i3, une unité mixte de recherche CNRS (UMR 9217)

Institut Interdisciplinaire de l'Innovation

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“Generative Proof of Concept (POC)”: innovative design and experimentation for better care
Posted on 1 July 2020

"Design is a mode of conception that begins when you know where you are but you don't know where you're going". These are the words of Frédéric Lecourt, designer and co-founder of the design studio les Sismo, in front of public policy designers and business coaches at Station F at the end of February. These introductory remarks, presented to the teams of the subdirectorate for innovation of the Direction Générale des Entreprises de Bercy and the Mission French Tech team, aim to clarify the particularity of the designer in relation to other professions. Thus, as designers, the Sismo distinguish themselves from engineers who use their skills when the specifications for what they design have already been formalised, or artists who make the search for aesthetics and the production of singular imaginary worlds the driving force behind their work. These remarks also begin to sketch out the particular positioning of Sismo in the world of design, which is very heterogeneous because of its history.

The design studio Les Sismo, co-founded in 1997 by Antoine Fenoglio and Frédéric Lecourt, has evolved since its beginnings in furniture and industrial design. Indeed, over the last few years, Les Sismo has been constantly transforming itself, in particular by integrating new profiles, new knowledge, skills and approaches, in order to best accompany the evolution of society. "What we are interested in is taking care of people," says Frédéric. To do this, the Sismo's were, for example, led to spend more than forty-five minutes in an elevator shaft to "feel the place" and identify the weak signals at work in a hotel, on which the designers were able to work afterwards: namely boredom and solitude, sources of mutual and collective discomfort.
Accompanying the evolution of society is good, but being part of those who help to imagine a better future and make the lines move is even better! This can include the way in which a job interview is conducted. For example, Frédéric explains that "for another client, we have completely rethought the areas dedicated to recruitment by designing walking paths between recruiter and candidate that put both parties on an equal footing. The face-to-face meeting around a table leads to a different type of relationship". More broadly, Les Sismo and the philosopher Cynthia Fleury-Perkins have embarked on a new approach called Design with Care, which aims to think and prove that new ways of "making society" are possible, with the conviction that we must redouble our creativity and pay attention and care to both individuals and situations.

In the same spirit of permanent questioning, two years ago the Sismo wanted to integrate an external and scientific viewpoint. "We wanted a doctoral student who would watch us do what we do to bounce back," says Frédéric. This is where Caroline Jobin, a CIFRE doctoral student in management sciences at the Centre de Gestion Scientifique (CGS-i3 UMR CNRS 9217) of Mines ParisTech - PSL Université and the Theory and Methods of Innovative Design chair, an engineer by training and former student of the PIC Master's programme at the Centre de Recherche en Gestion (CRG-i3 UMR CNRS 9217) of the Ecole Polytechnique, comes in. In her thesis co-supervised by Pascal Le Masson and Sophie Hooge, she is interested in the management of the design of proofs of concept commonly called POCs (Proof Of Concept). While the proof of concept (POC) is often reduced to a simple technical milestone, a step or even a deliverable in an innovation process, Caroline studies the role of the POC in the organization of innovative collective design, more particularly in the world of care.
Caroline devotes the first few minutes of her talk to presenting the context in which this concept emerged, namely the 1960s, a period during which the race for space raged between the United States and the Soviet Union. Caroline emphasised that the term "proof-of-concept" was democratised through the TRLs (Technology Readiness Levels) created by NASA and has since been widely used in high-tech industries and ecosystems. "The term POC is now used in [many] fields and types of organizations: from aeronautics, to the IT sector, to the medical sector. The vocabulary is the same but the practices are different. The very definition of POC varies from one player to another and its implementation can create misunderstandings between the different stakeholders in the project," explains Caroline. Thus, whereas the POC was thought of as a tool for communication and coordination between different functions or organisations, its appropriation by a wide variety of players introduced plural definitions and uses which ultimately led to problems of understanding and therefore often to bilateral disappointments. On the other hand, this massive and diversified appropriation has made it possible to enrich the notion of POC and to better show the empirical stakes that motivated the emergence of this phenomenon. In this sense, Caroline was interested in the transfer of the POC from the American aeronautics and aerospace ecosystem to other ecosystems; this work was the subject of a publication that she had the opportunity to present at the beginning of June at the conference of the International Association for Innovation Management.

Despite the plurality of definitions, one common feature seems to emerge when analysing the practices of POCs through the prism of design theory (C-K theory; Hatchuel, Le Masson and Weil, 2017): it is a question of confronting intuitions and initial hypotheses with reality on the ground before envisaging subsequent stages of development that are often costly and risky. And this is done in a logic of double proof, both a proof of knowledge (certain propositions will turn out to be true or false) and a proof of concept (in the sense of the C-K theory: the POC serves precisely to highlight that certain dimensions remain unknown and deserve further exploration). Depending on the nature of the innovations and the business prisms of the actors involved in this design process, the initial hypotheses may relate to different dimensions such as, for example, the desirability of users, the technical feasibility and/or the financial viability of the invention. In this sense, the POC is located upstream of the innovation process and is therefore to be differentiated from the "test and validation" stage (to use the vocabulary of new product development) or the "minimum viable product (MVP)" stage (to use the vocabulary of Lean Startup) which comes much later in the process, i.e. just before or in parallel to its production or implementation/commercialization. In the case of MVP, neither the innovation nor its final environment is stabilized and often even leaves room for a "residual unknown". Thus, the challenge here is not to verify that what has been designed does indeed comply with the performance criteria as defined in the technical specifications, but to reassure the designers and/or their sponsors that there is reason to believe that the product, service, organisation, or even the collaboration... as imagined will be relevant.
During the presentation, Caroline introduced the notion of "generative POC" to describe a new typology of experimentation that would make it possible to go beyond the compromise between validation and exploration, often presented in a dichotomous way. On this occasion, Frédéric specifies that "clients who are often timid push towards validation while we push towards exploration". In this sense, Caroline is interested in how the tension between the two processes could be better exploited, i.e. how validation and exploration could feed and reinforce each other, rather than seeing only negative interferences.

Bien que la matérialité (physique ou digitale), rendue possible par les techniques de “prototypage rapide”, soit souvent essentielle à la mise en oeuvre du POC, il est dangereux de parler de prototype. En effet, cette terminologie est aujourd’hui utilisée pour décrire des objets très divers et risque d’être, à tort, associé au seul prototype de type validatoire (cf. ben Mahmoud-Jouini et Midler, 2020), qui représente la version quasi-finalisée de l’invention avant sa mise en production ou en oeuvre qui aura lieu très certainement après quelques ajustements. A l’étape du POC, ce n’est pas tant l’artefact en soit qui est important mais le rôle qu’il joue dans le processus d’innovation et d’apprentissage. Dans sa thèse, Caroline s’intéresse notamment au rôle que jouent les POC sur l’innovation en train de naître et les collectifs/organisations qui les portent. Pour étudier ces impacts, elle s’intéresse aux effets cognitifs et sociaux générés par les POC. Pour donner corps à ses propos, elle présente notamment un projet sur lequel elle a été mobilisée (sous forme de recherche-intervention) depuis mars 2019 avec ses collègues designers des Sismo. Ce projet interrogeait à la manière dont le design, dans un contexte d’urgence hospitalière, pouvait aider à mieux prendre soin des patients les plus fragiles comme les personnes âgées ainsi que leur entourage. Il est important de préciser qu’il était question de soin au sens de “care”, apporter du mieux-être, de l’attention, ... “[L’enjeu n’était pas de] préconis[er] du soin médical, ce n’est pas notre domaine de compétence » clarifie-t-elle. Caroline fait notamment part de sa surprise quant au rôle que peuvent avoir les designers dans la valorisation des individus. A titre d’exemple, elle explique que les interactions qu’ont pu avoir les designers avec une secrétaire médicale ont contribué à ce que cette secrétaire prenne conscience de la multitude de tâches qu’elle accomplissait chaque jour et donc de son rôle dans l’institution hospitalière et la vie des personnes qu’elle accompagnent. Plus globalement, dans ce projet il n’était pas juste question de s’intéresser aux patients mais également au personnel médical, para-médical et non médical ainsi qu’à son entourage car “apporter du mieux-être au personnel, cela se répercutera dans un deuxième temps sur les patients » continue-t-elle.

Enfin, Caroline nous explique qu’un dernier volet de son travail de thèse, qu’elle soutiendra fin 2021, porte sur les compétences et les outils de pilotage nécessaires au renouvellement des modèles d’évaluation et de performance et plus largement de gouvernance pour assurer la réussite de l’innovation. “Ce que nous voulons c’est faire entrer de nouveaux curseurs d’attention avec de nouveaux process” conclut Frédéric.