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.
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.
And more on Flickr.
We're now working on the cases from HDL 2012 to get them into a format that can be shared more widely. No promises on the timeline for that, but perhaps early-mid next year.
It's only tuesday and already the supply of stroopwafels in the office is dangerously low. As is customary on our team, on a trip to the Netherlands one is obligated to return with wafels. I was in Eindhoven at the end of last week and I did my duty, but apparently I miscalculated the quantities. More about the trip in a moment, but first we need to get to something rather incredible.
Applications for Open Kitchen closed last monday and we got roughly 50 applications and the lot of them are impressive! We asked people to make short videos that describe themselves, their experience, and how their food concept will make make Helsinki a better place. The applications included people who excited about cakes, tapas, pho, flat whites & avocado toast, flower ice cream sculptures, traditional food preservation techniques, burgers, sourdough breads, and someone offereing a conceptual menu that begins with a starter of "loneliness" and continues with an entrée of "empathy". So in other words, this is all fantastic.
What we heard from the application videos is that Open Kitchen is exactly the sort of thing people have been waiting for. Now begins the difficult task of winnowing it down to a batch of ~12 people who we have room for in the programme. Tomorrow is the day for that and we'll be balancing multiple criteria:
- Sustainability: is there a concern for local and sustainable aspects of preparation, logistics, consumption, recycling?
- Diversity: is there a new kind of cuisine, a new experience, or a new perspective?
- Everyday: is the applicant interested in basic food experiences (not fine dining) that improve everyday life?
- Social: does the applicant see food as a social object that creates a bridge between diverse publics?
- Drive: does the individual show drive, determination, spark, verve, commitment?
The final selection will be posted next week. We are also hoping to post some examples of the applications, but first we need to get permission from the applicants.
To get the word about Open Kitchen we did an experiment with Facebook ads. We spent a total of €350.62 running two parallel ad campaigns for about 3 weeks. These were targetted to all people living in Finland age 17 or older (about 1,969,280 total Facebook users). To put this into perspective, it would cost €430 to have a banner ad on the popular Nyt.fi website or about €3,000 to have a small ad in the print version.
The response was rather rapid and we saw significant growth of the likes on the Open Kitchen Facebook page, an increased number of questions, and people sharing our posts. What we don't know yet is how many of the applicants found out about OK on Facebook versus other channels. Kalle will be following up with everyone to inquire about that so we have a better picture of how useful this method of advertising was. Here's a view of the stats for the lifetime of the campaign:
Dan had a good meeting with Jaana, who is our Design Exchange person working at the Helsinki Department of Social Services. He, Marco, and myself will swarm with Jaana on a quick project that she's starting now. The gist of it is that there will be an experiment in making preventative help more accessible, ranging from basic parenting advice up to complicated social difficulties. We think this means a combination of new online and offline possibilities to get access to help before there's a problem, but we're not exactly sure yet what shape this will take. It's Jaana's project, but we're here to help.
Down in Istanbul our installation of Brickstarter is now open to the public as part of the Istanbul Design Biennial. If you're not able to see it in the flesh, you can check out the boards we presented here and a bit of backstory here. This opportunity came up at the last minute and it was quite a lift to get the exhibition squared away while also finishing up everything for HDL 2012, but in the end I'm quite happy with how things came out. As an added bonus, the boards for the exhibition are useful as slides to be used in Keynote (thanks to the magical Magic Move transition).
After HDL Global 2012 concluded Marco and I both got on planes for Italy. He took a well-earned week off with his family. I was headed to European Center Living Technology to share our perspective on strategic design as part of a meeting about Envisioning a Socially Sustainable Future.
From there it was on to Ljubljana to be part of their Month of Design with a delegation of other colleagues from Finland.
And the week ended in Eindhoven where I gave a talk at the World Design Forum and then loaded my suitcase with stroopwafels. Doug Belshaw's thoughts on that event are worth a quick read. Hearing about Doug's work on the Mozilla Open Badges project was one of the highlights for me, as was getting a chance to catch up with John Thackara who moderated the day with aplomb. The organizers have also posted a summary, which is impressively quick considering our HDL 2012 event happened more than a week ago and we're still ruminating.
Marco is in Eindhoven now and Copenhagen later this week for Creative Summit (PDF link), Justin's in Boston, Dan's holding down the fort, and I'll be in Portugal for Cidadania 2.0 (Citizenship 2.0). Between travels we're continuing to process HDL 2012 so that we can post more reflections here, picking up where Dan left off last week.
Goodbye, Week 187, you were good to us, but now we must move on.
Last week we hosted Helsinki Design Lab Global 2012. The event was almost a year in the making, and you would've seen it referred to obliquely a couple of times here. We'll post a fuller update shortly, including our ideas about how we will distil and make legible (our favourite word) the conversations and connections.
We use Helsinki Design Lab—this site, social media, publications, events—as our communications platform around strategic design, capturing and conveying the essence of our projects, of other interesting projects out there, or building a network of like-minded folk doing similar work elsewhere, all in an attempt to breathe life into this practice, or culture.
Sometimes this emerges as fully-formed recipe books, sometimes as meetings which are somewhere between therapy and benchmarking. It's our tentative contention that there is a shared culture developing—around getting things done, in a "shared value" public context—and so we work hard to spot useful, transferable examples of such a culture, and bring together the people responsible so they can swap notes and find the time to reflect.
In this mode, our role is hosting, and then we have the privilege of listening, occasionally nudging, before going on to try to distil and document the salient points. More on that later.
But some quick hits for now:
Over the summer, we pulled together representatives of six groups doing interesting work, organised them into three productive pairings in New York, London and Copenhagen. Then we talked, for a day and a bit, about stewardship in and around their projects. It was incredibly interesting, and formed the foundation for last week's conversation.
The six projects were:
- Brownsville Partnership, NYC, by Community Solutions, which we paired with the approach to rebuilding Constitución, Chile, after the 2010 earthquake, by Elemental/Tironi Asociados;
- The Branchekode project by Mindlab within the Danish government was paired with the GOV.UK project by Government Digital Service at the UK government;
- And Nesta's Creative Councils project in the UK was paired with a project by IDEO for the US federal government.
Bryan, Justin, Marco and I then distilled the results of those "mini-summits" into six summary case studies, pulled out some key maneouvres or strategies to form a kind of emerging lexicon (a little like the vocabulary I sketched out a while back) and topped it with a short intro that Bryan and I wrote about this "craft", for want of a better word.
Last week, representatives from those six groups joined us in Helsinki, along with a few other invited guests, to review the cases as we'd described them, and spend a day in shared conversation digging deeper on the topics that emerged.
The wider group included representatives from Bengler (Norway), Cisco/LSE (UK), Community Solutions (USA), Elemental (Chile), Evergreen (Canada), City of Helsinki's social services department, IDEO (USA), Innovation Unit (UK), Mindlab (Denmark), Ministry of Trade and The Economy, Finnish national government, Nesta (UK), Sitra (Finland), Social Science Research Centre Berlin, and Tironi Asociados (Chile). (Government Digital Service couldn't make it as they were launching the gov.uk site, which is fair enough.)
Again, part of this is just bringing a network together. This kind of work is somewhat solitary—there simply aren't that many doing it yet, and although most people who know of it, or hear about it, can quickly see the potential within it, it's still a marginal affair, all told. Important projects; just not enough people doing them. So again with the therapy and empathy-building. But beyond that, we were after what is unique, or just plain useful and productive, about this culture? (And what is not?)
And in terms of that question, HDL Global 2012 had a particular slant. Where HDL Global 2010 had been a larger event, drawing out the network for perhaps the first time, this was a more focused affair. And where 2010 had followed the studios, and focused on the rapid prototyping of vision that was documented in the book "In Studio", HDL Global 2012 focused more on the next step—stewardship. As in, having located a vision, and strategy, just how do you make things happen?
So, this Autumn, an event in Helsinki.
Some details. We sent a small book containing the cases, and background, to the teams as they arrived, the afternoon before the event in most cases. We met for dinner that night. We like to start with a dinner, as it enables people to introduce themselves in a more social setting, and gently begin approaching the subject at-hand at a leisurely pace. You can then hit the ground running the following day. This is partly about getting the messy introductions out of the way, more carefully building relationships without the need for absurd "icebreaker" moments at the start of the event.
And partly because we just like to have dinner.
The following morning, we meet at Helsinki's famous Kauppatori (the market square at South Harbour) and take a boat ride to Suomenlinna, the old island sea-fortress that used to guard the city.
Suomenlinna, needless to say, one of Helsinki's great assets and luckily the Autumn weather was just brisk enough to wake everyone up without chilling them to the bone. A delicate balance, round these parts. Our venue was an old warehouse—possibly an ammunition store, looking at how the deep windows were angled—which was an evocative space, and Bryan, Justin, Kalle and Maija did a great job in terms of ensuring the space and the catering were top-notch.
Our format was simple. Marco started the conversation with a scene-setting talk; Bryan, Justin and I then introduced the cases, and asked for clarifying comments from the participants, as well as reflections on where their projects have gone subsequently.
Then, with breaks, lunch and a walk, we had a group conversation.
It occurs to us that we're very comfortable with the open-ended conversation. Those that know us well might say "overly comfortable". That may be the case, but I've had my fill of the alternative: overly-planned, clumsily-facilitated and tricksy workshop formats that leave little room for sudden inspiration or careful reflection, and head inexorably towards whiteboards covered in scribbles captured only in diligently Dropbox-bound photos, or their equivalent, flipchart sheets full of bullet-pointed lists that no-one owns, destined to remain rolled up under the facilitator's desk forever. Whereas the open conversation can be held over the course of a few hours, expanding to a group session in the room or contracting into smaller groups over lunch or coffee, and—given the nascent properties of the subject matter—provide ample room for the genuinely exploratory exchanges required.
You might spot Marco operating a slide projector in the photos. This was one of our many subtle (and not so subtle) habit-breaking gestures. It's a basic thought, and perhaps hardly necessary with this particular group, but with the public sector, we often need to derive different outcomes from the same organisations. Given this, one thing we need to do is destabilise the everyday habits of organisational cultures, to shake peoples' defaults, remove the subsconscious inhibitors of change without destroying culture completely. And if a core theme of all of our work is around developing an "institutional sense of empathy", then we need to heighten awareness of the qualities of things, not simply the easily measurable quantitative aspects that bureaucracy all too readily gravitates towards. In practice, this means assessing the symbolic messages contained in active choices about formats, food, location, rhythms, spaces, and so on. It's why we choose a disused warehouse on an island rather than a conference centre or hotel; it's why we had dinner the night before at Helsinki Contemporary Gallery rather than a restaurant; it's why we pay particular attention to our printed matter; and it's why Marco was operating a slide projector.
For most in the HDL2012 group, this was hardly necessary, as they spend most of their days delivering real change in richly messy public contexts, after all. Either way, the conversation flowed readily. Reflecting on it a few days later, it is somewhat extraordinary that we can find very similar approaches to stewardship in projects as diverse as the emergency reconstruction of a Chilean city demolished by earthquake and the redesign of a government web service. But we did, and in the space between all the projects we could see strong connective tissue being constructed across and within the group.
As the light began to draw in, a boat turned up at our dock at Suomenlinna, and it was back to the mainland for dinner, and then flights home.
So that was HDL2012. We have "proper" photos to follow, but more importantly, a sense of where our distillation and documentation might go next. For now, our notebooks, and heads, are full, and while we reflect on the key messages while they're relatively fresh, we would like to extend our immense thanks to all the participants in both the summer sessions and last week's event.
(In other news, applications for our Open Kitchen project closed this week and, having had a quick glance over Kalle's shoulder as they've come in, we're pleased with a good set of diverse applicants. More to follow there too. Ditto Brickstarter and Design Exchange.)
I'm procrastinating. Sitting next to me is a pile of paper covered in red scribbles. Those scribbles need to get into my computer and fight with some pixels. What comes out the other end will be a series of six case studies crunched down into a digestible format. Standing between us and the weekend are 9000 words. It's not clear yet who's going to win this battle.
The team are scattered, off doing various things, and Maija and I are in the HQ tending to the never-ending HDL logistics for next week. Wooden boat? Reserved. Hotels? Confirmed. Having just done a tasting, I can tell you that the reindeer we'll be having for dinner next week is delicious, in case you were wondering.
Marco spent a good chunk of the week interviewing candidates for two more Design Exchange Programme placements. Once they're selected and hired in we'll have a total of four embedded designers.
This is what I keep thinking about:
The hardest part of the video game Top Gun was landing your plane on the aircraft carrier. Get the carrier in your sights, modulate the throttle, adjust yaw, avoid roll, and land smoothly on the deck. "Stay on target," as they say.
Alongside the preparations for HDL 2012 next week, we've just presentation boards to Istanbul for the Design Biennial there which will feature Brickstarter. Now we know now to say "Dark Matter" in Turkish.
The last piece of that project is an application which will control a laser printer that will be zipping off letters to the 'Public Works Department' on regular intervals. Testing is coming along OK but we still have some bugs to squash.
Next week Helsinki will host a gathering of the Délice Network of "good food cities," so we took the opportunity to revamp Helsinki Street Eats to include information about Open Kitchen. We still need to find more time to do a proper update, but for now this is better than nothing. This edition features a new cover as well. Why not. You have 10 more days to apply!
This week was beyond. We're trying to wrap up our Brickstarter installation for the Istanbul Design Biennial, finish case studies of the six projects we learned about this summer, promote Open Kitchen (14 days left to apply!), put together an event with guests from 7 countries on 3 continents, and take care of a few things in between.
Marco was at the World Alliance for Low Carbon Cities meeting to give a talk on Tuesday. The same day I was at MindLab in Copenhagen, sitting on a panel organized to respond to and discuss an excellent paper co-authored by Jesper Christiansen and Laura Bunt of Nesta. We'll post a link to the paper once it is published. Later in the week Dan was off to Rotterdam to moderate at panel at the New Towns | New Territories event. Justin held down the fort in the Boston (home) office. Maija and Kalle spent more time than usual at Sitra HQ on the phones, evidence of the fact that these days we're putting things into place.
And since I'm writing this weeknote, I get to abuse my power and show you what I did this weekend. Although I spent a good bit of it working on the case studies, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to go mushroom hunting (!) with some friends. Glad that I did, too, because the forest is in a beautiful way at the moment.
Oh, a first for us! A two-and-a-half-weeknote.
The most recent round of recruiting for our Design Exchange Programme has closed. We had 46 applications for the Environment Ministry post and 47 for the Ministry of Employment and the Economy. Excellent! Marco and the rest of the hiring comittee are hard at work sorting through those now.
Rory Hyde came to town for a book launch of Future Practice, which includes a forward by Dan and an interview with me.
We're working on an exhibition of the Brickstarter research project for the Istanbul Design Biennial. It involves things like creating a coffe-stained municipal mug, doing drawings, and writing some simple software.
This is funny:
And this is sad:
Remember the Baana project, mentioned here previously? At one end of this sunken recreational pathway there's a sculpture in the shape of the word "Helsinki" extruded up out of concrete.
Last week a visitor would have found it in the state of the image above, featuring a 'moat' cut through the asphalt all around it. Why? To prevent skating. Originally it looked more like this. It was designed for skating, by the way.
After an unspecified number of complaints from nearby residents, the skating was deemed inappropriate and the city, as Dan puts rather eloquently, "vandalised their own project" to prevent people from skating. The part that pushes it into full absurdity is when the city's own safety regulations then force it to put orange cones up to mark the moat as a potentially dangerous change of ground surface.
Seemingly before the buzz of the planned 'moat' had even made it around town, the trench was already dug. A high point of city efficiency, to be sure, but not everyone was happy. The entire Baana project had gone through years of development with ample opportunity to comment or complain, as per standard procedures. So why were a few voices able to determine the fate of this city ammenity and have their voices translated into action so quickly, so unilaterally?
Then something doubly surprising happened: the city reacted quickly again, changing tack a second time and announcing that they would re-pave the moat. This restored Baana to its original, skateable condition, but leaves a visible and material scar of the non-debate.
On one hand this is a positive story about an agile city who was able to respond quickly, but on the other hand it's an allegory for the problems to come if we do not have more considered tools to help us negotiate these kinds of questions in the shared spaces of our cities.
Is this much agility always a good thing?
Note: This is cross-posted from Insidejob.fi since it's relevant to readers of the HDL blog too.
Our Design Exchange Programme is growing again. In August we placed Jaana Hyvärinen to work with the City of Helsinki Department of Social Services, where she will focus on integrating service design into the organization’s strategy. While the public sector is improving its service design capability, we also need to build organizations capable of framing relevant questions in the first place. No one wants a fantastically delivered service for something useless, or even harmful. How about the best surgery for those who don’t need it? So this is a wordy way of saying that we see service design as one part of a compliment of approaches to bring coherence to what we say, what we do, and how we do it.
Our societies have built great innovation traditions in the private sector, but that entrepreneurship can still be dormant in the public sector. While Helsinki Design Lab is about knowledge creation, capture, and dissemination, DEP was conceived to build capability within the public sector in Finland. Sitra's design-related work balance two sides of the same effort. We reflect on the knowledge and craft of strategic design through HDL, and build practical capabilities through programs like DEP. Public sector entrepreneurship requires both.
We're excited to announce that we now have two more openings for public sector designers, this time working within two Finnish Ministries. One position is open within the Ministry of Employment and the Economy (TEM) and the other within the Ministry of the Environment (YM). Applications for these these one-year positions are closing soon, so take a look at our job posting if you are interested. Please also help us spread the word!
This round of hires will bring our DEP total to four placements. Our gamble was that DEP would be a great learning experience for our embedded designers, for the hosting Public Sector organizations who gain a new capability, and us who get to learn first hand from this experiment. Early indications are positive and we will undoubtedly be examining the questions of whether to build DEP into something beyond this first pilot year.
On the 14th floor of the Sitra tower the view is gray through and through. A fog has set in, obscuring the horizon and veiling not-so-distant Espoo. Autumn has come to rest in Helsinki and we're welcoming the season for its crispness.
This end of the year is a time for being shipshape, and last week that meant launching Open Kitchen. Here's what that's about:
We won't teach you to cook. We teach you the business of food.
Open Kitchen is a programme that demystifies the business of food by creating a forum for you to learn from the city's experienced culinary business people who've been there and done that, and then working with your peers to build and run a prototype restaurant for a week.
Or you can watch Antto, one of Helsinki's most accomplished chefs and restauranteurs, explain it. We're very happy to be working with him, and a slate of other fine people to be announced in the near future. Needless to say, if the idea of learning from Antto and others is appealing to you, and you're located in Helsinki, please apply! You have till October 3rd.
For more on the development of Open Kitchen you can read about how we pivoted from our original idea of establishing a sustianable Grilli towards the current implementation as a sort of dark matter academy.
Maija is busy with Brickstarter, still posting a seemingly endless quantity of fact cards, whilst also working on a set of service journey mappings for self-initiated urbanism. At the macro level, Dan and I are working on the longer term future of the project by refining the scenarios I mentioned last time. That makes it sound more coherent that it is, really. There's a lot of scribbling on paper, sometimes on a whiteboard. More lines than words often.
We spent the first half of last week at MindLab in Copenhagen with Runa, Niels, and Christian, as well as Tom Loosemore and Russell Davies from Government Digital Services, part of the UK Cabinet Office. This was the third and final HDL 2012 case study pairing and it was—like the previous two—a brain-smacking experience. Lots to take in, lots to process. Our challenge is going to be choosing what to focus on with such a wealth of craft knowledge generously shared by MindLab, GDS, and the other case partners.
As with the previous sessions, we looked at one project from each team and left ourselves with a rather wide open agenda so that there would be plenty of room to follow the conversation as it goes. Dan has started collecting his notes from that session. I'll do the same shortly and then we'll have a brainmelt with Marco and Justin to collate the brightest spots from all six projects we've learned about.
Our first pass is via language. What are the words that people use to describe their work? What are the terms that they use, and the meaning they imbue those terms with? This is less of an arbitrary choice than it may seem: one of the threads of consistency that bind the six projects we looked at is that they're all driven by hyper-communicators. People who just really know how to explain things, to share them, and to make them real for others.
HDL 2012 is beginning to consume my calendar, and increasingly eating into others' as well. Maija, Marco, and I spent an afternoon checking logistical details. All is well there, though some items remain outstanding.
The Design Exchange Programme is growing a bit. Jaana Hyvärinen has joined the City of Helsinki Social Services department, where she will be helping build a culture of service design. Sara has a new blog post describing her busy autumn. We should have two more posts open shortly. As ever, we'll post here and on Inside Job when they're live.
Marco has written a blog post on the Low2No site explaining how that project has changed tack a bit. Worth a read if you've been following our work on that one.
And just now the infinite gray outside has broken, giving the Baltic back to us in shades of dirty cobalt. Welcome to Monday.
Last week we finally went live with Open Kitchen. I'll let Antto explain it briefly and if you want more detail you should check the site; this post will focus more on how we ended up with Open Kitchen as a project.
Readers of this blog will know that we like our food, but the motivations for this project go well beyond the desire to get a decent falafel, banh mi, or reindeer sausage in Helsinki. We engage food because we're interested in broadening sustainable consumer choices and fostering social diversity within Finland. Food is a good way to address these topics because it's the original social object. It's a familiar, tangible, and inescapable thing that's deeply tangled in individual preference, shared culture, and dark matter. This is a familiar story, so I wont belabor it. Instead, I'd like to share some of the backstory to the project and use it as an example of the pivot—a play that we've been adapting from the world of startups into our public sector practice.
To plan is to change your business, to pivot is to let your business change you. Despite best efforts to analyze and plan, the world does not always play out according to the script we write for it. In these situations, where you find yourself standing before unexpected opportunity or pitfalls, to pivot is to change the means that you're using to achieve the ends you desire. After a pivot you're headed in a new direction, but still rooted in the same first principles.
One year ago, when we began working on what has now become Open Kitchen, the concept looked like this:
Belly First Sustainability (Food, Public Debate, Business) — Concept Note
We want to accelerate the development of the sustainable food industry and culture in Finland by incubating the Low2No service partnership in anticipation of 2013. The aim is to sell sustainability, one bite at a time.
This is accomplished by building a Sustainable Grilli in Helsinki during the WDC2012 to create an accessible and first-hand entry point to public debate about sustainable lifestyles in Finland. The project is executed in three components: a competition, a temporary food cart business, and an events programme (in Helsinki and other cities) concurrent with the business.
In this draft (from September 15, 2011) you can see that the emphasis is split between providing a platform to prototype part of Low2No and larger systemic change goals around sustainable food. The means we had settled on to achieve this goal was to create and operate a sustainable grilli kioski for the summer.
Between the first conversations Justin and I had about 'belly first sustainability' and writing this concept note, two important things happened: the Camionette and Ravintolapäivä. Both of these unexpected events changed the context of food and food culture in Helsinki, and more importantly they provided tangible evidence of a new group of self-starters. Both involved demonstrations of what that new culture looks like, how it tastes, and how it changes the experience of the city in ways beyond just the foods on offer.
Both also highlighted problems in public sector decision making. The silos of our regulatory context were not set up to handle initiatives that came in the 'shape' of a food truck or a create-you-own-restaurant festival. The result was some rather public shaming of various public bodies through traditional and social media when those institutions did their normal, conservative thing. To their credit these same organizations responded quickly and positively, but not very coherently.
As we were working the concept note through various parts of the internal machinery of Sitra we were gleefully watching these changes happening on the street. And then something funny happened: we realized that we were developing a project for a world that didn't exist anymore. By the autumn of 2011 Helsinki didn't need a demonstration that sustainable street food was viable. That had been done already by entrepreneurs like Tio Tikka and activists like Olli Sirén.
Yet despite the positive blips that we observed, it remained difficult to get started in sustainable food in Helsinki. There was (and still is) a gap between the effervescent vitality of Restaurant Day and the day after restaurant day, when all of that surplus energy, excitement, and talent subsides back into previous routines. The ladder of innovation is missing some rungs, you might say. Restaurant day is a great way to test out an idea, but for those few who want to go further, where next? What steps exist between a pop-up and taking out a lease on 200 square meters of restaurant real estate?
These missing rungs of the ladder became our focus. We pivoted from a sustainable grilli demonstrating a new food culture, to a dark matter academy that could illuminate the tacit knowledge of sustainable food pioneers in Finland. We want to make it easier to create lasting, thriving sustainable food businesses in Finland. Open Kitchen relies on people who've "been there, done that" to share their knowledge and experience with others.
While this was unfolding we were writing the story, quite literally, in the form of a print-on-demand book. The research that went into the book and early development of the concept led us to meeting people all over the city, from restauranteurs to regulators to politicians, and everyone in between. We wrote it because that was an easy way to send us careening into the thick of things. Rather than sit in Sitra HQ and try to abstractly reason a view of the world, we got out there and started asking people how their corner of it works—or doesn't. Consistent across these meetings was a feeling that there's a good bit of knowledge and experience in the city, but it remains caught in pools—dark pools—within isolated communities.
Amidst our first proper blizzard of the 2011-2012 winter, Dan and I paid a visit to Ville Relander, who heads up Food Strategy for the City of Helsinki, and Elina Forss of Marrot Oy at the newly opened offices of Tukkutori. As we explained our interest in food the conversation fell quickly into a productive rhythm. Marrot, with the support of Ville and others, had been developing Kellohalli as a food culture hub for the city. It was to feature a strong programme of events, a library, and other activities. As strong as the plan was, it still pointed to the missing rungs of the ladder: once people get excited about food, what next? How do you go from enthusiast to entrepreneur?
The idea of the dark matter academy that we had been simmering (sorry!) was suddenly congruent with an opportunity right in front of us, with real names and availability and interest. That was that. In Marrot we had found partners who were already well positioned to help us develop and execute the concept of the dark matter academy for sustainable food. The pivot happened immediately, almost without a thought, because in fact the thinking had already been done and we merely catching up to the full implications of our intentions.
Pivoting can be difficult to accept, especially inside an organization that is used to a linear sequence from scoping to planning to execution to measurement. One of the ways that we try to deal with this is to focus on establishing the first principles of a project early on, revisit them often, and always explain our projects by building upwards from those principles. It leads to a bit of a broken record syndrome, but the best way to make sure the principles of a project are carried with the work itself is to repeat them over and over again—to yourself, and to everyone you're working with. This prepares us to make on-the-spot project decisions based on those principles, to align what we do with what we think, even in the smallest details.
Here, once again, we find that a useful play such as pivoting requires the right culture. Had any of the people in the team been rigidly locked into the grilli as The Thing To Do, or had the internal Sitra procedures rejected the Open Kitchen proposal, the attempt to pivot would have broken the project instead.