In addition to direct financial support for design, such as grants and subsidies, there are so-called ‘softer’ mechanisms for supporting small business to use design including mentoring, coaching, advisory services, clusters, matchmaking and networks, among others. Hosted by the Valetta 2018 Foundation responsible for the Valletta Capital of Culture initiative and the Valletta Design Cluster, the Design4Innovation partners met to explore non-financial support initiatives for design.

With the Valletta Capital of Culture programme there was an opportunity for Design4Innovation to feature in the programme of events and host a networking event showcasing case studies of small companies successfully using design to innovation from across the partner regions. The event was attended by over 80 people including local stakeholders from small businesses, the design sector, business support organisations and government agencies as well as the Design4Innovation partners and their guest policy-makers. 

The knowledge exchange workshop was hosted in the historic Fort St Angelo overlooking Valletta and the partners shared their experiences of developing, implementing and evaluating non-financial support programmes supporting companies of various profiles to build capacity for design. After presenting a series of good practices to the group, we explored the critical success factors and potential pitfalls associated with design programmes.

Among many, the more important preconditions for success were considered to be:

  • working across the ecosystem;
  • creating a platform that is both digital and enables face-to-face interactions;
  • facilitating matchmaking and ensuring participant readiness;
  • focusing on awareness-raising and capacity building;
  • promoting the results to future beneficiaries and policy-makers;
  • ensuring that programme delivery bodies practice what they preach and use design methods to jointly develop programmes with beneficiaries
  • testing programmes before launch;
  • keeping bureaucracy as light-touch as possible.

The partners, stakeholders and policy-makers also identified a series of potential pitfalls, the most pertinent were considered to be:

  • encouraging the professional design sector to move beyond the silos of their own disciplines to be more interdisciplinary;
  • isolating the added value of a design approach, performing evaluation and demonstrating impact;
  • offering a ‘menu’ of proven intervention options versus keeping programme requirements flexible to enable bespoke options for companies;
  • providing one-off event-based activities versus more strategic long-term engagements;
  • conveying to companies that the outcomes are not predefined but are part of the process of gathering user insights;
  • being beholden to funding cycles.

Based on sharing the insights from programme delivery across eight countries, we identified the lessons and activities we could bring back to our own regions. We also used a 'Design Support Canvas' tool, to plan and visualize design support programmes that are needed in our regions.

EU Structural Funds programmes are the most significant financial and non-financial instrument for SMEs to innovate and grow. Design4Innovation seeks to engage with the Managing Authorities of Structural Funds to integrate design into Operational Programmes for SMEs. After only a year, a number of partners have made significant progress towards this aim.