5 October 2006

Denmark’s largest companies launch user-driven innovation academy

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180º Academy
In just a few weeks, seven of the biggest players in Danish business and industry will launch a new innovation and concept initiator study programme called the 180º Academy (“One-Eighty Academy”), with the first group of students starting classes in June 2007, writes the Danish Mandag Morgen / Monday Morning Weekly (and here reported for the first time in English with the kind permission of the weekly).

Lego, Danfoss, Nokia, Gumlink, Bang & Olufsen, Novo Nordisk, and Middelfart Sparekasse are the seven companies who have taken the initiative to found and invest in the new educational institution, which offers courses in the Danish town of Middelfart and abroad.

The study programme is the only one of its kind in the world and is, according to its founders, a break from the traditional innovation concepts in Denmark.

It is practical, interdisciplinary and radically user-driven. It combines humanistic methodologies together with design and business thinking. Above all, it is about people, not technology, as is confirmed by Microsoft’s well-known design anthropologist Anne Kirah, who is Director of Development for the programme.

“The aim of the programme is to help students remove their mental blinders and be able to look beyond a company’s own production-related comfort zone. It is about breaking away from the focus on technological possibilities and learning instead about the future needs of the consumer,” says Anne Kirah.

According to its founders, the establishment of the Academy is a direct result of the acute need in Danish business and industry, to learn new user focused innovation methodologies. And businesses do not believe that existing university-level innovation study programmes meet their needs.

The Academy has hit a sore point in the Danish innovation strategy: the very gap between what companies want and what the state education system actually offers. The education programme also raises a number of fundamental questions as to what the recipe for effective innovation should be, particularly as the programme is a radical change to existing areas of study within the education system.

The 180º Academy follows the MBA model, where the instruction is planned to meet the needs of part-time students to fit around a student’s job. The course contents have been inspired by some of the world’s leading design and innovation schools, including the Stanford Institute of Design and the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Features of the programme can be summarised in the following four points:

  • The programme breaks away from technology driven innovation and concentrates instead on applying ethnographical methodologies for systematic collection of knowledge and data about life patterns, so as to identify needs that companies have not yet uncovered.
  • The education is interdisciplinary and trains students to operate in all areas of the innovation process from data collection and needs analysis to design development and development of prototypes and, finally, to commercialisation of the product.
  • The programme is practical. Students are not examined or assessed according to academic performance, but rather from practical experience with innovation.
  • The education programme has been privately funded and is conceived as supplementary education for employees and managers who already have several years of employment experience.

According to Anne Kirah, traditional, technology driven innovation is a relic from the industrial revolution. This type of innovation is no longer sufficient today in an era when a product’s lifecycle is becoming shorter and shorter. There is a constant need to know and adapt to consumer needs.

“The majority of companies make technology driven innovation. They are more concerned about making modifications to a product they already know. They have tunnel vision. How can you get any new ideas if you only ever look at existing possibilities and at what your competitors are doing? You cannot be innovative from within your own comfort zone.”

“At 180º Academy we will teach students to open their eyes to completely new markets, by analysing people’s needs,” says Anne Kirah.

During their course, students will be introduced to the traditional, ethnographic, participant observation methods, whereby they have to go out and observe people in their everyday lives before even attempting to put words and thoughts together as to which products they are likely to need in the future.

Students will then be thrown into a creative design phase, whereby they first have to analyse the data they have collected, learn various tools for idea development, and get to know the development of prototypes so as to finally be in a position to work with the actual commercialisation of the product.

Read backgrounder (pdf, 180 kb, 6 pages)

(Experientia/Putting People First will shortly publish an interview with Anne Kirah, in part also as its contribution to the upcoming European Market Research Event, which Kirah co-chairs.)

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