Some of the world's leading entrepreneurship researchers recently gathered for the second time at a conference in Gothenburg to discuss what it means to treat entrepreneurship as a design science. The event was initiated by Henrik Berglund, Associate Professor at the Division of Entrepreneurship and Strategy, Department of Technology Management and Economics at Chalmers.
Entrepreneurship research has traditionally been treated as a science concerned with natural phenomena.
“In the natural sciences, you want to find out how the world is constructed. What kind of mechanisms there are, such as laws of nature, or social mechanisms? For example, ‘people who have greater self-confidence see more business opportunities’ – and the scholars will correlate people's self-confidence with the number of opportunities they identify.”
“Design science, on the other hand, is not about describing nature. Instead, it is about describing artificial systems and how to create artifacts, that is, ‘non-natural’ things that people design for a purpose. A pen does not exist in nature. Someone has made it that way so that you can write with it, carry it in your pocket, manufacture it cheaply and so on.”
Henrik Berglund continues:
“Scientific disciplines such as engineering and architecture are examples of design sciences. We believe that entrepreneurship belongs in this category as well. The purpose of these sciences is to understand how to design artifacts, such as cars or buildings. What are the characteristics of these artifacts? What are effective methods and processes to design them? In design science, researchers often start from the fundamental knowledge provided by the natural sciences and study how this, in combination with human needs, can give rise to new artifacts.”
Useful in practice
Design science research can also more easily be used in teaching as evidenced by the fact that most entrepreneurship courses are based on handbooks written by various practicing entrepreneurs, rather than on the teachers' own research.
“These practice books are often very useful and good, but they are also a bit coarse and based on a limited set of experiences. The advantage we have as researchers is that we can spend five or ten years and think deeply about how things work. In this sense research resembles practice, but involves more and deeper reflection,” says Henrik Berglund.
“In design science, validity is about producing things that are actually useful and workable, rather than ‘corresponding with nature’ as in the natural sciences. Here the question is rather: is it useful? It is a more pragmatic approach.”
"Many researchers feel that the gap between their research
and teaching is disturbing.”
How controversial is it to change to, or rather supplement with, a different scientific approach?
“Here at Chalmers most people think this makes a lot of sense. As they do at most other technical universities. There is also a general trend in this direction. Many researchers feel that the gap between their research and teaching is disturbing.”
More than just decision making
One person who has long advocated for the merits of design science is Professor Saras D. Sarasvathy of Darden School of Business, University of Virginia, USA. She is a former jubilee professor at Chalmers, she is also affiliated with the reputable Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore and has been named one of the world's leading entrepreneurship researchers by Fortune magazine. At the conference, she presented a work detailing design as co-creation.
“The process of co-creating is fascinating. To design relationships, how do we do that? We want to do something together, but that means that we also need to structure our relationship. What is my role, what is your role? Who is bringing what to the table and how will we share the rewards? How can we structure such relationships when there are multiple uncertainties?”
"In the world we live in today, it is not enough
to just study decision making"
Saras Sarasvathy believes that much of management and entrepreneurship research has been driven around the issue of decision making. “How do we make the choice?”, but never asking where the alternatives came from. Someone must have designed the choice set in the first place – and how was that done?
“I see decision making as a subset of design. We go from something quite narrow, like decision making, to design, which is much broader – but also more difficult. In the world we live in today, it is not enough to just study decision making. We need to address these larger aspects. I think the design perspective is much more useful.”
The social opportunities are exciting, says Saras Sarasvathy.
“There is an ongoing democratization of design and innovation. Our students want to discuss things like how to end poverty and deal with climate change. We are all part of solving it – we cannot leave it to a few experts. Students want to talk about it, and policy makers want to know how it works. Even larger companies today have to confront the social aspects of the business.”
Saras Sarasvathy from University of Virginia and Sjoerd Romme from TU Eindhoven.
Creativity as a systematic process
Another participant at the Chalmers conference was Sjoerd Romme from TU Eindhoven in the Netherlands. Originally, he comes from a social science and economics background, but when he started working together with engineers he adopted a different mindset.
“The design methodology is more like how an engineer thinks and acts. It is more problem-oriented, more problem-solving, rather than developing theories and trying to validate them.”
”All breakthrough research starts with some
type of ‘Eureka moment’"
He believes that all good research has a strong design component.
“All breakthrough research starts with some type of ‘Eureka moment’: in the bathtub, in the car when driving, during a conversation at a conference or when you sit with a customer. We rarely cover this creative moment in science.”
“We often want to refer to some kind of rational process, something evidence-based, some kind of basic principle that can explain our insights. But creativity is also a reasonably systematic process – an exploration of different alternatives that you try out. This also means you can learn it and teach it. That is a great advantage of the design methodology,” Sjoerd Romme points out.
Text: Daniel Karlsson
Photo: Pia Aleborg, Daniel Karlsson