Context variation by design

In a nutshell: Context Variation by Design (CVD) is an approach and mind-set that acknowledges and in fact cherishes complexity, i.e., reality, in order to address contemporary (large scale) issues. More specifically, it uses as a starting point that such large scale issues occur in multiple contexts, e.g. regions, countries, user groups; in other words: use cases. By intentionally sourcing views and insights from these multiple contexts from the start a rich issue analysis and corresponding design space is created. This design space acts as a basis for rich, (more) creative solutions with contextual variations that have benefited from bringing together collective intelligence early on. This as opposed to approaches aiming at an optimal solution for one given context followed by scaling to new contexts, which either results in full or partial redesign, again and again, or creates a severe path dependency based on the initial solution. The latter in practice often means that this ‘upgrade’ for new contexts only constitutes small variations of the initial solution, which do not really meet the needs. All in all, by taking into account different use cases from the start, a more adaptable and adaptive integrated product and business architectures can be developed.

Benefits: The CVD approach and mindset explicitly aims for large scale impact and inclusiveness, because more target groups are involved and reached than just in the initial context. Furthermore it is reasonable to expect that this intentional approach to acknowledge contextual variations and likelihood of scale at the same time will lead to lower end-to-end costs and shorter overall time lines for adoption on a substantial scale.

Because CVD encourages a mindset where the ambition to successfully scale across contextual boundaries becomes more feasible. An informal title that is increasingly used is Design for Scalability or Design for Diversity.

Cooperation: Whereas the design discipline itself stands to gain from this approach, applying CVD-inspired thinking also touches other disciplines, like innovation and project management. We continue to encourage anyone who is interested in collaborating to investigate, apply and refine CVD-thinking to contact us. 

The team working on the CVD theme currently consists of:

The approach has been used, reflected upon and further refined in a number of projects, like Master-graduation assignments and MSc-courses. The list of external research publications until 2019 is shown below. More publications might follow the coming year.
The main publication since then is the actual PhD-thesis, with as main title What Leonardo could mean to us now. A download of the thesis is available here, and a brief interview with the author and 1-page summary here.

If you are interested in reading an article of which the link is not included below, send a request to Wouter Kersten.

  • Full scale inclusiveness: designing solutions for a complex world (workshop paper 2015; presentation on-line,)
  • A multi-context design approach for a maternal health care product (conference paper, Norddesign 2016, 10-12 August, Trondheim, Proceedings Vol. 1, pp. 258-267, [paper download])
  • Influence of context variation on quality of solutions: experiences with gasifier stoves (conference paper, Global Conference on Sustainable Manufacturing 14, 2016, 3-5 October, Stellenbosch; published in Procedia Manufacturing, Vol. 8, pp. 487-494
  • Comparing performance of biomass gasifier stoves: influence of a multi-context approach. Published in: Sustainability, Vol 9 (issue 7), link and download
  • Putting the horse in front of the wagon. How a multi-contextual design space successfully addresses complex challenges. Presentation and working paper in Proceedings of RSD6, October 2017, Oslo, Norway.
  • A scalable clean cooking stove matching the cooking habits of Ghana and Uganda. Presented at IEEE GHTC 2018, San Jose (US), 18-21 October 2018, published in Proceedings.
  • Facing complexity through varying clarification of the design task. Published in: FormAkademisk 11 (4), Article 2, page 1-28
  • Kersten, W.C., Diehl, J., van Engelen, J.M.L. 2019. Intentional design for diversity as pathway to scalable sustainability impact. Chapter 16 in: Innovation in Sustainability, Bocken et al, Palgrave, pp. 201-309
  • Kersten, W.C., J.C. Diehl, J.M.L. van Engelen. 2018. Using a multi-context design approach as manifestation of complexity: perceptions and experiences of students in design engineering. Published in: Journal of Design Research. Vol.16 No.3/4, pp.214 - 246
  • Kersten, W.C., Diehl, J.C. van Engelen, J.M.L. 2019. Making frugal innovations more inclusive by embracing complexity. Working paper, version 1. Delft. Available online.