How to innovate on/in/from Science Parks?

Our project with PRUAB: The Laboratory of Ideas at the UAB Research Park

The Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) created in 2007 the UAB Research Park (Parc de Recerca UAB, PRUAB) as a space to enable technology transfer from its important research assets. This park has several peculiarities. On one hand, it is not restricted only to the departments and research centers of its university, UAB, but it also includes other institutions who are present in the campus such as the research centers of the CSIC and the IRTA, for example. On the other hand, it has a distinctive feature compared to other geographical concentrations of researchers, i.e., the fact that you can find in a very small area research capabilities in both basic experimental and social sciences. Thus, the list of spin-offs that have been created from the efforts of the Park  includes companies like Scytl (technology for reliable electronic voting that led them to be selected for the USA presidential election) or Sócol that applies social sciences to social innovation and urban policy.

However, PRUAB wanted us to help them ideate a space where they could explore new visions on their own mission and ways of working. This is how the “Laboratory of Ideas” project started to take form.  Following our line of work, we co-designed with PRUAB’s management and staff a whole process to… further co-design with users and stakeholders research and innovation projects. In fact, what we have done is to design a process to allow for collective design to take place in research and innovation.

We have facilitated several very active sessions with researchers, companies, entrepreneurs and users. From them, several things have emerged: joint research projects between companies and university researchers as well as embryos of new spin-offs. A small new community is slowly growing around these projects. PRUAB is trying hard to further boost it by including new interactions, which go far beyond the usual “networkings” or Community of Practice frameworks and that are rooted in the processes of co-creation, prototyping and co-design which we have successfully applied to various domains of activity.

For us, the best indication that something new is happening at PRUAB are the content and quality of the multiple interactions and interviews we’re having in the process. “We are changing the way we think and act” commented several staff PRUAB members who consider themselves our co-designers in this process and who have dared to embark with us into it, attracted by the reputation of La Mandarina de Newton as the creator of highly creative process based on design.

We are just at the beginning of a user-centered design process that operates at different levels.

At one level it is a process aimed at creating new ideas and projects, including start-ups. On the other level, and from the perspective of the PRUAB Science Park, the process is in itself a exploratory prototype for finding new ways of operation, new services, new ways of organizing PRUAB. Also at this level, we follow a design process.

To summarize, this is a very simplified view of the process:

  1. A co-design session with the management and staff of PRUAB: the process timeline and details were the result.
  2. A co-creation session with researchers, companies and stakeholders: innovation project ideation and user identification.
  3. Review of the proposals by users. Co-design with them.
  4. Re-design of initial projects.
  5. Review and creation of business models.
  6. Invitation to developers to join in the project. Refining the business strategy.
  7. Retrospective reflection and analysis of the entire process with PRUAB: redesign of services.

All along the whole process, we conduct intensive ethnographic observation in order to detect what might be of interest for the skills, capabilities and attitudes of all participants, both an innovation proposals and PRUAB organization level.

For us, it was clear from the beginning that users should be involved in helping to give form to ideas conducive to innovation projects. It was a great joy to see how we were able to transfer some co-design capabilities to researchers, entrepreneurs and staff so they could test emerging ideas of their own projects with the possible future users.

The Park management estimate that for this self-prototyping process we had to start from a clear focus. So we agreed to focus on the issue of aging so that general focus and direction was given. This made easy for users and stakeholders to relate to the process they were invited to take part in.

The first session with management and staff at PRUAB allowed them to find the current constraints and limitations that being a Science and Technology Park imposes on innovation processes. We also were able to spot opportunities and stakeholders and relevant user groups related to aging.

The second session energized more than fifty people from various areas and get them to devise projects and prototypes of new products and services.

The third session was the acid test: we got entrepreneurs, technologists, social workers and researchers to discuss their proposals directly with their potential users. The session had a very strong energy and allowed many projects to be “landed” into practicality. Also, it was an occasion to train participants in the difficult and ambiguous conversation skills needed when working with users. In a way, we help proponents themselves to work as designers.

Why is this project important?

One. Because we are creating a new space that wants to exploit the great capabilities of the PRUAB by connecting them with the users. Traditionally, both researchers and technologists (and partly business people) still work isolated “in love” with their own idea, in their own bubble. This path leads to products that not necessarily respond to real needs, if, however, they incorporate the latest research. Hopefully, of course, some of them could end being truly disruptive. Aging is a complex problem with multiple dimensions and different users. Listening to users can give clues about how to improve an initial proposal or how to create something completely new after seeing their reaction. To give you a hint of typical insights coming of this we can cite the example of what happened when a user, after being told about a proposal to electronically control the falls of old people in their homes, said: “But falling is really an exciting thing. In this way people come home to meet me, and help me. Although the caretakers who usually rush home, “could talk a little more with me”.  Is the fall the only “problem” here? Are there other opportunities for new solutions to other problems? By making researchers and entrepreneurs practice the bare minimum user-design skills we help them value new opportunities and the role of design in the creation of their intended innovative service, product or spinoff. And it gives a lot of value to a Science Park if it can offer these services.

Two. Start-ups that focus on product results need design to have an impact (See, for example, http://startupsthisishowdesignworks.com). The sooner the better. Not all startups can become design-based innovating companies like Apple.  However, how much value can a proto-Johnathan Ive add to a start-up in PRUAB? How can the researchers / entrepreneurs  appreciate the importance of design in the future of their project if they are not exposed to the practice of design while preparing their projects? We are working with PRUAB to identify new services in this regard.

Three. If the design (and co-design) attitude is shared by management, staff, stakeholders, and users, the community that is emerging around PRUAB’s “Laboratory of Ideas” has a ‘color’ that goes well beyond the usual interactions that occur in these environments whether in the form of “networking events”, communities of practice or tech transfer services. The PRUAB, by adding new activities based on the practice of shared design is launching an important message to the community of science and technology parks.

Four. We know it works: after being in contact with the accelerators of various spaces, we are convinced that the processes of, for example, Navy Yards in Brooklyn where the design is in the early stages of creating start-ups and designers are part of the equipment founders of spin-offs works. We have no doubt about it.

Stay tuned!

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