Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Design research

Design is a strategic priority area for the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) with design research having much to contribute to the UK economy. AHRC currently funds a £25 million research programme, Future Observatory: Design the Green Transition, aimed at addressing green transition and net zero goals through design interventions.

Partners involved:
Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), Design Museum, Future Observatory

The scope and what we're doing

Design continues to be a strategic priority area for AHRC. This emphasised our commitment to enhanced partnership working with related organisations and bodies.

AHRC’s £25 million Future Observatory: Design the Green Transition programme is the largest publicly funded design research and innovation programme in the UK. Delivered in partnership with the Design Museum, Future Observatory brings together researchers, over 100 higher education institutions and 75 industry and local authority partners across the UK to translate the best design-led research into real-world benefits to support the UK’s transition to net zero and a green economy.

There are four main funding strands for Future Observatory: Design the Green Transition programme:

  • three-year Future Observatory programme at the Design Museum
  • four Green Transition Ecosystems
  • 75 Design Exchange Partnerships
  • 50 Design Accelerators

Each component of the programme will address distinct net zero themes or climate challenges facing the UK.

Why we're doing it

As evidenced by Valuing Design, AHRC’s collaborative scoping study conducted with the Design Council and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in 2014, design research has much to contribute to the UK economy.

AHRC-funded design researchers are contributing meaningfully and impactfully to several issues. Through the Future Observatory: Design the Green Transition programme, we are currently focusing on climate change and net zero. Previously, we have also contributed to areas as varied as:

It is in this collaborative context that the current and future programmes of funding opportunities are being formulated.

Opportunities, support and resources available

Standard (sometimes known as ‘responsive’) funding opportunities are open to a wide range of research and approaches within AHRC’s remit. They operate without formal deadlines, so proposals can be submitted at any time.

We’re keen to point out that theme-specific funding opportunities are not the extent of AHRC support for design research. We’re always happy to see design proposals come in via our standard funding opportunities:

Currently funded projects

View all active design projects funded by AHRC on Gateway to Research.

Through the Future Observatory: Design the Green Transition programme, we are funding projects through the following three programmes.

Design Accelerators

Design Accelerators are small-scale reactive projects that are designed to support engagement between design research and innovation (R&I) projects and diverse private, public and third sector organisations, local communities, and the general public. They will:

  • identify effective routes to commercialisation and adoption through targeted demonstration of high-quality design R&I
  • promote green transition-supportive behaviour change
  • highlight the value of academic design research in addressing real-world, locally relevant challenges arising along the journey to net zero and a green economy

Design Accelerators are to be offered as competitive awards to research organisations that hold AHRC impact acceleration accounts.

Design Exchange Partnerships

Design Exchange Partnerships (DEPs) are three-way collaborative projects that seek to demonstrate tangible impact on local communities, by stimulating the real-world application of high-quality arts and humanities-led research to address challenges related to achieving green transition goals. Each round of the DEPs is based around a specific theme.

DEPs aim to:

  • stimulate strategic partnerships that support career development and the development of hybrid skills
  • increase the diversity of voices and actors consulted in and contributing to addressing the climate crisis
  • enable the development of new products and services that have a positive impact in the real world

Green Transition Ecosystems

Green Transition Ecosystems (GTEs) are large-scale projects that focus on translating the best design-led research into real-world benefits. Capitalising on clusters of design excellence, GTEs will address distinct challenges posed by the climate crisis, including but not limited to realising net zero goals.

Each GTE will identify the green transition challenges it is uniquely able to address, and develop a programme of R&I activity tailored to addressing them through high-quality, multidisciplinary and intersectoral design research.

GTEs aim to:

  • empower the UK design research base to respond to regionally or sectorally significant green transition challenges in agile and collaborative ways
  • embed circularity and sustainability across product, service, strategy and policy design in relation to the identified challenges
  • contribute to increasing design gross value added in the nations and regions of the UK that have seen stagnation or decline
  • realise measurable, green transition-supportive behaviour change across sectors and publics
  • catalyse and foster opportunities for the socially, culturally and environmentally-acceptable commercialisation of design research-led interventions
  • enable and support a greater diversity of voices and perspectives in the design of green transition-supportive interventions, including users and publics
  • create opportunities to build capacity and capability in design research for green transition challenges

Past projects, outcomes and impact

Design Exchange Partnerships pilot round

We funded 15 Design Exchange Partnerships in the 2021 to 2022 pilot round, including:

Digital timber for affordable housing

Research organisation: 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 done through the design of sustainable, adaptable and flexible interiors for future living.

See more details about Digital timber for affordable housing on Gateway to Research.

Beyond net zero goals: regenerative fashion

Research organisation: University of the Arts London and Elvis & Kresse

Elvis & Kresse creates 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.

See more details about Beyond net zero goals: regenerative fashion on Gateway to Research.

Overview of all 15 Design Exchange Partnerships

Design Accelerators round one

We funded nine Design Accelerators in our 2022 to 2023 round one, including:

The Value of Design for Sustainable Housing

Research organisation: University of Huddersfield

This project will engage communities involved in housing (new and refurbishments) to better use design for smart, sustainable housing, and generate value in social housing upgrades in Kirklees and Yorkshire.

Living Labs will help in co-designing what is achievable for a sustainable future.

Aqueous Futures

Research organisation: Lancaster University

This project will demonstrate the value of alternative ways of understanding place, through knowledge exchange activities between design researchers and local stakeholders to support strategies for coastal climate adaptation.

Overview of all nine Design Accelerators

Next Generation Design

In January 2017, AHRC appointed Professor Paul Rodgers as our Priority Area Leadership Fellow for Design.

The aims of this fellowship were to:

  • increase the quantity and quality of design-led research proposals
  • strengthen the research capacity of the next generation of design researchers
  • act as an ambassador for design research across all sectors of UK society
  • use design research as a tool for delivering real and positive social change

Professor Rodgers has led a series of workshops and talks around the country entitled Next Generation Design. The workshops were aimed at early career design researchers and included presentations from:

  • Professor Paul Rodgers
  • AHRC award holders
  • Harry Kerr previously in the AHRC design team
  • host institutions’ research offices

The findings of this fellowship are being used to highlight a number of key roles that design has played in past projects, and how it can be used to great effect in a wide variety of future significant, complex global issues. Examples include health and wellbeing, economic growth, sustainable production and consumption, among others.

This work has highlighted that most design research projects synergistically create more than one type of value, generating an interesting mix of social, cultural, economic, and environmental value.

It has also identified research gaps for the design research community to focus on in future years.

The work has been instrumental in the development of the Future Observatory at the Design Museum.

Design Centres for Doctoral Training

AHRC doesn’t just fund postdoctoral research in design. We understand the importance of fostering talent as early as possible and, to that end, we have previously funded four design-focused Centres for Doctoral Training.

These are consortia that comprise research organisations throughout the country:

Who to contact

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Last updated: 5 February 2024

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