Interview: Professor Paul Rodgers
‘Design pervades everything we do,’ says Paul Rodgers, the AHRC’s new Leadership Fellow in Design. ‘From communication, to transport, to the environment, to health… everything! As such it should play a massive role in all research disciplines.’ In the next three years as Leadership Fellow, Paul aims to actively promote and encourage design research across as wide a spectrum as he can: ‘I want to act as an ambassador for design in all aspects of life in the UK.’
Paul thinks that design is particularly well placed to lead today’s massive global challenges because designers, by nature and by necessity, are collaborative and inter-disciplinary. ‘Designers need other people – whether those people are clients, customers, users, or co-workers. It’s in their DNA.’ Designers also challenge pre-conceived ideas and contest assumptions. ‘They are trained not to take things for granted. Not to stick with the status quo but to react against it, provoke it.’ This unconventional way of approaching design is a motivating factor for Paul.
During his tenure at Northumbria University School of Design, he and three colleagues set up a group called the Design Disruption Group which challenged established notions of design. ‘We wanted to explore how design could be practiced, taught and researched in new and innovative ways,’ he says. Working predominately with the third sector, they ran workshops and short projects that showed how problem solving and design-led creative interventions could help individuals, groups, and organisations respond to the challenges they were encountering.
Paul will bring this fresh approach to his role as the AHRC Leadership Fellow in Design, which he sees as having two principal functions. The first is to increase the quality and quantity of design-led proposals that the AHRC receives by acting as a mid-point between academic researchers and the AHRC. ‘I aim to build, develop, and enhance some of the design research that goes on in the UK, which is world-leading, by increasing the number of proposals and consequently the amount of funding.’
The second is to strengthen the research capacity of ECRs (Early Career Researchers – individuals who are either within eight years of being awarded their PhD, or within six years of their first academic appointment), and to help them get a foot on the research ladder. He thinks that this next generation of researchers need encouragement and support, now more than ever: ‘There has been a change in the last 5-10 years,’ he says. ‘There are significantly more challenges and pressures in higher education. Challenges to publish more, to generate more income, to engage with a wider community, as well as to take on teaching and the development that goes with it. And, of course, all of this is regularly audited adding more pressure.’ The danger, he thinks, is that early career researchers become snowed under with teaching and other demands and as a result don’t get involved with research. ‘If we’re not careful, we’re going to lose our ECRs to teaching and administration. Some talented people will be lost to the research world and, more specifically, to the AHRC.’
During his tenure, Paul will also continue his personal research around how design might make positive interventions in health and social care contexts, progressing findings from his recent one-year AHRC Design Research fellowship with Alzheimer Scotland where he worked with people with dementia. His research reflects a new direction that design is taking. ‘Until recently, Design was driven largely by commercial demands – developing more and more products – but there has been a recognition that this can’t go on. A lot of young designers nowadays are much more altruistic and have set up social enterprise companies and charities working with local groups, trying to change things directly, and make life better. They are challenging and changing existing economic and societal models with amazing success.’
The research and support that will be generated during his tenure as AHRC Design Leadership Fellow will give them a further boost which will in turn benefit the wider community in many different areas.