AbstractLive projects, involving real places, real issues and real users are usually welcomed by art and design students and staff as valuable test beds for learning and research. Live projects release students from the tyranny of the screen and counteract self-referential paper projects by immersing students in the grain and complexity of the physical, social and political world at large. However, live projects also raise a number of issues that have not been widely discussed and which deserve examination. This paper explores ethical dilemmas that arise from sponsored student design projects and reflects on how these can also surface in pro bono live projects. The paper concludes by advocating a framework for good practice informed by staff, student and client feedback, as well as the live projects protocols that have been created by the Innovation Centre at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London.
Since the 1980s, design education has become more outward facing, the traditional field trip and museum visit have been augmented by studio visits, placements, industry mentoring, public installations and live projects. Live projects appear to be an ideal means to provide deep learning when students internalise their learning through experiential education. Most recently conferences such as ‘Architecture LIVE Projects’ in 2012, publications such as Live Projects, Designing with People and A Handbook for Live Projects and the Live Projects Network initiated in 2011 have collated, analysed, debated and advocated architectural live student projects. It is interesting to note that many of these projects are pro bono, in other words, self-funded, or funded at a minimal fee.
Meanwhile some art and design colleges such as Central Saint Martins (CSM), part of University of the Arts London (UAL), have developed commercial models for live projects funded by corporate sponsorship. One of the earliest live projects at CSM, in 1986, on BA Graphic Design, was for new condom packaging, as noted by, Course Leader of BA Graphic Design. In the midst of the AIDS crisis the project had both commercial potential and a clear social imperative. For reasons discussed below, live sponsored projects have since proliferated at CSM particularly in graphic design, product and industrial design, and textiles and fashion. Looking across the board, currently, there seem to be two different cultures at play, an entrepreneurial culture as exemplified by CSM and a pro bono culture in many architecture schools and departments. Pro bono as a term is an abbreviation of pro bono public, a term coined to describe professional work undertaken for a reduced or nil fee as a public service. Dr. Mel Dodd, Programme Director, the Spatial Practices Programme at CSM, suggests that the architectural culture of seeking a minimum fee, or no fee, is related to a particular view of architecture as a service. She suggests that as an architect, urbanist or town planner, you are positioned as an agent delivering a process against a professional backdrop and ethical frameworks comprised of codes of conduct, duties of care to the public and professional ethical liabilities. Dodd asserts that architecture is, in this way, not unlike medicine or law, meaning the service model is stronger that the commercial model. By contrast, Dodd speculates that product design and graphic design typically produce artifacts to sell through commercial markets and they would therefore have a stronger link to commercial culture. There is certainly a great deal of commercial expertise among staff in product design and graphic design at CSM. However the curricula in those practices at CSM are driven by social, political and environmental concerns, not solely instrumental or commercial goals, which suggests that the impetus sustaining the long history of sponsored projects at CSM in these subject areas cannot be accounted for by their commercial market context alone. This paper argues that the CSM approach to design innovation and education is a key driver in the development of a culture of live sponsored projects.
Dani, Former Head of the Innovation Centre at CSM observes that the entrepreneurial culture at the college is quite distinctive and suggests that it emerged as a response to financial deficits deriving from the break up of the Inner London Education Authority in 1990. Against a climate of economic insecurity pioneered the Innovation Centre to bring in ‘third leg’ funding. Third leg funding is defined as income from non-governmental sources. The Innovation Centre has grown and evolved and stands firm in its ethical stance says, “Our students create value. It outrages me that any commercial business should think that it’s appropriate for student fees to subsidize their business. It is unethical to give student expertise away to commercial business.”
This paper will examine the ethical dilemmas of sponsored projects and their implications for, or parallels with, ethical dilemmas in pro bono projects through an inclusive approach taken in MA Narrative Environments in the Spatial Practices Programme at CSM. The MA was launched in 2003 at the request of the creative industries looking for practitioners who could collaborate across subject areas in the design of content-driven spaces and the design of visitor experiences. It examines and practices a pluralistic approach to the “social production of space”. It was the first multidisciplinary course in the UK that brought together architects, graphic designers, interaction designers and curators to work in non-hierarchical multidisciplinary teams. Having both architects and designers enrolled in, and teaching on the MA, the course has found itself doing both minimal fee student projects for councils such as the London Borough of Redbridge, and sponsored projects for multinational corporations such as Arup, Beiersdorf, Cisco and Google. Students have also worked on sponsored cultural projects with Southbank, Arts Council England, Share Academy and the National Trust.
This paper takes the definition of live projects from Live Projects Network website:
A live project comprises the negotiation of a brief, timescale, budget and product between an educational organisation and an external collaborator for their mutual benefit. The project must be structured to ensure that students gain learning that is relevant to their educational development.
This paper presents an analysis and critical evaluation of the way live student projects are brokered, managed and taught at CSM. Reflections were gathered from a sample of all parties involved: university managers, sponsors, academics and students in order to get a multidimensional perspective and identify key ethical dilemmas. Semi-structured, individual interviews were conducted with three university managers at CSM, one of the CSM legal team and four academics who have considerable experience of managing and teaching live student projects at CSM. The two live project sponsors, one from the corporate world and one from the cultural industries were also interviewed individually, one face to face and one over email. All individual face-to-face interviews were recorded on audio files to ensure accurate data collection and the audio files were later transcribed by the researcher. Ethical clearance was obtained from UAL and that interviewees were happy to be quoted directly and named. They had the opportunity to see this paper.
Thirty-four postgraduate design students provided anonymous written reflections in response to a set of open questions posed by the researcher to the group as a whole. The students in question had backgrounds in architecture, spatial design, graphic design, motion graphics, interaction design, curation, writing and marketing and were all enrolled on the MA Narrative Environments at the time of the interview. The interviews and questionnaire were undertaken in 2014.
The analysis is supported by reference to four projects undertaken with different sponsors from 2013-15. The sponsors were Arup, Beiersdorf, The National Trust and Vision Redbridge. These sponsors were chosen because they represent a range of commercial, cultural and social interests and consequently reflect a diversity of potential partners that are attracted to universities from the ‘outside world’. Images of the projects produced are available on the course website.
The research methodology is derived from the question: what does it mean to be ethical? The approach here looks at how we might act to protect all parties, provide fair benefits to all parties and safeguard creative autonomy. The methodology here can be described as an applied ethics or ethics of practice. It takes shape from a post-humanist-informed consequentialist approach to ethics. This approach maintains a poststructuralist position asserting the complex relational conditions of actions and their consequences do not allow for fixed rules but an ethical stance comprises of considering how your actions will impact others in any given context. As a result, this paper does not provide a set of rules but rather concludes with advocating a framework for practice through which different dilemmas can be made explicit and acted upon as they arise.
The entrepreneurial culture at Central Saint Martins
As briefly described above the entrepreneurial culture at CSM gathered pace in 1990s when the newly appointed Rector, John Mackenzie, arrived amidst an education funding crisis and set in motion an entrepreneurial culture. The then Head of CSM, Margaret Buck, was not unnerved by entrepreneurialism. She had a high expectation of the College’s standing and the capabilities of its staff and students. Buck recognised the income-led model of internal funding, already established at the college, was an ideal mechanism to grow an entrepreneurial culture. In the income-led model, funding follows the students and budgets are devolved to courses according to the number of students recruited. Sponsorship funds follow the devolved budget structures and create incentives for course leaders to run live projects because sponsorship enables educational opportunities that constrained university budgets would not otherwise allow established a very clear practical and procedural position for the Innovation Centre ‘We earn money, we don’t spend it’. The Innovation Centre team has particular skills, negotiating fees for example, and the academics are subject specialists who set creative and critical challenges to students. Some individual course leaders attract sponsored projects but all are processed through the Centre’s legal, financial, operational and ethical protocol.
The operational framework, originated by the Innovation Centre team, is now at the forefront of the shift to create a closer relationship between universities and businesses in the UK. Government has been promoting stronger links between Higher Education and industry for some time through schemes such as Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs) launched in 2003, to stimulate to commercial innovation. Collaboration between academia and business is currently specified as a requirement in many UK and EU research grants and economic and societal benefits are seen as intertwined. There is a great deal of money at stake from intellectual property sales; £84m was generated directly by intellectual property sales from universities in the UK in 2009/10. However, since the report in 1983, scientists in particular, have expressed worries about conflicts of interest around the commercial control and patenting of knowledge in universities.
In respect of this issue CSM has established a student-centred contracts protocol that is unusual as intellectual property is assigned to students for their work, not, as in many cases, owned by the university or the industry sponsor or client. This means students benefit financially if their work is developed commercially. The protocol also establishes clear mutual responsibilities, covers non-disclosure agreements, financial procedures, project methods, timelines and agreed deliverables, so through a series of back to back agreements CSM can be assured students’ interests are protected, and the client can then be assured that the chain goes right through to the students.
The ethical question may arise, is the college surrendering to market forces? The assumption here being that market forces prioritise economic profit above social, environmental or political concerns which in turn leads to a degraded environment and an unfair, divided society. CSM would say that it is not surrendering to market forces, but responding to them with a clear sense of purpose. The Innovation Centre is making money for educational benefit says, “a big bit of my soul would have died if I was just making money for shareholders”. The College’s primary educational aim is not to design commodities purely for commercial exchange. The intention is to generate artifacts, environments and strategies that bring about a more equitable and resilient world. By implication, and sometimes explicitly, the College’s design practices critique and contextualise market-based values.
In terms of the process of brokering live projects, the Innovation Centre is normally the first filter for inquiries and their staff need to make robust judgments as to whether the partnership is suitable. CSM does not work with the arms, gambling, tobacco or sex industries or companies that are not offering a genuine learning opportunity to students. In practice there is no preference for big brands that don’t necessarily bring interesting educational projects or large budgets. It is worth noting here that although it is often assumed commercial clients may want to exploit students as cheap labour, it may equally be cash-strapped council departments or charities that are seeking cheap labour being more focused on reducing costs than commercial companies. Unlike commercial businesses, such organisations might not have come to CSM through choice. Crucial judgments need to be made here, not all social projects are fit as live student projects.
Eimear Byrne, from the Innovation Centre, explains she has external clients and internal clients. She matches sponsors with courses and always aims to allocate them fairly across the college although it is harder to match a commercial sponsor with fine art, for example, than with design. It is worth noting that business managers also work to develop long-term client relationships, graduate consultancy, applications for Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, and collaborative research & Development. As an ethical principle Byrne ensures student learning is always at the heart of what is done.
Monica Hundal, also from the Innovation Centre, adds that in the early days, clients sought out CSM for brand alignment and, as business people, the Innovation Centre staff were aware that brand has value and it was sound business practice to charge for brand association to cover the operational costs of the project. Hundal explains that in the last 10 years the CSM client base has diversified. More corporations now understand design can provide benefits beyond branding and communications and are seeking inspiration, to source talent, new product ideas, insights into the dynamics of place and insights into social trends. As a result the IC has attracted sponsorship from management consultancies, the IT industry, the finance industry, construction industries, who are all coming for different reasons but usually seeking intellectual capacity beyond branding. The evolving market has required that the Innovation Centre team continuously work to refine the protocol and their efforts have needed to be carefully aligned with development and change in design curricula and real world design practice, which when considered together has enabled students to take their thinking into new directions, collaborating with other disciplines, developing research, services and strategies and reaching beyond an artifact output such as a dress, a table or a poster.
The trend in broader cross-disciplinary application of design includes social design projects where pro bono projects sit. Clients include local government, community groups, charities or NGOs. There is a growing staff and student appetite for such projects, however these projects are more difficult to fund. They also tend to take longer to develop as they include an extended period of trust building among the communities in question and the development of strategies to ensure meaningful legacy after the students have left.
Many ethical questions arise about establishing protocols of social engagement in community projects. How can such projects avoid paternalistic approaches that reinforce a hierarchy of professional expertise over citizen knowledge? Indeed students cannot be described as authorised professionals so their status as experts and their competence is in question. How can staff be sure that students will not exacerbate existing frictions? How do students and staff resist taking a voyeuristic or patronizing position? How do students and staff avoid raising false expectations among users or inhabitants about what can be achieved? How are students and staff mindful not to exploit users in order to serve the university or produce a striking portfolio?
Interestingly, many sponsored live projects in the MA Narrative Environments face the same questions because the MA’s spatial propositions are developed, in the first place, through research not only into the physical attributes and history of place but at the same time, and of equal or sometimes more importance, students conduct research into users’ needs and desires and go on to analyse these in relation to users’ specific geographic, economic and political contexts. On the MA a range of social research techniques are introduced to the students that aim to produce a sense of empathy so that students can produce design propositions that reflect the user’s perspective. For example, the National Trust, which has sponsored projects since 2011, asked the students in 2013-14 to research and contribute to the strategic vision for Rainham Hall, an historic property opening to the public in the Autumn of 2015. Students conducted in-depth social research through a range of methods, informed by several sources including ethnography, behavioural psychology, invitational interaction design, user experience research, and the college research code of ethics on social engagement evolved from an ethics of care.
Students also use playful and experimental methods of dérive and détournement associated with critical art practice. The questions outlined above are highly contentious and some discussions of the complex ethical issues emerging from socially engaged architectural live projects have been published recently. This is an important debate to continue in order to underpin the educational principles, practice and open up questions about the role of the designer in professional practice. As socially engaged co-design projects proliferate, new thinking is also needed on the division of intellectual property and the protocol for acknowledgement and credit in collaborative ventures. These questions are further complicated by the accelerating trend for more sharing of information through digital networks.
Returning to live sponsored projects, another ethical question that can be raised is whether these projects undercut design industries, taking work from our own graduates. At CSM the Innovation Centre staff explain to sponsors the College is not a design agency. Students are not CSM employees and the student learning experience is paramount. This is clearly understood and expressed by Arup who have been partnering with and sponsoring the MA Narrative Environments since 2004. Josef Hargrave from Arup Foresight + Research + Innovation says Arup would commission from an agency in a very different way.
We sponsor MANE for knowledge exchange. Arup would commission an agency to express the business’s perspective. An agency would have established methods of processing their thoughts and a standard kind of output that they sell. There would be less dialogue around how they do it. Arup Foresight + Research + Innovation are a group of professionals who work in a very particular space, relatively unique in the industry and a limited pool globally in the service they offer when it comes to foresight. The live projects with CSM present an opportunity to get a unique collective of students in MANE from architects to designers to curators who can give their views on the context of our problems. In the same way that we’re not replicable so MANE offers a very distinctive, international and world class group of minds. (Josef Hargrave).
Arup and the MA Narrative Environments have developed a model of practice that can be described as joint exploration and knowledge exchange. Arup introduce themes, forecasting techniques and economic contexts while students use these to explore narrative methods and visual means to express concepts. Arup and MA staff co-write the brief which applies future forecasts to different spatial typologies and specific target audiences. Students research and interpret the forecasts to create audio-visual narrative scenarios.
The Arup forecasting project model differs from a straightforward project consultancy for a commercial client like Beiersdorf, the manufacturers of Nivea, who, as a consumer product driven company, have one main goal, maximizing shareholder value. Staff, Arup and Beiersdorf worked together on such a project and students were paid under tailored student consultancy contracts. The brief involved envisioning the future of personal care developing new scenarios for product use. Although students were contracted as consultants they still learned a great deal about the goals and workings of highly commercial companies that contributed to their preparation for working life after graduation. However it is important to distinguish this kind of consultancy from the Arup knowledge exchange model.
Arup has different mission and business ethic from Beiersdorf. Arup is not just about making money but also shaping a better world and sponsors MANE for the process rather than just the outcomes. (Josef Hargrave)
The National Trust project mentioned above is also a knowledge exchange model.
I think live student projects only work if they benefit all parties involved — i.e. the client and the students, and the course and the teaching staff. I’m comfortable with the relationship between National Trust and MA Narrative Environments, because not only do National Trust pay a fee to set a project each year, but they also provide expertise in visitor experience, curation, operations, audience insight etc. National Trust is also very good at openly acknowledging MA input in the projects they have collaborated on… would say that the exciting vision we have today for Rainham Hall, was hugely influenced by the live student project we did with the MA Narrative Environments (Sam Willis of the National Trust).
Willis thinks paying a fee to do a live student project makes clients value the project more. She thinks a key benefit for clients of live student projects is fresh insight. She values the way design students always approach projects differently from the way a client would tackle it themselves.
An example of a minimal fee live project on MANE in 2013/14 was for Vision Redbridge, part of Redbridge Council, whose mission is to find creative ways for arts and culture to revitalise the area. A team of five students from backgrounds urban design, architecture, spatial design, graphic design, performance design and cultural planning, researched the cultural identity of Ilford High Road, reported insights and proposed an overarching creative direction to arts groups, planners and members of the council for debate and modification. Regardless of the actual proposition the project acted as a catalyst bringing together interested groups that would not otherwise have had reason or clear opportunity to meet. This project is not unlike the Arup model in that the process was as important as the outcomes.
In all cases above, although they range from being outright commercial consultancy to minimal fee projects, the projects are co-written with sponsors to ensure clear learning goals and learning opportunities, tangible and non-tangible outcomes and anticipated legacy. This requires significant time, effort and expertise from staff. The sponsors, the college and students sign contracts of agreement and student IP is explicit. Although this brings a level of bureaucracy to the process the protocol serves as ethics in practice safeguarding the interests of all concerned and, when managed well in the studio, enabling creativity in complex contexts.
Impacts on learning and teaching
In the process of setting up live projects at CSM, senior academics enter the negotiation with the client and the IC, as the second filter. The academic has the final decision about whether to do the project or not. Thus the locus of power resides in the first place with the college negotiation team and ultimately with the academic. The agreement is enshrined in the contract and brief so should external partners later, during the course of the project, attempt to exert undue pressure or change the brief the academics can refer back to the legal documents. This is applies to both commercial and pro bono live project partnerships. A possible question arises here about the involvement of students at the negotiation stage and whether the academic mediator may potentially disempower students. However it should be remembered that students, by virtue of being students, do not have the legal status to negotiate contracts on behalf of the university. Furthermore the university has a duty of care for the students’ education and wellbeing. By providing a stable, negotiated framework within the educational institution the students are empowered to act in an enriched learning experience through engagement with outside organisations. Although live projects have real world elements it is the educational framework that has priority.
During the negotiation of the brief the lead academic ensures the project presents their students with an opportunity to get valuable insights into industry practice or, in the case of pro bono projects, to get insights into socio-political spatial dynamics. The academics seek open briefs that mesh with their curriculum requirements and, most importantly, support creative autonomy. The potential for student learning is paramount.
Not all academics are keen to do live projects and there is some controversy about the trend to expand academics’ job descriptions to include applying for, or being involved in third leg funding. There is no doubt an additional workload but the sponsorship funds should cover the additional hours. It is crucial that an academic manages the clients throughout the project, organising all aspects of students’ presentations and, for example, dealing with contradictory advice. Academics brief clients on project conduct for example, how to respond in a crit. Good partners, whether they are commercial or not, don’t impose their view but seek and question the logic in the student views. Students may be overawed by famous brand names or hear the praise of a client looking for a ‘safe’ design proposition and overlook the critical advice of the tutors. The tutors bear the responsibility to sustain a critical perspective and creative experimental approach and educational autonomy in what can be a complex commercial, and/or, a sensitive political situation. This takes time and commitment.
Academics also set up short term and long-term student expectations about the scope and the risks of the projects and explain how the college manages the projects and protects them. Careful consideration and agreement of the goals and methods of the brief can reduce later misunderstandings but constant engagement with the process is always necessary. This is also true of pro bono projects where typically a large number of community stakeholders can create a significant communications workload for the tutors. Community based projects with potentially conflicting interests also require considerable expertise in consensus building. Questions arise about the viability of social projects if sufficient funds to cover the additional work are not available. In both sponsored and pro bono projects partners and sponsors can forget what they’ve asked for, or they can ask for more. On these occasions the academic needs to remind the client/partner of the project expectations and limitations.
Despite the additional demands outlined above most tutors are keen to work on live sponsored and pro bono projects. Staff participation is always optional on the MA Narrative Environments. Staff say they learn a great deal in the multidirectional knowledge exchange but they reflect that there are dangers that part-time tutors, working as designers themselves, might provide valuable professional consultancy directly to a client which is not part of the contract nor is it in the tutors’ benefit. Tutors say live projects present an opportunity to both staff and students to explore how design can be applied beyond its traditional functions and prompt questions and speculation about the future of design, the future of the role of the designer and other ways that design might be taught. Inigo Minns, MA tutor says, “it is a joy to see the concepts implemented and making a difference to the world”.
Nick Rhodes, Programme Director of Product, Ceramic and Industrial Design at CSM has been running live projects for commercial and not-for-profit clients since 1995.
We embed sponsored projects in our curriculum, all students have equal access, so it doesn’t impact students with caring responsibilities. The bulk of clients come to us for insight. NGOs and corporations understand that insight work can offer in views that they can’t get in any other way. They come to us because our international, cosmopolitan cohort students, in their 20s, can provide a picture of markets for 3-5 years from now. (Nick Rhodes)
What are the benefits of live sponsored projects to students? Josef Hargrave of Arup sees, ‘a massive benefit in preparing students for working life. When you have worked for big company it gives you confidence and motivation that there is money to be made in creative spaces’. Staff reflect that these projects enable students to learn how business people communicate and conduct themselves and how complex community projects can be. Tutors also think sponsored projects highlight client/designer relationships, a key aspect of design education that is often overlooked. Students IP contracts demonstrate to students the commercial value of their work and the real potential to have their work purchased and produced. Staff value live projects because students can extend their knowledge in real world contexts beyond theory, whether they are working with a luxury brand or a local council they are ‘learning through doing’. Students do need to be reminded, however, that live projects are conducted from the relative ‘safety’ of well-built educational infrastructures and it is only after graduation, in employment, that they will gradually acquire a fuller knowledge and understanding of the demands of the industries.
As part of this research, 34 students on MA Narrative Environments were asked to identify pros and cons of eight live projects undertaken in 2013-14 and the key responses are listed below.
Students here perceive more advantages than disadvantages and do not comment directly on ethical issues. They appear to embrace time, budget and practical constraints and the potential to actually construct ideas that otherwise remain concepts. Their comments show a strong sense that live projects feel more complete. They are also acutely aware of the networking potential and indeed over the 12 year lifetime of the MA Narrative Environments, the live projects have led to placements in diverse industries and community projects and, to freelance and permanent employment for our graduates.
The disadvantages mentioned by students indicate that they are beginning to become aware of economic constraints and conflicting priorities and hierarchies in business. This shows that the broader agenda is raised and that students are alerted the realities of professional practice so when they graduate they are more prepared for such constraints.
In envisioning a framework for an ethics of practice in live projects the discussion above suggests three fundamental planks, firstly a vision of one’s purpose, secondly the development of a system for negotiating and protecting all parties, thirdly an approach to managing the project that sustains exploratory student learning and critical thinking. At CSM the Innovation Centre has put student learning at the centre of all entrepreneurial activities and this has provided a robust logic for legal and financial protocols that protect the students, the academics, the university and the clients. Crucial is the two-step filter whereby discussions and negotiations among academics and potential clients can ensure only those projects that match the learning goals of the courses are developed. Initial ethical issues are identified as part of the negotiation process, discussed and resolved within the protocol. The co-writing of the brief also helps a deeper exchange between the academic and the client and establishes their roles, shared expectations, mutual responsibilities and contractual obligations. Once the contract and brief are agreed and completed the academic manager and staff team carry the responsibility for implementing the agreements enshrining educational autonomy and/or experimental approaches through educational practice.
This paper offers some reflections on further research: as live projects proliferate, it would be useful to have more debate among academics on the issues of managing both corporate sponsored live projects and pro bono live projects within or outside established protocols. As mentioned above, there is also a need to discuss methods of user engagement, the legal and financial questions around co-design and the implications of growing trends in digital knowledge sharing. The open self-reflexive model at CSM seems to be promising in that it can incorporate diverse projects, it takes account and engages in debate about the nature of design and the role of the designer and it participates in the discourse on, and controversies about, the role and responsibilities of universities in relation to industry and social justice.