Helsinki Design Lab helps government leaders see the "architecture of problems." We assist decision-makers to view challenges from a big-picture perspective, and provide guidance toward more complete solutions that consider all aspects of a problem. Our mission is to advance this way of working—we call it strategic design.
In 2008 Sitra set out to build a strategic design capability. The innovation challenge at the core of its mission required the ability to design and deliver integrated solutions. Since its inception the team at Sitra has been pioneering the notion of design applied to shape the public sector.
For the past four years we've been working to develop experimental projects, as well as research, reflect upon, and articulate the practice of strategic design. In that time "strategic design" has gone from being obscure to resonating with many. Today I am writing this letter to explain why Helsinki Design Lab will close in June and what you can expect from us in the meantime.
Since its inception in 1967, Sitra has been evolving. Within the latest transition, design at Sitra is shifting from a strategic to a service role. The current members of the design team (Bryan, Justin, and myself) are committed to strategic design and will therefore pursue this interest beyond Sitra. In the spring Sitra will hire for a new role to grow service design within the organization.
One of the first things we did in building HDL in 2008 was to dig into the archives from the sixties to be inspired by the legacy of the Industrial, Environmental and Product Design conference that Sitra sponsored (HDL 1968). During the next seven months we will be converting this site into an archive of the most recent phase of HDL. The archive will be legible, free, and open.
Our intention is that the work and experience of Helsinki Design Lab be useful not just for the next phase of design at Sitra, but for the community as well—that’s you. Our model for the HDL archives will be a seed bank. We hope that you are able to take the seeds of our work forward to find new contexts and new uses.
The first thing we will do is compile our case study research from Helsinki Design Lab 2012 into a forthcoming publication on stewardship. Our tentative publication date is May 2013.
Second, we will be hosting a public event in Helsinki on June 10th, 2013. This is a true experiment, as we’ve always done smaller gatherings. If you are interested in joining us this summer please add your name to this list so that we can be in touch as plans develop. The event will be free to attend, but you’ll have to cover your own expenses.
Our objective is to provide a platform for the strategic design community to share experiences, and we’re particularly interested in design as a driver for innovation in the public sector. We will focus on three specific audiences:
- Educators: how do we educate strategic designers?
- Practitioners: how do we increase the supply of practices capable of providing strategic design services?
- Commissioners: how can governments and foundations commission strategic design?
These themes are drawn from the questions and inquiries we have fielded over the years. During April and May of this year we intend to be on the road, meeting with you, giving public talks, hosting workshops, and making ourselves available to share the work of HDL. If you are interested in hosting us, please send a note here. Our resources are limited, but we will use your feedback to craft our itinerary.
We are also interested in the questions that you may have about HDL, our projects, and/or strategic design. If we get a critical mass of questions, we'll construct an extended FAQ. Your contributions are essential for this. Please visit this page to leave your feedback.
From July 1, 2013 the HDL website will go into hibernation mode. All of the content will remain available but weeknotes will cease and there will not be anyone responding to emails.
Undoubtedly this will be a surprise to some, but rest assured that the team is as committed as ever and we're looking forward to a very busy next few months. To some, closing may be interpreted as failure, but to us it's the realization that HDL has accomplished what it set out to do: to demonstrate that design can play a valuable part of strategic decision making, to grow a community around this practice, and to advance the discourse. As all good undertakings come to an end, they invariably make room for newer and better things. The next steps we all take together.
In another window I'm working on a draft of the feedback form we will send to the 12 Open Kitchen participants. That makes this weeknote a procrastination technique. Again.
We've been heads down these last three weeks.
Maija and I are working on a publication to wrap-up the work on Brickstarter. Sitra's not in a position to build the whole platform ourselves at the moment (though we are probably building a nano-micro-proto), so we're transferring our momentum there into a publication that coalesces three things: urbanism, governance, and emergent initiatives (or perhaps Peer Progressivism?). The goal of the publication is to simmer down our blog a bit and prepare a limited primer on these issues that will hopefully benefit anyone interested in building a platform to support bottom-up urbanism, and perhaps people who are using such platforms to build the city.
A recent call with Dan Parham, co-founder of Neighborland, helped clarify my thinking around the next steps for Brickstarter. As Dan Hill and I have always tried to emphasize when showing the Brickstarter mockups, the ideas are not the hard part necessarily, so I've been a bit embarrassed by the press our project has received because the attention should really be directed to Neighborland and others who are putting the ideas into practice.
Since we don't have a live platform we haven't been prototyping with users, but we have been prototyping with another group: civil servants. The reason we jumped right to high resolution mockups is so that they're plausible, and perhaps even a little scary, when we show them to our colleagues in city hall and elsewhere. Part of our challenge has been to find a language and a narrative that helps the public sector recognize the potential "threat" of citizen-initiated urbanism, and in doing so help them lean into it, rather than shy away. Because, of course, it's not a threat at all—quite the opposite. We're getting close to having an agreement with a town in eastern Finland to put a subset of the Brickstarter ideas into practice.
After talking with Dan, I'm retooling my thinking on the publication a bit and focusing more on how our work might offer a language and narrative that helps others build the connective tissue between government, citizen groups, and the technologists who build collaboration platforms. If we can do that, I would be very happy.
We've brought in Rory Hyde to help us as an editor for the Brickstarter wrap-up. It's great to have him, not only because his own work on unsolicited architecture overlaps with Brickstarter, but because he also brings structure to our work. Thanks to Rory's careful work on the table of contents and overall structure I'm now hyper conscious of the fact that our introduction is 35% too long. Time to lose 1000 words. This is my favorite part (really).
Maija's working on some text to summarize the Fact Cards, as well as a set of diagrams that map them out relative to each other. We'll crunch on this right up till the end of the year, but I'm resolved to have the final draft of the manuscript done by the new year.
Marco was in Chile to give a talk at the Architecture Biennale there, and a number of other things. He reports back that it's an exciting moment in Chile, but then again readers of this blog know that we're fans of the strategic design work happening in that country.
Justin was in town for a week, wherein he and Marco spent a good portion of it sequestered in a conference room hashing out a publication on Low2No. With that project transitioning to our market partners VVO and SRV this is a good moment to step back and reflect on what we've learned. That's the gist of the book, but I'll let Justin introduce it more properly when things are more fixed.
Somehow without trying to we've become a publications house. I'm glad that words are a renewable resource, or we might be in danger of using them all up.
Open Kitchen launched on December 3rd, but I think it's best to start with this, a new video that Kalle and I finished to coincide with the launch:
The Facebook page for the project is the best place to get a sense of how things have been going. Our participants spent about 1.5 weeks learning from experienced food entrepreneurs around the city, then the second 1.5 weeks have been dedicated to figuring our a shared restaurant concept and putting that into motion. Last night I had my second meal at Open Kitchen and it was—forgive me for bragging on behalf of the group—excellent! I'm really proud of what the participants have put together.
With things running more or less smoothly, we're now turing our focus to next steps for the programme. In January we'll be hosting some sessions to see if we can match the programme with a funder who would be interested in taking it forward on an ongoing basis. From this perspective, we've treated Open Kitchen as a mechanism to produce evidence. It is testing the viability and usefulness of a 3 week course as well as proving the market for such a thing. Sitra has taken the upfront risk in hopes that we will find a partner to carry it forward. That's always easier with even a modicum of evidence.
There will be more to say, but for now I'm going to end this post with some photos that document the first 2 weeks of Open Kitchen.
Between all of this, Marco, Justin, and I have been finalizing the goals for HDL 2013. I think we have a shared understanding of the goals now, but more on that in the new year.
As Bryan has already noted, a month ago I left Sitra, left Helsinki and moved to Italy, where I’m the now the CEO of Fabrica, a communications research centre and trandisciplinary studio. (You can read about that here.) Back in Helsinki for the weekend, having left a lush autumnal Veneto on Thursday, I’m posting this from a city that is now −5 and deep under snow.
I leave with mixed feelings: I could not be more excited about the new role at Fabrica, and equally I’m very proud of the projects that we created or developed here—Brickstarter, Open Kitchen, Design Exchange, Low2No and Helsinki Design Lab—and yet, as well as missing Helsinki, I also feel a loss that I’m not able to help take those projects forward.
This last aspect is clearly not important to anyone else, though; what is important are that the projects do have lots of life left within them, numerous unexplored avenues, and that they are taken forward in different contexts, tested under different conditions, by people more than capable of doing so. And that includes you, reader.
For instance, we often get emails asking us if Brickstarter is launching near them; we reply that they can take it! All Brickstarter is, essentially, is a tool to crack open discussions with government, and in public, constructed by taking the existing tropes of social media and crowdfunding and throwing them at spaces, communities and governance. It’s a sketch, and as such can be reinterpreted by others. There is no unique IP there as such—Sitra is a public body—and our “legible practice” approach is intended to enable you to take what we produce and deploy it elsewhere. Equally, there is no particular magic there. Again, it’s taking off-the-shelf cultural artefacts—social media—and deploying them in a slightly different context to their usual mise-en-scene.
The issue is in how you do it, who is doing it. That is what holds governments back usually, as there is barely a government, at city or state level, anywhere in the world who has the right people in the right place. In the particular case of Brickstarter, that means coders, designers, community managers, organisational entrepreneurs in strategic positions at the heart of government. Those things are usually treated as services to be bought in from outside and frankly, by people who don’t know what they’re buying.
However, there are a few honourable exceptions to this emerging, which is very encouraging. Those people have no need of Brickstarter and Open Kitchen, as they will already have a hunch as to what to do and how to do it. That could be you.
We’ve been so open and precise about the development of Brickstarter that it has often confused. Again, it is a sketch, and a conversation. To make that meaningful, we had to detail everything, to think it out loud, as it were. Thus, people thought it was a real live service—some people who can only see things through the lens of “hot new startups” and then wondered as to why we were blogging about other urban crowdfunding services (“Were those not competitors?”)
No, it was research, and designing a real(ish) website was also research, but research that is intended to affect. As we’ve written elsewhere, only by making do you genuinely influence—as it forces you to make meaningful decisions, as well as making abstract concepts tangible and legible —and I hope we made just enough to help bend the debate in a productive direction, just a notch. One of our core points to get across is that the ability to design a convincing looking website relatively rapidly, as well as a clickable prototype front-end, is not confined to Californian start-ups. In fact, it’s perfectly possible to pull it off in a relatively slow-moving, relatively bureaucratic public body in a welfare state. (The UK’s Government Digital Service is doing this for real, of course.)
“Start-ups are perforce small—you’ve got to focus, the blinders get narrower. By definition it’s not big thinking.”
I find that an interesting, subtle critique, and in getting Sitra, an institution—in an age when institutions are permanently under the cosh—to borrow a little from start-up culture without losing its institutional status and capacity, we might actually shoot for an interesting space in the middle, something other than the hegemonic start-up, if I read between Negroponte’s lines. With the ability to move quickly and prototype, yet retaining “big thinking”, systemic change.
Anyway. This approach to legibility—to thinking out loud through communicable means, in public—means that we can at least move on, and the projects live on. Brickstarter, in appearing in Steven Johnson’s latest amongst numerous other places, has already help move the conversation on in practical terms, we think. And I’ll continue the themes we started here in my new role at Fabrica, just as the others will too.
Watch out also for Open Kitchen, which we’ve published less about, mainly due to the fact that this is more of a real partnership. But if Brickstarter is largely applied research and discussion starter, trying to affect a culture, Open Kitchen is real live service deployed into the real live city, also trying to nudge the city's food culture forward. Watching the videos of the applicants to Open Kitchen was actually rather moving—that feeling you get when a hunch becomes a project, and then people adopt that project with gusto, and fill it with their own lives, enthusiasms, energy and spirit.
Open Kitchen is running now, and I’m sure it will be reported on thoroughly here and elsewhere. But that too is a project I’m proud of, which has filled much of the last year. It’s been hugely rewarding to move a project that started as a food truck concept for Low2No, via research, writing, teaching, drawing and self-publishing, into some kind of “HEL YES’s Kitchen”, a food start-up incubator running in the renovated abbatoir in Kalasatama, and subtly aimed at building a new user-centred interface onto the City of Helsinki. Many thanks to Ville Relander from City of Helsinki, Antto Melasniemi and Elina Forss, for this one. It’s been a blast.
The broader strategic design practice will move forward too. When we held HDL 2012 a couple of months ago, we were lucky enough to bring together a group of people to unpack various approaches to strategic design. It was heartening to see the emerging community around this work; although the work is still at the edges, it’s building momentum and a faint network of lines is being traced across the map.
For instance, on hearing my news Justin McGuirk remarked to me that it was a shame he can no longer say, “At least the Finns get it!” (Justin had written about our work a couple of times in The Guardian.) I told him that he still can say that, but also that he can also say the Danes get it (at Mindlab), the Americans get it (via IDEO, Brownsville Partnership, Local Projects and others), the Chileans get it (via Elemental, Tironi et al), the Brits are beginning to get it (at Nesta, Government Digital Services and elsewhere) and the Canadians and the Australians are now getting it too, with similar operations emerging in those very different corners of the globe. We’ve sometimes helped shape them a little, based on our Finnish experience and through hosting the network occasionally, just as others have, but most of this—and in particular the hard graft of getting it done in their particular cultures—is all their own work. That is also heartening.
All these—and more we don’t know about—are deploying design in new ways, in various modes and alongside other approaches, to help shape public decision-making and rethink more resilient public sectors. I think the work we’ve done here has helped push this mission along, and I’m proud of what we got done in my couple of years here, as a small part of the longer project by my colleagues, which still continues.
Huge thanks to the team—Anna, Bryan, Justin and Marco, and our great interns Kalle and Maija—as well as those other teams at Sitra I’ve worked with, and all our external partners—hello Antto, Elina and various Villes!, and the various ministries and government departments on Design Exchange, partners on Low2No—as well as our supporters in Helsinki and elsewhere.
Kiitos, moi moi.
Note: Lately I've been returning to the habit of writing prepared remarks in an effort to stick to the strict time limits of various events. As an added bonus, this means I end up with a transcript that can be posted with relative ease. Below is one such example, originally presented at the World Design Forum (previously mentioned here) on October 19th in Eindhoven and curated by the indefatigable intellect of John Thackara. Attentive readers will notice that the starting point shares something with an earlier post, but it quickly diverges. And so...
I'm an optimistic enough to believe that humanity will find a way to weather the immense and multiple crises that are mounting today. I'm less optimistic for our institutions, however, and this is why I've chosen to practice design inside a government agency. I believe that our institutions are outdated technology and that the tools and attitudes of design are part of the fix.
At Sitra we've been testing this notion since 2009 with Helsinki Design Lab. We have projects at different scales, from 10s of thousands of euros to tens of millions.
On the small end, that includes projects like Open Kitchen, which is a bootcamp for food entrepreneurs. We've had an explosion of pop-ups thanks to Restaurant Day, a festival that happens 4 times a year which you can see an image of here.
But what pops up inevitably pops down. Open Kitchen is designed to fill a missing rung on the ladder of innovation. In doing so we hope to help restauranteurs move from pop-up to permanence. This is important because we want to combine the faster cycle speed of pop-up innovation with the reliability of everyday businesses.
On the bigger end of the spectrum, we do things like Low2No, a sustainable urban development project that looks like a block of 5 buildings, but it's actually a vehicle to work with the ministries, the city, and private developers to create climate friendly regulations and business models. We use the messy reality and imperative of the construction project to bring urgency to regulatory change.
One early success has been a change to the fire codes to make it legal to build large buildings out of timber—something we had never expected when we began but discovered and acted on along the way. We call it a success because 4 other timber buildings have been announced since the change, so this is early but important evidence of scale.
What links both of these is an interest in using tangible projects to help organizations, as Jan Van Der Kruis noted earlier, to "witness change."
We have not designed roads to have traffic jams, hospitals to have queues, services to remove personal agency, and tax forms to be confusing. Institutions and their procedures can appear immutable and static, but they are nothing more than an accumulation of human choices. We can make difference choices today, and have different institutions tomorrow.
To do so, we need to develop ways to grapple with something that Dutch architectural historian Wouter Vanstiphout calls "Dark Matter". It's a metaphor for the complexity of institutions: all of the invisible things like incentives, pay grades, organizational culture, and other issues that nevertheless shape an institution's interactions, behavior, and output.
Dark matter is not a barrier because it's massive or negative. Rather it impedes change because it is inscrutable and opaque. We use our projects to help us find the texture and grain of dark matter, and in doing so find specific opportunities for change at the systemic level.
Let me switch now and share a bit of recent history in Helsinki, which nicely explains the imperative for another of our projects.
This is part of a cargo freight line in Helsinki that was renovated into a recreational path earlier this year. It was designed for skaters and it opened on June 12th. Exactly 3 months after it opened, the city of Helsinki came back and vandalized their own work by digging a moat around it to prevent skating. This was done in response to complaints by citizens who live nearby.
One week later, on September 17th, the city came back and filled in their moat after other citizens complained about losing the skate park. By the way, the original project passed through all of the required due process. The city built the thing, defaced it, then restored it, all within a span of four months.
Because the city was responsive to its citizens —and quickly! But responding in a series of transactions is not the same as fostering an inclusive debate about how we want to live together. Technocratic silos can only respond with technocratic answers. Why not a sign with hours, for instance? Because public works only have trucks and shovels!
Ascriptions of incompetence would be too easy, too simplictic. Instead we find that the institution itself is not in a fair fight with today's society. We are connected through fast and agile networks. We expect engagement from those we take the time to interact with. We want to contribute, not just receive.
But our institutions are without inboxes. In most western countries we have a democratic right to say NOT IN MY BACKYARD, but how easy is it to say YES?
In Helsinki this dynamic is summed up rather poetically in the official portrait of a recent Director of City Works, seen here, seemingly without a face. One wonders if the metaphor was lost on them. And although this is from Helsinki, it's a useful emblem for many institutions in many places, I would guess.
At the same moment we see experiments on the fringe. Crowdfunding websites are providing an alternative for citizens to financially say YES IN MY BACK YARD. This potentially solves a funding problem but it skips questions of democratic process, of debate. One of the first spatial projects on the US crowdfunding site Kickstater was a robocop statue for Detroit. While I happen to like the project, who am I, living in Helsinki, to say that this is what Detroit needs? The local and the global collide in this example with no clear answers just yet. We will have to design one together.
The cost of interacting with institutions is so high that citizens increasingly prefer to accept the risks of self-organization. As our culture changes, the public sector will continue to find itself subject to competition in ways that it's not used to. Restaurant day, which I showed earlier, was organized on Facebook … inspired by the difficulty of the city's own formal permit procedures. This is an unexpected, asymmetric competition to be sure!
If we expect our municipalities and our ministries to behave differently, they will need new capacities as well.
In the Design Exchange we help governments recruit and host designers as part of existing project teams. In other words, we help government change its people, and therefore its tools. These individuals are employees, not contractors. They're part of the fabric of the organization.
By being on the inside, they are better positioned to help frame questions in a holistic way from the beginning. This happens both by bringing a human-centered perspective; by enabling new forms of more fluid communications between institutions and citizens; and by making co-creation with citizens a basic tool, rather than an exceptional one.
Rosanne Haggerty, who runs an NGO in the US aimed at ending homelessness, once told me that "people have a hard time accepting failure unless they also see a solution." With these projects we're attempting to manifest solutions promising enough that they help us engage the failures of the status quo.
Thinking about it today, our hypothesis with the Design Exchange and the other projects is that by jumping straight to possible solutions, and by doing that close to government, we can begin to have a more articulate conversation about how we will redesign our institutions from the inside out.
Ten thousand meters over Trondheim and everything is a luminous black. The only light visible is an icy blue dot, steadily blinking on the wingtip of this Airbus A330. So yes, another flight. I'm on my way back from Helsinki after almost three weeks on the road in Canada, the US, and Brazil.
While I've been giving talks in what seems like just about everywhere, Justin, Marco, Kalle, Maija, and Anna have been more than earning their living by keeping the projects on track.
On the top of our minds right now is Open Kitchen. We've been finalizing the roster of speakers, writing assignments, and briefing speakers. The first item has proven to be a little tricker than we anticipated and so we are finishing things at the last minute. All of the contributors to the programme are people who have a wealth of practical experience and are active entrepreneurs, regulators, restauranteurs, designers, right now. While this is great in terms of the experience they bring to the sessions, it also means that peoples' schedules are harder to contend with. Our neat and clean thematics for each day of the programme have become slightly less crisp in the transition from top-down planning to emergent reality. We made the explicit choice to favor quality of content over ease of scheduling, though, so this is what we get!
We're also excited to have selected two Aalto University students who will work with the Open Kitchen participants to design their collaborative restaurant. It's going to be a barnstorm—they will have two days to do everything from menus to interiors—but the pair are talented so I think we'll see good things from them.
Marco had a busy day yesterday. He started the morning with an appearance on MTV3'sHuomenta Suomi (Good Morning, Finland) show to discuss the World Design Capital and then spent the day in Finlandia House MC'ing the closing event of the WDC. Lots of familiar faces were in town for that, so I'm especially disappointed to have missed it.
Maija and Erkki have been in eastern Finland meeting with a town there about the possibility of doing a sort of micro-Brickstarter prototype. I happened to run into Candy Chang, a friend and former neighbor, while I was in Rio de Janeiro, and we were able to share notes. She is part of the team behind Neighborland. Meanwhile, we are pushing ahead with a reflective summary and wrap-up of our research in this area. I'm rather behind on some writing for the site. That's likely to be part of my weekend.
Jaana, our embedded designer in the City of Helsinki Social Services dept, is off to the races with the redesign of the website and access channels for their in-home family care services. We should have something to show there by the end of the year, but no promises just yet. It's about to be pikku juolu (lit. "little christmas") season in Finland and that always seems to stretch timelines.
As a last thought before dutifully stowing my laptop and preparing for landing, I'm grateful to the many people I had the pleasure of meeting across Canada recently thanks to my trip there hosted by Social Innovation Generation. Nate Archer, Cameron Norman, Geraldine Cahill of MaRS, and ISIS at the Sauder School of Business in Vancouver took the time to blog about my various talks there.
And there's the red light and the reliable bing-bong of the landing preparation ritual.
Jesper Christiansen of MindLab and Laura Bunt of Nesta recently published an excellent paper entitled Innovation in Policy: allowing for creativity, social complexity, and uncertainty in public governance. I enjoyed reading a draft of the paper and acting as a respondent, both through a chain of emails as well as offering some remarks at a small seminar held at MindLab in Copenhagen. For more background on the paper, Laura's blog post is also relevant.
My full remarks are available on the MindLab blog. But to spark your interest, I'll give you a taste that ends with a riddle:
I agree that we are beset by crises, but I’m optimistic enough to expect that humanity will weather them relatively unscathed as individuals, families, and communities. The question is whether our institutions will be as lucky.
I’d like to begin with a riddle. What binds together the following…?
- A pop-up restaurant
- A Private school
- A Riot
- An Email
To find out, hop over to the MindLab blog!
First, some big news. We're sad (but proud and also happy!) to announce that Dan has moved on from Sitra and has taken up a new post as CEO of Fabrica, the communications research center of the Benetton company. He will be back to make a final post on this blog in the nearish future, but currently he's a bit pre-occupied with his new work in Italy. As you might expect!
It's only Wednesday so this weeknote is coming early. I'm in the air somewhere halfway across Canada. Actually, just south of a town called Outlook, which is an ironic thing to spot when glancing up from my inbox to scan the inflight map.
Tim Dramin and his excellent team at Social Innovation Generation (SIG) have been hosting me for visit to Toronto these past two days. MaRS has been by nexus during these days and it's a bit like hanging around an alternate reality version of Sitra. We're different in important ways (they incubate and we don't, for instance) but there's a familiar buzz in the air. Before that I was in Montreal with the McConnell Family foundation, and currently I'm on my way to Vancouver where I'll be hosted by Al Etmanski of SIG West.
These days have been (and will continue to be) packed. Canada seems to be mobilizing quite an effort around labs of various sorts: design labs, change labs, social innovation labs. There's an investment in codifying the various types and I'm curious to see how this evolves. Lisa Torjman's paper from earlier this year, entitled Labs: Designing The Future, is a good starting point, as is the Policy Horizons Canada document which was recently published. HDL's appearance in both have provided useful opportunities for us to see ourselves anew through someone else's analysis.
We got roped into the lab discussion in Canada and have since been enjoying an ongoing dialogue about what a lab is and what it does well. But here's a secret: we didn't choose the name "lab," we inherited it.
To be honest, all of us here on the HDL team have felt a bit uncomfortable with the term since we started ramping things up in 2009. Our initial skepticism came from a sinking feeling that "lab" was a bit of a trendy term. On the other hand, there was already momentum behind the name, and something of a legacy. So, as hard as we tried to make up a better name, we weren't able to. We accepted it for what it was and is: just a name. Plus, it performs well as a search term, which is not to be underestimated.
If I remember correctly, the top alternative was Strategic Design Lab. The reason we nixed that option is because it's too generic. It's harder to search for. It gives you nothing to grab onto. Our work, even when we have a global perspective, is rooted in Helsinki. It's an ongoing discussion and an evolving practice that draws from the legacy of Sitra and that of design in Finland and the broader Nordic region.
And almost by accident—or was it subconsciously?—we've arrived at a place where many of our projects are situated within the city. Today more than when we began things, our work is starting to look like Helsinki Design Lab. Speculating on and prototyping future Helsinkis. That's a topic for another day.
Still, "lab" has been the active word in my trip to Canada and I've been reflecting on how we define ourselves as a lab. If we're to own the fullness of the name Helsinki Design Lab, what does that mean? What is a lab? What is our lab? The notes I wrote on my way to Canada earlier this week:
Lab: platform for coherence and continuity
Lab: conducts experiments to generate evidence that guide further experiments
Lab: should have a portfolio of activity (not just one thing)
Lab: not a process but a practice
Lab: a place (but nothing fancy)
Lab: a core team
Lab: has a set of (consistent) tools
Lab: hosts an evolving conversation
The strength of our lab resides in the fact that we're able to work in an agile or nimble manner. Continuity on a basic level (funding, infrastructure, team, tools) enables us to pursue an evolving portfolio of projects using whatever combination of processes and tools are most appropriate for the specific projects at hand, in the specific moment.
This agnosticism towards tools and processes enables us to be flexible and opportunistic when we need to be—or put another way, when being flexible is the cheaper, faster, or easier pathway to our desired impacts. When we need to pivot, we can pivot. But pivoting is not easy, so the continuity of our shared practice is important. We've literally had to practice this work together to become adept at it. It's a new approach to producing social change, so I think it would be silly to assume that we could get that right without practicing in quite a literal way. One can only read so much music theory before sitting down at the keyboard, as it were.
In practical terms this means that we maintain a basic ability to reallocate our staffing, our budgeting, and our approach to a problem when necessary. This is not easy, but it's critically important. By definition, when doing something truly innovative it's not possible to predict all aspects of the work in advance. With the hindsight of 100 years from now, the belief that such planning and prediction is cheap enough to bake into everything we do will seem like a glitch. Measurement and feedback loops, yes, but we will have to find a way to integrate some degree of fuzziness.
Factories stamp out the same ole widgets, but labs are about developing an understanding for how to do new things. They are places where we expect to see configurations of equipment half deconstructed and reassembled into motley but functional piles. It's not just our desks which are messy at HDL/Sitra Strategic Design Unit, our work is also messy and unpredictable at times. It speeds up and slows down; it goes over budget and sometimes comes in under budget; but every now and then we hit upon something truly effective and that helps us learn about the world.
For a lab, and especially a lab situated within an organization like Sitra that has a financial acumen, the portfolio is the most natural scale of evaluation. Is the sum total of everything the lab is involved in net positive? It's easier for our colleagues in the endowment capital group to check their mixed portfolio of different asset classes and get a sense of whether the numbers are up or down—regardless of asset class, they're all reporting in euros. For our work we're sometimes struggling to make sense of numbers, intuition, and narratives. These make difficult bedfellows as metrics to assess a single portfolio, but it's something that we've developed a skill at through a four year conversation within the team. Good. The next question is how to codify that so that the next group can figure out how to do it in half the time. Eventually we'll all get there.
That's the thing, isn't it? We have 150 years of practice (or more) in predicting and working with financial indicators. It may be extremely important to develop ways to do the same with social indicators, but that doesn't mean we should expect that it will happen faster. We can and should desire that we, as a society, skill up in this area much more rapidly than we did with financial capital, but the likelihood is that we will be struggling with these questions for decades to come.
So I return to the lab as a platform of continuity that hosts an ongoing and evolving discussion around a limited set of issues. One that nurtures knowledge and produces evidence. One that serves the outside world and itself benefits by having feedback loops that enhance the next efforts. The goal of our science labs is not just to produce breakthroughs in their own particular corner of study, but also to become better at science itself.
The practice we're nurturing is strategic design. We're developing a way of designing tangible projects that help us identify and act on systemic change opportunities. We're developing ways to use projects to help us see and then change our cultures of decision-making. We're developing projects that have incremental tangible outcomes so that if they become compromised, canceled, or failed before reaching their final goals that we will still be left with some form of net positive results.
Tomorrow comes to us courtesy of the relentless incrementalism of today, and sometimes (but rarely) we find a beautiful shortcut. If there's one thing a lab does, it's to deliberately search for these shortcuts and then run through them as fast as it can.
The quick update is that the three case studies we've had for a while are now available as print on demand booklets and as revamped PDF downloads. Nestled amongst the flora and minerals of Helsinki, they look like this:
The content is 99.8% the same, but we've changed the format. When we started this iteration of HDL we felt the need to create a bit of literature that would describe strategic design as we saw it. At that point, in late 2008 / early 2009 we had not done any Studios, Low2No was not launched yet, and the other projects were not even on the radar. So we needed examples.
The cases became those examples and we felt that it was important for HDL/Sitra to act as an objective voice that could discuss the good, the bad, and the difficult in each of the cases. So we set out to write about design in a somewhat unusual way: the subject was design activity, but we imagined ourselves writing to an audience of policymakers. The task with the cases was to figure out how to demonstrate the value of the strategic design approach. This seems more commonplace now, but there were few people using design and policy in the same sentence in 2008.
An animation depicting the writing process for the first three case studies in early 2009
This led to rather long documents that thoroughly document the work. But at the same time the length of the cases makes them somewhat difficult to approach. They're long, but what if you only have a few minutes to read?
In reformatting them as booklets we've tried to address this in a couple ways. The first of which, and the only new writing in the booklets, is to provide a bullet-point overview right at the beginning. On the left column of the overview you see the story in a few bullets. On the right you see 'points of practice' that are drawn from this.
Borrowing from the design of the case pages on this website, we've started each narrative with a paragraph in large letters. As the table of contents for each one reads, if you're short on time, just read this one page. The first paragraph or two tells the story from end to end. Hopefully if you read this one page you'll be convinced to give the rest of the document a shot.
The body of the text is unchanged. We've adopted a format for these pages that puts the images in the margins as links to a figures section. In all honesty, keeping the full images in a figures section makes the layout work much quicker since we don't have to adjust the flow of the text to the images. With this done in my free time between various other projects, time was an important consideration. If we had more time it would be nice to draft a set of questions that could be used in conjunction with these documents in a teaching environment. Someday.
Redoing these cases was a pretty quick project, but I hope the extra effort was worth it, and that it gives them something of a new life. Or rather, I hope you give them a new life by downloading and reading them.
But now a moment to reflect on one of our miscalculations during the last four years. When we launched this website we thought that there would be plenty of cases out there just waiting to be documented. In early discussions with BERG, who helped us nail down our strategic positioning, we talked (dreamt?) about a regular flow of case studies. At the time we thought there must be tons of people practicing strategic design that we just hadn't met yet. We would take submissions on the site and then publish the best on a yearly basis. Or so we thought.
This was before we set about drafting a long list of cases, querying our network for suggestions, and then doing the research on a short list of possibilities. What we found is that the total number of cases was in the 10s, not the 100s. The pipeline that we imagined was not gushing; it was barely a trickle. This made the cases we did find more precious, but it also meant that some of the assumptions about the total volume of work were incorrect. We were careful to be very specific about what qualified as a strategic design case study, and the result is that very little qualified. I stand by the decisions that we made about narrowing the scope, but it means that we also narrowed the volume.
Unfortunately, we were moving so quickly that this visioning process was going on at the same time as we were building the website and we faced a choice: how to handle case study submissions. On the assumption there would be a steady stream of strategic design cases, we designed an elegant case study submissions process with the help of XOXCO and Rumors Studio, who were the team that built this site.
The case study submission process is a pretty complicated thing to build but the team managed to make it seamless from a user perspective. The work is top notch, but I'm sorry to report that it has been used a total of less than 10 times. 10 times in four years! Admitting this is painful because it means that we spent money and time to automate something that didn't need to be automated because there is not enough volume. Admitting this is painful because it means I made an error of judgement.
It drives home a point made by Joi Ito, one that I refer to regularly these days, so excuse me for being repetitive: it can be more expensive to plan and prepare than it is to develop and test with real users (particularly when considering software). If I had a time machine I would jump back to 2009 and tell younger-me to slap a basic contact form on the submission page and see how it goes. Just deal with the (presumed) onslaught of poorly formatted word documents, mismatched PDFs, and random emails. Putting up with it for just a little bit means that you only invest in building software when you know it's going to return value. If there were avalanches of submissions then it would not only be worth the time and money to make an automated submission process, but we would also have examples of what the submissions look like and so we'd be better informed about how the process should work.
But I don't have a time machine, so instead that leaves us here, with me shamelessly sharing our findings and telling you not to invest money in building a custom process until you've done it manually at least 10-20 times.
I'm not fretting, though. Today we have a better handle on what constitutes a strategic design case study, we have a better network that informs us about projects here and there, and more of this design work is being practiced around the world. That's what matters.
At any given moment we're working on things ranging from helping the city of Helsinki develop new service modalities for child care, to proposing a model for low carbon development, to rethinking the way governments interact with citizens—but one thing that's consistent across every project, regardless of content, is the need to collaborate. Simply put, we do almost nothing alone. Today I'm happy to announce that Sitra has published Creative Collaborations, a practical guide for working together, written by OpenEndedGroup (more on them in a second).
You can download a copy here.
By creative collaborations we mean work that, in the words of the authors:
— Follows no leader: Collaborators interact with each other on an equal basis. They engage in a freewheeling dialogue whose process and outcome remain open-ended until they come to a shared conclusion.
— Aim at invention: Collaborators occupy themselves with exploring diverse, far-flung, and even contradictory ideas, keeping at it for as long as required to alight upon a good and novel solution.
Participating in efforts such as this can be awkward, or even difficult, if one is not used to it. There's a rhythm to working together in this way and it's something that one usually needs to grow into, something that one has to practice.
More often than not we are introducing our collaborators to multidisciplinary work and for that reason we found ourselves wanting to have a guide that we could offer. Something that gives people an idea of what they might expect when being part of a creative collaboration.
To help us with this, we commissioned Marc Downie, Shelley Eshkar, and Paul Kaiser, who together comprise the OpenEndedGroup. They've honed the practice of working with others during decades of multidisciplinary arts projects, collaborating with artists such as Merce Cunningham, Bill T. Jones, and Robert Wilson as well with as with conductors, musicians, lighting designers, architects, scientists, engineers, and scholars.
The OpenEndedGroup drafted a text that proposes five roles (Collaborator, Contributor, Contractor, Curator, Constituents) and then 19 rules of thumb for collaborators. The result is a slim booklet that reads easily and quickly. I would have loved to have had this before the Studios we did in 2010 and 2011, for instance. It will be a valuable resource for future studios and other projects.
Sharing this today is part of our continued effort to maintain a legible practice. That is, to invest part of our time in describing how we do our work—how we practice design—in hopes that it will help us learn from our peers.
And because we believe in making everything we do public, we're offering the booklet for free download under a Creative Commons license. If you're the sort who likes to read on paper, you can also get a copy via print on demand service Lulu.com.
Doing the graphic design for the the booklet was one of my summer projects, and itself a collaboration with lots of back and forth between OpenEndedGroup and us as we collectively tweaked the format and the content.
Many thanks to Marc, Shelley, and Paul for their clear and concise writing. Download a copy and see if you enjoy it as much as we did.
I'll end this post with a request. On our Design Ethnography Field Guide download page we have listed alternative sources in case people want to see similar resources. If you have other resources which are useful guides for collaborative work please leave a message in the comments or let us know via @HDL2010 on Twitter so we can build a pool of resources around this topic as well.
Gray. Dark. From the Sitra tower one sees a vista of offices, homes, and shops glowing warmly beneath a thick cloud cover. The idle booms of a coal ship docked not too far away shine orange under sodium-vapour lights. At ground level metal surfaces reflects the red of brake lights, meaning people are on the way home. Marking the horizon, a strip of faint and fuzzy peach just visible beneath layers of dirty, gauzy, clouds.
More travel these past two weeks (not unlike one year ago). In week 188 Marco was at Dutch Design Week and then at a session at the Danish Parliament (which we all enjoyed hearing about because we are hopeless Borgen fans). He's just back from Moscow, where he was part of a session on the development of Skolkovo. Last week I was in Portugal to give a talk at Cidadania 2.0 (Citizenship 2.0) and then took a day off in Barcelona before coming back north. While there it was nice to catch up with Martin Lorenz and Lupi Asensio of TwoPoints, who did the visual identity for HDL as well as the design of In Studio.
In Lisbon Frederico Duarte gave me a tour of the city (and its food). A couple months ago Frederico wrote about Helsinki Street Eats in a profile of the city that he did for Fugas Publico, so it was nice to be able to meet in person. His own recent publication on the cakes of Portugal is an enticing read. I'm quite glad that I got a copy of it at the end of my trip or I might have come back a few kilos heavier.
On Monday we announced the participants for Open Kitchen. Out of 53 applicants we were able to make room for 13. The response was overwhelming and most of the people who applied did so by video (as we requested). The enthusiasm and eloquence in the videos is something that we want to share with you too, so Kalle is hard at work editing them into a single clip. Once we do that and get permission from everyone we'll post it here and on the Open Kitchen Facebook page.
The diversity of the applicants is what excited me most. From 19 to 40+, Finland to Brazil, burgers to ancient preservation techniques, we had a bit of everything it seems. We tried our best to capture that in the final group:
- Archibong wants to fuse African and western food
- Saila wants to give shape to a new kind of ice cream
- Mark dreams of smoked meats (and some bacon sandwiches, we hope)
- Anni believes in stylish an uncomplicated lunches
- Fatim's social kitchen will be an anchor point for newcomers to Finland
- Alba will bring the warmth of Mediterranean dining to Helsinki
- David is investigating ancient preservation techniques
- Elaine is going to show us how Brazilians do effortless nose-to-tail dining
- Jérôme tells us that bread is about friendship
- Jonatan & Nicklas are pure energy and enthusiasm
- Nguyen thinks Vietnamese food in Finland can be better
- Veronica believes in food, flowers, and friendship
Next steps with Open Kitchen are to launch a similar call for two design students to help the team design and build their prototype restaurant. If this sounds interesting to you (and you're based in Helsinki) please follow the Facebook page for an update next week.
Brickstarter needs more attention than we're giving it at the moment. Maija, Dan, and I have a lot of writing to finish up. We sketched that out on the whiteboard last week, but unfortunately there's is not yet a device to turn marker scribbles into coherent, articulate prose. We are currently exploring the possibility of doing a MVP (minimum viable product) version of Brickstarter with a municipality that's east of Helsinki. More details when they're stable.
A trickle of HDL 2012 feedback has been coming in, including corrections and amendments to the cases we wrote. Next week we will be making some decisions about whether or not we put the cases together into a publication, and if so how. That's part of a larger discussion about what the future holds for HDL.
Which leaves us with a long overdue project, a booklet that we comissioned the OpenEndedGroup to write. I spent the week checking all the final boxes so that this can go to press and get pushed live on the website for downloads. That'll happen early next week, so all I can do for now is tease you with these images. It's a plain spoken booklet about how to collaborate on creative projects. It's the kind of thing we might encourage people to read before joining us for a studio, for instance.
Before I end this weeknote and begin my weekend, two announcements for November. Social Innovation Generation (SIG) is hosting me for a tour of, well, most of Canada. In Toronto I'll be giving a public talk that you can sign up for here at 18:00 on the 12th. We've had an ongoing discussion with SIG and a few other groups in Canada, as well as receiving more than a couple visitors here at HQ, so I'm looking forward to seeing things on the other end of this cross-atlantic friendship.
After Canada I will be heading to Rio de Janeiro to give a talk at the Creativity World Biennale. And then I will sleep for a week straight.
It would be excellent to meet readers of this blog at these events. If you're attending please say hello.