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KE Voices: Dr Lara Salinas on the power of design to create positive local change

Portrait of Dr Lara Salinas in luminescent light
  • Written byAnnika Loebig
  • Published date 27 February 2023
Portrait of Dr Lara Salinas in luminescent light
Portrait of Dr Lara Salinas | Photograph: Dr Lara Salinas

Fine artist turned design researcher Dr Lara Salinas has long known that she’s a designer at her core. With a desire to make a positive impact through service design, it comes as no surprise to learn that she decided to pursue her PhD in ‘Creative Exchange’: a programme where companies and designers work together through creative Knowledge Exchange.

Since then, Lara has been integral in making Knowledge Exchange (KE) at UAL what it is today, from embedding KE projects into the curriculum and investigating KE in the creative sector, to mapping how KE relates to our teaching, learning and research at UAL.

We recently caught up with Lara to reflect on her involvement in KE so far and the power of KE activities to create positive change in local communities and beyond.

Hi Lara! Can you tell us a bit more about your academic and professional background and how it led you to your current role at UAL? 

When I finished my PhD in Lancaster University, I came to UAL to do my postdoc, which was with the Public Collaboration Lab. In my PhD I had specialised on design for public sector innovation, and as part of my postdoc I continued working with public sector organisations, this time specifically looking at how design education could work with local government in a mutually beneficial and ethical way.

Out of that postdoc, I was looking for a permanent position because postdocs tend to be on a rolling basis. As much as I loved it, I needed some stability – that’s when the position on MA Service Design at London College of Communication (LCC) became available about 7 years ago.

So, I started as a lecturer and then the first thing I did was a Knowledge Exchange project in the curriculum called ‘Decathlon’, a 5-day Service Design Sprint to find ways to improve the employee experience with Decathlon Lakeside UK. Alisdair, who’s the director of Knowledge Exchange at UAL, asked if he could look at how I was doing things. Soon after, he offered me a position as Senior Research Fellow to conduct research on KE to help UAL make sense of what KE is in the creative environment. That's how I came to do what I'm doing now.

It’s interesting that you were engaged in KE long before it became available as a teaching and learning pathway at UAL. What are some of the ways in which you have helped make KE what it is today?

In 2012, the Arts Humanities and Research Council (AHRC) declared design as a strategic priority area. The first thing they did was to create a number of clusters to explore the creative economy, and the benefit of design, arts and creative industries to create a creative economy.

One of the clusters was the one I did my PhD on, which was to explore how we can participate in KE in the creative sector. For this, were working with the BBC, but I was also working a lot with local governments, asking questions like: What do you do with a designer? What do you do with an artist? How can design-led research benefit public services?

This national review on the contribution of design research to public services ended up informing new funding models to make design research available to the public sector and helped secure £25 million in funding for UKRI’s Future Observatory programme.

How can design-led research benefit public services?

— Dr Lara Salinas
Dr Lara Salinas holding up a piece of paper while explaining an activity
Dr Lara Salinas during one of the project's activities with young people for Future Observatory x Service Futures Lab | Photography: Nana Maiolini

You’ve played a huge part in developing KE at UAL. Knowledge Exchange is now more widely known as the term we use in Higher Education to describe how we collaborate with external partners. How would you explain what KE means in your own words? 

The easiest way to describe it is that academic people, so those employed by the University, collaborate with people outside of the University.

The idea is that a mutually beneficial exchange happens between sectors and that the knowledge held by universities is made accessible and can be activated in ways that society can benefit from.

That's the easy explanation, but then it gets much more complicated.

The way in which we now think about Knowledge Exchange is that knowledge does not only exist inside the University, but knowledges also exist outside of it. So, when I transfer my knowledge to you, we're able to learn from each other. That's why I was talking about something that is mutually beneficial.

I like to think about the 3 different perspectives or orientations of Knowledge Exchange, which are

  • research
  • teaching
  • learning

Then there’s the element of knowledge transfer or innovation. So, if we say that we're doing Knowledge Exchange with an orientation to do research, it means that we are working from the University with other people who are not academics, under the objective that we want to co-create new knowledge.

The reason why we do that is because we're working with people who are closer to where things get applied. Imagine a hospital setting – staff are the ones doing the work. So, we co-create new knowledge together, and the partners from the organisation we're working with are going to carry on the knowledge and apply that into a real-world scenario.

Then we have teaching and learning, which is where I think UAL is leading in the UK. This is where you have an educator, it might not be a researcher, who is working with an external organisation such as a company or a charity, in a paid or unpaid setting. The reason why you work together is because it might present a very good opportunity for your students to learn, and often we embed that as part of the curriculum. This is when we’re not aiming to co-create new knowledge; we are aiming for our students to learn with these partners. But remember – it still has to be mutually beneficial, meaning the people who work with us have to get something out of it as well.

A very important point is that we are not doing the job of an agency. I have experienced this myself when I was a PhD student: if you feel like cheap labour, then it’s wrong. It’s not KE. The learning objectives have to fit with those of the master's so I can embed it into a unit. This is why partners also need to understand that there must be some space to fail, because after all, we are in the business of education.

Then there’s the final one, which is going back to the beginning and, for me, is the most straightforward and old way of doing Knowledge Exchange, which is knowledge transfer activities. For example, I might give a lecture somewhere else that’s not my own university, or I can have a patent and I can sell the patent to someone to develop a new product. Or I can give training to someone that's not at a university.

There are many ways in which you can make sense of this. But for me, the purpose and the orientation are what makes a KE project what it is.

Introducing: Climate Studio

From all the KE projects you've been involved in, can you tell us about one that was particularly meaningful to you and why?

One of the most meaningful KE projects I’ve been involved in is the Design Exchange Partnership with Southwark Council. This was funded by AHRC and UK Research and Innovation’s Knowledge Transfer Partnership to embed design in Southwark Council’s Climate Emergency department team and has been an ongoing collaboration since then.

I was first able to formalise a KE activity like this one when Matt Malpass and I received funding by AHRC and Innovate UK to review how public sector organisations can benefit from design research. Not only did our research help the AHRC secure £25 million for the Future Observatory project, but it also created a new funding mechanism for Design Exchange Partnerships, seeking to make design research accessible to public sector organisations.

In 2019, I had started working with Southwark Council to embed KE projects into the curriculum, which was a way of getting to know each other, building trust, and eventually led to securing a Design Exchange Partnership to embed design into local government.

Embedding KE in the curriculum has many benefits: not only does it offer great teaching opportunities, but it’s also a way to scope collaborative research. Southwark commissioned us with £5,000 and only a year later, public funding of £20,000 enabled us to continue working together and allowing LCC doctoral researcher, Alvaro Bravo Cole, to work inside the government.

As the project was quite successful from the beginning, this led to securing an additional £80,000 public funding to explore how design practice can support local climate action, as part of the UAL Climate Studio. With this, we were able to increase and scale up the impact of the project and ended up engaging about 100 children and young adults in the borough with creative methods, which eventually influenced local policy.

There must be some space to fail - after all, we are in the business of education.

— Dr Lara Salinas

What type of projects are you keen to work on in the future?

For me, it’s important to have a positive impact in the real world; working with people who are affected by the problems we’re trying to solve, who can then directly implement solutions.

I'm primarily focusing on the public sector and climate emergency, be this projects that support climate transitions or decarbonisations both directly and indirectly.

I think that design can really make a contribution, because it’s very good at bringing different people together to collaborate. That's exactly what the climate emergency needs: we need to work with public sector organisations, because we know that 82% of the carbon emissions are in the scope of local government organisations. They are related to behaviour change, adopting new ways of doing things.

What I want to do is to be able to sustain this collaboration in a more strategic way, because asking for funding all the time is very resource intensive. I've proven what we can do and am now trying to demonstrate why collaborations like this, where we can share knowledge across the public sector, deserve more funding.

If you’re interested in collaborating with Dr Lara Salinas, please get in touch at

Listen to an episode of BBC’s Arts & Ideas, where Lara talks about her work with Southwark residents through UAL’s Climate Studio.

KE Voices is a series of interviews where UAL academics talk about their involvement in Knowledge Exchange (KE) activities, reflecting on how creative thinking and practices can be applied to tackle real-world challenges in collaboration with businesses, charities, local communities and other education institutions.

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