Attendees at an INDEX event in Elsinore, Denmark, center, use an interactive display. (Photo courtesy of Index: Design to Improve Life) 

Kigge Hvid, CEO of INDEX: Design to Improve Life, has an unusual hobby. Whenever she spots a white teacup—and it must be white—she takes a photograph of it. She estimates that white teacups come in more than a million shapes, styles, and finishes. In her eyes, that’s hardly a reason to rejoice. Rather, it’s a call to action: Now is the time, Hvid believes, for designers to redirect their creative energy toward efforts that serve a higher social purpose. “It’s not that we don’t like choice,” she says, referring to the leadership team at INDEX. “We just think one million choices of white teacups must be enough for the next 100 years and that designers and companies should focus on something else.”

INDEX is a Danish nonprofit that oversees the INDEX: Award—the world’s largest international design prize. Conferred biennially, the award goes to recipients in five separate categories: body, community, home, play and learning (formerly just “play”), and work. Each of the five winners receives a prize worth 100,000 euros. Past winners range from global corporations to cash-strapped start-ups. In 2009, the Dutch conglomerate Philips won an award in the home category for the Chulha, a low-smoke cook stove. The 2011 winner in the play category was Hövding, maker of a bicycle helmet that looks like a neck scarf and inflates in the event of an accident. Large or small, INDEX: Award recipients share an ambitious vision of what design can do. “Winning an award can help designers get past the mentality of ‘Yes, but.’ Everyone says they want innovation, but usually they want it at the old price and at no [extra] risk,” says Daan Roosegaarde, a Dutch designer whose firm won the 2013 award in the community category for Smart Highway, a project to create energy-saving motorways.

The Danish government and the City of Copenhagen created INDEX in 2002. The name is an acronym for “international design exhibition,” and initially the mission of the organization was to stage an Oscar-like extravaganza that would show off Denmark’s design prowess while celebrating the cream of international design. But the people appointed to run the exhibition had another idea. The world, in their view, didn’t need yet another style spectacular. So they surveyed roughly a thousand influential figures—designers, policymakers, journalists—to find out what it would take for a new design event to capture the people’s imagination. The response was unequivocal. “What everyone said, in many languages, was ‘Don’t focus on aesthetics. Focus on the power of design to improve life for people,’” Hvid recalls. She and her colleagues successfully lobbied their official sponsors to adopt that vision, and in 2005 the organization launched both INDEX: Award and the INDEX: Award Exhibition.

INDEX has been at the forefront of a sea change in design thinking. Nowadays, most design conferences devote plenty of attention to ethically responsible design. But a decade ago, when INDEX jurors set out to bestow their first round of prizes, the world was very different. Mat Hunter, chief designer at the UK-based Design Council, recalls that most people back then viewed design almost exclusively “in a commercial context, where the goal is to buy and sell more stuff .” Few took seriously the insight that INDEX decided to embrace—that good design is as integral to husbanding the world’s resources and advancing humanitarian causes as it is to making beautiful things.

A Prize with Purpose

To win an INDEX: Award, an innovation must satisfy three criteria: form, impact, and context. First, it must be attractive enough that people will want to use it and to tell others about it (form). Second, it must make life better in some way, and it must have the potential to scale up (impact). And third, it must suit the specific needs and the budget of its intended users (context).

In some cases, evaluating award candidates requires the INDEX: Award jury to favor one criterion over another. A case in point is the Tesla Roadster, which won the INDEX: Award in the play category in 2007—before a single Tesla car had rolled off a showroom floor. Jurors gambled that a high-style electric car aimed at an affluent elite would kick-start a market that more affordable vehicles had failed to ignite. In other words, they emphasized form (and, to some extent, context) over impact. In light of Tesla’s recent success, that decision looks prescient. Yet it could easily have backfired. “When we nominated the Tesla, it had multiple issues. It might never have got out of the garage,” recalls Patrick Frick, a philanthropy and sustainability consultant who serves as an INDEX: Award juror. “But we wanted to highlight to the next generation of designers that an electric car could look really cool and be as desirable as a Ferrari.”


The 2007 Tesla Roadster. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) 

Not all INDEX: Award winners have flourished. Better Place, which sought to build an international network of battery-swapping stations for electric cars, won an INDEX prize in 2009. By 2013, it had collapsed. For INDEX: Award jurors, such outcomes—however disappointing—are preferable to the alternative, which is to applaud an innovation only after it has achieved success. “As designers, we know failing is an inherent part of the process of getting to a better solution,” says Frick.

Over time, jurors hope to give greater weight in their award choices to efforts that approach problems not just from a product angle, but in a systemic way. (Smart Highway, a project that involves rethinking public infrastructure, offers a prime example of such an effort.) Another goal of the jurors is to boost the number of early-stage innovations in the award pool. That way, good ideas will come to light sooner, and even if an award recipient ultimately fails in implementing an idea, other innovators may spot its potential and commercialize it.

From an innovation perspective, a shift from celebrating success to nurturing potential makes considerable sense. A high-profile prize is worth more to an enterprise that struggles to make ends meet than to one that already attracts investor and media attention. Eben Upton, cofounder of Raspberry Pi, which makes inexpensive pocket-sized computers that teach programming skills to children, notes that winning an INDEX prize in 2013 has helped his venture catch the eye of parents and other consumers who make up its target market. “One of the challenges for an organization like [ours] is to create a bridge from the technical press, read by enthusiasts, to the mainstream.”

As the INDEX: Award has become more prominent, its organizers have had to use their resources more wisely. INDEX employs just seven permanent staff members, and it relies on a jury of 12 independent experts to make prize decisions. For the 2013 award cycle, the jury had to sort through 1,022 nominations from 73 countries to arrive at five winners. The award adjudication process is now under review, and the organization is exploring ways to streamline it—the partial use of crowdsourced voting, for example.

Concern about the use of its financial resources, meanwhile, has driven INDEX to apply robust governance provisions to the disbursement of its awards. (One reason for that concern is public accountability: The organization receives more than 40 percent of its funding from the Danish state.) “Initially, we didn’t earmark the prize money, and that had a pretty severe impact,” says Adam von Haffner Paulsen, a director on the permanent staff at INDEX. “Around half the winning designs from the first two [series of] awards no longer exist, because the recipients didn’t put the money toward the winning projects.” For that reason, jurors now direct prize-winning organizations to spend their award money on marketing campaigns, staff recruitment, and prototype construction. Award recipients must also file regular progress reports with INDEX.

Designed for Outreach

INDEX conveys its core mission through a simple tagline: “Inspire. Educate. Engage.” Furthering that mission requires the organization to spread its reach through initiatives that go beyond the INDEX: Award. Through the INDEX: Award Exhibition, for instance, winners and finalists are able to display their design achievements in public venues around the globe. So far, more than 12 million people have attended touring versions of the exhibition.


FreshPaper, a 2013 award winner, developed a compostable container product. (Photo courtesy of Index: Design to Improve Life) 

In addition, INDEX seeks to shape public opinion through collaborations with schools, governments, businesses, and cities. With Design to Improve Life Education, INDEX helps teachers to foster design and problem-solving skills. Through the Design to Improve Life Challenge, the organization has joined with four ministries of the Danish government to encourage students to develop practical solutions to social and environmental quandaries. (The first such challenge, conducted in 2013, focused on climate change.) And in its Design to Improve Life Cities initiative, INDEX works with government officials, businesspeople, and engineers to tackle urban problems through the use of sustainable design. Starting in 2012, for example, the organization undertook a partnership with the city of Guangzhou, China.

INDEX also practices outreach by maintaining a relationship with past winners of its award. Terese Alstin, cofounder of Hövding, observes that sharing a platform with INDEX at design events and touring with the INDEX: Award Exhibition have helped raise her company’s visibility. “For a start-up like ours, without a marketing budget, such opportunities are a great way to spread the word,” she says.

The goal of providing ongoing support to award recipients, coupled with a shift toward highlighting early-stage innovations, has led INDEX to expand its efforts in yet another direction. Through a recently launched initiative called Design to Improve Life Investment, the organization will introduce award finalists to potential mentors, commercial partners, and impact investors. “We began by growing the award and the exhibition. Then we grew education. Now we are starting on impact investment,” says Hvid. “There’s much to learn, but within five years we anticipate the program will be scaled up and working.”

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