You’re the head of “Index: Design to Improve Life.” How has it changed since its founding in 2002?
Index set out to be a big award for traditional design, but that wasn’t going to happen with me in the lead. We’ve grown organically and shifted the focus away from aesthetics and toward making life better for people all over the world. We began with the design award and have grown to include education programs for teachers, decision makers, and kids. We are now raising the world’s first venture capital fund to invest in Design to Improve Life. The initiatives were just formed in partnership with the Dansk OTC. Together we’ll identify designers and entrepreneurs who need access to capital and we’ll accelerate their great ideas.
After high school you worked as a visual artist before working in arts and culture. How did your background prepare you for the world of sustainable design?
I believe everything is possible and that you make your opportunities—formal education or not. I worked from a very young age—18 years—and it meant that I could do a lot of things that my peers couldn’t. I learned by doing, but sometimes I miss that university degree.
What do you look for in an award recipient, besides a great idea?
In the beginning we were looking at form, material, and color, but now impact is the single-biggest factor: How many people will be helped by this product or design? The new venture capital arm is different in that we’ll focus on proof of concept, the management team, and scalability. These awards and investments will be two independent processes.
You spend a lot of time traveling and lecturing around the world, whether as part of the Global Agenda Council for World Economic Forum, where you were a founding member, or keynoting the Service Design Global Conference in Sweden. How important are these engagements to spreading the Index message?
We all spend at least three months talking to other people, whether it be by Skype, at conferences around the world, or at universities. We need to understand what is happening around us, and this is the most effective way to do that.
Where do you see the greatest area of need right now?
We really need law enforcement across the world in places like West Africa, much of South America, and Asia, where people can be raped, murdered, or assaulted and there is no recourse. The refugee situation is also critical now: People are fleeing a life where nothing is good, and it would be amazing to form a think tank to solve the root of this problem. I also think big pharma needs to be rethought now. Often the person who needs the drugs can’t get them due to cost. All of these problems are about inequality.
If you were to host a dinner party with any product designers, artists, scientists, or innovators, living or dead, who would they be?
I’d love to chat with Beryl Markham, the first female to pilot a plane over Africa. I’d also invite architects, entrepreneurs, and artists including Daan Roosegaarde—an Index Award recipient and current jury member—and the curator of design and architecture at MoMA, Paola Antonelli, who is also on the jury. I’d include Reif Larsen, the author of The Selected Works of T.S. Pivet, which is about the adventures of a 12-year-old mapmaker, as well as behavioral economist, Dan Ariely.
What is the best piece of business advice you ever received?
Do not sue! Early in my career we had a business conflict with a sponsor, and my attorney said, “Sit down and find a solution.” We did just that, and I have a great relationship with those people to this day.
How would you describe your management style?
In the beginning, I was quite controlling, but now I try to lead by example, and I also empower people to do things the way they feel is best. My approach is very Scandinavian: There is no discussion of wages, overtime, or holidays, and people take time off when it works for them.
Is there a part of the world or a specific design community that is producing particularly exciting, game-changing products that will improve people’s lives?
Design-savvy Nordic countries continue to lead, and places like Holland and the U.S. are also very interesting in terms of sustainable innovation. In Norway, we’ve seen service innovation at the main Oslo hospital where the diagnostics of breast cancer have been cut from 12 weeks to just four days. Boston, Silicon Valley, and Denver—particularly the University of Colorado’s College of Arts & Media—are doing fascinating work.