Design denmark

From material to innovation

By Tim Larcombe, founder of the innovation and design management consultancy INTENT and member of the Design denmark board.

The European Commission backs Design to create growth with smart materials.

On the dawn of it’s re-launch, the Danish Design Centre (DDC) held an international symposium about how design can create innovation with new, smart materials.
 The background for this is a belief in the European Commission (EC) that the use of advanced materials can generate growth in the economy. The EC also believes that designers and the design process, working with researchers and technologists can spark this growth by using creative methods to imagine applications for smart materials. Implicitly the EC is placing confidence in the design community to make the leap from “what’s possible” to “what makes sense”.

The event brought together technologists, designers, researchers and business people. Initially five inspiration presentations were given by people already working in the smart materials field (Jack Mama – Electrolux, Sascha Peters – Haute Innovation, Aart Van Bezooyen – Material Stories, Els Zijlstra – Materia, Efrat Friedland – DesignAffairs). Following this we were introduced to four smart materials. Erik Haastrup Müller from Futation presented Quantum Tunneling Composite from Paratech – a material that changes its electrical conductivity under pressure. Louis Nilsson from the University of Aarhus presented “the amazing Graphene” – a single layer of carbon molecules that is simultaneously transparent, conductive, flexible and very strong. Morten Olesen from Actura presented examples of nano-structures polymers and gesture recognition while Johan Pedersen from Delta introduced us to the fascinating world of energy-harvesting – for example retrieving energy from people walking along the pavement!

Chris Lefteri, a designer-turned-materials-expert from the UK and Maria Hørmann, the Editor of Hello Materials Blog and Project Manager from DDC then led managed brainstorming session resulting in 20 applications for these four materials.

“Home of Tomorrow” was the second of four symposia to be conducted around Europe. The previous one took place in London, the next two are in Prague and Barcelona. Funding is by the EC under the project name DAMADEI (Design and Advanced Materials As a Driver of European Innovation). DDC is a partner in this program and building it’s own materials resource on the Hello Materials blog (see below) The other two partners in DAMDADEI is Happy Materials in Prague, and MaterFAD in Barcelona.

This investment by the EU shows confidence in design’s ability to find practical applications for technologies that have no defined purpose. As the brainstorming session showed, translating material capabilities into worthwhile innovations is no easy task. It’s clear the “palette” of advanced materials will grow, and some more ambitious designers could be well-advised to initiate a design process with the capabilities of materials. Combining this with a user-driven approach could yield the sort of innovations the EU is hoping for.

It was also interesting to note the wide interest at the event from different design disciplines. New materials are interesting for fashion, textile, interior and architectural designers, as well as product designers.

Aside from all the material-induced wonder, at the symposium three main themes emerged. Firstly materials should be considered early in the design process to make the most of their innate capabilities. Secondly that it’s not just about using smart materials, but also about using existing materials in smart ways. Finally, as we begin to run dry of oil, there will be a shift to local production of energy. Advanced materials have a key role to play in this and design can play a major part in making this happen.

Interested to play with materials? 

There are already many magical possibilities available. Good starting points are:

Damadei – Resource website for advanced materials –

Hello Materials – Comprehensive blog on materials curated by DDC –
Materia – Knowledge bank, online and offline resource –