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Mind the Gap - Yuan Lu

Eindhoven’s reputation for design excellence owes much to the leading-edge Industrial Design department at the city’s technical University – the TU/e. One of the professors driving innovation there is Yuan Lu, who brings industrial perspective to shape creative talent. Her work in the Business Process Design group ensures that students can navigate the interface where technology, engineering and design meet business. “Our primary task”, she explains “is teaching how to turn creative ideas into business innovation opportunities”.

Lu is proud of the department’s pioneering profile. “It’s one of the first in the world to say that design is the integration of user, business and technology”, she says. It was established in 2001 to meet local industry’s need for a new type of design engineer – opportunity seeking, experimental and innovative; and being located in the Brainport region, the focus was on intelligent technology. The Business Design group was started a few years later with the realisation that even the best designer won’t make an impact if they’re only good at ‘creative’. “Design is a cross disciplinary field” Lu explains. “You can’t do just design, you need to understand the technology, the market and the user.”

Lu’s academic career began on an analytical track, with a Masters in mathematics in home country China, followed by another in industrial engineering in Singapore. She worked in the reliability and quality field,

building models to research various aspects of production. “It helped me learn that a successful product is not just about creative ideas,” she says, “but also about the information flow between manufacturer, supplier and client.” Although firmly rooted in an Asian cultural background, when an opportunity came to study at the TU/e, she took the bold decision to move to the Netherlands.

The gamble paid off, and it was during her PhD study here that Lu started to turn towards design. She wanted to get the view upstream, and at the Industrial Design department she was able to integrate her knowledge of new product development processes with their mission to create intelligent systems, products and services. Her biggest challenge was adopting a different researching and teaching style to accommodate the creative design process. “I came from a background of researching a product that already exists,” she says, “here, you have to start from a blank page and ask what is needed - you’re designing from the ground up”.

Lu now feels at home with this open-ended process and believes it’s given her a much broader perspective in her work. She also embraces the university’s mission to use technology to address societal issues, and has chosen to specialise in the field of elderly healthcare and support. Over the past eight years, Lu has worked on both national and international research projects, notably the Eurotech Universities Horizon 2020 project ‘Reach’, and she was recently invited to speak on the subject at the ‘Design for the Aging Society’ project in Taipei.

“This is an area where technology can bring huge benefits” she enthuses, “but what’s important for the designer is how you introduce it and get people to use it.” She recalls a state-of-the art e-healthcare system installed in a local elderly activity centre which wasn’t used correctly because no one fully understood it. She and her students devised colourful information cards which could be used in a game, each explaining a different protocol. Within weeks, staff and residents gained the knowledge necessary to begin using and benefitting from the technology. “We have to figure out that gap,” she stresses. “We don’t need to be domain experts, or nursing experts, but we should be able to put that technology into the context where it interacts with people.”

To get the broadest view, Lu works with a wide variety of stakeholders from community, industry and local government; acting as catalyst to get research projects up and running. She’s built up a network of contacts, and relies on input from everyone from policy makers to care home residents. She explains: “There’s an intrinsic motivation for me to work with people from different fields, to fill the gaps in my knowledge.” She believes Brainport’s collaborative environment brings unique benefits: “It works very well in this societal challenge context because you could never solve these issues alone”.

Lu has worked on numerous elderly care initiatives, and is part of a research teaching squad which sets a group of students to work on an ageing-related project every semester. For example, working with a local care organisation, a recent initiative in the area of mobility and social wellbeing culminated in rolling out a service pilot to elderly people during Dutch Design Week. “That’s a great experience for students,” says Lu, “it’s very encouraging that they get that involvement, and we’ll take what was developed and what we learned and take it further in a PhD study.”

Lu also gains first-hand experience by volunteering at a care home every month. “As a Chinese woman doing a Dutch ageing project, I have to know what I’m talking Pahbootou: Vt nocrennt Voisbseordy will believe me!” she says. “I have to be there and understand what’s going on. I serve the tea and coffee and have a chat with the residents, and that’s important – that’s when I really get to understand the context.”

It is also Lu’s biggest inspiration. She sees the positive change brought about by projects and the potential for more. “If you really want to create something of impact in society, you have to go out and bring change,” she believes. “We can bring change, using design”. Her ultimate ambition is to create an ageing research centre in Eindhoven. With her work bringing her to the attention of industry, design community and public sector organisations both locally and internationally, she thinks it might one day be possible: “I’ve started to get a reputation now”, she says with a smile.