Diritto ed Economia dell'ImpresaISSN 2499-3158
G. Giappichelli Editore


stampa articolo indice fascicolo leggi articolo leggi fascicolo

How to analyse the design sector: an ecosystemic perspective (di Cristina Caterina Amitrano, Ricercatrice a tempo determinato (RTDA) di Economia e Gestione delle Imprese, Dipartimento di Studi Storici, Università degli Studi di Torino – Giovanna Segre, Professoressa associata di Politica Economica, Dipartimento di Economia e Statistica “Cognetti de Martiis”, Università degli Studi di Torino)

The essay aims to analyse the design sector using the ecosystem lens, “zooming in” one of the Cultural and Creative Industries (ICCs) and “zooming out” from a single firm or industrial sector to look at the ecosystem elements and actors helping to or favouring the productive entrepreneurship related to Design. We use this lens to study an Italian region, Piedmont, renowned for its long tradition of Design.

Come analizzare il settore del design: una prospettiva ecosistemica

Il saggio si propone di analizzare il settore del design attraverso il quadro teorico interpretativo dell’ecosistema, focalizzando l'attenzione su una delle Industrie Culturali e Creative (ICC) per esaminare gli elementi e gli attori che favoriscono l'imprenditorialità produttiva legata al design. La prospettiva ecosistemica viene utilizzata per studiare una delle regioni italiane più famosa per la lunga tradizione legata al settore del design, il Piemonte.


1. Introduction - 2. Literature review - 2.2. Innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem - 3. An ecosystemic interpretation of Design - 4. Research Method and Data Collection - 5. The Ecosystem of Design in Piedmont - 5.2. Core Design Sector - 5.3. “Field” actors – Design Related Cultural Institutions and Universities & Schools of Design - 5.4. “General” actors – Public Bodies, Incubators & Accelerators, Research Centres - 6. Discussion - 7. Conclusions - References - NOTE

1. Introduction

In economic literature, Design has attracted little attention as it is quite a small economic sector: looking at the statistical classification of economic activities, it is under the larger umbrella of professional and scientific activities. The main research on Design is related to economic development and its contribution as a creative industry in the wider context of cultural and creative industries (CCIs). Otherwise, there is a long tradition of analysing design activities in management literature, especially concerning the links among design, innovation, and knowledge (i.e., new product development, patents, and trademarks). Measuring the scope and the economic contribution of Design is a difficult operation, as it requires moving within a very sparse data landscape that is not always internationally comparable. The contribution of Design to the economy is readable at the intersection between what is produced by design companies (i.e., classified as operating within the sector, according to the NACE codes) and what is produced in other economic sectors thanks to the intervention of designers, a measure related to knowledge and skills coming into play in the production of products and services. Design can be described as a bundle of economic activities and relationships that – as one of CCIs – plays a complex role in regional development. For these reasons, it can’t be analysed as a sector, and the aim of this paper is trying to study Design adopting an ecosystemic approach. We conduct this exploratory study looking at an Italian region traditionally related to Design, the Piedmont region. Its roots are based on car design (i.e., Fiat) and have been developed around the industrial districts (e.g., steel, textiles, and jewellery). Over the years, this appealing history has attracted different design schools and institutions and internationally known educational experiences. Finally, in recent years, Piedmont has shown new trajectories of Design as an economic activity and a scientific discipline. Service design for cultural and social associations is emerging as new economic activity, and the systemic design approach is spreading its field of application.

2. Literature review

2.1. Design in economic literature Most studies concerning Design have been developed by economic geographers to explain the linkages among creativity, innovation, and economic development. The first evidence on the specificity of Design is related to the suggestion of analysing it as a creative industry without using the traditional approaches to innovation of manufacturing firms but “examining the distinctive logics of innovation in creative, knowledge-intensive business service industries” [1]. This has been done through an enlargement of Florida’s perspective on creative class [2] adding the analysis of the wider business ecosystem and the distinctive industrial architecture, and highlighting the crucial roles of craft skills and relations with clients. Florida’s approach has also been used to study the roles played on Dutch fashion design entrepreneurs by the urban amenities that attract creative workers and the agglomeration economies “to analyse the relative importance of personal versus business motives in location decisions” [3] revealing that personal valuations about urban amenities are more relevant than other firms’ co-location. Agglomeration economies in urban and metropolitan areas for CCIs have been used to analyse the design and craft-based industries in Italy [4], finding a correlation between location and different sectors of CCIs. These results show how Italian design and craft activities are not concentrated only in metropolitan areas and point out “a transition in the competitive strategies of Italian industrial districts from traditional craft skills to design innovation processes” [5]. The importance of specific productive activities in a geographical area for the location of design professionals has also been highlighted for the UK [6] with a classification of design occupations and businesses from a conceptualisation of activities that include elements of design practices (i.e., design-intensive industries including specialised design activities, architectural, engineering and integrated engineering design services; design-intensive services that encompass very diverse activities; design-intensive manufacturing). Looking at U.S., the role of Design in the economic development has been analysed through the collections of industrial and product design preserved by cultural institutions [7]: qualitative interviews have shown the potential [continua ..]

2.2. Innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem

As seen in the literature cited above, the study of design needs a systemic approach that look to the various interrelations between firms and professionals who “create” design and a plethora of actors such as firms that need design to develop their products or services [12], and institutions proposing policies for economic development [13]. The presence of so many actors directly or indirectly involved in design-based activities and the openness of relationships among these actors is the ground of the ecosystemic approach: the co-evolution nature typical of ecosystems [14] is related to the interrelations among actors within the porous boundaries and these mutual relationships are even more evident when looking at Design as design activities are used by different actors and permeate in very different fields of application and economic sectors. The intuition of Moore [15] to look at the similarities between management studies and ecology has been the starting point of an exponential number of studies associating ecosystems with business [16], innovation [17] or entrepreneurship [18]. In recent years, studies on the innovation ecosystem are increasingly growing up and scholars are starting to identify the main elements related to this concept through systematic literature reviews and bibliometric analysis [19]. The same trend is evident in entrepreneurial ecosystem literature in which scholars aim to fulfil the theoretical gaps that this approach previously shows as it first appeared in practitioners’ studies and used by public policy without solid literature. Numerous empirical papers have tried to better delineate what an entrepreneurial ecosystem is, while more recently scholars are summing up the previous findings to draw theoretical conclusions. Among the different approaches proposed, the complex adaptive system (CAS) is one of the most cited [20] as it helps the understanding of the “self-organized, adaptive, and geographically bounded community of complex agents operating at multiple, aggregated levels, whose non-linear interactions result in the patterns of activities through which new ventures form and dissolve over time” [21]. The CAS approach is considered as one of the possible theoretical lenses to analyse the EE to overcome the use of life-cycle-based models that “results in a crude oversimplification of a highly complex, unpredictable and fast changing [continua ..]

3. An ecosystemic interpretation of Design

Scholars adopting the ecosystemic lens to economic and management studies call for future research on the interactions between entrepreneurs and other actors in the ecosystem using data from different sources [30] and adopting methodological pluralism [31] but also on the link between ecosystem and creative economy for the analysis of public policies [32]. As Design is one of the main creative industries related to innovation [33], the aim of this essay is to follow the suggested future research [34] to analyse the Design through the ecosystem lens highlighting how it mediates the relationships between entrepreneurs and other actors in ecosystems. To reach this aim we have developed a conceptual framework (figure 1) starting from the productive entrepreneurship created around the “Core Design Sector” to go back to the stimulating elements composing the entrepreneurial ecosystem of designers: design firms and professionals represent the focal point and two different types of relationships link the Core Design Sector with the wider ecosystem: the Design offered to manufacturing and service firms (black outward arrow) and the contributions of cultural and educational activities, research and public policies to Design (black inward arrow). Figure 1 – Conceptual framework As introduced above, the proposed conceptual framework is based on the integrative model of the entrepreneurial ecosystem by Stam and Van de Ven [35] and it has been developed around a focal point – the Core Design Sector – that represents the productive entrepreneurship (output) with the Design Driven Manufacturing & Services as the broader part of the output relying on the Core Design Sector in different ways, benefitting of talents and Design Services. The Core Design Sector groups the broad range of companies and professionals offering Design through the creation of products or the provision of services. At first glance, this sector seems to be easily identified using the European Statistical Classification of Economic Activities (Nace codes) with the set of joint stock companies, partnerships, and sole proprietorships whose main business concerns specialised design activities (i.e., fashion design and industrial design, graphic design, technical design, and other design). However, the productive entrepreneurship of Design cannot be limited to this classification as it does not take into account the presence of [continua ..]

4. Research Method and Data Collection

To the best of our knowledge, looking at Design through the ecosystem lens is a new perspective so the limited theory and evidence on this theme lead us to explore it through an embedded single case study for its high potential to generate theoretical insights that might guide future research [39]. The selected case study is Piedmont, a region in the north-west of Italy that is famous for its design history especially in the automobile sector and a recently developed Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Index places it third last out of six classes in the ranking of other NUTS2 European regions [40]. Piedmont sees the presence of four university and private schools offering design courses and the location of renowned traditional districts like textile in Biella, goldsmith in Valenza, and taps in Novara. Further, the main metropolitan area of Piedmont, Turin, has been nominated as the first World Design Capital in 2008 and later, in 2014 as UNESCO Creative City for Design and it is still the only one in Italy. Further, a biannual report on Italian design economy has ranked Turin third among the Italian provinces for the number of design firms (5.2%) and second for the number of employees (7.6%) [41]. Since we use the ecosystem lens as the overarching perspective, our mixed-method case study follows transformative procedures [42] as it contains both quantitative and qualitative data collected through a concurrent approach. This choice is in line with recent research highlighting the importance of adopting mixed-method approaches [43], embracing transdisciplinary research fields [44], and using data from different sources, especially novel data from social media to integrate them with traditional datasets [45]. The possibility of being part of a wider research project involving a variety of disciplines allows us to integrate different approaches and collect data from multiple sources. Further, the importance of collecting qualitative data has been recently highlighted to analyse particular ecosystems as only metrics can’t help in understanding how the necessary identified improvements should be realised [46]. We started collecting data on the Core Design Sector. Qualitative data have been gathered through diverse focus groups with design scholars, designers, design teachers, and design related cultural institutions for understanding how design is characterised today, and which are the linkages among design and other [continua ..]

5. The Ecosystem of Design in Piedmont

5.1. Design Driven Manufacturing & Services Piedmontese manufacturing firms using the Design as one of the different inputs of production stands at 36.3% corresponding to 640 respondents. Data highlight how food and mechanical industries, especially small firms with a turnover of less than 2 million euro, are the main users of Design in Piedmont (table 1). Table 1 – Design Driven Manufacturing per industries and class of turnover (oct-dec 2021) Source: Authors’ elaboration on Unioncamere Piemonte quarterly survey data. The Design inputs are related mostly to product design followed by communication and packaging design. Product design, when used, is adopted by both small, medium and large firms, confirming the “historicity” of this type of approach to design, while for communication and packaging design we find only large firms. Data show a particular use of design for packaging, communication and multimedia by food industries with more than 250 employees in the food&wine district of Asti-Cuneo. This result can be traced back to the presence of customer-oriented firms using various marketing strategies closely related to design and environmental sustainability (eco-sustainable packaging), as well as the need to optimise packaging in relation to transport and logistic processes. More than a third of the Piedmontese manufacturing firms using Design states to have professionals on their staff, especially for product or communication design except for food industries that use external consultants more often. Looking at how Design is used in service firms – the Design Driven Services – qualitative data collected through workshops and documentary analysis show the application of the design thinking methodologies and systemic design especially in information and technologies companies operating in the digital transformation (e.g., Accenture, Reply) that in recent years are hiring designers on their staff. However, evidence of using Design in service firms shows a recently emerged approach adopted by financial and insurance firms (e.g., Intesa Sanpaolo, Reale Mutua), and in health and social care service firms. The first collaborate or employ designers, while the second take part in multidisciplinary projects where participatory design is used to humanise reception spaces and create relational environments in hospitals (e.g., “Spazi neonati” project in the neonatology department of Sant’Anna [continua ..]

5.2. Core Design Sector

Core Design in Piedmont comprises 1,694 actors offering Design, with two-thirds located in the Turin metropolitan area. Regarding the type of legal nature (table 2), Design is mainly carried out by sole proprietorships and professionals (72,1%) – with two third of male entrepreneurs – followed by limited companies, almost all in the various forms of a private company. Compared to the regional economy, the data on Core Design emphasises the presence of sole proprietorship and professionals. Table 2 – Core Design Sector in Piedmont in 2021 Source: MIRA and Unioncamere Piemonte (2022). Looking at the overall employment, data show that 5,304 people work in the Core Design Sector, especially in the Turin area. However, looking at the company size the firms with more than 10 employees prevail in the jewellery district of Alessandria (10,3%) with the greatest presence of public companies. Cross-checking these quantitative data with the results of the qualitative analysis on the main Design fields of activities, we obtained a subsample showing a dominant role of communication and multimedia design for both the number of firms and workers (table 3). Table 3 – Subsample of Core Design fields and workers in Piedmont in 2021 Source: MIRA (2022). Another subsample comprehending only limited companies show an average growth rate of 3.5% for companies’ turnover and 2.7% for employees over the past 10 years. Looking at the regional distribution, three-quarters of limited companies are located in the Turin area generating 376 million euros in turnover and creating employment for more than 2,500 people, mainly thanks to the contributions of both historic product and transportation design companies (Italdesign-Giugiaro and Pininfarina), and new companies recently settled in Turin (Changan Automobile European Designing Centre). Further significant results concern the public companies in the jewellery district of Alessandria with the city of Valenza (one of the three Italian goldsmith districts, together with Vicenza and Arezzo) generating a turnover of over 31 million euros and 260 employees. The exploration of new trends in Design through the survey to young professionals confirms the flexibility and resilience of Piedmontese designers during the pandemic period as it happens also at the national level [47]: the Covid-19 pandemic has not affected the respondents’ business, especially young communication designers. Results [continua ..]

5.3. “Field” actors – Design Related Cultural Institutions and Universities & Schools of Design

Among the “Field” ecosystem elements specifically focused on Design, the Design Related Cultural Institutions is the one promoting the “cultural atmosphere” and favouring networking opportunities in Piedmont. This is a set of institutional cultural networks, museums, associations, and philanthropic organisations highlighting how Design is a fertile ground for cooperation. Piedmontese cities are part of two different institutional cultural networks: the World Design Organisation with Turin designated as the first World Design Capital in 2008 and the UNESCO Creative Cities (UCCN) with Turin among the Creative Cities for design in 2014 – the only Italian city for design –, but also Alba for gastronomy in 2017 and Biella for crafts and folk art in 2019. These networks promote international cooperation with and among cities that have identified creativity and cultural industries as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development and the designations achieved by Piedmont confirm how design is able to put together different actors to reach a common aim. The long history of design in Piedmont has stimulated various preservation and valorisation initiatives through the creation of museums. Starting from the oldest example dedicated to car design, the National Automobile Museum (MAUTO) was founded in Turin in 1933 and opened to the public in 1960. It represents an instrument to highlight the evolution of cars from a means of transport to design objects. When design becomes historicised, it turns into an art object that can be collected and institutionalised through the creation of museums and ad hoc galleries: other examples are the Design Museum in None (Turin) and the International Museum of Applied Arts (MIAAO-Museo Internazionale delle Arti Applicate Oggi) enriched by a vast heritage of business museums and archives representing deposits of Piedmontese industrial design (e.g., Alessi Museum, Casa Zegna, Borsalino Hat Museum). Looking at associations promoting Design, Piedmont is the first Italian region hosting a regional Design Centre since 2018: based in Turin, the Circolo del Design (CDD) promotes the Design culture and activates fruitful relationships among the design community, companies, research and training centres, students, other cultural organisations, and public institutions (e.g., project “MIRA. Numbers, people, directions of design in Piedmont” creating a regional observatory on Design). Its [continua ..]

5.4. “General” actors – Public Bodies, Incubators & Accelerators, Research Centres

The “General” actors of the ecosystems contribute to Design while carrying out their primary activities focused on other broader themes. Starting from the Public Bodies element, there is the Regional Government, the Municipalities, Chambers of Commerce and their association. The Regione Piemonte, the first-level administrative division of the Italian Government, jointly with its Piedmont Agency for inward and outward internationalisation, supports initiatives to promote regional Design worldwide. Since 2016 they organise an annual workshop, “Made in Piemonte: Luxury & Design”, for bringing together the excellence of Piedmontese SMEs with foreign operators in B2B meetings, and in 2022 they have set up different activities during the Dubai Expo (i.e., an exhibition “Design Attitude: the Beauty of Shaping the Future”, a two-day B2B programme, and a workshop “Design and sustainability”). Further, since 2014 the Culture and Tourism Department of Regione Piemonte has devised the project “Hangar Piemonte”, designed to support the economic strength of the creative and cultural sector, with an action line on experiments in eco-design. The other regional body is Unioncamere Piemonte which supports Design, especially within the European context, through international events and projects. Since 2016 it has organised an international event, “Torino Fashion Match” within the Enterprise Europe Network and previously within a wider European project called “EDEN – EcoDEsign Network” (2012-14), which supported companies to produce in a sustainable way by adopting the eco-design approach. Zooming in on the metropolitan areas of Piedmont, another relevant public body is the Municipality of Turin, which actively participated in the process for the recognition of Turin as WDC and UNESCO Creative City of Design. In the last years, the municipality has also adopted co-design methodologies within different projects developed in partnership with Core Design actors and Design Related Cultural Institutions (e.g., “ToNite” for multidisciplinary solutions to manage public spaces and improve the safety perception of residents at night-time, “Torino più” an intervention model supporting the City in developing the social inclusion plan). Finally, the Turin Chamber of Commerce carries out activities on a continuous basis starting from the first attempt to [continua ..]

6. Discussion

The paper explores the Design sector using the ecosystem lens with the proposal of a conceptual framework that has been applied in a mixed-method case study on a region renowned for its design tradition. The framework and the results put some light on the nature and roles of the plethora of actors involved in design-based activities and how the relationships among them could be important for the competitiveness of regional firms. Other studies analysing the entrepreneurial ecosystem of Turin have evidenced how fostering creativity is unbalanced when compared to the commercialisation of innovative ideas [48]. However, when looking at Design as an ecosystem this issue seems to disappear as both public and industrial (firms using design, i.e., Design Driven Manufacturing) actors are actively involved with the first encouraging the match of supply and demand and the second integrating Design in commercialised products and services. The expected change in the role of public policy from fund provider to promoter of links among the ecosystem players is quite evident in the initiatives of the Chamber of Commerce together with Compagnia di SanPaolo, especially with the creation of an actor – the Circolo del Design – to disseminate the design culture and help designers meeting firms for explaining their potential contributions. The presence of Design related actors in an ecosystem seems to facilitate and foster networking mechanisms that are considered as “lubricant” [49] of interactions and connections among individuals, organisations and institutions. Relationships among ecosystemic actors allow the access and the mobilisation of resources especially concerning Design knowledge which is useful for the productive firms to generate new ideas and rethink their processes and products looking at sustainability and with a more human centred approach. Using the ecosystem lens to explore Design has shown the productive output generated by designers as entrepreneurs – new and established ones – in the Core Design Sector but also as actors nourishing the Design Driven Manufacturing & Services as external collaborators with their vital skills and competencies for innovation. Finally, the analysis of Design as an ecosystem across two years straddling the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted how new Core Design firms have been created but also already existing ones have been able to carry on their activities and maintain [continua ..]

7. Conclusions

The paper is a first attempt to use the ecosystem lens to Design thanks to a conceptual framework applied to a case study. Previously, Design was analysed either within the wider context of cultural and creative industries (CCIs), sometimes measured together with other different disciplines (e.g., architects), or through research approaches more focused on how design activities (and its knowledge) are integrated within firms to develop new products. The exploratory study is positioned between these two perspectives: “zooming in” one of CCIs and “zooming out” from a single firm or industrial sector to look at the ecosystemic elements and actors helping to or favouring the productive output related to Design. The nature of the paper led to some limitations concerning the use of a single case study that implies further research to test the proposed conceptual framework in other regions and also other countries. Moreover, the mixed-method approach has benefited from quantitative data, especially on the productive entrepreneurship of the ecosystem and future research could enrich its application and validity by collecting these types of data also for the other ecosystem elements.


Adner R., Match Your Innovation Strategy to Your Innovation Ecosystem, in Harvard Business Review, vol. 84, n. 4, 2006, 98-107. Audretsch D.-Mason C.-Morgan P.-O’Connor A., Time and the dynamics of entrepreneurial ecosystems, in Entrepreneurship & Regional Development, vol. 33, n. 1-2, 2021, 1-14. Bertacchini E.E.-Borrione P., The geography of the Italian creative economy: The special role of the design and craft-based industries, in Regional Studies, vol. 47, n. 2, 2013, 135-147. Brown R.-Mawson S.-Rocha A., Places are not like people: the perils of anthropomorphism within entrepreneurial ecosystems research, in Regional Studies, 2022, 1-13. Carayannis E.G.-Campbell D.F., ‘Mode 3’ and ‘Quadruple Helix’: toward a 21st century fractal innovation ecosystem, in International Journal of Technology Management, vol. 46, n. 3-4, 2009, 201-234. Chesbrough H.-Sohyeong K.-Agogino A., Chez Panisse: Building an Open Innovation Ecosystem, in California Management Review, vol. 56, n. 4, 2014, 144-171. Cohen B., Sustainable Valley Entrepreneurial Ecosystems, in Business Strategy and the Environment, vol. 15, n. 1, 2006, 1–14. Colombelli A.-Paolucci E.-Ughetto E., Hierarchical and relational governance and the life cycle of entrepreneurial ecosystems, in Small Business Economics, vol. 52, n. 2, 2019, 505-521. Creswell J. W., Research design: Qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods approaches (2nd ed.), Sage, 2003. Filippetti A.-D’Ippolito B., Appropriability of design innovation across organisational boundaries: exploring collaborative relationships between manufacturing firms and designers in Italy, in Industry and Innovation, vol. 24, n. 6, 2017, 613-632. Florida R., The Rise of the Creative Class, Basic Books, 2002. Foguesatto C.R.-Santini M.A.F.-Martins B.V.-Faccin K.-De Mello S.F.-Balestrin A., What is going on recently in the innovation ecosystem field? A bibliometric and content-based analysis, in International Journal of Innovation Management, vol. 25, n. 7, 2021, 2130001. Granstrand O.-Holgersson M., Innovation ecosystems: A conceptual review and a new definition, in Technovation, vol. 90, 2020, 102098. Hemonnet‐Goujot A.-Abecassis‐Moedas C.-Manceau D., When external design and marketing collaborate to develop new products: A typology of patterns, in Creativity and Innovation Management, vol. 29, 2020, 51-62. Iansiti M.-Levien R., The keystone advantage, Harvard Business School Press, [continua ..]