Outside the "Comfort Zone"


‘No pain, no gain’ is a familiar enough term for gym bunnies. Yet it’s also how some of the T2C researchers experienced the early stages of the project! Inter-disciplinarity is widely recognized as being key to progress in the field of design for the circular economy, but it’s not easy at first.


Kirsi Niinimäki, Marjaana Tanttu and Cindy Kohtala’s article Outside the ”Comfort Zone”: Designing Unknown in a Multidisciplinary Setting, published in The Design Journal in 2017, discusses the observations of the Aalto Arts team as they witnessed the wide range of partners getting down to work on the T2C project at the very beginning of the process. Here Kirsi explains the main findings from their observational reflection. 


A learning process

“As Trash-2-Cash’s various partners, with their different knowledge, backgrounds and working practices, attempted to work together and understand each other, multidisciplinary collaboration was very challenging at the outset. Scientific researchers are familiar with working in a lab setting, an environment totally unknown to business and industry people. Design researchers are used to facilitating workshops using unconventional creative methods. The challenge in T2C was to develop collaborative working methods that are design-driven and that can boost shared innovation development. This paper focused on the early phase of the T2C project, where collaboration was a learning process, and it described some elements that enabled or hindered the collaboration, as observed by the authors who are Aalto Arts researchers.


Outside the comfort zone

“The design-driven process itself has been experienced as a challenging way of working. Creative workshops have been the tool and setting, a kind of platform on which to build shared understanding and shared knowledge. In the early phase of the project, workshops served participants in getting to know each other, getting to know the subject area and, further, becoming familiar with the ways of working (creative practices). Design-driven processes and creative practices were not familiar to all participants. “Why are we doing this activity?” was a comment heard many times during workshops or after the sessions. The designers who work in the project did most of the planning work and facilitation of the workshops. As a result, the activities remained closer to the comfort zone of designers than that of material scientists. Several requests of clarifying the goal of creative activities can be a signal of having pushed material scientists too far outside their professional practices and their own comfort zones.

“It took quite a long time to understand that the project includes two different tempos; the material development advances more slowly than the design concept process. The two tempos caused a lot of discussion and critical comments especially in the third and fourth quarter of the project.


Goals and ambitions

“Setting a shared goal was challenging. Different disciplines had different understandings of the project’s goal. From the designers’ point of view, influencing material properties early on in the process is exactly the aim of a design-driven material innovation process. The designers want to push the boundary and reach high-quality properties that can add value to this new material. Designers bring to the table market- and user-centred viewpoints while simultaneously challenging material scientists to raise their ambitions.

“The other discussion was about the ambitions of the goal: are we aiming for a target that is easy to reach when the project ends or are we challenging ourselves a bit more and aiming for future scenarios which are more ambitious to achieve within the project timeline? Even so, the project goal for us has been quite vague and a shared understanding of what the material innovation was that we were aiming for was still missing, after one year working together. A shared goal helps to cross boundaries. In our case the future scenarios can be understood as boundary objects in the early stage, as “a map” towards a shared goal. Yet the shared goal has not been argued collectively and this caused some frustration for us during the process.


Bridging the gaps

“Knowledge gaps have also existed in the project. When there are deep knowledge gaps between disciplines, a new person is needed, a person with a different knowledge base and skillset than designers’. In unknown material innovation processes an intermediator is needed. In our case the intermediators have been textile engineers who have been needed between material science, industry and designers. Textile engineers are accustomed to communicate with all these fields and therefore they can represent the mediator who can visit different disciplines to create a link between them.”


You can read the full article on our publications page or access it from The Design Journal.