Design and Science: An Opportunity for Knowledge Translation and Exchange??

Design of Science or Science of Design

IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown recently observed a renewed interest in design within science, but is that same feeling reciprocated and, if so, what does that mean for both fields?

Tim Brown, author and CEO of the renowned design firm IDEO, recently posted on the firm’s blog some observations he had on the relationship between design and science.

In that post, he asks some important questions of both designers and scientists.

I wonder how much might be gained if designers had a deeper understanding of the science behind synthetic biology and genomics? Or nanotechnology? Or robotics? Could designers help scientists better see the implications and opportunities of the technologies they are creating? Might better educated and aware designers be in a position to challenge the assumptions of the science or reinterpret them in innovative ways? Might they do a better job of fitting the new science into our lives so that we can gain more benefit?

The question of the relationship between designers and the science used to inform the materials or products they us is one that will play out differently depending on the person and context. However, I would welcome the opportunity for designers to challenge much of what science — and I use that term broadly — does, particularly with regards to the application or translation of scientific research into policies and practices. Indeed, this is a frontier where designers have tremendous opportunities to contribute as I’ve discussed elsewhere.

Knowledge translation and translational research are two of the most vexing problem domains in science, particularly with health. Despite years of efforts, scientists haven’t been able to advance the integration of what is learned into what is done at a rate that is acceptable to policy makers, practitioners and the public alike. The problem isn’t just with scientists, but the way the scientific enterprise has been engineered.

Scientists haven’t had to consider design before. Tim Brown asks further questions about what it might be like if they did:

If scientists were more comfortable with intuitive nature of design might they ask more interesting questions? The best scientists often show great leaps of intuition as they develop new hypotheses and yet so much modern science seems to be a dreary methodical process that answers ever more incremental questions. If scientists had some of the skills of designers might they be better able to communicate their new discoveries to the public?

In this case, it might be the chance for designers to step up and consider ways to work with those in science to create better institutional policies, laboratories, and collaborative environments to foster the kind of linkages necessary for effective knowledge translation.

Knowledge translation models, such as the widely cited one conceived of by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, are both process and outcome oriented; ideal for designers. KT is a designed process and the more it is approached through the lens of design thinking, the greater likelihood we’ll get a system that reflects its intentions better than what we currently have.

3 Comments on “Design and Science: An Opportunity for Knowledge Translation and Exchange??

  1. Thanks Alok for the comment. The big challenge I see is that designers have an opportunity to go beyond just producing products, to informing the understanding of how those products function in society and, I would go further to add, what products themselves are necessary to create a better life. These products include those that come from science and could mean a physical thing or a social policy a new way of learning or a method of organizing ourselves.

  2. that is a fantastic interpretation but scientists and researchers are rarely concerned about the implications and applications of their findings. i haven’t come across any GOOD scientist that was excited about making brand new products and/or associating new technology with consumer behaviour. or for that matter social policy. or anything to do with society really.

    take a look at Hennig Brand, the merchant alchemist who discovered phosphorous. His discovery of phosphorous and its reactivity with sulfer spawned a whole new industry: matchmaking. But he got none of the credit for it. Or Tesla who died in his New York apartment after discovering the AC current. Yet we associate electricity with Edison? Truly great scientists are pure scientists. I suppose if designers venture out of the design field and explore other fields, then some truly groundbreaking stuff will happen. Case in point is Neri Oxman. But then you have completely abandon the notion of a career, but be completely devoted to academia.

    The problem for me is that today’s society is not collegial enough. We don’t have the spirit of the renaissance. We moved away from Locke’s, “All men are equal by nature” to Smith’s “Everyman seeks his own interests,” and that has created a clear divide between academia and industry which makes it very hard to take abstract ideas and convert them into usable technology in a constant dynamic interchange.

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