Aalto University Design Factory in the eyes of its community

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D4 Julkaistu kehittämis- tai tutkimusraportti tai -selvitys
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This report concerns Aalto University Design Factory (ADF), one of the spearhead projects and first physical manifestations of Aalto University. ADF aims to be a platform for integrative interdisciplinary education, research and industrial collaboration, as well as a catalyst for a culture of experimental and problem-based education to promote better learning outcomes. Since opening its doors in November 2008, ADF has strived to achieve these by providing a non-hierarchical, constantly developing collaboration environment for students, teachers, researchers and business practitioners across hierarchical, professional, and disciplinary boundaries. At the time of the study reported here, the ADF platform has existed for three years, making the time ripe for reflection on how the key principles and ideas behind ADF have manifested themselves. The report presents the findings from a series of interviews conducted in order to map the experiences and perceptions of the ADF environment held by its community members. Explicating these experiences and how the key principles and ideas behind ADF have manifested themselves benefits the development of the ADF both within Aalto and with international collaboration projects. The report is mainly based on the in-depth interviews of 51 ADF community members representing all of the different major, regular ADF community groups in terms of background and positions, supplemented by 177 interviews (screened for clear explicit references to ADF) conducted previously in other research projects and a week of observation of interaction initiations at the ADF Kafis, the café-office-kitchen of the ADF building. The interviews explored the experiences of the community members with an open-ended story-based format in order to remove any influence of the possible biases or presumptions of the interviewers. The analysis was based on grouping interview segments according to thematic similarity, resulting in descriptions of the experienced typical characteristics of interaction, action, support and personal work at the ADF, as well as in the perceived characteristics of the ADF entity itself. The results do not offer proof of whether these perceptions are accurate in an objective sense, but they reflect what the community members themselves perceive to be true. The results thus offer insight on what the users of the ADF value in the environment, why they have chosen to act on such a platform and what the costs and benefits have been for them. Interaction: ADF was perceived to offer great potential for collaboration, especially due to the physical proximity and diversity of its community members. The tight community was experienced as a home base, and integration to the community was described as crucial. Getting to know the staff members and actively participating in events lowered the threshold for further interaction, as did the warm and open atmosphere. However, finding the initial entrance to the community, as well as keeping up the community spirit and welcoming atmosphere were described as somewhat challenging issues. Action: Shared characteristics found in the actions pursued by ADF community groups were perceived to shape the ADF as a whole with informal activities and interaction perceived as crucial success factors promoting a fast pace of interaction and implementation, and open sharing within the community. The community members had in general been active in initiating development in their own work and in collaboration with others. Support: Nearly all interviews contained experiences of receiving either intangible, or concrete support from the ADF community members, especially members of the staff. Receiving support often taking the form of small acts of help and positive reactions, along with positive examples, had sparked enthusiasm and courage in interaction, development, and experimentation and seemed to be particularly significant for students. Personal work: Many of the experiences reported by the community members described the content and qualities of the interviewees’ individual work. Commonly shared features included perceiving one’s work as motivating, conductive to learning, and possessing a high degree of freedom, and undertaking development activities. For many ADF community members, spending time and working at the ADF had helped them in discovering and clarifying the role and goals they wanted to pursue in their careers through exposure to new situations and application opportunities. ADF entity: The experiences reported by the ADF community members related to the ADF entity itself could be roughly divided into three types: perceptions and effects of the ADF physical manifestation, perceptions and effects of the ADF structures, and the role and effects of the ADF within the Aalto University. ADF facilities were frequently noted to support and enable a wide range of activities, interaction, experimentation, and the work of students. Lack of bureaucracy and a high degree of flexibility were perceived as key ADF characteristics in enabling development, while as a downside, some negative experiences were described related to e.g. unclarities and lack of overall flow of information. The present results illustrate an abundance of pursued development activities and interaction at the ADF platform by its community members, although there clearly also remains untapped potential for creating and seizing such opportunities. Indeed, the results offer a glimpse on what has made the platform successful in the eyes of its utilizing community, as well as some insights into further developing the ADF and similar platforms. Especially three features seem pervasive across the different experiences and perceived aspects of the ADF platform: taking the smalls things into consideration in conveying a development-promoting message, creating a critical mass to sustain promoting development, and actualizing development collaboration potential.
Aalto University Design Factory, interdisciplinary education, design education, university-industry collaboration
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