THE NEW MISSION OF DESIGN:
GIVING MEANING TO EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES

For ten years the EPFL+ECAL Lab has been offering a new definition of design research and innovation by combining artistic creativity, scientific knowledge and an ability to measure user impact.

The EPFL+ECAL Lab is known for bringing the Montreux Jazz Festival archives back to life, using virtual reality to retrace watchmaking history with Vacheron Constantin, redefining our relationship with technology objects such as remote controls and opening new prospects for materials such as densified wood. Projects are developed based on emerging technologies in order to explore their potential but also to address major societal challenges – environmental protection, heritage enhancement, social interaction, museums, information and media issues – in short, projects to benefit actual people.

Over ten years, the work of the EPFL+ECAL Lab has been the subject of publications, but above all of some thirty exhibitions in prestigious venues, from Harvard University to the Royal College of Art in London and the American Institute of Architecture. The Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris even devoted a whole room in the Louvre complex to EPFL+ECAL Lab productions for six months.

Behind the stage of these major public events, what goes on in this EPFL Centre, located in the building of its founding partner ECAL? It performs fundamental research on innovation, technology and the role of design. “Information is constantly changing, technologies often have a one-year cycle, while actual meaning lasts much longer”, EPFL+ECAL Lab founder Nicolas Henchoz explains. “Innovation has been polluted by short-lived marketing ploys. Although these magic tricks may seduce and impress once, they quickly wear out and fail to be adopted. The current challenge is to create meaning with emotion and to fit into a social context, allowing innovations to offer a long-term perspective. This is good for businesses by giving them time to secure return on investment, but also for the users who do not relish being unsettled every six months.”

Proof of this fundamental work is given by the Solidarity Network project, in collaboration with Pro Senectute, which aims to strengthen social ties among older people. Nominated for the next Design Preis Schweiz, it reverses the approach of social networks by turning digital media into a tool to enhance interaction between real people. It redefines interface design to reconcile the different generations, as well as the notion of simplicity. By the end of the year, an operational service will be tested thanks to the support of the Leenaards Foundation.

The centre brings together designers, engineers to liaise with the labs offering emerging technologies, architectural expertise to address physical space, and psychology skills to assess user impact. This complementary know-how generates both qualitative and quantitative observations.

The relationship between the various disciplines is given special attention so as to go beyond brainstorming in order to combine different cultures to the best level, and to associate creativity and inspiration with sound science for radically new solutions bringing essential knowledge to build a better future.