the project will change again because of the feedback on such tests?
It’s an adventure. We do not have an image in mind of what the hub will ultimately look like. And we would never have thought that we would be exhibiting it at IAA [the former Frankfurt Motor Show].
And not at a bicycle show …
Or outdoor-living show.
What do you do for all the people who cannot ride a bicycle?
We don’t want to restrict the diversity of mobility, but rather create an opportunity to bring structures and services closer to the people. There is the vision of a fifteen-minute city by Carlos Moreno, in which all relevant services of a city should be reachable in fifteen minutes on foot or by bicycle. With the VeloHUB, too, it can be social services that are integrated, even those that come from the city. Why can’t you say: Hey, every Wednesday at 2 p.m. there is a citizens’ consultation hour in this and the HUB? Maybe urban services can also be improved in this way.
“We want to create an opportunity to bring structures and services closer to the people. There is the vision of a fifteen-minute city by Carlos Moreno, in which all relevant services of a city should be reachable in fifteen minutes on foot or by bicycle.”
— Danusch Mahmoudi
The way that people moved about during the medieval era fits in very well with the vision of a 15-minute city. Is it possible to find the future of a pedestrian-and-cyclist city in the past?
I really do think it is. Everything has catered to cars too much until now. The arrival of the pandemic caused us to have new experiences. In days gone by, factories were relocated outside cities and those factories replaced by offices. Office areas, residential areas and shopping areas sprang up. And what happened? The offices and shopping centres were dead after 8 o’clock at night. Instead of letting city centres atrophy further, we must look at how we can achieve a smart mix of uses. Many businesses are already banking on hybrid models – especially work from home. This means that the role of the office is changing. That’s why the VeloHUB can only be an intermediate step as long as the classic division still exists and car parking spaces are still needed in the city.
The EU has recently raised its climate targets, with sustainability standing at the top of the agenda. What can you do from within design to help change values in the right direction?
One way to create a transformation is not to think about design in terms of a result, but to see design as a managed process that incorporates as many of those involved as possible. The more consistently all stakeholders are brought on board, the more “aha!” moments there will be. This ensures mutual understanding and acceptance. These precious moments can lead to genuine transformation. This is exactly what the new role for design is – managing and shaping a process in such a way that everyone can get behind the result. We also need to rethink our general way of doing business. Design can contribute to the development of business concepts for the future. Over the long term, the only businesses that will exist will be ones that practise sustainability through their business models. These are exactly what offers opportunities for innovation.
“One way to create a transformation is not to think about design in terms of a result, but to see design as a managed process that incorporates as many of those involved as possible.”
— Danusch Mahmoudi
We often hear politicians talking about how we need more growth. Would it be a good idea to introduce politicians to the benefits of managed design processes?
This has been done in Scandinavia, where design is an important factor in the political arena. Many cities – Helsinki being the first – have design officers who drive important future-focused topics for their cities over the long term. This would be a great advance for our society, too.
In terms of sustainability, do you see new business models that do more to support the common good and social cohesion?
I strongly believe that innovation will tend to come from this direction in the long term. What is needed is social innovation. Technology alone cannot be the driver of solutions, and neither can purely digital innovation. Google, Facebook, Apple – with all of them, we have seen that they do not create any new values. Indeed, they create value for individual companies and shareholders, though not for the community. Look at the Gorillas grocery delivery service in Germany, for example. “Hey,” they say, “we’ll deliver you food and drinks in ten minutes.” “Hey,” its employees say while going on strike, “not with me!” Sustainability also has a part to play in this because employee satisfaction and loyalty are part of a sustainable business model. It is about transforming our economy and about more than reducing carbon emissions. This is why we are convinced that the next wave of innovation will also be more socially sustainable. The old business model of someone producing something more cheaply – at the expense of the environment and of those actually making the goods – will stop working in the long run. In Germany, sustainability is still a luxury issue at the moment. People ask, “Can I afford to buy products that are made more sustainably?” This is also a factor that must be considered. However, I believe the transformation is under way.
How political does design have to become in order to accelerate processes like these?
I think that design really does have to be a political movement. Society and business need to deal with topics that are growing in complexity. We are seeing how there are divisions in society and how it is becoming more and more difficult to reach a consensus. Design can help to integrate different stakeholders and motivate them to participate. Design is successful when it lets us make a difference together.
The strategic innovation consultancy and design firm stands for Scandinavian design culture that places people at the centre of its design. In 18 offices worldwide, international teams design products and services for the future. They identify, prioritise, design and deliver products, services and systems that contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals – from circular business models that reduce carbon emissions to promoting more sustainable customer behaviour. In Germany, Designit from Munich and Berlin works for clients such as BMW, Novartis, Raiffeisenbank International, Lufthansa and Bosch. The company uses its expertise as a key to social change and drives forward future-relevant topics such as urban mobility and transformation. Designit was founded in 1991 in Aarhus, Denmark, and has been an independent brand of Wipro Limited since 2015.
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