Adopting a design approach to translate needs and
interests of stakeholders in academic
entrepreneurship: The MIT Senseable City Lab case
POST-PRINT VERSION OF THE ARTICLE:
Luca Simeone, Giustina Secundo, Giovanni Schiuma, Adopting a design
approach to translate needs and interests of stakeholders in academic
entrepreneurship: The MIT Senseable City Lab case, Technovation, Volume 64,
2017, Pages 58-67, ISSN 0166-4972,
This version of the article is released with a Creative Commons Attribution Non-
Commercial No Derivatives License
Recent research calls for greater consideration of design, by considering it further from
the perspective of technology innovation management. In the attempt to cover this gap,
the paper intends to explore how design can be used to support translational processes
that connect and align different stakeholders in academic entrepreneurship. Insights from
the investigation of the processes adopted by Senseable City Lab – an academic lab at
MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA) – will demonstrate how various design
artefacts – sketches, visualizations, prototypes – are used to support several semiotic
translations aimed at multiple stakeholders. Findings will show that design can play a
relevant role in fostering entrepreneurial activities and value creation in academia, by
supporting the translation of the different needs and interests of stakeholders into a
shared meaning that allows a coordinated way of working. The conceptualization of
design as a form of translation allows bridging currently distinct research strands in
design and entrepreneurship.
Keywords – Academic entrepreneurship, design, translation, semiotics, value creation.
Over the past three decades, the university has seen its role changing from one where it
was considered “a conserver and reproducer of knowledge” (Lu and Etzkowitz, 2008, p.
15) (i.e., engaging in teaching and research) to one here it is expected to take a proactive
role in the innovation and regional development through the engagement in
entrepreneurial activities (Urbano and Guerrero, 2013). This phenomenon stimulated
scholarly research into that entrepreneurial dimension that allows academia to pursue
innovation development and economic and social engagement with external stakeholders,
for example through intellectual asset management, university spin-offs creation and
technology transfer and brokering (Shane, 2004b; Wright et al., 2009). Whilst not
necessarily denying the importance of the economic outcomes generated by these forms
of academic entrepreneurship, some scholars argue for a view of academic
entrepreneurship also oriented toward creating societal value (Botes, 2005). Along this
line of thinking, Kingma suggests that the role of academics is precisely to be
“entrepreneurial thinkers” and to “seek new ways to engage with the community to create
value” (Kingma 2011, ix).
In this perspective, the interplay between academia and external stakeholders1 such as
industry, NGOs (Non-Governmental Organization), government institutions, investment
funds and technology transfer offices (TTOs) is of paramount importance to generate
jointly value. Value precisely emerges through joint collaborative endeavours, where
these different stakeholders bring together their assets, competences and specificities. In
these joint endeavours, the knowledge produced in academia, scientific organizations and
private research labs plays a crucial role for entrepreneurial innovation (for a review, see:
Powell and Snellman, 2004; Stam and Garnsey, 2008).
In the specific context of academic entrepreneurship, the term ‘valley of death’ is often
used to describe the difficulty of adapting and transferring knowledge from laboratory to
market. This concept was first coined by Merrifield (1995), referring to the transfer of
agricultural technologies towards lower-income countries, but has since then been
1 The term stakeholder is used in a broad sense (Harrison and Freeman, 1999; Freeman,
2010), as to include all the actors that somewhat affect or are affected by a specific
process or project or organization. In design, Krippendorff provided the following
definition: “Designers are surrounded by intelligent professionals who have an interest in
the outcome of a design process: clients, engineers, CEOs, financiers, sales people, and
the members of institutions that provide data in preparations for a design or do research
after prototypes are available” (Krippendorff 2006, 63).
adopted as a metaphor to describe the hurdles that exist between research and the
commercialisation of new products (Markham 2002) and the differences in terms of
needs, interests, languages and cultures of the various stakeholders involved in these
processes. One route to address this issue is acknowledging the key role of design, which
can provide a key ‘interface’ role (Boren et al., 2012) and enable a better collaboration.
As argued by Sainsbury: “The use of design helps scientists to develop commercial
applications for their work while it is still at the research stage or at the outset of the
technology transfer process” (Sainsbury, 2007, p 151).
In spite of the increasing research and compelling evidence for the value of design in
entrepreneurship, there has been little work exploring the potential impact that design
might have as a route to bridging this ‘valley of death’ in processes of knowledge creation
in an academic setting. In the attempt to cover this gap, the paper intends to study how
design can be used to support translational processes that connect and align different
stakeholders to create value in academic entrepreneurship. Design materials such as
sketches, data visualization and prototypes can be used at various stages to coordinate the
stakeholders: through the design process, ideas and concepts undergo semiotic
translations and are materialized into visual, audio, and tangible formats. As such, these
translations are a way of expressing meaning in different languages (e.g., translating state-
of-the-art scientific advances into the visual language of a sketch or the tangible language
of a physical prototype), which can be more easily understood by diverse stakeholders.
Design can even be employed to facilitate participatory design session where all the
stakeholders directly contribute to the design-as-translation process, jointly creating
visual representations and prototypes that translate the multiple perspectives of the
various stakeholders (Simonsen and Robertson, 2013).
To provide an empirical evidence to this perspective, this paper builds upon an
ethnographic analysis of Senseable City Lab – an academic lab nested within the
Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, USA) – and its entrepreneurial dimension to demonstrate how design is used
as enabling factor to support academic entrepreneurship and its process of value creation.
The remainder of the paper is organised as follows: Section 2 introduces the literature
background around the topic of academic entrepreneurship and design as translation.
Section 3 describes the research approach and the research context. Section 4 presents the
findings of the study. Section 5 elaborates on the results. Finally, the last section
concludes the paper underlying the practical as well as the theoretical implications.
2. Literature review
2.1 Academic entrepreneurship and the collaboration of multiple stakeholders
According to Rothaermel et al (2007), academic entrepreneurship refers to activities and
assets of an entrepreneurial university, such as technology transfer, intellectual property
licensing, science parks, incubators, university spin-offs, and other processes aimed to
implement the third mission of the university (social and economic development). Some
studies (Gibb et al., 2013; Rothaermel et al., 2007; Wright et al., 2007) specifically look
at higher education institutions as entrepreneurial organizations with a key role within the
innovation system, both as human and as technology capital providers (Etzkowitz, 2003;
Mowery et al., 2001; Rosenberg and Nelson, 1994). Other studies (Oakey and Mukhter,
1999) see the entrepreneurial university as a place that can foster the growth of high-
technologies small firms, in a knowledge economy where the networked dimension is
articulated into ecosystems, which are globally and locally interconnected (Röpke, 1998).
Other authors specifically look at academic entrepreneurship in terms of businesses
started by academia as university spin-offs (Shane, 2004a; Wright et al., 2009). More
detailed taxonomies include the ‘research-based entrepreneurship’ (Goel and Grimpe,
2011) or businesses started on the basis of academic research and technology.
Nowadays, academic entrepreneurship includes a large spectrum of entrepreneurial
activities: from large-scale science projects, creation of technology parks, contracted
research, industry consulting, patenting/licensing, spin-off firms, industry training, all the
ay up to the more traditional academic activities of publishing academic results and
producing highly qualified graduates (Cantaragiu, 2012; Klofsten and Jones-Evans,
2000), which can support entrepreneurial processes in a more indirect way.
From all these characterizations of academic entrepreneurship, the importance of
collaboration with internal and external stakeholders clearly emerges, as well as the
increasing accountability and responsiveness of higher education institutions in their
environment (Maassen, 2000). Universities need to assume a more proactive role in the
society by more directly engaging various stakeholders and their communities (Fayolle
and Redford, 2014; Jongbloed et al., 2008); academic entrepreneurship precisely unfolds
by intentionally developing a network of social contacts from which resources can be
obtained and with whom the university will work to convert these resources into added
value (Fayolle and Redford, 2014). From an entrepreneurial perspective, the multifaceted
performance that a university is required to achieve embraces a larger meaning of social
value creation through the management of stakeholder relationships (Post et al., 2002).
The literature includes many attempts to classify the stakeholders using various criteria;
according to Freeman (1984), two main groups can be identified for a university: the
internal stakeholders (alumni, faculty, administration and university staff) and external
stakeholders (industry, government and regional/local community, citizens). The problem
is that sometimes these stakeholders have different needs and interests, speak different
languages and might not be aligned in terms of which kind of value has to be created.
Activists from an NGO, venture capitalists and academic researchers involved into a joint
project might have divergent interests: the academic researchers might want to further
develop their scholarly investigation; the venture capitalists might see the potential of the
project in terms of pure economic revenues and might want to patent some of this
technology and market it; the NGO might instead be interested in releasing the results of
the project as open source and open access in order to maximize societal benefits. These
diverse notions of value can be complementary or in conflict, agreed upon or contested by
the stakeholders. In all these cases, stakeholders engage in processes of negotiation and
responses to external factors (McAdam et al., 2012) and create value by improving the
socioeconomic environment (Fayolle and Redford, 2014). While interaction between the
institutional spheres of industry and academia is not a new phenomenon (Etzkowitz,
2001; Martin and Etzkowitz, 2000; Shinn, 2002), the extent to which entrepreneurship is
currently intertwined with academic activities and processes is unprecedented (Fayolle
and Redford, 2014; Lazzeroni and Piccaluga, 2003).
Among the challenges of collaboration involving multiple and diverse stakeholders,
Chiesa and Piccaluga (1998) note that given the different objectives and languages
prevalent in academic and industrial contexts there is a need for translators between these
groups. Consequently, it is necessary to recognise and balance the differing objectives of
each stakeholder, thus ensuring that their needs and interests are systematically addressed,
orchestrated and balanced (Fogelberg and Sanden, 2008; Garrett-Jones et al., 2005).
2.2 Design and entrepreneurship
Within technology innovation management, D’Ippolito (2014) provides a characterization
of the concept of design as articulated into three dimensions: the creative, the shaping and
the applicative dimension. According to the creative dimension, design can be seen as the
creation of artefacts stemming from the creative inputs of individuals or firms
(Krippendorff, 1989, 2006; Simon, 1969). Designers initiate, facilitate and monitor
various exchange and adaptation processes, not only to create new products and services,
but also to create value and meaning that can be appreciated by the actors involved
(Krippendorff, 1989, 2006). In this vein, design is oftentimes seen as a problem solving
activity, especially in new product development and innovation process, as such involving
the definition of the problem, the identification and generation of alternative solutions,
and the evaluation and selection of the most suitable one(s) (Buchanan, 1992; March and
Smith, 1995; Petroski, 1996). According to the shaping dimension, design can be
interpreted as a reflective, symbolic and meaning-making practice. By complementing
Simon׳s cognitive perspective, the designer is conceived as a practitioner focusing on the
relation between creation and reflection-upon-the-creation (Bousbaci, 2008; Dorst, 1996;
Schön, 1987; Rylander, 2009). Design can be interpreted as making sense of things,
oftentimes through designerly reflective processes and negotiations between problem and
solution, through activities such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. The designer can
play a prescriptive role as s/he describes how the world might be (Cross, 2006; Lawson,
2006). Finally, according to the applicative dimension, design provides a key input for the
strategy and is a means to achieve competitiveness of organizations (Gemser and
Leenders, 2001; Kotler and Rath, 1984).
In the attempt to combine these three dimensions and link them to entrepreneurship,
design can be seen as the cumulative development of an initial creative act, its further
elaboration within reflective and meaning-making practices (shaping dimension) and its
applicative dimension, which translates in the artefact playing a more explicit role in
strategy making and innovation practices (Ardayfio, 2000). Various authors have
explored the role of design to support innovative processes and, consequently, its possible
role for entrepreneurship and management (Filippetti, 2011;Verganti, 2003; Verganti,
2008). This opens up new challenges, as noted by Walker (1990) who, specifically
referring to a condition of increasing centrality of design in organizations, argues that
there is the need “to manage [design] more effectively” (Walker, 1990, p. 43).
Adopting a more specific focus, some authors praised the role of designerly-based
prototyping as a central element in innovation processes (Bogers and Horst, 2014; Gero,
1990; Jones and Jordan, 1998; Leonard and Rayport, 1997; Leonard and Sensiper, 1998).
Prototyping is also one of the components that Rust (2004, 2007) identified when
exploring the potential benefits of engaging designers in the scientific process. According
to Rust, design can support processes of knowledge creation and scientific research in
various ways, such as: visualising scenarios of use; early prototyping to quickly and
iteratively test ideas; producing artefacts to aid understanding and stimulate new ideas;
raising awareness of future applications; helping to communicate ideas between research
collaborators and potential investors in an exciting and credible way; speeding up the
process of commercialisation. In a similar vein, Moultrie (2015) explored how design
demonstrators can be used in translating scientific activity from the laboratory to the
In line with the work of Rust (2004, 2007) and Moultrie (2015), this paper precisely
intends to understand whether design can help academic entrepreneurship to generate
added value involving multiple internal and external stakeholders. This appears to be a
perspective not thoroughly investigated in literature. In order to carry out this analysis,
this article adopts the concept of translation.
2.3 Design and translational processes for entrepreneurship
This paper builds upon a concept of translation that goes beyond its common use (i.e., the
translation of a literary text from English to another language). Petrilli and Ponzio (2003)
claim that “the problem of translation cannot be reduced to the problem of the relation
among texts in different languages. Each time there is a sign process, semiosis, there is
translation. Therefore, “translation concerns the relation among signs in general" (in the
Preface of Petrilli 2003, p. 15). This view sees translation in light of its semiotic
dimension and highlights both the interpretive component of translational processes and
their generative, creative potential. According to this wider view, translation can also
refer to processes where, for example, a sketch or a visual diagram translate some
complex, technical ideas developed by some researchers in nanotechnologies into a
format that is easier to grasp for non-professional, non-academic audiences. Venture
capitalists or external companies interested in investing in nanotechnologies can be more
quickly engaged in collaborative academic entrepreneurship processes, if the researchers
translate their academic work - as originally published in written form into scientific
journals - into visually appealing and easy-to-understand formats. During such design
processes, ideas, concepts, project requirements and features undergo semiotic
translations and are materialized into various articulations:
• visual articulations, in the case of sketches, diagrams, visual interfaces;
• or material and tangible articulations, in the case of prototypes;
• or other forms of articulations based on one or multiple dimensions (visual,
music, video, photography, performance, textual descriptions or stories).
Our interest here is not to state that all translational processes in academic
entrepreneurship are design-based. For example, imagine a scientific lab that, after having
described one of its innovative technologies in a scientific paper, creates some other texts
that present these same technologies using a language that could be more easily
understood by a layperson. Or imagine that this lab – located in the US – not only
routinely produces these descriptions in English, but also translates them into other
languages (e.g., Italian, French, Chinese). These are all examples of translations, which
do not involve design and which are aimed at engaging non-academic audiences and
keeping them informed in the work of the lab. Our specific interest is in studying
situations where, for example, the lab produces some new diagrams or sketches or motion
graphic videos or prototypes to further support these translational processes (Simeone,
2014, 2016; Simeone et al., 2015). In this sense, we refer to design specifically as a
symbolic, meaning-making practice (Krippendorff, 1989) and, in line with Buchanan
(2004), we believe that an approach focusing on user research and user testing, rapid and
frequent prototyping, visualization techniques, task-based scenario building, attention to
the brand experience mark a distinctive designerly way of thinking and operating
(Buchanan, 2004). In the paper, consequently, we specifically direct our attention towards
the design artefacts emerging from this meaning-making practice.
The concept of translation is not new in design research. Some scholars employ it in a
quasi-literary sense, to talk about translational processes among the languages of different
design methods or techniques, such for example Singh and Gu (2012), who investigate
generative design in architecture. Some other scholars adopt translation in another quite
commonly used connotation, as to describe design processes and outcomes (such as
sketches) in terms of ‘translation of ideas’ (see for example: Leblebici-Başar and
Altarriba, 2013; Yi-Luen Do et al., 2000). Reich et al. show how participation in design is
tied to “problems of interpretation and translation of varying user and expert
perspectives” and argue in favour of “increasing access to technical knowledge and its
translation for equal participation in a dialectical process” (Reich et al., 1996, p. 174).
Tomes and colleagues focus on the negotiation between graphic designers and the clients
and claim that "viewed in this light, the whole of the design process is directed towards
the achievement of a mutually acceptable visual `translation' of the brief, and it is
achieved through the medium of lesser translations from the verbal to the visual and back
again" (1998, p. 127). Designers act as brokers of languages in supporting managers in
their interactions and communication with designers (Dell’Era et al., 2011). A specific
research strand explores how semiotics can be used to look at the translational dimensions
of design (Baule and Caratti, 2016; Riccò, 2016; Zingale, 2016).
None of these studies specifically addresses the relationship between design, translation
and entrepreneurship. This article precisely intends to investigate if and how design can
be used to support translational mechanism to align the needs and interests of multiple
stakeholders in academic entrepreneurship.
3. Research method
Based on the logic of grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967) as recognized method
in research on managerial and organizational issues, this study adopts the qualitative
method of case study to identify meaningful insights through a limited number of
examples (Pettigrew, 1990). In general, case studies are the preferred strategy when ‘how’
or ‘why’ questions are being posed, and when the focus is on a contemporary
phenomenon within some real life context (Yin, 1994). As pointed out by Glaser and
Strauss (1967), the aim of case study research is to discover ‘grounded theory’, which can
be interpreted as a strategy to carry out research, involving an empirical investigation of a
particular contemporary phenomenon within its real life context by using multiple sources
of evidence (Robson, 2002).
Specifically, we have chosen an extreme case study (Eisenhardt, 1989; Yin, 1994) of a
successful example of processes and environments where design is adopted to transform
the needs and interests of different stakeholders into valuable innovative solutions. By
selecting an extreme case, we can better understand the role and meaning of design to
support translational processes in academic entrepreneurship.
In order to generate, collect and analyze data for our case, we adopted a combination of
methods: ethnographic observations, interviews and archival research. A multi-year
ethnographic investigation was conducted (2011-2014) at the MIT Senseable City Lab in
Cambridge, MA. The application of an ethnographic approach with the direct
involvement of researchers in the field has proven to be a common element of a good
number of recent studies on organizations (Czarniawska, 2012).
Following a grounded theory approach, data emerging from the fieldwork was
subsequently analyzed in order to identify interpretation patterns. In the data analysis
phase, we also relied upon a semiotic conceptual framework built upon the work of Eco
(2003). In the following paragraphs, we provide further detail on the entire research
3.1 The research context
Senseable City Lab is a research group nested within the City Design and Development
group at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Massachusetts Institute of
Technology (MIT, Boston, USA). Senseable City Lab acts as an initiative that coagulates
multiple creative streams and productive energies coming from in-house transdisciplinary
researchers and external collaborations with other stakeholders such as institutions,
laboratories, companies. Senseable City Lab's projects span from architectural
interventions, such as The Cloud, a responsive environment for the city of London, to
innovative product design, such as The Copenhagen Wheel, a concept that transforms
ordinary bicycles through a set of sensors/actuators that provide feedback on pollution,
traffic congestion and road conditions in real-time.
In 2011, the Senseable City Lab had been operating for 7 years and had already worked
on more than 50 projects with roughly 350 collaborators2. These collaborators represent a
wide variety of disciplines, from architecture, to computer science, engineering,
interaction design, up to theology, game programming, Russian studies, medieval studies,
2 Figures collected from an analysis of Senseable City Lab official website
(http://senseable.mit.edu/) and personal conversations with lab’s directors and members
carried out in Cambridge MA (USA) in March 2011.
space sciences, Asian arts, music and game programming. Projects are also widely
distributed in different geographic locations across all the continents. A high number of
stakeholders are involved in Senseable City Lab’s projects and some of them come from
different disciplinary perspectives and cultural viewpoints and have various agendas,
needs and interests. This is how the lab describes itself on the home page of its official
website: Senseable City Lab “speaks the language of designers, planners, engineers,
physicists, biologists and social scientists. Senseable is as fluent with industry partners as
it is with metropolitan governments, individual citizens and disadvantaged communities.
Through design and science, the Lab develops and deploys tools to learn about cities—so
that cities can learn about us”3. This paper, in a way, precisely intends to examine if
design – as used by the lab, as an approach that relies on rapid and iterative visualization
and prototyping, user research and user testing, attention to the brand experience, service-
based scenario building and deploying, as well as on quite practical designerly skills in
product, interaction, architectural, urban, service design – can support the lab in being
‘fluent’ with multiple stakeholders.
Senseable City Lab is pretty active across the different forms of academic
entrepreneurship proposed by Klofsten and Jones-Evans (2000):
• Contract research: undertaking specific research projects with industry; many of
these projects have a strong commercial focus.
• Grantsmanship: obtaining large-scale research grants from external sources for
• Publishing academic results: publishing a good number of books, chapters and
articles in high-impact venues or in popular media.
• Consulting, by directly selling academic expertise to external organisations to
solve practical problems.
• Industry-oriented training courses, including executive education.
• Spin off formation, the creation of firms based on university research.
In a good number of cases, Senseable City Lab’s research projects are oriented to the
design and development of technologies or models that can have a commercial potential,
3 http://senseable.mit.edu/ accessed 25 July 2016.
and as such are either backed up by grantmanship (e.g., Live Singapore4, funded by the
Government of Singapore), contract research (from Coca-Cola, to ENEL, Ericsson,
Telecom Italia, GE and many others) or consulting activities (e.g., like in the project
Digital Water Pavilion5). Outcomes of these collaborations are generally theoretical
models or prototypes at different level of refinement, which can be evaluated by industrial
partners as technologies to be implemented, internally employed and/or commercialized.
In some other cases, Senseable City Lab’s research activities lead to the creation of start-
ups, such for example Superpedestrian, which produces and commercializes The
Copenhagen Wheel, a digitally-equipped bike that contains sensing technologies and that
is able to offer real-time advice to the biker on matters such as traffic, weather and
The lab is very prolific and various kinds of publications are ways to disseminate the
results of the lab to a wide audience, not only academic.
Although Senseable City Lab does not directly offer industry-oriented courses, its team
members are included as faculty members in the wider educational offer provided by
3.2 Data collection and generation
In operational terms, data was collected and generated through archival research, direct
observation, the authors’ experience as participants and e-mail exchanges. Field source
data mainly consisted of notes, photographs and audio-video recordings. Some semi-
structured conversations with the labs’ directors, members and internal and external
collaborators in the period across January 2011 and April 2014 were conducted by one of
the authors. Multiple data collection methods were used to exploit the synergistic effects
of combining them via triangulation (Eisenhardt, 2002; Jick, 1979), which consists in the
combination of investigative techniques to reduce the bias of a single observation in
comparison of multiple data (Tarrow, 1995). During the first stage, secondary sources
such as archival records, documentary information, official corporate communication
tools, like the websites and other social network accounts such as the Senseable City
Lab’s YouTube channel have also been used.
4 http://senseable.mit.edu/livesingapore/ accessed 25 July 2016.
5 http://digitalwaterpavilion.com/ accessed 25 July 2016.
6 https://www.superpedestrian.com/ accessed 25 July 2016.
At a later stage, the case has been informed by 10 in-depth interviews with the directors
of the center and other stakeholders identified as key informants (Kumar, et al., 1993).
More specifically, the process of conducting in-depth interviews was articulated into the
following phases: planning, developing the instrument, collecting data, analyzing data and
disseminating the findings (Boyce and Neale, 2006). During the planning phase, we
conducted a web research to identify the stakeholders to be involved and we identified the
key informants: representatives of the Senseable City Lab (the directors and some
members), some external collaborators and representatives from other organizations
collaborating with the lab. Later, we developed the instruments in compliance with an
interview protocol. Then, we carried out processes of data reduction, data display and
conclusion drawing and verification (Miles and Huberman, 1994). As argued by Gilmore
and Pine (1997), in case studies methodology, this approach guarantees the highest degree
of reliability. Interviews have been based on semi-structured schemas using a flexible
approach. Myers (2008) states that interviews offer an excellent ‘window’ of achieving
the research objectives, either allowing to know the informant’s perspective on the issue
or to know whether the informant can confirm insights and information the researchers
3.3 Data analysis
In order to examine the various instances of translation at play in Senseable City Lab, the
analysis of data followed an inductive and iterative process (Miles and Huberman, 1984;
Strauss and Corbin, 1998). The first step was a descriptive code resulting from the
consolidated framework of the categorization of translation modes offered by Eco (Eco,
2003). Diedrich used this categorization to analyse urban design (Diedrich, 2013). The
categorization adopted is inspired by Diedrich’s work, but it is slightly different as for the
way in which we define the key concepts and the boundaries among the categories.
Moreover, Eco states that there are infinite modalities of translation and that the richness
and unpredictability of this continuum cannot be represented by a rigid categorization
(Eco, 2003). In order to build his characterization of translation modes, Eco (2003) relies
on some key concepts:
• Intrasystemic interpretation: it is a translational mode that happens within the
same semiotic system. Intrasystemic interpretations can be, for example, a copy
of a drawing with a different scale, the summary of a book or the paraphrasis or
reformulation of a sentence, a performance, like when the different actors read
the same text7.
• Intersystemic interpretation with substance variation. It is a translational mode
that happens within different semiotic systems (e.g., like when we translate
between two different languages such as English and Italian or when a 3D render
translates an initial hand-draw sketch into a more refined design artefact).
• Intersystemic interpretation with matter variation. In this case, the semiotic
systems are quite different and the translation only points to some elements of
the original work. For example, a choreography of Picasso’s Demoiselles
d’Avignon might translate the painting through grimaces and disarticulated
movements of the dancers. In this case, the translation points to some elements
of the original work (for example, the angular and disjointed body shapes), but
does not fully represents other elements (for example, the relationships among
the various colour nuances and the volumetric bidimensional rendering used in
the painting). Intersystemic interpretations happen in the case of adaptations,
when a novel becomes a movie, or some pieces of classical music become a
cartoon, like in the case of Walt Disney's Fantasia8.
This categorization helped us in the processes of data reduction and organization and in
the analysis of the findings.
Finally, as described by Eisenhardt (1989), a further series of iterations between the data,
both secondary and primary, and the literature has been conducted to better ground the
theoretical foundations of our investigation into current scholarly work.
There are no universal criteria that could fully assess the qualitative research (Eriksson
and Kovalainen, 2008). However, four types of methods proposed by Yin (2009) to
7 The three examples refer to three distinct sub-categories (intrasemiotic interpretation,
intralinguistic interpretation and performance). Performance is considered as a borderline
category between intrasystemic and intersystemic (Eco, 2003).
8 Eco (2003) further distinguishes between adaptation (adattamento o transmutazione per
manipolazione) and adaptation as new work (adattamento o transmutazione per creare
una nuova opera), like in the case of a novel that tells the story of Scarlett O'Hara after
she says "After all tomorrow is another day" at the end of the movie Gone with the Wind.
improve the validity of a qualitative case research have been adopted: construct validity,
internal validity, external validity and reliability.
• Firstly, the construct validity can be executed by utilizing a wide variety of
sources of evidence to establish reliable chains of evidence. In our case, we used
a combination of data collection methods, from ethnographic observation, to
documented interviews, up to different types of archival documents, such as web
sites, articles and printed report and materials. Using these different sources, it
has been possible to crosscheck the findings and, therefore, to create
• Secondly, the internal validity is assured by identifying causal relationships and
patterns in the case research. This was executed by relating the empirical data
with existing research.
• Thirdly, the external validity is proved by generalization of the study results. As
the research only contains one case and a narrow amount of interviews, the
generalization of the findings is limited. Awareness of these limitations improves
the external validity.
• Finally, reliability has been improved in the following way: firstly, adopting a
consistent structure for the interviews; secondly, all the data utilized in the
research has been well documented into archival records eventually accessible
by other researchers.
4.1 Senseable City Lab and its translational modes
Following Eco’s characterization (2003), it is possible to analyse how Senseable City Lab
uses design to operate translational processes among different categories of stakeholders,
thus supporting academic entrepreneurship. In Table 1, various translational activities
carried out by the lab are reported. At this stage, it is important to consider that not all the
activities listed in the table are directly related to design processes.
Table 1. Design and translational activities carried out in Senseable City Lab
(a) Intrasystemic interpretations
Examples in Senseable City Lab
Operating within the architectural domain, Senseable City Lab
a copy of a drawing
with a different
frequently works with maps and models at different scale. Most
of these models are kept at the lab and visitors/team members can
interact with them also after the conclusion of the project.
Stakeholders involved: internal team members, colleagues,
visiting researchers, external collaborators.
e.g., the summary
of a book or a
paraphrasis of a
sentence; or a
Generally, the lab produces abstracts or summaries of its projects
(intralinguistic translations), for example to be used as short
presentations for larger audiences or for archival documentation,
using different channels and different languages for a variety of
audience. All these descriptions are carefully reworded in order to
be accessible to different target groups. Out of the 436 items
listed as publications in the official website, more than 35% of
them are destined to venues such as El Pais, La Stampa, Il
Corriere della Sera, BBC, New York Times, Wired. Senseable
City Lab’s members also put great effort in disseminating (or
marketing) their work, by systematically creating dedicated
websites (or microsites) for each project, creating press kits and
press releases, actively communicating on Facebook, Twitter and
other social media channels.
Another example of intralinguistic translation is the quite frequent
situation when sketches translate other sketches, such as in some
brainstorming sessions where some of the participants draw
sketches and some other participants answer elaborating other
sketches that translate the original one (for example, representing
the same concepts from a different perspective). This happens
quite often when team members with different backgrounds are
collaborating on the same project (for example, some
representatives from industry working together with internal
Senseable City Lab’s researchers). In these occasions, sketches
are used to translate ideas and concepts among different
Stakeholders involved: wide audience, from internal members to
external collaborators and sponsors, up to press representatives
and general public.
two different actors
reading the same
The senior members of the lab frequently give keynotes or public
lectures. In some cases, the same PowerPoint slides are used and
different speakers - sometimes the lab’s director, some other
times other lab members - present these same slides.
This performative dimension is another way to translate concepts
from quite technical academic research into a form that can be
more easily understood by a large audience.
Stakeholders involved: wide, but selected audience, depending
on the presentation (e.g., the same PowerPoint slides can be used
for a keynote at a scientific conference or for a TED Talk).
(b) Intersystemic interpretation with substance variation
Examples in Senseable City Lab
e.g., a photo of a
In this case, there is a sort of translation from one type of visual
representation into another one. For example, during a project, the
lab would start with some hand-drawn sketches and get to some
digital bidimensional images and then arrive to 3D renders. All
these material re-articulations can be considered as instances of
intersemiotic translations precisely because they go through
different semiotic systems. The progression of these design
artefacts through various translations was also related to the
stages of the process (at an initial stage, it was perfectly fine to
share hand-drawn sketches among team members; at a later
stages, for example in occasion of public presentations, these
sketches needed to be translated into more polished artifacts).
Stakeholders involved: internal team members, colleagues,
visiting researchers, external collaborators, wider audience.
e.g., the translation
of a novel from
English to Italian
Some of Senseable City Lab publications are translated in
multiple languages, especially those books for trade, which
illustrate specific projects, such as the Digital Water Pavilion at
Zaragoza (Nicolino and Ratti, 2008) published in Italian, French,
Spanish and English. Also in light of the geographically
distributed activities of Senseable City Lab, this mode of
translation is important to further disseminate and market the
results of the lab.
Stakeholders involved: geographically distributed academic
community, but also companies working in the design field
(architects, urban planners, etc.).!
(c) Intersystemic with matter variation
Examples in Senseable City Lab
Adaptation: e.g., a
novel becomes a
movie, or some
pieces of classical
music become a
Senseable City Lab frequently produces motion graphics videos
that illustrate the key components of its projects. Some of these
videos, posted on the YouTube channel of Senseable City Lab got
hundreds of thousands of view9 and got frequently re-posted and
linked from other websites, activating viral dynamics.
Stakeholders involved: wide audience, from internal members to
external collaborators and sponsors, up to press representatives
and general public.
Adaptation as new
work: e.g., a novel
that tells a story
Projects created by Senseable City Lab are all connected by some
sort of overarching thematic orientation, such as the idea of smart
cities or city operating system. In some specific cases, the projects
are also further connected by a common storyline.
Stakeholders involved: wide audience, from internal members to
9 Videos related to the already cited Copenhagen Wheel project got more than 5.000.000
views (figures collected 28 July 2016).
external collaborators and sponsors, up to press representatives
and general public.
Although not all the translational modes described in Table 1 relate to design (i.e., the
intersemiotic interpretation mostly refers to textual translations), the majority of the
translational modes were supported by design, for example through the creation of
sketches, architectural model, prototypes, motion graphics videos and visually appealing
PowerPoint files. Also in the case of textual translations - such as a paraphrasis of a
technical and academically-oriented description aimed at translating it into a language
that could be more easily understood by a layperson - Senseable City Lab tended to
accompany these textual descriptions with dedicated visualizations or motion graphics
videos that could better explain and communicate.
For example, while working on The Copenhagen Wheel -!the already cited project aimed
at creating a hybrid e-bike, which through a set of embedded sensors can detect various
parameters related to both the cycling activities of the owners (e.g., preferred routes,
cycling habits, etc.) and the external context (e.g., air pollution, traffic and weather
conditions) - Senseable City Lab created a design artifact (Figure 1) to provide a
simplified representation of some features of the hybrid bike.
Figure 1 Screenshot from The Copenhagen Wheel website
This representation is not a blueprint that offers enough technical detail to guide the
subsequent product development activities, but only an initial outline that translates some
underlying technological advances behind the Copenhagen Wheel into a visual
articulation that can be shared and potentially understood also by people without a
background in engineering and computer sciences. It is a representation that is spatially
dislocated outside the lab and its academic and technological domain and repositioned as
an external communication material that also speaks to non-expert and non-academic
target audiences. This and other design artefacts specifically created for the Copenhagen
Wheel – e.g., various visual mock-ups, 3D renders, motion graphics videos and
prototypes - helped Senseable City Lab in translating the conceptual and technological
complexity behind its activities into forms, which were more accessible to stakeholders
with a different academic or technical background.
The use of all these translation modes from Senseable City Lab and the efforts invested in
creating design artefacts to be distributed to multiple audiences give an idea of how
important it was for the lab to communicate/interact/exchange ideas and collaborate with
5.1 How design can support translation and thus enable academic entrepreneurship
A semiotic categorization built upon the work of Eco (2003) has been used as a
• To show the extent and the breadth of the translational processes carried out by
Senseable City Lab
• To show how design can be employed to support translation across almost all the
translational modes used by the lab.
We will now reflect upon how these processes of translation can be used as enabling
factor to support academic entrepreneurship (Table 2).
Table 2. How different modes of translation support academic entrepreneurship
Mode of translation
How different modes of translation support academic
Intrasemiotic: maps and
architectural models or
models for new products,
created at various phases
of the projects.
• Aligning internal lab members and external
collaborators, thus leading to better team
• Models are also a way to translate early ideas into
formats, which can be shared with external
investors and sponsors.
Intralinguistic: a wide
variety of written
present projects to
• Translating the labs’ scientific results and activity –
oftentimes originating from state-of-the-art
advancements in fields such a nanotechnologies or
robotics – into a format that can be easily
understood by wide audiences.
different channels and
using a different
these written publications
included visual artifacts
such as diagrams, data
• As such, it is not uncommon that Senseable City
Lab’s projects get mentioned in press and media
outlets, such as Wired, TIME, CNN, Fast
• This helps the dissemination and marketing
activities of the lab and its ‘brand’. An external
sponsor might be more interested in investing into
the lab, if there are chances that the joint project is
going to be featured on a TV show or an
internationally distributed magazine.
Performance: the lab
members frequently give
public presentations in
sometimes also adding a
(such as in a talk for
• The presentations developed for keynote addresses,
invited lectures and seminars are generally oriented
to different targets, depending on the type of event:
from an academic conference, to a technology fair
for industry, up to a TED talk.
• These presentations are ways to translate and
summarize the lab’s activities into a 15-30 minute
• These venues are a good way for the lab members
to create and curate connections and forge alliances,
within and beyond academia.!
interpretations: the lab
frequently uses design
artifacts – sketches,
visualizations and early
prototypes - during
and the concept and
• Design artifacts are frequently used in
brainstorming sessions, which see the participation
of teams that are distributed in diverse
organizations and different geographic locations.
• Design artifacts translate ideas into formats that can
more easily circulate across these organizations and
locations, thus streamlining the concept and
interpretations: in some
cases, Senseable City Lab
documented his projects
through some books
translated in multiple
• These multilingual translations give an idea of the
geographic articulation of the lab and its way of
operating, also involving actors that might not be
comfortable with reading/speaking in English.
• The lab also has sponsors located in countries
where English is not the main language: e.g., Spain,
Germany, France, and so on. This collaboration is
in itself something that some sponsors consider
qualifying for their own brand and therefore they
tend to use it in their communication activities.
City Lab frequently
produces polished and
videos that illustrate the
key components of its
• Professionally shot short videos and motion
graphics animations are generally produced by the
lab and distributed through social media channels
(such as Youtube).
• These videos are important translation mechanisms
o They document the project in a format that
is engaging and visually appealing
o They can be easily understood also by an
audience of non-professionals
o They can be easily re-shared. This is an
incentive for the sponsors to activate
partnerships with Senseable City Lab.
Adaptation as new
work: some Senseable
City Lab’s projects – such
as ‘MoMA-followup’ –
can be seen as adaptions
of previous work, which
is translated in a way that
can travel to different
contexts, in this case an
• Senseable City Lab works in a way that his research
and development activities are translated into
multiple ways, from an academic paper to an
artwork to be exhibited at a Museum of Modern Art
in New York.
• This is a way for Senseable City Lab to
strategically position itself as a lab that operates
across the borders of academia.
5.2 How do design-based translational processes support value creation in academic
The previous paragraphs described various forms of academic entrepreneurship carried
out by Senseable City Lab (contract research, grantmanship, publications, consulting,
spin-off formation) and how design supported translational processes and, as such,
worked as enabling factor in academic entrepreneurship:
• Streamlining research, concept and development processes
• Creating a strong brand and a clear strategic positioning for Senseable City Lab
• Presenting the activities of the lab to a wide variety of audiences in an engaging
way, also for communication and marketing purposes
• Coordinating and aligning the lab’s internal team members and the external
collaborators and stakeholders and their convergent and divergent needs and
• Forging and managing connections and alliances
All these elements support academic entrepreneurship in processes of value creation.
What kind of value is created in these processes? This is a crucial question, especially
going back to the already presented and discussed notion of academic entrepreneurship by
Kingma (2011) defining academic entrepreneurship as a way to jointly create value with
external communities. As documented in literature (Rothaermel et al., 2007), academic
entrepreneurship contributes to building economic, social and cultural value in various
• Knowledge produced in academia can lead to economic development of industry
and other external organizations.
• Academic entrepreneurship enhances the reputation of the university, which
attracts industry to the region and may lead to production of further forms of
academic entrepreneurship. Engaging in contract research contributes to stronger
social relations between university and industry that can lead to deeper
interaction in the future.
• When the results of research are accessible to external, non-academic audiences
and academics engage in conversations with external stakeholders, there is a
potential for more inclusive knowledge production processes that are oriented
towards the interests of multiple social groups.
• Upskilling the national or regional workforce as regards the emerging state-of-
the-art in terms of theoretical models, practice and technology. This ensures that
regional industry and maintains its competitiveness by increasing its internal
• Creation of new entrepreneurial ventures in an economy that transfers models
and technologies from the lab to the market, through several forms of intellectual
In short, a stronger interconnection between academia and external stakeholders operating
in the market sphere is generally seen in a positive light.
However, this interconnection can become problematic and open up a series of important
questions related to how and to what extent research should maintain some degrees of
independence from the market. This is an open point, frequently debated in academic
entrepreneurship literature (Kingma, 2011) and articulated into the following questions:
To what extent should researchers be granted some levels of independence in order to
have the freedom to follow their research trajectories and/or express critical positions? To
what extent is academic research accountable to external stakeholders (industry, NGOs,
government, citizens)? To what extent can or should these external stakeholders be an
active component in shaping the course of academic research?
These questions also impact more specifically on the notion of academic entrepreneurship
and how it is defined, measured and seen from many different viewpoints, such as the
ones strictly focusing on the importance of monetary outcomes or the ones supporting the
creation of long-term societal value, sometimes at the expense of more immediate
economic benefits. These are all important issues that need further debate.
This paper built upon a wide definition of academic entrepreneurship as a way to connect
academia with external stakeholders in order to jointly create value. The stakeholders’
value network centred on academic entrepreneurship can respond to different needs and
interests, not necessarily aligned, and can focus on various forms of value to be created.
Potential divergences in the involvement of various stakeholders in academic
entrepreneurship are a key issue, also in relation to the ‘valley of death’ that characterizes
the transition of knowledge from academic research to the external world.
In the attempt to cover this gap, this paper provided insights on how design can be used to
support translational processes and, consequently, connect and align different
stakeholders. Insights from the investigation of the processes adopted by MIT Senseable
City Lab demonstrated how design artefacts (e.g., sketches, data visualization and
interactive prototypes) were used at various stages across a wide variety of translation
modes. These design artefacts helped Senseable City Lab in translating the conceptual
and technological complexity behind its research activities into forms, which were more
accessible to stakeholders with a different academic or technical background. For
example, translating complex scientific outcomes of research projects into an easy-to-
understand motion graphics video was a mechanism frequently used by Senseable City
Lab to communicate with external stakeholders and negotiate a shared way of working.
The paper outlined several ways in which these translational processes support academic
entrepreneurship: coordinating and aligning the lab’s internal team members and the
external collaborators and stakeholders; streamlining research, concept and development
processes; creating a strong brand and a clear strategic positioning for Senseable City
Lab; presenting the activities of the lab to a wide variety of audiences in an engaging way.
Ultimately, these translational processes were, for Senseable City Lab, a way to forge and
manage connections and alliances among stakeholders, aligning their different needs and
Like MIT Senseable City Lab, other academic institutions are nowadays challenged to
follow entrepreneurial trajectories. The perspective offered by this paper can help these
institutions in reflecting upon their strategies for managing the interplay of various
stakeholders. When academic institutions are aware of the potential of design as a
translational mechanism, they might want to consider employing design approaches and
methods in their own activities.
Existing scholarly work investigating interplay between design and entrepreneurship is
sparse (Hobday et al., 2012; Sun and Linton, 2014). This paper offers an initial
contribution to this area of investigation, with a specific focus on entrepreneurial
activities carried out by academic institutions.
Further work is needed, also considering the limitations of this research, which only relies
upon a single case study. As such, this article can only pinpoint to the need of additional
studies to fully explore issues related to design, translation, entrepreneurship and
processes of value creation in academia.
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