Design Museum and AHRC launch national net zero research programme

Young creative business people meeting at office.

The Future Observatory is a new national programme of research, debate and training to show how design research can drive Britain’s future prosperity.

Today, in Glasgow, the Design Museum, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) launch Future Observatory. The programme’s mission is to harness design research to accelerate solutions for the most pressing societal issues, from achieving net zero to tackling the housing crisis.

Taking the next steps

In its first foundation year, the Future Observatory programme will:

  • showcase 15 design exchange partnerships between academia and business focused on net zero or related environmental issues
  • publish five reports on regional design ecosystems across the UK
  • host four design researchers in residence at the Design Museum
  • host three public symposia
  • chair three net zero roundtables with designers, academics and policymakers.

Through Future Observatory, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, AHRC, UKRI and the Design Museum are taking the next steps together to achieve the goals set at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26).

Engine for social and technological change

With a new dedicated team, led by Future Observatory Director Justin McGuirk, and using the Design Museum as its hub, the programme brings design researchers together with the partners who can help them have an impact on achieving the nation’s environmental goals.

Using design as its engine, this major new programme aims to set the agenda for social and technological change in Britain.

The Future Observatory public programme activities will include:

  • a series of exhibitions
  • symposia
  • reports
  • resources
  • publications.

Collaborating with industry

The first roundtable event is developed in partnership with the Design Council and will examine net zero in the context of housing and places, making recommendations for areas for innovation. The event will be held Thursday 9 December.

Across the UK, 15 design exchange partnerships will pair academic researchers with non-academic design partners, including small and medium enterprises (SME), and micro, public and third sector organisations.

This is to address challenges, including:

  • decarbonisation
  • waste reduction
  • circular economies.

At the Design Museum, four design researchers in residence will bring live research to public and professional audiences, building on the museum’s long-standing Designers in Residence programme and in conjunction with the ongoing Waste Age exhibition. The first cohort will be:

  • Thomas Aquilina
  • Delfina Fantini van Ditmar
  • Samuel Iliffe
  • Sanne Visser.

Shaping a better future

Clean Growth, Energy and Climate Change Minister Greg Hands said:

The UK is at the forefront of the global innovation race, delivering world-leading solutions to challenges such as climate change and our recovery from the pandemic, and our design expertise is crucial to this.

Today’s launch of the Future Observatory will help unleash the UK’s tremendous strengths in design research, setting the pathway for positive social and technological change in Britain, while ensuring people from all walks of life are at the heart of the innovation process.

Justin McGuirk, Chief Curator at the Design Museum and Director of Future Observatory said:

Future Observatory is a catalyst for bringing design research to life and connecting it to industry and policy-making so that it can have greater impact on the challenges the UK faces. We’re using the power of the Design Museum as a place that brings people together to imagine, debate and hopefully shape a better future.

Outstanding design capability

Ottoline Leyser, CEO, UK Research and Innovation said:

The past 18 months have demonstrated the power of combining expertise from across disciplines and sectors to find innovative solutions for global challenges.

The Future Observatory programme will bring together designers and design researchers with businesses and innovators to address priorities such as net zero. The programme will convene and mobilise leading researchers in design and innovation, informing national design policy and highlighting the UK’s outstanding design capability.

Professor Christopher Smith, Executive Chair, Arts and Humanities Research Council said:

Artists and designers are pivotal to reimagining infrastructures and systems which help us overcome the most pressing challenges of our time, and bringing them alive for individuals and communities.

AHRC is proud to support art, design and practice based research as a key part of our mission, and also the translation of ideas into real and beneficial impact on society.

The Future Observatory will convene the brightest minds in design to help create a future in which everyone can thrive.

Dramatic advances

Lord Mandelson, Chair of the Design Museum said:

With the dramatic advance of science and new technologies, the future is going to look very different from the present. Every part of our lives is going to be affected by the transformations underway and we have to design this future in order to get the maximum benefit for the greatest number of people and improvement to all our lives.

The Future Observatory programme is about where science meets art. We do not predict the future we design and make it for ourselves and this starts with the transition to net zero.

Further information

Future Observatory team


Justin McGuirk

Programme Manager

Liz Thornhill


George Kafka


Lila Boschet

About the Design Researchers in Residence programme:

The Design Researchers in Residence programme builds upon the Design Museum’s Designers in Residence programme that has been running since 2007. The residency exists to provide emerging designers and researchers with time and space away from their regular environment to reflect, research and consider new ways of developing their practice.

As with previous years, the residency programme will culminate with a publication and exhibition, due to open at the Design Museum in June 2022.

Thomas Aquilina is an architect who will investigate the relationship between spatial justice and the climate crisis in London.

Delfina Fantini van Ditmar is a transdisciplinary designer and educator whose research will explore how systems thinking can help designers produce more sustainable outcomes.

Samuel Iliffe is a design engineer who will research the uses of algae to remove harmful pollutants from freshwater bodies.

Sanne Visser is a maker and design researcher whose work will look at hair as both a local waste stream and material resource.

About the 15 Design Exchange partnerships

Future Observatory will showcase the projects of 15 design exchange partnerships, innovation partnerships that pair academic researchers with non-academic design partners. Further project information is outlined below.

Sustainability visualised: net zero at a district council level

University of Hertfordshire and Community Services, St Albans City and District Council.

St Albans City and District Council is implementing sustainability targets where a bewildering array of actions need to successfully interface with the diverse requirements of:

  • council departments
  • local businesses
  • residents.

How can design thinking and data visualization aid this process, helping the council realise its net zero ambitions?

ZeroCity+ an urban game

University of Reading and Urban Transcripts.

A digital urban game that embeds Design Council’s beyond net zero report findings in relation to the societal, behavioural and organisational culture change. It promotes values and impact-led net zero+ goals across stakeholders in public participation for decision-making with co-design workshop approaches.

Interaction and service design of a virtual health hub for patients with cardiovascular disease

Ulster University and Western Health and Social Care Trust (WHSCT): The Cardiac Assessment Unit (CAU).

Embedding design research within healthcare to synthesise complexity and strategically develop a virtual health hub for patients with cardiovascular disease. Specifically, conceptualisation of:

  • a real-time app to manage the flow of patients
  • service design for a cardiology virtual assistant enabling remote patient engagement across hospital sites and diagnostic equipment.

Digital timber for affordable housing

University of Cambridge and PLP Architecture.

This research explores how engineered timber, already the most sustainable way of building, and a natural material that stores carbon in its cells as it grows, can improve the way we live. This is through the design of sustainable, adaptable and flexible interiors for future living.

A double diamond approach towards sustainable manufacturing for repair and reduction of waste

Brunel University and Geo Kingsbury Machine Tools.

This project aims to utilise the double diamond design Method to adopt more sustainable production practices for high value components using Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing (WAAM).

Going circular: Harris Tweed Hebrides repurposing British waste textiles

University of Hertfordshire and Harris Tweed Hebrides.

The project will embed sustainable and circular economy practices amongst Harris Tweed Hebrides’ network of weavers to:

  • deliver net zero wins
  • create new revenue streams through design and manufacture of unique woven products.

There is an emphasis on upskilling, empowering and the rehabilitation of women prisoners.

Accelerating net zero housing at Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council

University of Hertfordshire and Welwyn and Hatfield Borough Council.

A project to transfer specific design methodology to housing schemes to maximise net zero outcomes. In addition to reducing carbon emissions and costs, the project will ensure better thermal comfort and quality of life for housing occupants and irradiation of fuel poverty.

Digital equity through e-waste reduction

University of the Arts London (Creative Computing Institute) and Power to Connect.

This is a collaboration between Power to Connect, a not-for-profit addressing the lack of access to online learning within deprived communities, and UAL’s Creative Computing Institute. The aim is to develop a data wiping solution, ensuring that second-hand devices can be repurposed and given to young people, thereby reducing e-waste and addressing digital inequity.

Sustainability by design: developing a model for design-led local government to achieve net zero by 2030

University of the Arts London (London College of Communication) and Southwark Council.

In order to help councils to tackle the climate emergency in communities and become carbon neutral, we will operate as a ‘designer in government’ in Southwark, London. The aim is to help co-create and co-deliver local policies and services that empower local stakeholders to play their part in achieving net zero by 2030.

Beyond net zero goals: regenerative fashion

University of the Arts London and Elvis & Kresse.

Elvis & Kresse create high quality fashion accessories from rescued waste materials, operating with the highest social and environmental standards. This project documents and supports the company’s climate ambition to become net regenerative by 2030, diversifying their products through regenerative agriculture and regenerative fashion practices within a rural ecosystem.

Making better by design: translating net zero+ in a craft SME context

University of Brighton and Posh Totty Designs.

Net zero+ and UN sustainable goals are excellent global vehicles to promote and deliver sustainability. However, translating them down into practical approaches that SMEs can take is a design challenge. Making better by design will apply university developed community co-design research approaches to translate net zero+ ambitions into a making SME context.

Circular bio-economy and food waste: designing a blueprint for social housing estates

University of Kent and LEAP.

Food waste can become renewable energy and fertiliser. This partnership will exchange technological knowledge and design skills to co-design:

  • a circular bio-economy waste food system (anaerobic digestion, composting and food growing)
  • a blueprint allowing repeatability of this process for a London social housing estate, together with the residents.

Leicester Outdoor Pursuits Centre (LOPC)

De Montfort University and Leicester Outdoor Pursuits Centre.

This project explores concept designs for redeveloping Leicester’s 150-years old LOPC, located on a 15-acre flood plain in the city. Designs will evaluate flood resilient buildings and its activities facilities to achieve LOPC’s ambition for a state-of-the-art site which embeds net zero into all aspects of its operation.

The Value of Nature Based Enterprise

Glasgow School of Art and Glasgow City Council.

The Value of Nature-Based Enterprise partners with Glasgow City Council’s Centre for Civic Innovation to co-evaluate and strategically develop nature-based businesses and social enterprises, launched following a pilot nature-based accelerator. This aims to establish developmental evaluation processes using design-based relational mapping methods to connect and grow Glasgow’s sustainable enterprise eco-system.

Reducing the environmental impact of hospital curtains

Brunel University and Sustainability Division, Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust.

By applying a design thinking approach, the project delivers an innovative solution that reduces CO2 emissions and landfill waste caused by the making and disposal of single-use hospitals’ curtains. The partnership enables the trust sustainability team to gain competences on how design can drive innovation for a sustainable healthcare.

Top image:  Credit: scyther5, Getty Images

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