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Research Initiatives

Research & PolyU Design

Building on nearly 60 years of history, as design centre in Asia, PolyU Design strives to deliver research through a multidisciplinary approach to help engage with key questions relevant to 8 main discourses within wider fields of interest. Through its position, the School aims to open fields of inquiry that allow for the wider understanding of ‘design thinking’ in relation to scientific impact and social valance.

To this effect, research in PolyU Design generates conceptual and technical resources that shape Hong Kong’s social and material futures. Research is currently organised under three initiatives of interest; Social Design (設計社會學), Design Economy (設計經濟學) and Design Making (設計製造學). These themes synthesise faculty interests, whilst simultaneously serving as strategic instruments for allocating research funds, selecting PhD students, and guiding research conducted by the faculty.

Whereas the Design Making focus builds on the School's legacy, organised under design labs, Design Economy and Social Design set out future and prospective interests.

Research follows a lifecycle model in which initiatives may become labs, at first, before being dissolved at their end of their productive period.


See also: Our History of Research | Design Labs | Research Centre for Future (Caring) Mobility



Initiative 1: Social Design

Key Words Social + Participatory Design
Cross-disciplinary + Collaboration
Co-design + Co-creation
Social Innovation + Social Enterprise
Social Design + Sustainable Development
Co-ordinator Peter Hasdell []

The emergence of social media and the networked society, as exemplified by The Internet of Things, generates huge potentials that reposition design as a means to synthesize emerging social complexities into new constellations that can foster social innovation, new social forms and social design. Design in this context becomes reconfigured as the dynamic interconnections of people, practices, artifacts and their interactions and can be positioned as a relational rather than objectified form of design. Process driven rather than outcome based, design’s potential, in its recombination with both knowledge generation and knowledge transfer processes, (understood in terms of ‘information’), is in providing pathways for innovation in the development of new processes, systems, networked and relational outcomes. Changes in social systems therefore evolve the ways design develops towards these forms of knowledge, collaborative processes and cross-disciplinary practices (Sanders & Stappers 2008). As design disciplines and design schools seek ways to respond to broader social changes, there is a need for new a research praxis to engage design processes in social contexts to contextualise, codify and define this emerging praxis.

Similarly Participatory Design, and the related fields of co-design and co-creation, employ methodologies that involve users and stakeholders within the design process as an iterative process of design development. Used in diverse ways in spatial and other design fields, variations such as participatory planning are a relatively normal part of urban planning where social or collective actions have a determining influence on public spaces and amenities. Often misconstrued as purely design approach, Participatory Design is a “rigorous research methodology” (Spinuzzi 2005) involving a complex system of knowledge generation and co-design processes where the interactions of people, practices, artifacts, interaction and knowledge, steers a course between participants’ tacit knowledge and designers / researchers’ abstract, analytical or technical knowledge.

A tendency in Participatory Design shifts emphasis from the user as a ‘carrier of needs and problems’ to an active ‘non-design expert’ with local knowledge, skills, organisational capabilities and entrepreneurship. The designer-researchers roles become facilitators of specific design knowledge transfer processes. In this reformulation, design is understood as a contextual practice engaging the social working “in an economy of reciprocity” (Janzer & Weinstein 2014), generating design-research processes aimed at social innovation in which social enterprise and knowledge transfer, that can become strategic directives and motivation to instigate and drive social changes through design. This leads to extended definitions of Participatory Design as a “constellation of design initiatives aiming at the construction of socio-material assemblies where social innovation can take place.” (Manzini & Rizzo 2011). Design in this context is a relational process connecting the social process and its associated domain of knowledge; a complex mesh of tangible and intangible factors, social forms and networks, information, contexts and people. Framing design processes and praxis that are adaptable for inter-disciplinary collaboration (horizontal); and for user and designer collaboration (vertical), and able to engage a wide range of different sectors, groups, stakeholders in dynamic communities of practice that can lead to the development of new forms of research praxis.

The Design Ecologies is an open cross-disciplinary research initiative facilitating both a communities of practice approach and extending the school’s capacity to catalyse, generate synergies, seek greater impacts and develop higher profile research foci and projects. This research is by nature cross-disciplinary involving a variety of stakeholders, users and facilitators both within and external to SD, allowing design knowledge to be cross fertilised with other knowledge domains, expertise and capabilities.

This may engender research proposals that focus on the following sectors and fields: Urbanism, Health, Social Enterprise, Hospitality, Cultural Research, Design Education, Environment and community outreach, Social Organisation, Service Design, and, Psychological Well-Being in Design.


Supporting Members:
Prof. Peter Hasdell
Dr Gerhard Bruyns
Prof. Laurent Gutierrez
Benny Leong
Dr Sandy Ng
Prof. Michael Siu


Projects, ongoing research and research papers on Social Design can be found here.



Initiative 2: Design Economy

Key Words Design Business, Innovation, Applied Research, SD Research Community, Industry Collaboration, Research Agenda, Consumer-centric Focus, Research-to-Practice, Practice-to-Research
Co-ordinator Dr Joern Buehring []

This initiative forms part of a broader ambition to create a stronger connection between PolyU Design’s research community and its engagement with industry. By promoting multi-disciplinary, collaborative, and applied research activities, the motivation is to create a greater impact in design business and innovation - of specific interest to academic, social, and business communities.

Why is design business and innovation as a focused approach to research so important? Companies that value design innovate more often, and those who do - innovate more successfully. Moreover, firms that integrate design more strategically within their organisations, experience greater demand for their product, service, experience propositions.

Innovation requires a fast and empathetic approach to research in order to see and act on the nuances that empower better and sustainable futures. To achieve high-impact design solutions, however, researchers, experts, designers and business stakeholders have to work together through e.g. demand definition, fieldwork, analysis, and interpretation. While inquiring about consumer needs, wants, desires and expectations – only together they learn to discover meaning and potential – leading to opportunity visualisation and innovation.

Taking a consumer-centric approach to design business innovation, a research community approach is proposed: Here, like-motivated faculty members engage around a comprehensive and cohesive research agenda by identifying the current gaps in the SD Research and Engagement Innovation System. To be successful, the approach taken needs to ensure that the Design Business and Innovation community conducts research with purpose, relevance and foresight in real-world settings. Specifically, the mission is to:

  • Agree on gaps and priority research areas [applied / basic]
  • To embed research activities in a holistic structure [knowledge, learning, doing, validating]
  • To match up cooperations that allow access to ‘real-world’ settings [via curriculum, tailored projects, and collaboration initiatives]
  • To establish and communicate a clear research profile / direction [internal / external]
  • To produce “research-to-practice” and “practice-to-research” demonstration outputs
  • To focus on accelerating innovation: e.g. application of knowledge to generate economic value through design-driven innovation [e.g. methods, processes, models, frameworks, tools]
  • To transfer knowledge into [economic] value generation by organizations
  • To collaborate with organizations [applied research] where the industry informs the agenda
  • To develop new learning platforms that are multi-disciplinary and team-based [e.g. UBS]


Supporting Members:
Dr Jorn Buhring
Dr Vincie Lee
Dr Sylvia Liu


Projects, ongoing research and research papers on Design Economy can be found here.



Initiative 3: Design Making

Key Words Craft vs Making
Production Typologies
Co-ordinator Dr Clifford Choy []

"Making" can be defined as turning ideas into reality, which involves manipulation of materials into perceivable/tangible form through tools and processes. The context of making can be classified as amateur and professional. While professional making encompasses prototyping and model making and has been an integral part of design practice, amateur making is mostly discussed in an academic context as do-it-yourself (DIY). Atkinson (2006) describes DIY as “self-driven, self-directed amateur design and production activity carried out more closely to the end user of the goods created”, while other describe DIYers as “craft consumer” (Campbell, 2005), “producing-consumer” (Brown, 2008) and "amateur designers and makers" (Jackson, 2010). In fact, “making” implies different consumption behaviour which impacts on product design (e.g. DIY products for a low-income family to enhance the quality of life (Dos Santos, 2010)) as well as professional practice (e.g. interactions between professional and amateur homebuilders (Brown, 2008)).

While DIY is associated with activities being done alone or in small groups in physical proximity, “making” is more appropriately described as “DIY with others” and “DIY with technologies”, thanks to increasing democratisation of knowledge and technologies in recent years. In the past two decades, the Internet has been providing a versatile and free platform for people to connect and share, making “DIY with others” increasingly easy. Nowadays, it is possible for an individual to make something on her own, share a tutorial online to others on how she made it, and another person from another part of the world learns and refines the process to adapt to her own use. We can also order materials/components online through eCommerce websites for us to assemble locally. Two notable areas of development which contribute to “DIY with technologies” are commons-based peer production (Bencher and Nissenbaum, 2006), and digital fabrication (Gershenfeld, 2012). In particular, open source software development (a form of commons-based peer production) leads to free or low-cost high-quality software (e.g. 3D modelling software) which helps individuals to design and make, while digital fabrication offers low-cost machineries for small-scale production or even desktop manufacturing. This facilitates individual who can make to design and innovate, possibly collaborating with people locally and around the world, and providing solutions to niche markets. With crowd-funding and crowd-sourcing and social media, this has been making big changes to how business operates and our innovation ecosystem. Indeed, Hagel, et al (2014) observe the increasing fragmentation of business and innovation, and that there will be an increasing amount of grassroots businesses being enabled and empowered by few large-scale platforms.

Indeed, meanings of “making” to individual, communities and societies are evolving as technologies progress, and are affecting us in our well-being, education, consumption pattern, innovation ecosystem, sustainability, and technological and economic development. While “design thinking” (Dorst, 2011) focuses more on thinking and understanding aspects of design, we define “design making” as one which focuses more on the “making” aspects in design, including the understanding of the ever-evolving meaning of “making” towards individual, communities and societies.


Supporting Members:
Dr Clifford Choy
Daniel Elkin
Benny Leong
Dr Yan Tina Luximon


Projects, ongoing research and research papers on Design Making can be found here.



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