Design Principles

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This section presents the eleven design principles for designing and facilitating processes that are knowledge productive. In such a process the development and application of new knowledge is promoted in order to improve and innovate. The principles are a result of the research we did at Habiforum, a network organization whose goal is to develop innovative solutions for land-use in the Netherlands. At Habiforum we investigated communities (‘proeftuinen’) in which people collaboratively work on innovation. We combined the insights we found in practice, with findings from literature. This document summarizes the eleven principles.

An overview of the design principles:

  1. Formulate an urgent and intriguing question
  2. Creating a new approach
  3. Working from individual motive
  4. Making unusual combinations of subject matter expertise
  5. Working from mutual attractiveness
  6. Starting with strengths
  7. Learning by creating something together
  8. Enticing to see new signals and to give them new meaning
  9. Connect the world inside the innovation practice to the one outside the innovation practice
  10. Make it a social and communicative process
  11. Develop competencies 

For a more elaborate description of the research process that we went through to formulate these, see the article at the end of this page: 'Design principles for knowledge productivity'.


Principle 1: Formulate an urgent and intriguing question

An urgent and intriguing question is necessary for knowledge productivity. Not only a rational urge but also the personal feeling that there is an urge. The question has to be formulated in such a way that the people who work on it, have the feeling that the question cannot remain unanswered.
It becomes intriguing if people have the courage to develop new perspectives on the question. The question should be formulated in such a way that it leaves space for various perspectives and directions.

Example from the Habiforum context:
In ‘proeftuin de Binckhorst’ the urgency of the question at hand remained unclear during the whole process to the people involved. This lead to long conversations, little activity in between meetings, participants who await developments and who ask a lot of questions and then take a long time to think about their next actions.


Principle 2: Creating a new approach

In order to find new solutions (‘thinking new’), you need a new way of working (‘acting new’). A new way of working is not only about new techniques and e.g. new forms of structuring a meeting, but also about giving shape to an innovative process. You should design a new path that you make concrete more and more along the way. It is about thinking through a new perspective from which you experiment. It is also about breaking through patterns that people became accustomed to because of the existent structures.

Example from the Habiforum context:
In ‘proeftuin Horstemeerpolder’ people experienced difficulties to explain each other what interest they had in the innovation project. To overcome this, they hired a mini-van and with a small group of people (each belonging to one of the stakeholder-groups that had an interest in the polder-environment) they made a tour with the bus through the polder. There were inhabitants, farmers, environmentalists and people who represented the people who visited the polder for recreation. Every stakeholder got the key of the bus for one hour. Within that hour they were free to guide the others. The inhabitants for instance chose to have a coffee at a certain café in the polder where the view was exceptionally beautiful. In the afternoon they sat together and talked about what the polder means to each of them. The result was that the various perspectives and interests started to become alive. They started to facilitate their own process. The (external) facilitator was not as much needed as before.


Principle 3: Working from individual motive

Individual motives are a powerful engine for innovation and a condition to make it something special. These motives deal with a passion for a certain theme or with a personal interest. When you can work with things that are important to yourself, you create ownership (take responsibility) and entrepreneurship (take action). People’s own motives also make them curious. When it is about your theme, you want to go for it. Even when it means that you have to leave the conventional roads and have to search for new ones. People dare to be disobedient and break existent patterns. This is necessary to find new roads and come to innovation. When people feel ownership, they will do anything to keep the process going. Even when things are not very easy, they manage to regulate their motivation.

Example from the Habiforum context:
‘Proeftuin Piushaven’ is an innovation project that deals with the redesign of a river’s bank near the city Tilburg. The facilitator talked with the participants about their motives and interests: What is your dream? What do you want to happen? What do you want to avoid? This caused an atmosphere where people could collaborate in a new way.


Principle 4: Making unusual combinations of subject matter expertise

For an innovation subject matter expertise is essential: innovations are about real new concepts and ideas in a certain knowledge area. Therefore it is crucial to constantly examine, combine and develop new subject matter expertise. Innovation evolves when new connections are made.
By looking for new combinations, you are better able to recognize and use the expertise that is already there. The subject matter expertise of a participant in the project can become visible as soon as someone with complete different expertise is involved in the process.

Example from the Habiforum context:
The participants in ‘proeftuin Nieuw Den Helder’ invited an architect. He developed new ways to design the district in Den Helder called ‘new Den Helder’. He took the Antilleans as a starting point, and came up with twelve concepts for a design of the district. It were ideas like ‘the neighborhood as a streettheatre’, a compound and a cruise quay. He used one culture (that of the Antilleans: many of the inhabitants of new Den Helder are from the Antilles) and linked new concepts to the way you can use the neighborhood for living, recreating, working. This inspired the people in the ‘proeftuin’ to broaden their view on this ‘problematic neighborhood’.


Principle 5: Working from mutual attractiveness

For innovation processes, you need an environment in which people are attractive to each other. This means an environment with a powerful and constructive relation between people. This means an environment with constructive but also with confronting interactions. Also the care for each other and the trust plays an important role.
For people it becomes interesting to work with someone else and to invest in him, when that person is able to contribute to their own ambitions. That makes that you both have an interest in the well being of each other. Creating such an environment, asks a lot of all the people involved. Openness plays an important role. It is about building on each other’s contributions instead of criticizing these.

Example from the Habiforum context:
At a certain point in proeftuin ‘Nieuw Den Helder’ people had the idea ‘if I want something important to happen here, I need your help’. That came into existence after everybody’s personal motives were discussed. Suddenly there was space for people to offer help and to collaborate.


Principle 6: Starting with strengths

Usually we are very critical and think that we can contribute to a process by looking for the weakest points and put an effort into improving these weaknesses. In such a way of working, you focus on the things that are not there. It appears however, that you can improve an innovation process by working with the things that are already there, the things that you are already good at. By making explicit each other’s contribution to the process and by using your successes as a starting point, you can improve the knowledge development. It helps you to recognize the strengths that are there and ways to use them in future.
This principle consists of three steps:

  • Look back and define the successes that you had. Share these.
  • Examine the contribution of each one in the group to this success.
  • Give it a future perspective: what can we bring about the coming period with help of these strengths?

This principle contributes to reflection that is needed to acquire metacognitions, the focus on success contributes to people’s self-efficacy (people's judgments of their own capabilities) and it sharing strengths, improves the social capital within the group. Together this offers new insights and new solutions.

Example from the Habiforum context:
In one of the ‘proeftuinen’ (Zeeburgereiland) the process was concluded with a meeting in which the people involved looked back upon the process. The project was a success indeed, but they investigated together how it had worked so well. They used their successes and talents as a basis for reflection. The questions that were central were: Where are you proud of when you look back upon the process? Which situation comes to your mind? What talents and strengths contributed to the success in this particular situation? They looked at strengths of themselves, of others and of the environment. People interviewed each other in groups of ¾ persons. The result was a meeting in which everybody felt very involved, and worked with concentration. After the meeting the elements that made the project a success became visible.


Principle 7: Learning by creating something together

This principle is about designing, developing and making new products and services. By creating something collaboratively, people acquire new knowledge, insights and skills. Designing something helps people to move their perspective from analysis to design; from differences to connectedness. Because you make something that will be your own product in the end, you make explicit what is important for you personally. Experiences that used to be implicit now become explicit, you talk about them and elaborate upon them. That is crucial for the development of new knowledge.

Example from the Habiforum context:
In the community of practice ‘Vitale Stad’ the participants started to make their ideas explicit in a design. It was then, when the design was there, that people disagreed. Making something, made it possible to go further than solely the exchange of information. Now the participants were able to talk about meaning.


Principle 8: Enticing to see new signals and to give them new meaning

For innovation it is necessary to develop an antenna for new signals and to learn to give more and new meaning to those signals. Starting to look for new (little) signals and to develop a kind of sensitivity for it is the first step. Second step is to actively look for new information that learns you more about these signals. Finally it is about a process in which you collaboratively develop new meaning based on the information you found. The use of new, not yet existing words, and the use of stories is important in this principle.
Something new can be seen and accepted by others when its meaning is connected to something people know already. So make sure to always connect the new meanings to the old.

Example from the Habiforum context:
‘Proeftuin Charlois A15’ is about an area (Charlois) that is labeled as ‘messy’. The highway (A15) that crosses this area is seen as something that stands in the way of innovating the Charlois-area. As soon as people in the proeftuin label the A15 as a gateway they see new perspectives to organize the area in a complete new way.


Principle 9:Connect the world inside the innovation practice to the one outside the innovation practice

In order to be successful, you need to connect the worlds inside the ‘proeftuin’ (the people who are directly involved in the innovation project) with the world outside the ‘proeftuin’. Otherwise the participants in the ‘proeftuin’ can develop great ideas that will never cause a break-through in the real world.
Positive attention from persons with a certain status, of attention from media, gives access to the outside world to what happens within the particular innovation project. This kind of attention in itself is not enough to realize a break through but it offers the opportunity to meet people and start to connect the two worlds.

Example from the Habiforum context:
In ‘proeftuin Poort van Alphen’ they connected their ideas with the world outside by composing an expert group with experts from outside the proeftuin. They asked the expert group to reflect upon the vision the participants in the proeftuin developed. For this expert group they invited influential people. The experts were especially interested in one of the ideas. Because of the involvement of experts in this phase, the participants in the proeftuin got the chance to develop this idea further.


Principle 10:Make it a social and communicative process

Knowledge development is a social process. Communicative and social skills are the vessel in this process. That’s why it is important to give attention to the quality of the interactions. These can improve and strengthen the process.

Example from the Habiforum context:
In ‘Overdiepse polder’ the facilitator and the farmers involved built social capital. They trust each other. This becomes clear when one of the farmers calls the facilitator when he has the feeling everything is about to go wrong. Because the facilitator comes into action immediately, the feeling of mutual trust grows.


Principle 11: Develop competencies

Knowledge productivity is about:

  • Signalizing, collecting and interpreting relevant information
  • Develop new abilities with help of these information
  • Apply these abilities to improvements and innovations

The development of competencies and abilities is essential to innovate. People should develop their personal and collective abilities; they should design the innovation process as a learning process for all the people involved. This means that you define the competencies that should be developed, and from there design approaches and ways of working that facilitate learning in that direction.



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