Optimistic but not naive

Päivi Tahkokallio. Picture: Anni Koponen

Compared with many others, the field of design is small. Yet, the recent European Design Report by BEDA and its member organisation Design Austria suggests that there are more than two million design professionals in Europe. So, how can we create a relevant design policy?

We need someone who does it and we need a framework

First, we need someone who creates it. In Europe, that someone is the Bureau of European Design Associations, a fifty-year-old umbrella organisation of fifty members. Together, these design associations or national organisations, which promote design in a total of 25 countries, are the strongest and most representative voice of design in Europe. BEDA’s role was crucial when the European Commission published its first ever design policy, the European Design Action Plan, in 2013.

Second, we need a valid framework. When design was initially integrated into the European Commission’s innovation policy ten years ago, it was the first time the Commission recognised that design could bring added value to the economy and competitiveness of Europe.

The design-driven, user-centred design policy has since brought an impressive set of design projects to light, with the Commission investing millions of euros on them. These projects have largely stemmed from recommendations made by the European Design Leadership Committee prior to the Design Action Plan. The members of the European Design Leadership Committee represented the best design minds from the European Union member countries. My home country Finland played a strong role in this: the recommendations project was led by Aalto University in Helsinki.

A world in change needs a next-generation design policy

The world has changed since 2013 and Europe is in need of a new design policy. Most of the projects based on the Design Action Plan have focused on raising awareness of design, communicating the added value that design can produce for businesses and the public sector, or capacity building. These are all relevant but not sufficient.

A new design policy is needed for the same reasons as all fields are struggling. Every field needs to react to climate change, digitalisation, skills and the horizontal challenges shaking the world. Those of us who create design policy need to have an understanding of how design can create solutions for a circular economy and how it can accelerate digitalisation. We will be expected to communicate how design can add value to applications of artificial intelligence and the role of design in creating ethical rules for the use of AI.

Skills is one of the big European issues, whether we are talking about re-skilling 100 million European citizens or a total reform of the education system. Design policy must take a stand on what design skills are needed in a digitalised world.

Between American Eagle and Eastern Tiger — Taking off instead of crushing

The primary objective of European design policy has been and still is for design to create added value for Europe.

So far, the added value has primarily been defined as economic. Design strengthens competitiveness, and when actions are strategically created in C suites, design increases competitiveness even further. We know this in Europe; they know it outside Europe. It is obvious that European design policy needs to identify more effective means to bring design into the toolbox of top management, in both the private and the public sector. At the same time, the design sector itself needs to be developed as part of creative industries. But this is not enough.

The hot topic for the whole of Europe is how Europe can differentiate itself from the American Eagle and the Eastern Tiger. This was the question both Jyrki Katainen, Vice President of the European Commission, and Ann Metler, Director of the European Political Strategy Centre, asked at the EU Industry Days event in Brussels in February.

Quite a few experts said that the answer lies in human-centred technology. It is easy for the design community to agree. Designers are experts on users and their needs.

Others answered that values differentiate Europe. This said, one of the most interesting questions after the European Parliamentary elections will be what the values of the future Europe will be. If one thing is certain, it is that those of us who create the next-generation design policy will have to take a stand on values. Will Europe be developed based on values we have long stood for, equality and inclusion, or will other values replace them. I am optimistic, but it does not pay off to be naive.


Päivi Tahkokallio will start her two-year term as President of the Bureau of European Design Associations as the first Finn on 17 May 2019. BEDA is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. As President, Päivi will lead the creation of the next-generation design policy amid the new challenges Europe faces in a global world. Europarlamentary elections will be organised on 23-26 May 2019, and new commissioners will be nominated after the elections. Great Britain and the European Union will continue Brexit negotiations. Finland will start as Chair of the European Union on 1 July this year.





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