Every six months the Design for Europe project team gathers in a different European city to discuss our progress so far and plan ahead. This month we met in Lisbon, and in between meetings we managed to explore some examples of the city’s thriving design scene.

The city of Lisbon is both rich in architectural history and a fine example of modern urban design. Between the 15th and 18th century Lisbon suffered a series of major earthquakes that are estimated to have destroyed up to 85% of the city. But after each setback, Lisbon rebuilt and restored itself, finding innovative ways of engineering and building to fortify itself for what might come next.

After the last catastrophic earthquake in 1755, instead of rebuilding the medieval town, Lisbon demolished what remained and rebuilt the city centre in accordance with principles of modern urban design. In a similar spirit of regeneration and remaking, our 8th Steering Committee meeting in Lisbon included visits to two very different organisations at the cutting edge of innovation.


Our first visit was to the Parque das Nações (Park of Nations), Lisbon’s newest district, it was completely transformed for Expo ‘98 and is now a commercial and high-end residential area. The Expo site extends about a kilometre along the banks of the Tagus. Here we met with Pedro Janeiro, Head of Business Design at Novabase, a leading Lisbon-based multi-national software company with big name clients across business and government.

Park of Nations, Lisbon

Over the last five years Novabase has become a pioneer of creativity and innovation, wholeheartedly embracing design thinking to provide better solutions. Pedro told us the story of the sometimes difficult five year journey that the company had made to make design thinking part of company culture.

Some key insights from their success:

A strong vision

Novabase’s CEO had a single-minded vision to transform the company using design thinking, and to create a team to see it through. The parameters of the plan, the team, targets, scope and budget were all uncertain but the vision was clear. Without this willingness to take risks, it would be easy for any organisation to slip back into business as usual.

Training and timing

Top management were sent to top design schools all over the world to receive training in design thinking, and when they returned, they cascaded their knowledge to middle management and those running projects. Timing proved critical as Novabase found that project teams were most likely to put their design training to use if they had acquired skills just before taking on new projects.

The human touch

A company is made up of employees and it is key to have an engaged and happy workforce which will lead to greater productivity, collaboration, better services and products, which in turn will keep customers happy. Novabase introduced small interventions like having a lunchtime ‘speaker’s corner’ for staff to share stories, and team activities, which saw fruitful returns.

‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’

It’s an uphill task to change organisational culture but it is critical to do so, for without it, an organisation will not succeed even if it has the best strategy.

FabLab Lisboa

Next, we visited FabLab Lisboa, which is considered one of the most successful stories of fabrication labs in the world. Located in a former market in the old city centre, the space is filled with 3D printers, laser cutters, lathes and a room-sized CNC machine – all free for the public to use. This space and community that surrounds it has become a major player in the creative and innovative eco-system of the city, and is managed by the Lisbon Municipality.

FabLab Lisboa

True to the principles of FabLabs around the world, FabLab Lisboa uses open source software, and requires their users to share their creations openly with others too. Designs and processes developed in FabLabs can be protected and sold however an inventor chooses, but should remain available for others to use and learn from. Commercial activities can be prototyped and incubated in a FabLab, but are expected to support the inventors, labs, and networks that contributed to their success.

At the FabLab we met with a range of local stakeholders from the City Council, innovation and enterprise, journalism, design and business, to discuss some of the barriers they face in advancing the development of design. We also discussed what the opportunities are and where Design for Europe might be able to help.

Here are the key points highlighted:


Industry and education/training

Lack of supply of designers with the right skills for industry. The general perception was that designers are trained in specific disciplines (e.g. product design, textile design) with little crossover and design management skills. There is also a harmful culture where designers are expected to work for free.

Low value industries

Many local areas of expertise (e.g. shoe-making, textiles) are low value industries who supply materials and products to larger international brands. Local companies are unable to obtain much value from their products. This could also be linked to the lack of a cohesive Portuguese brand that could be marketed overseas.

Regional development agencies

Regional development agencies could be more effective in the ways in which design and innovation are being supported.


Raising awareness

FabLabs are a great platform to raise awareness of locally bred design and innovation, and has the potential to create a design movement. There’s an opportunity to identify case studies from across Portugal which Design for Europe can help promote.

Design-innovation support

This could be more effective at creating demand at a local level, and to work at city levels (instead of national or regional) to promote and support design. Several Design for Europe partners have established design support programmes and can share their experiences and expertise.

Some of these challenges are not unique to Lisbon or Portugal, and we would love to hear from you about how you have overcome similar obstacles, and what insights you’ve gained as a result.