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Collaboration and Creativity: A case study of how design thinking created a cultural cluster in Dublin


Abstract and Figures

Tourism is a rapidly expanding industry with a wide range of economic benefits. Expenditure by tourists visiting Ireland was estimated to be €4bn in 2012, a 4.4% increase on 2011, adding to tourism expenditure by Irish residents of €1.4bn. Tourism accounts for 4% of national GDP and 6% of all employment in Ireland. Following the economic collapse in Ireland post 2007, the national tourism agency (Fáilte Ireland) has had to dramatically alter its role from being a funder for tourism infrastructure to being a catalyst for and facilitator of collaborative R&D and innovation . This paper explores a case study of one such innovation initiative: a collaborative innovation experiment that brought together over 30 of Ireland’s national cultural institutions (including the National Gallery, National Library, National Museum) and commercial bodies to use a design thinking process to develop new commercial tourism ideas and business models for the capital city’s cultural district, around Merrion Square. Merrion Square is a ‘cluster’ or geographic concentration of cultural organisations that, in this case, cooperated to focus on delivering new and better tourist experiences for visitors. The group drew on ethnographic research; involved customers, tour operators, historians, local community activists and artists, and used them to develop a portfolio of novel ideas for individual and joint implementation. The outcome has been the launch of a series of successful new tourist experiences and the development of a far higher level of cooperation between the institutions. 85% of the institutions involved report increased visitor numbers as a consequence of the project – with some specific events reporting an attendance rate up over 42% on the prior year. Such events are now synchronised through a management company comprised of the member institutions. This paper makes a valuable contribution by outlining the role of design-thinking in collaborative, multi-sectoral tourism service design and by spotlighting the role of trends research.
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Collaboration and Creativity: A case
study of how design thinking created a
cultural cluster in Dublin
Peter Robbins
, Frank Devitt, Gráinne Millar, Mary King
Peter Robbins (Maynooth University is the corresponding author)
Frank Devitt (Maynooth University)
Gráinne.Millar (GM Innovations) & Mary King (Fáilte Ireland)
Tourism is a rapidly expanding industry with a wide range of economic benefits. Expenditure by
tourists visiting Ireland was estimated to be 4bn in 2012, a 4.4% increase on 2011, adding to
tourism expenditure by Irish residents of 1.4bn. Tourism accounts for 4% of national GDP and
6% of all employment in Ireland. Following the economic collapse in Ireland post 2007, the national
tourism agency (Fáilte Ireland) has had to dramatically alter its role from being a funder for
tourism infrastructure to being a catalyst for and facilitator of collaborative R&D and innovation .
This paper explores a case study of one such innovation initiative: a collaborative innovation experiment
that brought together over 30 of Ireland’s most significant cultural institutions (including the National
Gallery of Ireland, National Library of Ireland, Museum of Natural History) and commercial bodies to use
a design thinking process to develop Merrion Square as a new, more integrated cultural tourism destination.
Merrion Square is a ‘cluster’ or geographic concentration of cultural organisations that, in this
case, cooperated to focus on delivering new and better cultural experiences for visitors. The group
drew on ethnographic research; involved customers, tour operators, historians, local community
activists and artists, and used them to develop a portfolio of novel ideas for individual and joint
The outcome has been the launch of a series of successful new visitor experiences and the
development of a far higher level of cooperation between the institutions. 85% of the institutions
involved report increased visitor numbers as a consequence of the project with some specific
events reporting an attendance rate up over 42% on the prior year. Such events are now
synchronised through a management company comprised of the member institutions. This paper
makes a valuable contribution by outlining the role of design-thinking in collaborative, multi-
sectoral tourism service design and by spotlighting the role of trends research.
1. Introduction
1.1 Prologue
Merrion Square: Behind Closed Doors
Merrion Square is a majestic, classical Georgian Square
dating from 1762 and situated just a kilometre from the
very centre of Dublin. Merrion Square has a distinct
competitive advantage over other tourist destinations in
Dublin. It is one of the world’s most intact Georgian
Squares, surrounded on three sides by Georgian redbrick
houses, with the fourth side Government Buildings,
Natural History Museum, Leinster House and the National
Gallery of Ireland.
Figure 1. An aerial view of Merrion Square
R&D Management Conference 2014: Conference Paper
!Merrion Square and its surrounding area is home
to a series of national cultural institutions, including, the
Archaeological and Natural History sections of the
National Museum of Ireland, the Irish Traditional Music
Archive, the Irish Architectural Archive, the Arts Council
and many smaller cultural organisations and creative
businesses located in buildings which were once the
grandest townhouses and homes in the city. It is also
home to 5 star hotels such as the Merrion Hotel, with the
Shelbourne Hotel close by, and National Maternity
Hospital and the Irish Red Cross all within its domain. It
also has many associations with significant figures in
Ireland’s political and cultural history and among the
many famous residents who have lived on Merrion Square
are Daniel O’Connell, Oscar Wilde and William Butler
Yeats. The centre of the square is a public park, owned by
Dublin City Council a wonderful resource that has the
potential to connect more with its surroundings.
However, while Merrion Square had all the
elements of a significant cultural tourism destination in a
capital city and some of its institutions already had a
substantial number of visitors (some over one million per
year), in the past the Square as a whole had been entirely
overlooked as an integrated experience destination.
Despite its multiple attractions, it had not previously
figured prominently in Dublin’s tourism offer. Each of the
institutions located in the square had been independently
promoted; their marketing and promotional activities were
entirely stand alone. Not only had there been no
coordination of complimentary events across the cultural
institutions, there had not even been any marketing
cooperation between them. The square was renowned for
beautiful, classical architecture, especially Georgian
doorways. But the splendid doors were often closed and
less hospitable than they should be.
Gráinne Millar had a background in cultural cluster
development in Temple Bar and was also responsible for
the development of Culture Night in Ireland, successfully
introducing it in Dublin and ultimately building it into a
nationwide cultural experience with over 1000 separate
events involved. Mary King was leading Failte Ireland’s
Innovation and Policy Unit. They met studying a post-
graduate course on strategy and innovation in 2011 and
both believed that the innovation and strategic
frameworks that they had encountered through the
management programme, especially the design-thinking
process, could help enhance the potential for cultural
tourism in Dublin. Over a short cup of coffee in Temple
Bar in May 2011, they identified a gap in Dublin’s
cultural tourism offering and the idea for the Merrion
Square Innovation Network was born.
1.2 Background
While the service sector has been an engine of
innovation, many see tourism as lagging behind with
much that is badged as innovation being purely cosmetic
changes in product offering or pricing (Weiemair, 2004).
Fáilte Ireland is Ireland’s National Tourism Development
Authority. Its role is to support the tourism industry and
work to sustain Ireland as a high-quality and competitive
tourism destination. Fáilte Ireland provides a range of
practical business supports to help tourism businesses
better develop, manage and market their products and
Within tourism, it is suggested that Ireland has a
three-pronged offering; the built (architecural) heritage,
the natural heritage and the cultural heritage. The remit of
the cultural heritage organisations is, in the main, the safe
preservation and conservation of the artefacts and
collections over which they have charge. An educational
element is often associated with this mandate. Insights
around the wants and needs of the tourist as a consumer
are scarce. During the period from 2010 to 2012 the Irish
tourism industry was experiencing a difficult time. The
inbound tourism market had been in decline since 2007.
Figure 2. A map of Merrion Square from 1762
Figure 3. No. 71 Merrion Square
Visitor numbers from key overseas markets, most notably
from Britain and the US had plummeted. With pressure
on discretionary disposal income in the main markets
together with adverse exchange rates Irish tourism was
operating in a tough trading environment. With so many
destinations for visitors to choose from, rapidly changing
consumer preferences and ever decreasing product life
cycles, continuous improvement was critical and tourism
needed to innovate to keep ahead of competition. In the
context of the new plan, Fáilte Ireland identified
innovation as one of its strategic targets in its 2010-2012
strategy. Fáilte Ireland’s research shows that in 2011, an
estimated 3.4m overseas visitors engaged in cultural
activities while in Ireland and spent an estimated 2.8b
while in the country.
The Merrion Square Innovation Network (MSIN)
which is the subject of this paper, is a group of 36
stakeholders from the cultural and hospitality sector who
were brought together by the good offices of Mary King
and Gráinne Millar to begin to develop the Merrion
Square area in Dublin as an attractive, more integrated
and vibrant cultural tourism destination for Dublin. The
funding for the initiative was generously provided by
Failte Ireland.
This project specifically set out to find a creative
and collaborative way of working, with the aim of
developing Merrion Square as a new, dynamic and
appealing centre for cultural tourism in Dublin. An
essential part of realising this ambition required that the
various stakeholders in Merrion Square be bought
together and engaged in developing a palette of new,
customer-centred ideas to connect the various culturing
offerings around the square. Ultimately, they intended the
whole offering could be far more than merely the sum of
the parts. They approached the coorresponding author of
this paper to facilitate four participative and creative
workshops as part of managing the process of realising
the potential of the area and making effective use of its
considerable and distinctive cultural assets. The chosen
methodology was the design thinking process as it is a
method proven to encourage both creativity and close
collaboration among multiple stakeholders.
2.0 Regional Systems of Innovation
Since the economic downturn post 2007, Fáilte
Ireland had been given a significantly more pro-active
role to actively stimulate innovation in the tourism sector.
In this new role, Fáilte Ireland was effectively acting in a
way that is the subject of much recent research and
reporting in literature around innovation systems. The
concept of an innovation system has become a favoured
framework to analyse the driving forces and mechanisms
that mediate the extent and the outcomes of innovative
bahaviour in regional tourism clusters (Hjalager, 2010).
An innovation system is an ecosystem in which multiple
actors, institutions and the state interact to share
knowledge and learning that leads to innovation. (Edquist
2006; World Bank 2006). The roles of innovation
intermediary or, the more narrow, innovation (knowledge)
broker are increasingly recognised to be pivotal,
especially where spontaneous or market-driven
motivations fail to bring about innovation. Innovation
brokers do not directly engage in innovation activity but
support innovation from an independent third party
position (Klerkx and Leeuwis 2009; Winch and Courtney
2007). The broker role is often left to the state to fulfil. In
this case, we suggest the hitherto failure to exploit
Merrion Square’s full commercial potential may be
regarded from the perspective of a problem-focused
innovation system, with the state agency, Fáilte Ireland in
partnership with a cultural expert, fulfilling the role of
innovation broker among the Square’s various actors.
Cooke (2001) coined the term ‘regional system of
innovation to describe the systems of innovation which
are localised to a specific region. This is one level below
the national system of innovation and usually refers to a
locality, like Merrion Square, where cultural or historical
homogeneity provide an opportunity for economic
development (Tiffin and Kunc, 2011). However, some
prior research has shown that there are considerable
difficulties in coordinating activities, effort and priorities
between multiple stakeholders. Carson et al (2014) in
their study of South Australia studied a similar
opportunity in ‘Clare Valley’ but found that the
stakeholders were unable to overcome some key barriers.
The principle ones were: a culture of operating in
isolation; an embedded reliance on the public sector for
leadership in such initiatives and a limited ambition for
real change.
2.1 Design Thinking innovation methodology
Lockwood (2010) asserts that design thinking is a human-
centred innovation process that emphasizes observation,
Figure 5: Government Buildings on Merrion Square
Figure 4: Merrion Square West
collaboration, fast learning, visualization of ideas, rapid
concept prototyping, and concurrent business analysis
which ultimately contributes to business strategy and
especially innovation. Organisations are increasingly
using design-thinking because it is an integrative process
that involves customers, designers and business people
and applies their insights for product, service and
sometimes even business design.
Lafley et al (p59) suggest that ‘constructing
strategic possibilities, especially ones that are genuinely
new, is the ultimate creative act in business. Design
thinking helps this process by searching for a deeper
understanding of customer needs and combining that
understanding with creative ideas, leading to a better
outcome and financial performance for the organisation in
the future (Wattanasupachoke, 2012). Martin (2012)
writes that businesses need design thinking; a productive
mix of analytical thinking and intuitive thinking if they
want to design a future that is more than simply an
extrapolation of the past. He argues that large
organisations place an overreliance on analytical tools
without realizing that you cannot use them (analytical
tools) to demonstrate any new idea in advance. So if
you’re using them, you’re using them to reinforce existing
ideas. They have an embedded assumption that the future
is going to look a lot like the past. (p11). He does not
argue that organisations ignore their analytical tools and
data but that they add a little intuitive thinking and artistry
to develop a design thinking approach.
Innovation is often analysed as being either
‘technology-push’ or ‘market-pull’ (Rothwell, 1983) but
in more recent literature, a third approach to innovation
has been developed which reflects the design-led practices
adopted by successful Italian manufacturers (Verganti,
2008, 2009) as well as leading technology companies like
IBM and SAP. Design thinking as an approach to
innovation argues that not all innovation can be classified
as either technology-push or market-pull. This newer
perspective on the innovation process that is gaining
popularity is based on design-thinking (Martin, 2009).
Unlike the user-centered design approach, where
innovations are dictated and driven by user needs, design-
driven innovations are mainly derived from firms’
visions about possible new product languages and
meanings that could diffuse in society.’ (Dell’Era and
Verganti, 2009)
Norman and Verganti (2014) elaborate on the two
dimensions of radical innovation, namely technology and
meaning. Innovating along the ‘meaning’ dimension is
particularly well served by a design thinking methodology
that is collaborative and human-centred.
Design-thinking innovation is an approach to
innovation that elevates the intrinsic socio-cultural
meaning within the products and services. Design
thinking is primarily an innovation process - an approach
to resolving the ‘‘fuzzy front end’’ and a superoir method
with which to discover unmet needs and create new
product and service offerings, not to mention transforming
businesses through solving ‘wicked problems
(Lockwood, 2009).
Nominally, based upon the original Latin origin of
the word design; ‘designare’ to give meaning to or to
assign meaning; the principle is that the qualities of the
new product or service extend considerably beyond
merely functional characteristics to also provide enhanced
design cues that reinforce their socio-cultural meaning.
Dell’era and Verganti (2009) argue that the principles of
design thinking are not merely considerations around
physical product design and styling. They comment that
“a product can bring messages to the market in several
ways and styling is just one of them; while the
functionalities of a product aim to satisfy the operative
needs of the customer, its product meanings aim to satisfy
the emotional and socio-cultural needs of the customer. (p
Dell’era and Verganti (2009) cite examples like
Allessi and Archimedes (well known Italian lifestyle
brands) who use design thinking to add attractive
additional dimensions to their innovation ideas and
outputs. This approach is also favoured by innovation
consultancies such as IDEO (Brown, 2008). Implicit in
the design thinking approach to innovation is a reliance on
ethnographic research to ensure the ideas are authentically
user-centred. Rapid prototyping and customer immersion
and involvement in the co-creation of the product or
service is also a feature of this approach.
Brown (2008) defines design thinking as a
discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and practices
to match people’s needs with what is technologically
feasible and what, through a viable business strategy, can
be converted into a valuable market opportunity. Brown
(2008) notes that, historically, designers would have
played merely a supporting. ‘downstream’ role in the
innovation process; ‘merely to put a beautiful wrapper on
the idea’ (p. 86). Now, however, the role, the thinking
and the methods of designers are being elevated from the
merely tactical to be strategic and central to the
innovation process. Neumeier (2010: p18) agrees that
‘design has been waiting patiently in the wings for nearly
a century, having been relegated to supporting roles and
Figure 7: Solving Problems with Design Thinking (Liedtka et al, 2013)
Figure 6: Innovations of technology and meaning (Norman & Verganti,
stand-in parts.’ He suggests that the time has now come
for it to step forward and create rule-bending innovation
across the board and not simply be seen as a ‘beauty-salon
for brands’.
Design thinking is both a philosophy and a
process. In 2011, a number of researchers at the
University of Virginia’s Darden Business School and the
Design Management Institute published Designing for
Growth: A Design Thinking Tool Kit for Managers,
proposed a four step model of the design-thinking
Each of the four questions What is?; What if?;
What wows?; What works? explores a different stage of
the design thinking process. “What is?’ examines current
reality. ‘What if’ uses the learning from that first stage to
envision multiple options for creating a new future. ‘What
wows’ helps managers make some choices about where to
focus first and “What works’ takes them into the real
world to interact with actual users through small
experiments. (Liedtka, 2014: p40)
This four stage model was then further developed
to suggest 10 practices which were associated with the
various stages across the process.
Using Imagery to envision possibilities and bring them
to life
Concept Development
Assembling innovative elements into a coherent
alternative solution that can be explored and
Journey Mapping
Assessing the existing experience through the
customers’ eyes.
Assumption Testing
Locating and testing the key assumptions that will
drive the success or failure of a concept.
Value Chain Analysis
Assessing the current value chain that supports the
customer’s journey.
Rapid Prototyping
Expressing a new concept in a tangible form for
exploration, testing and refinement.
Mind Mapping
Generating insights from exploration activities and
using those to create design criteria.
Generating new possibilities and new alternative
business models.
Customer Co-Creation
Enrolling customers to participate in creating the
solution that best meets their needs.
Learning Launch
Creating an affordable experiment that lets customers
experience the new solution over an extended period
to test key assumptions and market data.
Denning (2013: p30) suggests that design thinking
can speed up innovation in one important way, viz. if the
ideation stage has been ‘blocked by lack of ideas.’
Dunne and Martin (2006) proposes a model of
design thinking that describes how to deal with such a
deficit of ideas. Martin suggests that design thinking
combines the generation of new ideas with their analysis
and an evaluation of how they are likely to perform in the
market when (or if) implemented. A design thinker uses
abduction to generate the novel ideas, deduction to follow
the ideas to their logial consequence and to help predict
the likely outcomes that will materialise from them.
Design thinking then relies on inductive logic to be able to
generate theory or insight from the results.
Figure 8. Design Thinking
In the case of Merrion Square; the design thinking
process was followed in order, inter alia, to create some
new ideas in the innovation pipeline for the various
stakeholders. Hence, it operated in the fuzzy-front-end of
the innovation process. The process followed in this case
was the Stanford D-School model.
Brown and Wyatt (2010) observe that design
thinking taps into abilities most people have but that are
overlooked by more conventional problem-solving
approaches. Design thinking focuses on creating products
and services that are human centred; the process is itself
inherently human because it draws on our ability to be
intuitive, to recognise patterns, to construct ideas that
have emotional resonance as well as having a functional
rationale and to be able to express ideas in non verbal
They contend that the design thinking process is
best thought of as a series of overlapping spaces of which
the D-School in Stanford have developed a model.
Figure 9. The D-School Model
This is a six-step model that begins with a deep
understanding of the prevailing status quo or operating
context in which the project is being brought to life. It
then switches focus, away from the industry, towards the
customer and requires that the consumer is at the heart of
the process. In this phase, deep customer insight is
required which is often acquired through ethnographic
research. The model then moves from divergent thinking
and converges around a specific point of view which is a
mechanism to articulate the consumers real wants from
the category. From this stage, ideas are generated to fulfil
this point of view and once a palette of ideas has been
generated, the most promising ones are worked into
testable concepts (prototypes) and these are then tested
with consumers, often in what is called ‘heartbeat
research’ to establish whether the ideas have much or any
traction with the target audience for whom they have been
3. Methodology
By definition, innovation requires ‘a shift from
the norms of average behaviour’ (Stevenson and Jarillo,
1990, p. 20). Hence, it is a topic that not merely invites
but requires an in-depth evaluation of the people,
processes, situations, events and contexts in which it
happens (Savage and Black, 1995). Sundstrom and Zika-
Viktorrson (2009) acknowledge that although innovation
is being studied with ever increasing frequency and
intensity, there is still very limited knowledge of how
internal (organisational) factors and external factors affect
how innovation actually takes place within projects. Van
de Ven and Poole (1990; p.311) hold that ‘an appreciation
of the temporal sequence of activities in developing and
implementing new ideas is fundamental to the
management of innovation.’
This paper is based on a single, revelatory case-
study surrounding the development of an innovation
network of engaged collabrators, coming together to build
an innovation pipeline for Merrion Square, using design
thinking. The approach is inductive. The study was
constructed in a series of three consecutive phases to
provide increasing focus to the investigation.
The first step in the process required face-to-face
meetings with all the key stakeholders (40 meetings) to
recruit them into the initiative, by inviting them to join a
new innovation network. These stakeholders were the
cultural and hospitality organisations headquartered on
Merrion Square. The majority of these are public sector
(i.e. National Gallery) or not-for-profit (i.e. Architectural
Archive) organisations. However, the project also
included a number of commercial interests including
some of Dublin’s most upmarket and successful hotels
including the Merrion Hotel and the Shelbourne Hotel.
The meetings had all to be prearranged with a phone call
and, without exception, they took place in the
organisations premises on Merrion Square. These
meetings were all organised and attended by the authors.
Step Two: At the heart of the initiative was a series
of design thinking workshops in which the participants
would be asked to work in teams to do customer insight
work; journey mapping; brainstorming and concept and
prototype development as well as consumer research to
validate and improve the concepts. There were four
workshops of which two were full day sessions with the
other two being half day workshops. These workshops
followed precisely the themes of the D-School Design
Thinking process.
The third element of the case is the final
presentation of the ideas to some key decision makers in
the management of Dublin city’s affairs. Invitations for
this presentation were issued to the national Minister for
Tourism; the city Architect; the Lord Mayor and various
functional heads of office of public works; parks
department etc. Also in atendance were key stakeholders
from Merrion Square and a number of business leaders.
4. The Case
From the beginning, the Merrion Square project adopted
an open innovation strategy, to engage a wide group of
local stakeholders (both cultural and hospitality) and other
potentially interested organisations and to encourage new
thinking and ideas about the opportunities for collective
tourism development that might be available by
coordinating the rich heritage of the institutions and
organisations located in the Merrion Square area. The
challenge was to develop a model for clustering cultural
organisations in Merrion Square to build and strengthen
the sense of place, identity and community, to capture
what is unique and distinctive about this part of the city
and to release (and enhance) the potential of the
Network’s constituent organisations.
Once phase one was complete, the stakeholders
were engaged and had committed to join the (newly
formed) Merrion Square Innovation Network although
many were unsure what might lie ahead in the process.
Nevertheless, they were persuaded that some advantages
were likely to materialise from partnership and
collaboration with their neighbouring organisations.
There was an extraordinarily high uptake with only one
organisation declining to become involved.
In all, Mary and Gráinne met with over 40
institutions. Their invitation was straightforward. They
asked the institutions to join a new innovation network
where they would get to meet the other businesses and
cultural institutions on the square. Through the network
Fáilte Ireland were going to provide some expert
innovation training. Members of the network would be
invited to attend four separate day-long workshops where
they would learn how to enhance their individual and
collective innovation capability. The workshops would
teach them the design-thinking approach to innovation
and would help them generate new ideas to bring new
vibrancy into the square and, of course, to their own
businesses. Customers would be invited to the innovation
workshops and ideas would be developed, illustrated,
prototyped (where possible) and road-tested with
consumers in a rapid-prototyping way.
The group who took part represented a large and
diverse collection of private and public sector
organisations. Within the group were some large
prestigious hotels, a church, a library, a gallery, a concert
hall, an architectural practice and various other interested
parties. Subscribers to the Merrion Square Innovation
Network can be found on the group’s website
( Such wide diversity brought a
welcome depth of expertise and also a high level of
creativity to the process.
4.1 Designing the Programme
The four day programme would be designed to generate
customer-centred (user-centred) ideas for Merrion Square
and following on from the fourth meeting a final meeting
was to be arranged in Ireland’s National Concert Hall
where the ideas would be pitched to Ireland’s Minister for
Tourism, the city Mayor and the heads of the civil service
responsible for planning, public works, public spaces
along with the city architect.
The programme was created to mirror the design-
thinking process and relied on elements from the
model as well as referring to the Darden Model. The first
session was devoted to the ‘Understand’ or “What is?’
element of the process where the delegates started to
define precisely what was the nature of the ‘problem’ to
be solved or the opportunity being addressed. This
session produced a set of documents framing the
challenge; a vision for the group, some objectives and
short and long term metrics to measure future
performance and success. Part of this element required
sharing information and experiences between members of
the network; many of whom had never even met before
despite having been neighbours on the square for many
decades. In effect, even after the first session, part of the
Fáilte Ireland objective and brokering role had been
achieved by virtue of creating new relationships between
stakeholders who each shared a common objective. Quite
quickly, the team began to work efficiently to produce
some artifacts for the group such as a vision, mission
and purpose. The group also shared various pockets of
data they had; visitor numbers and some tourist research.
Many are funded by the state and had been mandated by
their department to ‘do more with less’ and hence they
could quickly see advantages to the type of collaboration
inherent in membership in this coalition of innovation
For stage two, the second workshop, the group,
were divided into four teams, and were asked to ‘get
under the skin of a typical customer’. The themes for
each of the four teams were deliberate with each one
representing a key customer segment. They were given
examples of ‘personas’ and shown customer segmentation
maps. Each team was asked to do a little ethnographic
research and to observe and photograph visitors to the
square.. They were to return to the next workshop with
some photographs; some observations and during the
workshop, these observations would be converted to
meaningful insights. Each team then developed a very
vivid portrait of a customer segment, complete with an
ethnography board showing examples of this type of
A guest presenter was also invited to this
workshop the head of a large tour operator whose
business it is to sell Dublin tours in the US and has made
a successful career from understanding and providing
what tourists want when they visit Dublin. The speaker
made it very clear that the Merrion Square experience is
far from best-in-class; she noted that Americans were
looking for bespoke experiences which she referred to as
‘behind the rope’ tours where they would get access to
behind the scenes in various tourist attractions. Merrion
Square with its closed doors was not aligned to the wants
and needs of the modern tourist. This workshop was
centred on putting the customer first; on forcing the
institutions to think ‘outside-in’ rather than the other way
round. Thinking from the users’ point of view was
definitely a new lens for many of the delegates and this
day had a significant impact on the rest of the process.
The Dublin Civic Trust also spoke to the group that
day and they made explicit the need to balance the ideas
for future development with the need not to compromise
the distinct and valuable heritage attached to Merrion
Square. This speaker put the square into an historical
context and emphasised that while it may be imperfect as
a tourist experience; it was almost perfect enough to earn
a place on the tentative list of world heritage sites because
of its intact Georgian architecture.
Ideate & Prototype (What-if?)
Workshop three followed two weeks later and it
kept the participants in their teams; each team had an
archetypal customer representing a significant market
segment. The purpose of the session was to use various
techniques to elicit ideas for each segment. To start the
day, a Futurologist was brought in to address the issue of
consumer trends and to articulate which ones were likely
to impact most on tourist wants, needs and behaviours in
the medium term. This provided an interesting
springboard from which to break into generating new,
high potential ideas. A key feature of this workshop was
the presence of a professional graphic artist who attended
the session to record in illustration all of the key ideas.
The graphic artist captured all the ideas on A2 art-board
and created colourful graphic interpretations of each of
the ideas. These illustrations acted as vivid visual
prototypes of the ideas.
Prototype & Test (What works?)
Two weeks later, the fourth and final workshop
took place and this was where the teams worked to
convert their ideas into testable concepts. They were
schooled in some professional techniques; learning how to
convert raw, early stage ideas into testable, fully-finished,
development-ready concepts. Once again, an illustrator
was present. The group also received a presentation from
an international academic on the topic of ‘Blue Ocean
Strategy’. Each team developed a palette of new ideas and
each team focussed their ideas on the needs of the
customer target segment that they had been working on.
In this session, too, idea-screeners were developed to
assist the teams in ranking their ideas. Working with the
illustrator and with help from a professional copywriter,
the teams ended up with a roadmap of innovative ideas for
Figure 10: ‘What if’ idea generation
Merrion Square. Each set of ideas was developed with a
specific customer segment in mind. Insofar as they could,
the teams had privately tested the ideas with individuals
or groups they were able to access who matched their
target segment characteristics.
Test: Getting Support for the Ideas
The final part of this section of the design-thinking
project involved assembling all the key stakeholders in the
public service who have responsibility for urban, tourism
or business development. By now, the organisations on
Merrion Square had been working together for a couple of
months and their relationships and ways of working were
well established. They now had a portfolio of novel ideas
with which they were justifiably pleased. But, one of the
dangers that awaits new ideas is that they fail to attract a
champion or a sponsor and they can often perish before
they find support.
Consequently, the first thing Fáilte Ireland
scheduled was this final group presentation to senior
figures in government and public service. It took place in
an appropriate venue, the National Concert Hall and there
was a large and influential audience; including
representatives from the private sector who were
interested in pursuing some of the ideas as part of their
own CSR agenda.
Each team had roughly an hour to present their
ideas and to show their rough prototypes. As you’d
expect from such a creative group, some of the ideas were
spectacular. Some involved redesigning the square and
putting a glass restaurant in the middle of it, designed
along the lines of the Apple store in 5
Avenue. Many
suggested making the square a free-wifi area to encourage
people to spend more time there. One idea involved
building a techno-glass wall in the centre of the Square
which would act as a video or skype link with similar
techno walls in other parks like Union Square in San
Francisco or Central Park in Manhattan. The wall would
be linked periodically to the other parks and people with
friends and relations abroad could schedule to come and
meet virtually and see and talk one another. Another
suggestion was to restore the Square to an Elizabethan
garden divided into nine sections. Each section would
have a theme; a children’s playground in one corner; a
boules court in another; a lavender, fragrance garden in
another; a giant chess board in another and so on. The
ideas were subdivided into short, medium and long term
proposals with short term reserved for those which might
be achieved within 12-18 months; Medium 2-3 years
and Long Term indicating anything over 3 years.
Many of the short-term ideas revolved around the
concept of ‘animation’; bringing new life, new activities
to the square- walking tours, roof-top tours, costume tours
or events on the square: Hallowe’en in the Square;
Christmas in the Square (aka Tivoli gardens). At the core
of some of the proposals was the simple, elementary idea
of joining up the exhibitions and activities of the cultural
institutions on the Square and cross promoting one
another’s events and exhibitions.
Following the big presentation, which was close to
Chrismas in 2011, the group were called together for one
final meeting to close out this element of the design-
thinking project. At this meeting, a steering team was put
in place that is led by Fáilte Ireland but includes key
players from the original, larger group. The team began
the work of making some of the ideas take shape in the
square. At this point, in order to bring some of the
promising ideas to fruition with a degree of urgency, a
project management company was appointed and funding
for this resource was made available by Failte Ireland.
Figure 11: Graphic artist capturing teams’ ideas
Short Term
Medium Term
Long Term
Merrion Square
App & Website
Major Garden
including a
running track on
the perimeter of
Restaurant a
glass restaurant
built inside the
Corner’ type
Daytime Tours
of Cultural
Digital Wall
Summer Prom
Night time and
roof-top tours
Designated ‘Art
schedule of
Free Wi-fi
New brand to
the desired look
and feel of the
Space for big
Digital Wall
Designate some
buildings ‘open’
to tourists
Market (like
Figure 12: Ideas roadmaps from teams
Figure 13: Newly developed collective logo for Merrion Square
Working alongside the core group, they developed
a collective logo for Merrion Square. They developed a
new website and app to showcase the various activities
available on the Square so that they would be available in
one central point for visitors. In another lucky
coincidence for them, a search in the land registry
revealed that the very first house on the square was built
in 1762 which made 2012 an auspicious date and gave
the team an anniversary to work towards.
In 2012, the activities around Merrion Square have
been constant. The MSIN have worked with many other
stakeholders either to actively organise or merely to
facilitate some events and activities, including a new
partnership with Dublin City Council who have takena
renewed interest in the park. The Spring saw thousands
of people converge in Merrion Square for the World
Street Performing Championships; the national day in
March, St Patrick’s Day, brought a new and bigger-than-
ever festival. Culture Night came to Merrion Square with
thousands more visitors visiting cultural buildings. The
MSIN directly manage and promote some major events
for Christmas and Hallowe’en and the park has been
designated by the City Council as a free wi-fi zone. A
new group called ‘Supper on the Square’ has been formed
and there are monthly dinners hosted and catered in some
of the great houses on the Square. In 2013, in response to
the work of the MSIN and increased activity in Merrion
Square, Dublin City Council launched a Conservation and
Development Plan which they unveiled in May 2014. The
success of the Merrion Square Innovation Network has
been a catalyst resulting in a snowball effect of a number
of other, separate initiatives also being developed on
Merrion Square. Among these in the summer of 2014,
Merrion Square park became a giant outdoor cinema for a
series of evening events called the Happenings.
Thousands of people queued to get into the square to see a
giant screen for showings of Dead Poet’s Society and
Figure 15: Dead Poets Society Screeinin in Merrion Square
August 2014
Also in 2014, Merrion Square started to host a
weekly food market on Thursdays. The idea is to
showcase Ireland’s best Irish food producers and traders:
the Merrion Square Lunchtime weekly Market will offer
local residents and surrounding office staff a healthy
alternative for their lunch time break. Freshly cooked
gourmet foods from the Mediterranean, Asia, South
America & Europe are on offer.
Another development, aimed this time at the
corporate market is ‘Meetings on the Square’ which is a
service through which organisations can book meeting
rooms and facilities on Merrion Square, using some of the
great rooms belonging to the houses in the Merrion
Square Innovation Network.
All of these activities are bringing new people and
ideas into Merrion Square in a way that had never been
thought of before. This case illustrates the power of
design-thinking in an innovation context. It has
accomplished a great deal in a very short time. Within the
Square two things have been developed; first, a new
capability to innovate and second a suite of new ideas to
add value to the stakeholders collectively and
5. Discussion
5.1 Generalisable Approaches
Although definitive tourism numbers are hard to access,
85% of the organisations involved in this design-thinking
experiment are reporting increased visitor numbers which
they consider to be at least partially attributable to the
initiative. These organisations never had an organising
nucleus before ; they had operated independently in a
siloed way and now most of them have chosen to
continue the connection by forming an umbrella holding
company which raises funds to develop activities and
events for the square. A number of the ideas, generated
through the programme, have now been acted upon
including the website and app; the provision of free wi-fi
in the Square and a series of coordinated events to
coincide with Easter, Halloween and Christmas. There are
however, constraints emerging relating to the ongoing
management of events and promotion due to the voluntary
nature of the MSIN.
5.2 Learning from the Programme
There were a number of insights to emerge from the
programme. First, is that Design Thinking is not only a
process but also a way of working. To do it well demands
close collaboration and this had enormous benefits for a
group of independent organisations with disparate
missions, who shared only a prestige location and an
appetite for development. Once on this programme, the
participants worked well together, learning new skills like
customer insight, ideation, prototype development.
Figure 14: A themed activity gathering in Merrion Square in 2012
This is the first time this strategic innovation and
Design Thinking approach has been used in the context of
cultural tourism development in Ireland. This is
important as many of Ireland’s cultural and heritage
resources remain hidden from both citizens and visitors.
Many languish in the mistaken belief that it takes
significant resources to develop into appealing visitor
attractions. This project demonstrates how with a modest
budget and through a user-centred approach to innovation,
stakeholders can be brought together, ideas can be
developed which in turn can lead to a common vision that
is directly linked to the needs and opportunities in the
marketplace. The process enabled people to come together
as a community and with a clear vision work towards
That the group shared a common goal was
immensely important. At the first meeting, the teams
explored precisely what was the problem they wanted to
solve and by doing that in a facilitated way; they had a
clear, unambiguous target or North star to aim for.
Having a diverse set of stakeholders, which
included niche, not-for-profit cultural organisations
alongside major hotel groups who are highly commercial,
added a level of mission, business model and perspective
diversity and business insight that blended well to
generate highly creative, novel and appropriate ideas.
Running the programme over a tight period (8
weeks) gave people focus to develop ideas in a
concentrated timeframe. Moreover, having a major
presentation in front of an influential audience as the end-
point made people raise their game and develop their
proposals to a very high level for the finale. Having such
a big presentation for the finish adds a layer of tangible
excitement and drama.
Running the meetings in the premises of Merrion
Square institutions rooted the ideas and the process in the
right context. Nondescript meeting rooms in hotels off-
site would have diluted the sense of place and purpose.
Use of an independent professional design-
thinking expert as mediator to facilitate the meetings
helped to keep the programme on track. It also eliminated
any necessity for individual members to take a leadership
role in the process. In short, it obviated any prospect of
‘politics’ infecting the process. As well as a facilitator,
there was a professional graphic artist involved to help
render the ideas into visual prototypes and this accelerated
the process from raw idea to testable concept.
The ideas were intended, insofar as is possible, to
be future-proofed. To help accomplish this, the team
brought in a futurologist and received some insight on the
likely future trends in the experience and cultural tourism.
Having such insights gave the team confidence in the
validity of their ideas.
A caveat for the process is that this element lies
squarely in the fuzzy-front-end; in the idea generation
phase of the innovation chain.
5.3 Is the model transferable?
A number of moons aligned in this instance and these
undoubtedly contributed to the project’s success. One was
the involvement of Fáilte Ireland. The national tourist
agency has, since the recession, been seeking a new
business model; a new way of operating as it can no
longer be a funder for hotels and other infrastructure; its
contribution has now to be more knowledge based. The
Merrion Square project has been a pilot for a new network
innovation brokering concept for Fáilte Ireland. Fáilte
Ireland was the funder for this project, although the
funding requirement was very limited. Moreover,
organisations like to work with Fáilte Ireland as it
connects them formally with possible sources of future
funding or revenue through such collaboration. In terms
of transferability, having a sponsor for such a project
seems important.
Another positive influence was the involvement
of Gráinne Millar who had a strong track record in
creative cluster development and had been responsible for
a major cultural collaborations project before. Gráinne
had brought Culture Night successfully into Dublin and
beyond. She had wide and valuable experience in getting
cultural institutions to collaborate in an overarching
The process itself, though, and the collaboration it
demands are transferable to many contexts. This group
were involved in the development of new ideas and
services for a cultural tourism cluster. The approach could
have been used in almost any context.
Following a structure like the Darden or
model provides just enough direction to be helpful
without imposing an overbearing process which can
cauterize the creativity required.
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