Design in Action and INNOVATE: A Cross-Institutional Collaboration

21 December 2015

By Brian McNicoll, Design in Action Business Partnership Manager, University of Dundee and Bruce Watson, Head of INNOVATE at Northumbria University

brianpicBrian: Since February 2013 Design in Action had run 13 bespoke residential events, Chiasma, throughout Scotland. From Elgin to Pitlochry, across Scotland the team handpicked the most inspiring locations and event partners in order to best facilitate an innovative environment for our Chiasma participants to come up with the next ‘BIG’ idea. To conclude our current round of Chiasma events at the start of November ’15, we held our 14th Chiasma, for the first time outwith Scotland, in the North-East of England at Northumbria University’s stunning Northern Design Centre.

The collaboration developed after a chance meeting with Bruce Watson, Head of INNOVATE, (Northumbria University’s design-led innovation centre) at the annual AURIL conference in 2014. It was clear there were many synergies between INNOVATE and Design in Action and with both projects’ key remits to look at innovation in the Wellbeing sector, it was a natural fit.

The open call ‘Surviving and Thriving’, was scoped and written by researchers at The Glasgow School of Art, who took lead responsibility for delivering the event, with further refinement by the wider Design in Action and INNOVATE teams before going live on the Design in Action website: –

The call was open for over a month with academics, designers and businesses invited to apply to attend the 2½ day Chiasma and we were overwhelmed with the response from people interested in being involved in the event, especially as this pilot forwent our usual post-event £20k commercialisation funding pot. All three institutions contributed to the selection process, with the final delegate list of 26 providing a good mix of disciplines and skills, essential to the success of such an event that is trying to facilitate the generation of new innovative ideas driven by a design-led and Knowledge Exchange approach. As always, the Chiasma utilised Design in Action’s unique Intellectual Property process in order to provide a safe environment for this type of ideation activity and with the addition of the modern and sophisticated venue that Northumbria was providing, we were confident the event would be a real success.

At this point in the blog I am passing over to Bruce Watson to provide his take on how the event went from Northumbria University’s perspective, to explain what will be happening with the ideas that were generated and how Design in Action and INNOVATE plan to continue building upon this relationship going forward…

NDC ProfilesBruce: From my perspective, there was a high degree of serendipity in bumping into Brian. The work I lead at INNOVATE at the Northern Design Centre, focuses on using design and design-led innovation approaches to explore big challenges, reveal valuable insights, and propose better solutions for our partners and clients. During my short conversation with Brian it was immediately clear that there was value in collaboration, and I should take up his offer “to come up to Dundee and see what we are doing”.

Once we had recognised that INNOVATE’s early pilot events, which we call ‘Innovation Sandpits’, resembled the design-led collaboration of the Chiasma process and that we shared similar objectives, we began exploring ways to collaborate with the DiA team, and build on their proven approach to design-led collaborative innovation.

Healthcare was a good place to start, as it is a strong research area for Northumbria and was to be the next planned focus area for the GSA led Chiasma.

The 2 ½ day event was a longer format than we had used previously at INNOVATE, however it became clear that the social engagement, information sharing and provocation, which led up to the main creative process, were essential components in delivering strong innovative outputs. In our case, 12 new product and service concepts, which finally narrowed to 4 very strong, insightful ‘pitches’ covering new apps, community services and proposals for further collaborative research.

GSA Cards

The inclusion of external speakers such as Public Health England, the Digital Health and Care Institute, and the engagement of the North East Local Enterprise Partnership’s Innovation Director, not only provided valuable data and a focus on specific North East of England challenges, it also gave these external partners the opportunity to experience this very different type of design-facilitated innovation process and all immediately recognised the value it could create.

The response from the teams formed during the Chiasma is also an indicator of the success of the format. Even now after the excitement of the event has subsided, three of the four teams behind the pitches are seeking to progress their proposals further and Northumbria has committed its support in helping these early teams get off the ground.


Northumbria’s motivations for supporting this first Chiasma outside of Scotland was not only to focus on the Health and Wellbeing challenges in the North East, but more broadly to highlight the value of Design as a strategic tool for innovation, and promote a collaborative approach, a ‘needs pull’ rather than technology push approach to innovation.

For me, the ability of the Chiasma process to bring a group of strangers together, often experts in their own fields, and facilitate innovative and focused solutions to complex, broad or thematic challenges, has been proven, and we are already working with the DiA team to build proposals to extend this work to the North of England.