Design schools, the new schools for leadership and entrepreneurship

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Design schools have the chance to become the training institutions that produce the leaders of tomorrow, able to reconcile the economic and the social, and raise new questions about the notions of development and progress. Design is now a strategic discipline, in that reflections on future uses and innovation have become the driving force in companies.

In 2014, Pierre-Luc Deniel and Gui Perrier, two young design school graduates, came up with Dodow, a box device that helps people get to sleep, thanks a combination of hypnosis and relaxation. They built a business around it, and now sell all over the world. Valentin Gauffre, also just out of school, founded his company, Atmotrack, to produce an electronic box dedicated to hunting down pollution and mapping it. His business is now established in China and France. Last but not least, Frantz Lasorne and Nicolas Guyon manage 25 employees at Visionaries 777, the augmented reality developer which the two created in Hong Kong, fresh from successfully defending their final-year design project.

In fact, there are countless examples of young graduate designers no longer afraid to take the plunge and start a new industrial and entrepreneurial adventure. A few years ago, they would have been content to protect their creation, then waiting quietly until an industrial firm be interested and enabled them to start receiving royalties on their genius invention. Today, when an idea is good, the obvious response is to share it, not defend it, and to push past the design stage, testing market ownership and the effect on uses, and becoming its promoter and entrepreneur. A new era is beginning for design schools, on the verge of producing the entrepreneurs and leaders of the future.

In 1994, a number of teachers from HEC Paris, one of the world’s most prestigious business schools, published “L’école des managers de demain”, or “The School of Tomorrow’s Manager”. They speculated on likely developments in the field of education, the learning methods, the structures and, more broadly, they explained how environmental change and corporate social responsibility would become essential subjects in the curricula of business schools everywhere. To prepare students for the highest ranks, the key would no longer lie in teaching them how to make money, but rather to help them explore the moral aspects of doing so. There is a paradox in this, for the way value is produced in a capitalist system cannot be a matter of virtue. The legality of the business they do is the only question that matters, as no company produces goods or services out of duty, and always out of interest. Morality, in other words, appeared irrelevant and raising questions about the moral responsibility of a company is akin to arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Nevertheless, the work foreshadowed the current erratic reflections of a management class wavering between profitability and morality, a curious dilemma when one considers that companies continue to encourage consumption when the appropriate response is precisely to save resources. To praise the moral character of capitalism is an absurdity: it is amoral; and it is all the better if the name of the game is to praise its advantages and benefits. Capitalism’s virtue lies in producing wealth. What needs to be faulted is the inability of politicians to redistribute it fairly.

The authors also emphasized that flexibility, imagination, creativity, mobility and tolerance were some of the qualities and skills needed by the managers of tomorrow, as if soft skills were finally taking precedence over know-how and accounting and financial techniques. They foretold of the rise of bosses who would be more leaders than directors, more visionaries than technicians, more creative and innovative because based on the sole certainty of their know-how, more orchestra conductors than bosses.

The book saw, just around the corner, the formidable digital revolution that would challenge many production and organization models and disrupt every economy and business sector.

In 1994, few design schools raised questions about their relations with companies, except to be wary of them. Working in partnership with economic structures that risked eroding the ability to create would have meant debasing the creative process. A fine array of diploma projects was enough to prove the students’ creative capacity and therefore the quality of teaching. The school heads, professors and students were content with this, and still are, at many institutions snugly resting behind the impermeable walls of knowledge, the majesty of art, creation and the cultural itself. Company management, marketing and environment were virtually absent from the curricula, as though conceiving of a product with its market success in mind was tantamount to selling one’s soul to the devil. The designers’ responsibility was to create beautiful, functional, but by no means profitable objects, the act of selling befalling others. Students were ignorant of what companies wanted, and did not learn the realities of industrial production or the harsh laws of the market until they were on the ground.

“The best curve a product can have is its sales curve”. Raymond Loewy’s words have never adorned the frontispiece of any design school. Admittedly, few companies had incorporated design into their worlds, except perhaps marginally and in a few selected sectors of activity. Design was not strategic and was often seen as a superfluous aesthetic element in companies rooted in 150 years of industrial hegemony and technological innovation implemented by engineers who, logically, sat in management positions.

What happened since 1994 to make design a strategic and management discipline? Globalization, ecological awareness and digital have turned traditional models on end, and every last organizational paradigm has been shaken. The consumer society, the pillar of an exultant capitalism and of the rise in standard of living in Western societies, is now in question.

They are in crisis, and capitalism is heightening inequalities between rich and poor; politicians meanwhile cannot stem these, incapable of coming up with fair redistribution systems. More than 95% of financial transactions on the planet are virtual and no longer based on the real economy. Computers that have no sense of the concept of added value are communicating with other computers. Every five years, a speculative bubble bursts, threatening this new world order dominated by computer robots. Marx predicted that capitalism would be cast to the ground by the proletarians, while Schumpeter saw it overturned by intellectuals; ironically, it is perhaps those who feed on it most gluttonously, the financiers and their supercomputers, who will take it down. Capitalism, killed by capitalism itself!

For 170 years, the Taylor and Ford model was based on a scientific approach to management and organization. The aim is to “do better and better what we know how to do” by separating managers who think, determine procedures and dictate rules from workers who are less and less qualified and confined to following instructions without thinking. They must do better than our competitors by optimizing added value creation and thus benefiting from competitive advantages.

However, this paradigm only works if competition is fair and all players are subject to the rules of the game. The arrival of new producers from emerging countries working at lower wage costs has reshuffled the deck. Why try to optimize processes to boost margin by a few points, when competitors’ labor costs are 2 or 3 times lower?

In 1994, with the arrival of products “made in China”, experts and consultants began selling to companies the concept of total quality and ISO standards as a remedy for Western economies’ drop in competitiveness. The idea was to mobilize teams around the notion of a job well-done. The intention was commendable and it was difficult not to buy in. However, standards and processes make things cumbersome and rigid, and hamper the ability to adapt to change by formatting minds: why explore any side-roads, when the course is clearly charted, without any possibility to stray. Quality taken to the height and excellence are often negations of intelligence that push management to authoritarianism, while flexibility, agility and adaptability become cardinal virtues. Despite being certain of the quality of their work, many companies have tumbled (but in “good order”), then gone under entirely, as they were unable to come up with a disruptive way to do business and thus bounce back. Quality used as a management method betrays a vision that is running out of steam and can even prevent the emergence of new forms of organization.

The innovation paradigm is now used in lieu of the one modeled by Taylor. The objective is no longer to “do better and better”, but to be able to do “something else with what we know how to do”, lastingly and consistently. It is governed not by the exact science of engineers and technicians, but intuition, creativity, intellectual agility and the entrepreneurial spirit. And as it happens, this paradigm is precisely that of design. La Poste faces certain extinction if it thinks its job is to sort mail; its new job description consists of maintaining a social tie with a territory’s population. Yet what new services will it use for this? Major retail Walmart ( Carrefour, Auchan ) will not survive if retailers continue to believe that their business consists of filling shelves, when the Internet has become the world’s largest showcase. AXA and its counterparts sell car insurance. If tomorrow, vehicles become self-driving, will there still be accidents and therefore insurance? Likewise, will the Electricity provider (like Pacific Gas and Electricity Company) continue to distribute electricity to buildings that are energy-independent? This makes designers key players, as it is they who imagine, create, represent, open up perspectives on new uses and model the future.

Design and innovation become strategic disciplines as companies become obliged to transform, in order to adapt to the tremendous upheavals in the economic and social contexts. The world of engineers is being replaced by that of creatives and designers.

Marketing, too, is slated for a complete overhaul. One of its pillars was market renewal, to the extent that the Americans had raised planned obsolescence to a virtue that accelerates wealth generation. The emergence of ecological awareness and the absolute need to save resources now make it a necessity to consume more moderately and, above all, differently. Changing dishwashers or cars every 3 years is a heresy; manufacturers and the retailers will soon be demonized if they continue to contribute in this manner to the end of a resource-scarce humanity. The key now is to be responsible and frugal.

Marketing as it is still often taught is obsolete. The era of sharing is replacing that of individual consumption. According to philosopher Bernard Stiegler, a contribution society must emerge and put exchange, sharing and responsibility at the heart of a new way of consumption. For companies, the idea is to adjust, think differently and move from products to service.

The shifting economic circumstances, emergence of new economies backed up by different cultures, legislation, and opportunities, and our ecological awareness that requires us to revise all our thinking on production and consumption, call into question all the scientific models on which our management systems are built.

Design has become a strategic discipline, as all structures with questions about their future will have “innovation” as their square one. Thinking design is an opportunity to transgress the old inoperative models and bring meaning and ambition back to action. The designer has that particular capability to represent, make tangible, make objective and show. While marketers consistently refer back to the markets, designers imagine the uses of tomorrow whose market does not yet exist, thus affirming the primacy of uses on the markets. This speculation on the future, once it becomes tangible, is a formidable driver for uniting teams. Design becomes the driving force for management and involvement.

Since 1994, design schools have incorporated the relationship with the company into their academic curriculum. They were not trying, 50 years late, to come on board the case study train, an economic pre-fab designed for educational purposes which, back in its day, helped revolutionize manager training. Today, training consists of solving actual cases with company leaders, management and teams of real companies, who come to innovate with students, explore the land, and blaze new trails. These experimental laboratories show just how far company management and development are from exact sciences. Design Thinking is in progress.

They offer invaluable lessons, for the user and the consumer, for the engineer responsible for manufacturing, and for the marketer in charge of selling: seeing creation, imagination and transgression to the process of design; engaging in testing, formulating and reformulating before finalizing, by the principle of trial and error; using representation to make things objective, graspable, understandable and acceptable. The designer’s know-how combines the head with the hand, and the scientific with the “intuitic”, one of the designer’s distinctive attributes.

The company is now at the center of design school curricula. Each of its constraints are powerful opportunities to create, as solutions need to be found to overcome them. This relationship with companies can thus be likened to a form of work-study training, the very one advocated by HEC professors back in 1994. The teaching offered in design schools is about sharing with society and companies, with engineers, marketers, financiers, but also with philosophers, sociologists, urban planners and politicians, to enrich thinking, speculate on the uses of tomorrow and provide sustenance for projects. To tackle economic and social problems that have become complex, it is important to widely unite, and not segment or wall off by discipline and levels, as French higher education has traditionally done.

Design schools have built more and more partnerships with engineering and business schools, as well as with human sciences universities, bringing the disciplines into resonance. They have become schools for managing complex projects which, thanks to their closeness with companies, and have moved from creation to innovation and from imagination to economic and social realities, while maintaining what makes them specific: prefiguring the world of tomorrow and serving the cause of progress. Schools that are recognized for the talent of their students, placed at the heart of the knowledge-gaining process, and not only for the degrees held by their teachers or their researchers’ publications.

Learning about design as a management discipline foreshadows the school and the organizations of tomorrow. The students, under the guidance of their teachers, share, experiment, test and reformulate. They are the ones who make the courses what they are, because they are the ones who are asked to have ideas. The role of teachers is to guide creativity without ever forcing it, encouraging it, helping new ideas come into being, correcting, providing support in times of doubt inherent in any foray down paths unknown, and provide reassurance in the event of error, thus making it possible to rise and start again.

It is fairly simple to teach the science of “what is”; to wit, the task can be accomplished via MOOC and without a teacher. It is a much more complex matter to teach creativity and responsibility. No longer are subjects the central focus of the curricula, but instead, students. For it is from them that the light and talent are awaited. Is this master-student relationship, freed from its directive aspect, not a prefiguration of the participatory models extolled by modern management theories? Overturning hierarchies and being willing to make many mistakes on the way to success become vectors of good management.

Students-designers will henceforth learn management, marketing and economic science because it will be their responsibility to act on the world and to contribute to solving the problems faced by humankind. It is no longer enough to be creative and have ideas, people must act, do and become entrepreneurs to their projects. It is on the economic and social ground that the project must prove itself.

“Too many managers, not enough entrepreneurs”, Henri Proglio, former CEO of Veolia regrets. In the economic and social fields, we need entrepreneurs capable of objectively foreseeing a tomorrow that will have meaning, capable of bringing together disciplines to manage increasingly complex issues. The opportunities are great for design schools to produce the managers of tomorrow, those whom we need to reconcile the economic and social aspects and to re-examine, between science and the market, the notion of progress in the service of humanity.

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