What can design do to improve our cities?

What can design do to improve our cities?

Promoting and encouraging the take-up of design as an enabler of innovation in the urban environment.  

Funding period

2017 — 2021


European Commission



A group of public managers of ANCI Toscana discussing the value-mapping activity during a creative session led by Federico Rita

Funded between 2017-2021 by the Horizon 2020 programme (GA no 763784), Designscapes aimed to encourage the take-up & scaling of design enabled innovation by enterprises, start-ups, public authorities & other stakeholders and through this address the challenges cities face now and in future.

The project was implemented by a consortium of 12 organisations across 10 EU member states with expertise in design-enabled innovation in cities and urban contexts, stakeholder involvement, collaborative research and learning processes, experience in linking practice, policy and research, and with an extensive set of capacity building tools, instruments and methods, community building, communication and disseminating skills.

Our role was to carry out a process, outcome and impact evaluation of the project:

  • Gathering data and metrics concerning the impact of design-related policies and programmes in terms of user benefit and business impact;
  • Developing a transferable methodology to evaluate the effectiveness of design in the innovation process;
  • Developing a common impact evaluation methodology and indicators that can be applied across sectors and is scalable to organisational, regional, national and European level.


DESIGNSCAPES was implemented against the backdrop of a wider EU policy context which, since the mid-2000s, recognises and pursues a ‘broad-based approach to innovation’ [European Commission, 2006] which includes more demand and user-driven innovation. Design-enabled innovation is a further development of this concept and has gained political significance with the emergence of studies pointing to the business benefits of using design processes for innovation. A number of practical initiatives have followed since, at EU and national level, to promote and encourage the take-up of design as an enabler of innovation.

Within this dynamic environment, DESIGNSCAPES occupied a unique space. The project focused on the specific innovation enabling potential of the urban environment which results from the concentration of relevant industries, modern infrastructure, a concentration of resources in cities coupled with a concentration of challenges creating pressures to innovate. DESIGNSCAPES funded fund and support 100 initiatives in European cities to develop, pilot and potentially scale design enabled innovations addressing pressing social, environmental and economic challenges. In doing so, the project aimed to understand the connections between practice, policy and research, as well as their impact on the success and sustainability of design enabled innovation, to feed this into awareness raising and wider dissemination activities.

The Designscapes evaluation

The Designscapes evaluation set out to answer the following overarching question: “Does design-led innovation improve performance and efficiency in the commercial and public sector- by addressing the challenges cities face now and in the future - and hence improve competitiveness?

To this end, the evaluation approach relied on four interrelated building blocks:

·       Theory of Change to frame the research,

·       Participatory Evaluation to ensure the results are co-created.

·       Replication analysis to assess the sustainability of the programme, and

·       behaviour additionality to capture the changes Designscapes made to the target groups.

The methods used were a longitudinal stakeholder survey which used both successful and unsuccessful pilots, two rounds of qualitative case studies, interviews with key Designscapes partners and Theory of Change workshops. These were complimented by application data, the project output measurements and a wider policy literature review.

Key evaluation findings

The evaluation showed that design thinking, in particular through the vehicle of co-creation, has the ability to create solutions that work better for the people and localities for which they have been designed, encouraging them to engage with the innovation – also or in particular when the challenges they are looking to address are complex. We found that design tools proved to be valuable for engaging and motivating people as “experts by experience” to bring their knowledge to the creation of an innovation or support their transfer to a different location, ensuring fit with local contexts. From this come potential commercial gains for the teams designing the solutions and potential public policy gains for administrations charged with tackling social, economic, environmental or other problems.

The evidence was less clear about the potential for design enabled innovation to support organisational efficiency.  Our cost consequence analysis showed that even a relatively small amount of funding to implement design enabled pilots allowed funded team to leverage additional resources. There was some evidence that iterative working and use of certain design tools was time efficient in developing innovations, though not enough evidence was collected to show that design thinking generally is efficient to advance innovations.

In terms of improving competitiveness, our evaluation generated convincing evidence that use of design thinking and tools together with a suitable capacity building programme creates skills and network effects inside participating teams and beyond which are linked to organisational innovation and hence competitiveness, including skills enhancing teams’ ability to transfer their innovations to different contexts. Beyond the organisational level, the evaluation has found that exposure to design tools, when positive, can make stakeholders more pre-disposed to use them. The fact that Designscapes pilots expanded their professional network as a result of the funding they received and that these pilots were able to draw on resources from across most components of the design ecosystem to advance their projects point towards a potential for more systemic change in some of the urban innovation landscapes involved in Designscapes – but we did not find evidence of lasting systemic change.

The evaluation tested a suite of evaluation techniques in a field where evaluation practice is not yet well established. Learning from this fed into the creation of a common impact evaluation methodology for design enabled innovations.

Project Team: Dr Joe Cullen (Scientific Director), Dr Kerstin Junge (TIHR Project leader), David Drabble, Giorgia Iacopini

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