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“We wanted to take the great creativity that comes with the human centric art school design approach and add the scientific strength and capability of an engineering company,” says Mike Cane in explaining the guiding principle behind Cambridge Design Partnership.

Cane founded CDP 19 years ago with two fellow engineers Matt Schumann and Mike Beadman. In addition to his M.Eng (specialising in manufacturing), Cane studied for a Masters degree in industrial design engineering at the Royal College of Art where he discovered 'a completely different approach' to the process of product development. 

He realized that there was space in the market for a consultancy that blended the disciplines of design and engineering. CDP might have come into being in Cane’s front room, but the company now occupies a modern campus built around a converted farm in the village of Toft (eight miles to the west of Cambridge) and has a satellite office serving the US market in Palo Alto, California.

Cane admits that building a truly multi-disciplinary consultancy has not always been easy, not least because designers and engineers are often “very different people with different approaches and values”. However, he believes that CDP has achieved the success it has because the company has “created a culture that values both.”

CDP’s talented personnel come from a variety of backgrounds in consumer research, design, engineering, science and technology. In interdisciplinary teams they combine their range of skills and experience working across projects in four key sectors: consumer, healthcare, energy, and industrial.

The company’s leadership team of seven partners (which includes the three founders) know that CDP has a powerful offering to market. The consultancy’s methods, which blend the human-focus of design with the rigour of engineering, have formed the basis of several ongoing client relationships and are utterly relevant in an increasingly tech-focused marketplace.

Nevertheless, in recent years there have been efforts to describe and quantify this approach – for both internal benefit and as a communications tool to help engagement with new clients. The resulting work, under the banner of ‘Potential Realised’, is essentially a manifesto for the CDP way of doing things. Fundamental to the approach is the concept of return on investment in innovation (ROII) which, to put it in terms of an equation, is understood as ‘today’s value of future profits from a new product’ divided by ‘research, development and direct expenditures needed to deliver it’. In order to maximize ROII, CDP’s processes aim to maximise the numerator whilst getting the denominator as low as feasible. “This quantitatively shows something that we intuitively knew about the market,” adds Cane.

“We want all the work that we do to result in a commercially successful product in the marketplace – that’s our inspiration. It seems simple, but there are very few people thinking through how to achieve this.”

Head of design and front end innovation, Ben Strutt simplifies it a stage further explaining the proposition boils down to maximimised potential and optimal realisation. Strutt, an industrial design graduate of Northumbria University who also holds a Chartered Marketing qualification, has been instrumental in defining CDP’s five phase methodology – a development model aligned with the well-established Stage-Gate process.

Phases 0 and 1, the stages on which Strutt’s role is particularly focused, cover opportunity definition and concept creation – in other words creating compelling market focused concepts. Meanwhile, Phases 2, 3 and 4 address technology, product, and manufacturing realisation. The crux that underpins the methodology is that development of any project should not begin until there is a validated concept in place. 

Throughout nearly 20 years in the design industry, the CDP team have witnessed examples of companies who have blithely pushed ahead with product development – whether through vanity or misplaced loyalty to an idea – without a compelling market case. Clearly this is a situation best avoided and at CDP where possible innovation is always based on, to use Mike Cane’s words, “hard evidence of what people need, not a guess.” 

If you think about it for a moment it makes absolute sense – what’s the point of sinking money into testing and manufacturing only for the concept itself to change? Better to be confident of a product’s potential before moving forward. As such, Phase 0 involves building justification and an evidence base for any given product.

Within this there are three areas of activity: strategy – which takes into account both macro drivers of change and the internal culture of a client’s organization; technology roadmapping – what tech is already out there, where the gaps are, or how ideas might be applied in new and different ways; and needs mapping.

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