These days it’s all about transparency

This year marks Sicco Santema’s 25th anniversary as Professor of Marketing and Supply Management at TU Delft’s Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering. Over the past quarter of a century, Santema has witnessed many changes in the field of industrial design. We shared a conversation about innovation, co-operation, and a new type of transparency which is changing everything.

‘Networked innovation’ – the idea that companies are much better able to innovate if they do so in collaboration with customers, suppliers and other businesses – has been the common thread running through Sicco Santema’s academic career. He believes in supply chain integration and smart co-operation from which all partners demonstrably benefit, as opposed to an egocentric approach of ‘putting yourself first’.

Santema obtained his doctorate from Eindhoven University of Technology in 1991, and on 15 March 1992 was appointed as professor at TU Delft. In those days, the company that designed a product was generally also responsible for manufacturing and selling it. But today, the big brands have become ‘integrators’ – that is, companies that integrate components sourced from their network of suppliers to form an end product or service. This development has radically changed the task of the designer. “Designers nowadays are a far more important part of their eco-system than when I was starting out. Learning to cooperate more effectively starts at the design stage. Now, as the designer, you have to know what value a particular supplier adds to a product or service and that tells you what your actual design space is. Since you ultimately realise the product or service together, why not also design it together?”

Santema illustrates his meaning with an example. “Twenty-five years ago, wing mirrors on cars were made by a designer from start to finish, including determining the best means of securing them to the vehicle. In modern cars, there are now between four and 16 small electric motors in the wing mirror, as well as a ball-and-socket joint enabling it to be folded back. The designer is not going to make any changes to these elements. Moreover, rotatability and the inclusion of these motors are now integral parts of a wing mirror’s design.”

This does not necessarily mean that designers now have less creative freedom. “Although certain aspects are fixed and cannot be changed, a considerable degree of freedom remains. Here I’ll steal a line from Jules Deelder: ‘Even within the limits of the possible, the possibilities are limitless.’ We teach designers to ‘think outside the box’, but that is not to say that there is no box. What it really means is: ‘learn to think within a different box’.”

Once everything becomes transparent, do we still need contracts?

Networked innovation, the core of Santema’s work, is also prone to change. In particular, Santema notes an important development that has confounded all of the old economic laws, namely information transparency – largely thanks to the rise of the internet. “The economy had always been founded on both opportunism and information disparity. I know something that you do not and therefore we can do business together. But now with the internet and transparency, we find ourselves in a world where, in theory, everyone can know everything. For example, comparison websites provide information on all the available options on the market. This enables me to make my own choices. The same goes for knowledge – existing knowledge, at least. It has become a commodity: a readily available bulk product. You can learn about Newton’s laws anywhere for free, should you wish to. With this in mind, around the year 2000 we began experimenting with e-learning: transferring knowledge via the internet. It was a fascinating and successful experiment, but we were a little ahead of our time.”

“In recent years, things have started to get interesting again. Consider, if all the traditional economic laws are based on a lack of transparency in markets, and the internet has made everything transparent, do those laws still apply? In theory, a contract between two parties is intended to regulate the intransparency between them. But once everything becomes transparent, do we still need contracts? What role do patents have left to play? And what does all this signify for partnerships and design processes? These are the big questions for the future.”

For Santema, transparency extends far beyond the internet alone. If the basis of co-operation between companies in the future is to be open rather than closed, everyone will profit from it. One example is the aviation industry, where Santema is currently doing a significant amount of work, including in the European PASSME project. “The biggest breakthrough on the PASSME project is looking at travel from the passenger’s point of view: from the perspective of the ‘passenger journey’. It suddenly dawns on you that dragging suitcases around contributes nothing positive to the passenger’s experience. Rather, it is dictated by the interests of the parties in the chain. In the future, suitcases will be transported directly from door to door. As a passenger, you will no longer take them with you, but instead drop them off at a supermarket on the way to the airport and they will be ready and waiting for you on your arrival at your hotel. We asked ourselves: who else has point-to-point contact? And the answer is: mail order companies. They prove to be capable of transporting packages from one postcode to another very efficiently, so why not suitcases?  Suitcases will therefore simply travel on planes and lorries that are already in service, so there is no additional environmental impact either.

“This is again based on the concept of transparency. As a passenger, I travel from one known location to another known location. All the various storage places that I pass through when I fly have completely lost sight of the points of departure and arrival. Airline companies take the suitcases from the passengers and no-one knows what happens to them next: it is the opposite of transparent. Whereas if you purchase a product online, you can check the location of your package every step of the way. Why then should transporting suitcases be so cumbersome and non-transparent? Conveying suitcases in this way can deliver a time saving of up to an hour. A start-up has already been established that is making this a reality. We are experimenting intensively with the concept. Right now, a return ticket for your suitcase within Europe costs 60 euros. And of course the process is completely transparent.”

Santema is looking towards the coming years with eager anticipation. “Transparency is going to bring many wonderful new challenges for designers. Working together transparently: that was the objective all along.”