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#5 Interview with Karin Ackerholm: Design is Building Relationships

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Interaction designers often transition into other creative roles, and Karin Ackerholm is no exception. She talks with Brian about having curiosity as a superpower, learning empathy from immigrants, and dedicating her career to making the world more sustainable for all of us.

“Should we spend our funding on things that make the world better or worse?”

Karin Ackerholm

LinkedIn profile | University bio


Brainpickings: Paula Scher on Combinatorial Creativity


Karin: That kind of attitude of both, you know, kidding about it, but also it’s the kind of thing that was very turbulent. I mean, I was 17. I wanted to look like everyone else and  fit into the group and whatever you do as a teenager. And  then I wasn’t that in-group person no more. I was odd and that was really good for me  (in the)  long term and really bad in the moment.

Brian: Hey y’all, I’m Brian Pagán and welcome to episode five of MindFolk: Human creativity and Mindful Innovation, in a podcast. In this episode, I’m speaking with Karin Ackerholm. She’s Innovation Advisor at Linköping university in Sweden, helping startups and businesses become more sustainable. We talk about it all here, including a career across design and innovation, what sustainable innovation means in the real world, being comfortable with discomfort and even what it feels like to survive COVID-19. Enjoy!

Karin: Actually, I went through that this spring. I had it.


Brian: do you  mean, you had Corona?

Karin: Yes, but I wasn’t that ill. I think many people aren’t really, it’s like you hear about the bad cases but it’s the same groups that are badly afflicted even by influenza. So for the rest of us it was like being struck with a bad flu, but not that worse than that.


Brian: well, in that case, I’m even more

Karin: grateful that you’re here.

Brian: So how’s life?

Karin: When we met we were young professionals, I would say. And I was a designer and I worked as a consultant. Now from there, I continued doing that. It’s quite a few years actually, but moving on from being basically an interaction designer into going more to design strategies; that kind of work, more, closer to the business of the clients that I was working with. And from there, sort of when that route ended career-wise, it was like me and my husband, we were at this roadblock or where you sort of decide where you go next.

And then we were sort of, where do you go, career wise  (but) also in rest of life because we lived in Gothenberg and it was lovely. And we explored that, double income no kids type of life with  lots of concerts and lots of, you know, all that kind of thing. And then after that, they move on to like, hmm. Perhaps that’s not what we want no more. We want stability and calm and all that, but still we want the professional development. So then  I’ve found my current job and he found another job that he’s not currently in. And we moved to the East side of Sweden where I’m at  (now) . And I’ve been working in my current role as an Innovation Advisor for a huge number of years, I would say. But  in the acadamia, it’s nothing. I’ve been working at eight years seeing the growth. But we have professors who we work with, they’ve been in the university forever. So eight years is nothing.

Brian: I can imagine…

Karin: And I’ve not been doing  (the same thing) . That’s true for any bigger organization, the tasks kind of differ even though the role has the same title. The content of that role will evolve over the years  due to  (change in) internal processes, what you  (the organization) need and what’s happening around in the world around us and so on. So therefore it’s not necessarily that day-to-day I don’t do the same things that I did many years ago, but I still work in innovation and help researchers. And also sometimes students go from  (an) idea, or in the case of a researcher research results into something that could be the start of a business.

Brian: That sounds amazing.

Karin: It’s lovely.

Brian: Yeah.

Was it always like this or what has actually changed in the last eight years?

Karin: We didn’t really explore,for example, these  (impacts) that’s where the thinking of sustainability and the actual impact of the technologies or other types of innovations that we sent out into the world. Like how can we make sure that we cost  (price) good things. And that’s much, it’s been like a very big, nearly evolution within the field. Not only in innovation, but also in that kind of role that I have as an innovation advisor. Before it used to be tech transfer offices, that’s the term. And now, not only is it not only tech, there are other things you can find in universities that could make a good impact in the world that are not technological advancements, like work practices or other things that we need.

But also it’s like this notion of understanding what we could do, both in scale, but also thinking of how can we provide solutions to the biggest challenges. That’s been, a development for both research, but also it’s a thing that of course comes into the field of innovation. I mean, if you’re going to innovate and if  it is truly innovative, it should really be something that targets the biggest problems.

For sure! How did 

Brian: that change happen? Or like when and how in the course of those eight years did that shift?

Karin: I think in design, we talk about this with weak signals and catching the weak signals that might be hidden. And in the beginning of these eight years, that was the case. It was written briefly or like into things like policy documents here and there, but not as explicitly as this is what should be done. Considering environmental impact is a big thing, these kind of very fluid, formulations that nobody really acts upon.

And then also we have the more activist part of it. We have Greta Thunberg, we have these people who sort of try to make things happen or really have an impact on the younger generation. But then also there’s been a lot of shifting, for example, EU has been driving this with the responsible investment, which is also a part of this chain. Getting funded for what you do and getting investments to be able to spread your innovation widely.

And then if the investors are looking more into solid investments that have a sustainable and good impact, then if people really understand that this is the way to go. So, and that’s really, I’m describing the journey here now, it’s sort of dawned upon people that this is the new normal. It’s sort of going like, wow, this is the thing now. And for us having been nerds in that domain for some years… laughs….Then I’ll boost me. It’s not like a strike of lightning, it’s more like, yeah… finally… but

Brian: it’s

Karin: good to have you on the team. Because it’s also  (that) in my role, I work at the university, so we’re funded by government. So in that case, we’re spending the money that you and I sort of put in us  (the university) with taxes and so on. So therefore this is a responsibility. What do we spend those funds on? So should we spend them on things that make the world better or worse?

One day I’m talking to somebody who’s in caring sciences and talking about how nurses should work in their role. And then the other day,  I recently joined the strength area of AI within our university. So that sort of can seem rather disconnected or fragmented. But on the other hand, it’s  (that) AI is also getting into healthcare a lot. So it ties together, all these things. I mean, what do you use these forces for these powerful tools, and when are they really good. And how can we make sure that they really do, any improvements in the situation rather than just add a tool to be used or something like that.

Brian: How do you asses those investments?

Karin: Business-wise,  it’s very known and very normal that you verify. Is this interesting to possible clients, is this something that’s delivering value? And it’s really the value system, that’s different. Looking at what other values might you be either improving or worsening. Whether your innovation, looking at it early on, it can be such things as, determining possible risks and helping the researchers overcome those risks.

And also thinking of, for example, it’s a good thing that we’ve had a long tradition of thematic research. So therefore it connects researchers through a theme. But on the other hand, that’s not where all the innovation happens. So there are still domains where people do research and things that is relevant, but  (it) might not be easy to apply unless you have a crossover with people who are working in that domain and actually know what if, for example, the job as a nurse is daily. How does that work? How can this actually fit into their everyday work? And that process is of course a design process. Although I tend to say that I work as a designer in disguise.

I don’t really say that I am a designer. That’s my background, but obviously I have a lot of skills and tools that I sort of secretly use as a designer.

Brian: But

Karin: it’s what we all do. We gather, I think, through your work life and also through your personal life, you sort of gather these experiences and tools and the way that you can do things. And then that total experience is why I think… sometimes when I was younger, I thought that people who were like advanced in their careers, that they were just good from the get-go and you go like, that’s a star. So obviously they would be great, but more and more, I think getting older, I still think that it’s more that you actually accumulate things. And if you can also use that wisely, not just have it, but not use it. But if you understand things about when you’ve learned, then you can actually evolve and that’s the stars are those that keep evolving.

Brian: What do you do to help your students keep evolving?

Karin: I can be really annoying in that. I come into this and I go like I’m so curious. I sometimes say my super skill is curiosity, because it’s always you go “wow, what’s that?” And this job feeds that curiosity hugely.

Brian: That’s fantastic.

Karin: However it’s also getting them to think as a designer as well. Having that schooling is  (fantastic) . Maria Popova, she has the blog  (called)  BrainPickings. She, posted the quote that creativity is combinatorial. And I know that others have said that as well, but I sometimes think that that’s the the skill of a designer; understanding how to combine things or understanding how to open doors for people who might not have seen that as a skillset or, as a combination with what they have.

So therefore this way of going  (and)  sitting in a meeting and going like… hmm… so this is what you want to do. I know who you should talk to and then connecting them to somebody else or saying that this type of application should really need somebody who knows this. So should I connect you to some students to know that?

So either it’s through contacts, being a relationship builder. Or it’s saying that this can be a risk. You might not have, web confidence on your team and you should really have that. So how can we make that happen. Or make a client assess that, is this really relevant for them?

Brian: Where did that journey start for you? Like when, when did sustainability become important for you?

Karin: This could actually be in a way, a very long story, but I’m not going to make it long. But I do think it comes back to things like childhood and things like that. My mom used to be a….. when she ended her career, she was a teacher at the high school. But before that, long before that, when I was a kid, she was a teacher of Swedish as a second language. So she had a lot of immigrants that she taught  Swedish and that we also got home to us. And we got treated to a lot of novel foods and I thought it was amazing. And also that was sort of a theory, you know  (to care about the world) ? I dunno.

I think my sister at one time, she said..  When she  (a student of my mother’s) came, she came with my mother through her work. She  (my sister) was like, where are your children? Because these were grownups,  you’re a teacher. Where are your children  (students) ? So helping people in that sense and also wanting to make the world better. That’s sort of ingrained in that story as well. Although it’s a new, completely different role, a completely different type of work, but still…

Understanding that there are different struggles for different people is also something that goes back to family history. My grandmother came here  (as) an immigrant after world war two. So  she had been in some of the camps and she had a number on her arm. So understanding that hmm…. starting a new  (life) with that kind of history? Even though she was this very little woman, she’s one of the strongest people I know. Rising from that into normality, just regular life is mindblowing.

But then not just personally, but also professionally I would have wanted to do more. I sort of felt,  if curiosity is my super proud  (quality)  and I would say my sort of lacking  (absent) qualities,  I’m very  (impatient) . You know, I don’t wait for things. I really want things to happen now. And then go “why aren’t we doing the fantastic things that innovation could arise  (lead)  to”. And then, sow that into anything you do, it’s like that what’s it called… when you had that vision, then you can’t really  (go back) . It’s like having a pair of glasses, then you go like it’s a blue pill or red pill. And then going from there you go, like this could be so much better. We can do so much more and you get sort of always pushing those buttons with everyone you meet.

Could you give me an example

Brian: of

Karin: that?

For example, at our university and in the Sweden, I would say it’s not just that the university, but also business-wise we have a lot of, for example, environmental tech companies. We have a lot of things that are good at reducing energy use or these kinds of things that really make an impact in the environmental  (sustainability) , the kind of shift that needs to happen in industry and how we live and all these things. In those cases, there’s no value in me pushing environmental issues on them. They know  (that) they have that  (issue covered) . That’s sort of core to what they do. However, sometimes having that guts or whatever trigger is not present, that where you go like “but what about the social aspect?” How are  (the) things made that you use? How do these processes look? What kind of work terms do people have? Do we know these things? In one way  (it) can be seen as being pushy or bothering people. On the other hand, especially for companies nowadays, it’s like these things can arise to be this really bad thing for them, image-wise. Therefore not building them into new ventures is really  (the lack of) quality assurance.  

And then there’s the other side. It can also be opportunity creation. I mean, for example, you might not understand the kind of qualities you could be providing to a certain situation. You might overlook how much potential this has, if you frame it to fit a certain market where this is a much bigger issue. So yeah, you could go on to sell it  like this tech product or whatever, selling to people like me who have have things set. Or you could think about, could this make an impact to people who wouldn’t buy the general product, which is also, I think that’s sometimes a mindfuck of some people. It’s like either you’re good or your bad, but no. There’s a scaling of this. So therefore being better is a good thing. And you need to give track of that competition as well. I mean, it’s everybody having good conditions in their production shops and so on, then again, that’s the baseline. So you wouldn’t dare to go below.

Brian: Sounds like making sustainable change is about moving the baseline.

Karin: I think it’s true. I don’t think that we or I, or any of us in our different roles can do that, but together we can. And that’s also something, what’s the cool thing today and what’s shameful or what you wouldn’t patch, that kind of things do change. The way we look at things change over time. And the same goes for some of our behaviors. Sweden as an example, where  (we are) rather good at this with composting and recycling and things like that. On the other hand, we webshop enormous amount of things. So, the impact you have on the world as a Swedish citizen is what you put out into other countries because we have the production over there of many things  (that) we have things shipped over here. And of course this spring, the things got crazy because nobody could shop the way they usually do. Oh, no… things are not coming from China. How can we live without technical gadgets that we spontaneously shop to entertain ourselves? But that’s  (what) the current normal has been. We think about what we do here, but not what we do there. And that’s also something that could be changed.

Brian: I’m looking forward to the days when people look back at this kind of behavior, the way that we look at, like

Karin: mad men.

Exactly. If people don’t bring out the whiskey at 10 in the morning meeting is like  (great) With that example, saying that it’s not all black and white. I mean, some things might’ve been nice, and also for some people, it might’ve been nice. It was really, really nice to have a housewife. I’m sure for those who did, it was very smooth sailing. For us who have careers and kids, it’s a bigger puzzle to be solved.

Brian: If you don’t mind me trying to synthesize a lot of the things that you’re talking about, feel to me like, it’s a lot about connection. So on one level, it’s about connection in the sense that a good designer or someone in your role is about bringing people together, who can help each other out, who have complimentary skills or who could provide value to each other. But then there’s also the connection between the different thematic industries that that your university works with. Like the care and AI.

But there’s also the connections between our decisions and the consequences that they have for maybe other people that also, even on a different level of so many levels here, that connection between our behavior, our policies and the  (impact) …. Let’s say that the people that we choose to be in power and how this affects, let’s say human migration patterns and refugees and all this kind of thing.

Karin: And it’s true. It’s very much connected, both connecting these different, like you’re saying both like levels and industries and so on, but it’s also still being able to act upon that knowledge. Because it’s sometimes you get really overwhelmed with going like, shit…can we do anything? Ss there any safe space for this? Can we actually act, or is it just like overwhelming and especially when talking about, for example, environmental issues and climate change. Of course we can all change.   (But sometime you) feel that that there’s nothing I can do. And then it goes for me as a person or for us as a family or for us as an organization and so on, I mean, do the biggest thing, do the biggest change or make sure that you focus on the issues that are really critical;  rather than going like we should be perfect and we should do everything well. Understand where you’re spending your money and your time, these kinds of things.

And that goes for, like I said, it’s on all levels. And one thing from us is like we had this, I remember we discussed this  (project)  that I had. I’ve run this product “Leave Changemakers” now for two years. And it’s a collaboration with a human rights organization called Civil Rights Defenders and then us at the Innovation office. This whole product idea is really, we came together at some networking event and started talking and talking, and then we started actually doing a product proposal without having an idea of who was going to fund it, or if our respective management was okay with this or whatever. It’s sort of, this is a group of action.. you know.. But then our innovation agency in Sweden opened a call. That was like, okay, so we can send it to you because this is actually what we’ve been saying and we got funded. So therefore we got funding for doing this together and it’s really them providing the problems. These are the challenges that our human rights activists around the world are facing.

And then having students trying to develop concepts on how these things could be solved. From our side of things,  (at the) Innovation office we’ve helped, the human rights organization get more insight on what’s actually the way of developing innovations and how can you have that happen in a way that can make them long-term sustainable in terms of economics. For example, how can they be economically viable over time?

Because then they might not depend so much on public funding and so on. And then not to say it hasn’t been challenging. Anything that’s not the same is always challenging, but then you have to be a person who is okay with living or a person or group that likes living in not the easiest  situations or that you sort of go, okay, so we’ll get through this. It’s, it’s sort of a bit, there’s a, a glitch, but man..

Brian: Be comfortable with discomfort.

Karin: Exactly. Which might also be something that I’ve been and become because of life. I lost my hair when I was 17. So, starting with comfortable in discomfort then. Yeah, that’s a good, good school.

Brian: Would you mind saying a little bit more about that. I’m curious,

Karin:  Umm… losing my hair?


Well, it’s called Alopisia. It’s rather common disease. I guess the less common  (thing) is that I don’t wear  (a) wig. I never did, but it proved to be a hassle almost immediately. I actually got a wig, but then it’s like wearing a knitted cap all the time. It’s incredibly  (difficult) and also you’re always hesitant. Is it sort of crooked, is it not looking right. So instead, now it’s head on. If I move into a room, people go like … and then they go like okay. So it’s just that second of what…. and then

Brian: it’s over.

I like the

Karin: expression of facing it head on.. laughs…

I have to be catchy. It is perhaps I’ve also gotten in that kind of attitude of both kidding about it, but also it’s the kind of thing that was very turbulent. I mean, I was 17. I wanted to look like everyone else and fit into the group and whatever you do as a teenager. And, then I wasn’t, that in-group person no more. I was odd and that was really good for me  (in the)  long-term and really bad in the moment. But it’s also, it’s very much connected to stress and I will say in the face of getting straight A’s, it’s a good thing to be ambitious. It’s a bad thing to be perfectionist.

Brian: What’s your self-care routine?

Karin: Nowadays I exercise a lot. I didn’t,  I’m one of those… I was never active in any sports when I was a kid. I of course I did some things at school and so on, but I was not the one in the soccer team or whatever, my friends had all these activities. I didn’t do much of that, but I realized that I needed that stress reliever. So that’s really for me, it’s sort of the way I look at being active. And physically is because I understand that it burns all that anger or frustration or whatever. And it also gives you stamina for making, really going for the long haul; they’re  (exercise)  going to do things that you really push your boundaries, that you can mimic what you do in sports with what you’re doing.

So I generally, I exercise nowadays, we’ve conquered. It’s been like exercising at home, you know, jogging and whatever kettlebells. I have a TRX. I do everything, everything at home, but also me and my daughter, we go to this … . there’s a gym session with kids and grownups. So it’s really fun. All the kids laugh at their parents because they look fun doing burpees. Because all of us  (parents)   go red and they   (children) are like, yay…it’s  not a big thing.  It’s also good way of being humble, realizing that it’s not like I aced that, it’s more like showing her that we get through it. It’s more grit than elegance in this activity. 

Brian: I just want to express our gratitude for this. It was such a fun and inspiring conversation and I’m really enjoying it. Do you have anything that you want to ask or add anything else? Before we wrap up?

Karin: I really liked this conversation as well. So I’m going to thank you because I think that ending with letting people think that what could you do more in the role that you have is a good thing. I mean, for me, just, changing my own habits or habits of my family. It’s neither innovative or gets into being a big impact for the world. Of course, we should do that also, but it’s much more in my role meeting people that can start something that could be the next big thing then of course, you know, injecting these values into them and having them understand what they could do could make them much more successful, but also having a greater impact for all of us. So that’s really what I could do that could make it even better. So why shouldn’t I?

Brian: Karin, thank you again for reconnecting after such a long time and sharing your story with us. And folks listening, thank y’all for being here with me. I couldn’t do this without you.

And special thanks to Zubin Nayak for the transcription.

May you be safe, healthy, happy, and choose love.


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