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.
If you look closely, you’ll see many of the rooftops of Bucharests’ Lipscani quarter glimmer in the sun, reflecting newly applied copper and tin back to the sky above as if to suggest that first and foremost this metropolis is rebuilding itself under the eyes of god. While this city is indeed dotted with its fair share of sites bearing religious importance, there’s no mistaking the zeal with which modern Bucharest is being rebuilt by the people on the ground. It’s a place where one encounters making and re-making almost at every turn and it's a great coincidence that the neighborhood at the forefront of this change is one with a long history of trades and guilds. Romania is not waiting for any heavenly bodies to anoint them, if the organizers of Connection have anything to say about it the focus here is on linking up the market and the citizenry into a society that is sustaining and sustainable. I’ve come here to keynote Connection, a conference on social innovation put on by an ambitious group called Ropot. More on this in a bit, but first: the city.
Lipscani plays the part of a familiar European tourist district, replete with terraces sponsored by beer companies, street vendors, and the steady thump-thump of Euro beats oozing out of cafes with more neon than customers. On the surface it can be generic, but with a closer look one finds moments of genuine and endearing locality. Many of the wares on offer at the street market, for instance, appear locally produced and this includes the sweets (which are very sweet). Pockets of the 19th century, such as the popular brewery restaurant Caru' cu Bere offer a hospitable glimpse of the pre-communist city, not to mention a hearty meal to beat back the chill of an autumn Sunday.
According to locals, the original dream of the reinvigoration of this neighborhood was to create an artists’ quarter. Although the current iteration is more gentrified than this—and it’s no Postdamer Platz, so this gentrification is very relative—gems like the small bar Atelier Mecanic shine through. It’s a sort of high style junkyard where the local cool kids drink amidst a setting various mechanical trinkets repurposed as thoughtful decoration. The communist-era leftovers lining the walls are strong material symbols and it’s tempting to see them as trophies of the conquest, now drained of their robotic animation and relegated to watch from their perch on the walls as contemporary Bucharest thrives. It’s the kind of place where one imagines a new generation of intelligentsia congregating, like the editorial staff of Decat o Revista, an upcoming local magazine on the model of “Wired meets the New Yorker”, or the group of architecture students sketching across a narrow table while I visited.
But one does not come to Romania without thinking about Dracula, and so to his castle we go. Three hours north of Bucharest is the town of Bran, the population of which has just grown by 80 for Connection, a long weekend focused on building social innovation capacity within central eastern Europe. Initiated by the enthusiastic four-person core of Ropot and executed with a network of partners, the event brings together a wide range of people from Romania and neighboring countries to bring new ideas to the conversation. Carefully crafted as a multi-day event, it’s also designed to build connections and spread knowledge laterally.
In the spirit of the many social entrepreneurs in attendance, I came to make a simple pitch: details make or break big picture ambition, and design approaches are a useful lens to pursue the details and the big picture concurrently. Under this umbrella I took the opportunity to share Sitra’s work on projects including HDL, Synergize Finland, and Low2No. The latter containing an excellent example of the big picture/small detail balance in Sitra’s efforts to remove barriers to large scale timber construction in Finland. This is driven by the big picture goal of a carbon neutral built environment but involves to specific (but unexpected) actions such as working to change fire codes so that large scale timber construction is possible, not just for us but for others as well.
But I started my talk with a simple observation from the streets of Lipscani: we live in a world of multiple overlapping systems and yet these are all too often sub-optimized in isolation of each other. In just about any European city you can observe this for yourself in very concrete terms by paying attention to the downspouts. Often you will find that downspouts and other external plumbing takes a less than direct path to the ground, and occasionally one that involves significant conflict, such as the photo above with a drain violently puncturing through the decorative plaster work of the building. This is a visible symptom of the architect and plumber not agreeing on which system will take precedence and which will gracefully defer.
It’s an example of the impossibility of agreeing to disagree when decisions are involved. We can agree to disagree on a philosophical basis because this stays in our minds, but when it comes time to do something in a world of finite space, time, and material, action requires agreement—or violence.
At the core of this observation, and my pitch that design is positioned as a lens to help us make sense of it as a practice, is the observation that we’re still often clumsy in bringing synthesis to hard and soft factors. In the example above, rain water, flow rates, gravity, etc. vs. architectural form, cultural meaning, social connotations.
To resolve these two into a harmonious whole, as one is able to observe in more considered acts of architecture, requires a synthetic approach that balances the demands of hard and soft factors. This is something that the best businesses do as well. Nokia had touch screen phones much before Apple, after all, but the technocratic approach they took to conceptualizing a phone as a gadget inhibited full consideration of the softer side of the cultural role of a cellular phone. (For what it’s worth, this is demonstrably different now that Nokia Design is under the leadership of Marko Ahtisaari).
And so one of the central aspects of the conversation at Connection was the difficulty of bringing hard economic costs and soft social benefits onto the same ledger so that an attractive investment case can be made to appropriate investors. As groups across Europe are currently struggling with this issue, I was not surprised to see the same here in Romania. What encouraged me, however, was the verve with which some of the attendees took up the challenge.
As groups which aspire to support and enhance local communities increasingly look to social investment rather than grants, an important bit of mindset change is occurring. The more we as a society are able to entertain social returns on investment the closer we are to obtaining one of the basic mechanisms of a healthy social society—one that neither forces each individual to be a self-sufficient island nor forces the state to make unrealistic promises.
Investments come with investors, and investors have a moral obligation to put their money to best use. In the past this has more often than not implied the best annual return in financial terms. Looking forward, the notion of returns will slowly become more open, perhaps also including social returns expressed in monetary equivalent in a manner similar the cap and trade of carbon emissions.
The reason why I gave up my weekend to participate in an event in the middle of Romania is because I wanted to see how this part of the world was thinking through these issues, and what I might be able to bring back with me to our work in Finland. There are a handful of leads I will be following up, but the thing that came through most clearly was the drive and commitment of the participants to devise new ways of addressing the issues they’re concerned about—be it corruption, poverty, social exclusion—with a constructive eye towards the future. Connection itself is a testament to that by virtue of the fact that it eschews the typical conference format of individual grandstanding and hands-off consumption of presentations and instead delivers a weekend of capacity building.
We took turns sharing experiences in finding the right product, developing a business case, and what to look for in policy EU developments that will affect social innovation. But also about very pragmatic skills and tools such as learning how to hone a pitch and how to skillfully use media—both traditional and non. These how-tos were anchored by a mix of stories on the ground from individuals such as Chris Worman who is developing an innovative community ‘loyalty card’ scheme in central Romania and Dr. Anna Burtea who is exploring new commercial opportunities to enhance her foundation’s reach and impact. As examples of social innovation in development they were not all easy-breezy success, and that’s what I appreciated most. The Connection team managed to create an environment where frustration and failures were just as much a part of the conversation as success and scale.
So when I write that I left the event feeling optimistic it’s for the same reasons that I enjoyed my brief time traveling the landscape of Romania: it’s a place that is still in the habit of making things, but equally one that can remake and repair when needed. Perhaps because of the relatively high levels of contrast visible even on the street—I did, I must confess, nearly escape a pack of angry wild dogs—I detected in my fellow attendees both a shared sense of responsibility for the future as well as an imperative to find one’s own specific contribution.
Back in Bucharest, as I type this blog post I am using a wifi network with the password “2030wifi”. An eye on the future, indeed.
A mixed bag of links, reports and observations this week.
Although it's just been found to be in fine fettle in terms of its core missions (link; Finnish) Sitra is looking at its new strategy for the next few years. We're all getting heavily involved in that process—as the Strategic Design Unit, we sit in Sitra's internal strategy function, headed by Paula Laine.
We're also heavily involved in reviewing the design documentation for one of our core projects, Low2No. Justin is stewarding that complex process through, which is not easy given the complexity of the project and the number of stakeholders involved. Note also Justin's writing about some early indications of potential systemic change emanating from Low2No, in terms of other timber construction projects beginning to spring up in Finland.
Bryan was in Romania for a seminar and workshop - he'll post separately about that in a day or so. Marco has been buzzing around the city, meeting potential partners across various projects. Some exciting developments there, potentially around the aforementioned and still mysterious Exchange project.
I've been working more on the Street Food briefing—including spending an early Saturday morning tramping around Helsinki's streets filming somewhat disgusting discarded detritus from Friday's night's various grilli nightclub collisions. More to follow on that. The footage should balance my recent ode to Helsinki, that's for sure.
Earlier in the week, Bryan and I had a great meeting with Steve Lawrence, Executive Officer of the Australian Social Innovation Exchange (ASIX) who was passing through town. Despite our different backgrounds, we had lots of shared vocabulary, interests and approaches, which was very heartening. Steve had also carefully read In Studio, and had a series of dauntingly perceptive questions for is. It made for a rewarding lunch; thanks to Steve for popping by. Which reminds me, if you're ever in our neck of the woods, do get in touch - we're always interested in people doing similar work.
It's a real success story for the country (not least for this dad with two children in the Finnish system!) but one which was also the focus of one our studios last year. Bryan and I in particular are spending a fair amount of time discussing the so-called 'Nordic Model' (see Mary Hilson's book, which I'm reading) and how these broad 'spirit level' systems (see also healthcare, and many other aspects of Finnish daily life) can continue to develop and progress, drawing in external sparks of innovation and accessing new funding models without losing their incredible ability to provide high quality service provision right across the population.
On a personal note, my wife and I had a parent-teacher meeting at our kids' päiväkoti (daycare) recently, which was a) as close to group therapy as I'm ever likely to get (in a good way), and b) utterly instructive and encouraging about the teachers' careful, considered but ultimately warmly human-centred interest in kids exploring their emotional range, their natural environment, their physicality, their social ecosystems, and so on, with barely a direct mention of literacy and numeracy. That comes later, as the PISA results indicate.
Switching gears, it's been extraordinarily thought-provoking to see the Occupy protests spread around the world this week. One of our core concerns is the apparently increasing lack of faith in governments' ability to deliver solutions to today's complex problems (and this despite Silvio gettting a vote of confidence).
That's partly what seems to be playing out here in the Occupy movement, but was also present in the riots in the UK earlier this year, in various aspects of the Arab Spring, and in protests on the streets of Athens, as ell as in numerous other less visible arena. We're interested in understanding the various cultures of decision-making at play at the moment, and in recent history, and in deploying projects which begin to explore various alternative trajectories for governance, at all levels. Anyone interested in this work, or with something to say, please drop us a line.
In terms of toolkits rather than attitudes, visualisation is another of our core interests, so it was also interesting to read another article in The Guardian (NB: other news sources are available), concerning the quality and range of data visualisation on offer, in the light of recent critiques. Personally, I'd agree that many examples of information and/or data visualisation are indeed the mullets of the internet. Yet a good visualisation can engage, focus and stimulate dialogue like few other media. Embedded in that Guardian article, check the (WWF-style-not-really) face-off between David McCandless and the legendary Neville Brody.
As Bryan mentioned last week, our work featured in The Guardian. It's been interesting to observe the reaction to that—largely positive, for which thanks—and how it grew and diversified over the week. One aspect of that discussion within the design discipline concerned picking apart the difference between strategic design, design thinking and service design. To me, these are all quite clearly different aspects of design, albeit with occasional overlaps. To other people? Not so much!
As it happens, I'm writing something that will try to pick that apart a little, at least at an initial level. I'm pottering away at this in the mornings before work (whatever "before work" means), usually at the excellent Gran Delicato café. The text should be out later in the year, all being well. Will keep you posted.
In terms of other ripples from the article, see also this Spanish translation of the piece. We're thinking of making 'La crisis es el momento de que entre en juego el diseño' t-shirts accordingly.
And finally, some links.
A favourite landmark here in Helsinki is the Hotel Torni, a sort of mini-me Empire State from 1928, which is crowned by a fabulous viewing deck. Legend has it that this was designed for mooring airships to, such that airborne visitors from Paris or Berlin, say, could elegantly descend from the airship (somehow?) directly to the bar for a civilised long drink during the white nights. This image is rarely from our minds, for I hope obvious reasons, along with the notion that surely it's time for the return of dirigibles to our skies as passenger aircraft. As a result we found ourself gazing longingly at these wonderful vintage images of the USS Akron and Macon. Unlike the airships intended for Hotel Torni's mast, Akron and Macon were airborne aircraft carriers, from which aeroplanes would enter and exit through a 'plane-shaped opening in the ship's skin (reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote-shaped holes in various other objects). This, they would do via a trapeze. Yes really.
And I cannot get this data-point out of my head: apparently, during the recent Blackberry outage, traffic accidents in Abu Dhabi dropped by 40%. Oh humanity! A distressing, almost visceral illustration of the interconnectedness of systems across boundaries.
Humanity is partially redeemed by this exploration of abstraction by Bret Victor, however, which has beguiled a few of us all week.
Finally, if you've ever wondered how we open doors here in Finland, it's like this. Or at least it was in 1979. (Press the CC button at the bottom of the video for subtitles, if your Finnish isn't up to scratch.) Do not be a bad door opener.
It's happening again. The timeline between the end of week and our weeknote going live is slipping. This is mostly due to the fact that we're at a wonderful moment in the year: budgeting. At Sitra we're crossing our tees and dotting our eyes on the plans for next year, playing out scenarios at different investment levels, and having a conversation about how to best manage the portfolio of projects.
In light of the above-mentioned focus soaking up a lot of our attention, a random sampling of Things We Looked At.
Today we're flattered to see our efforts highlighted in a piece in today's edition of the UK's Guardian. The essay by Justin McGuirk does a great job of explaining how we approach situations which are often difficult to make sense of, let alone gain traction on. Justin's explanation of the way that specific, tangible entry points allows for new forms of consensus is a refreshing read. We are often struggling to put these notions into clear words, so it's nice when someone else does your job for you.
A trickle of feedback is coming in from the book. Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to share your thoughts with us already. We've taken to saving these emails to a folder and in some cases printing them out and dropping them in the impact box, a tattered cardboard container filled with tokens that help us trace the impact of our work.
It feels a bit funny to revert to such a low tech solution, but the palpable sense of accumulation is a nice psychological side effect. One of the things we're trying to be better about is understanding the feedback and responding to it as we shape future plans. So by all means, if you're keen to give us feedback on how you see HDL as useful to your work, or how it might be more useful, we're all ears.
Speaking of books, I will be in Romania this week delivering a keynote and a workshop at the Connection 2011 conference. I'll have a couple copies of the book with me so if you're interested in having one, just ask.
Film break! Careful... you're in for a full hour.
How excellent is that? Dan and I have been digging through some archival materials (including the Social Life of Small Urban Spaces) as we explore the notion of "legible practice." What does it mean to carry out a body of work and to self-consciously do so in a way that makes it easier for others to follow or to join in?
In some sense this has been a discourse about what it means to be "open" but we've gravitated more towards the word "legible" because it speaks to the difference between just doing something where people can observe, and doing in a way that opens up and documents the tacit decisions for others to understand.
William Whyte's work checks the usual boxes of sitting at the intersection of design and social sciences, but what inspires us is the blunt, thorough approach to observation as an evidence base for design principles. The video is still refreshing from the vantage point of these 23 years on. It's this kind of spirit that we are subtlely trying to bring to our work (and yours?) through tools like the Design Ethnography fieldguide.
If you're into this kind of design practice, I highly recommend that you take a look at the Young Foundation's Head of Design job posting. It's a good post at a great outfit but applications close this week.
Finally, I'm happy to have the opportunity to point to work by Seungho Lee, our superstar intern from last year, who is doing great stuff through the venue of his company About:Blank which makes excellent products with local craftspeople here in Finland. This video is about one of About:Blank's chairs, a humble process that nevertheless is pursued with an excruciating level of detail and care. Congratulations to Seungho & team.
One more thing. It's fall time here and the many courtyards of Helsinki are, for these few weeks, some of the best kept secrets of Europe.
The air is increasingly crisp as autumn falls upon Helsinki. And yet summer is not giving up without a fight. This week we enjoyed one of the warmest September days on record. It does feel warmer than last year about this time.
We have been taking advantage of the weather by getting in a few last exploratory walks for lunch or mid-day coffee. As winter sets in the radius of lunchtime possibility closes down and the daily rituals change. We try to take as much advantage of the warm months as possible, often working in cafes, libraries, or other nooks around the city for half the day or so. As it cools off we'll be spending more time in the mothership.
Beyond the niceties of a good lunch, food has been a focus lately because of a bit of work we're doing. Street food, in particular, though we're taking a rather wide interpretation of the term. More on this soon, as we are preparing a slim publication on the topic. But the gist is that we're interested in how food cuts right to the nexus of so many interlocking systems. While it is deeply cultural, ephemeral, and literally a mater of taste, food is also an essential current in the hard flows of economics, health, and logistics.
As we pursue ways to positively affect the systems that shape daily life, we are searcing for entry points. The essentialness of food makes it a great candidate to act as a tangible pivot or hinge which allows us to research, observe, and design simultaneously at a very minute level where execution is direct and feedback loops are quick, as well as more abstract and systemic levels which on their own lack immediate feedback. More on this as it develops.
University of Helsinki have recently published a video. It features a herring and it is a nice video.
From food to space. The other topic on high rotation within the team is community decision making. How do we make decisions together? And more specifically, how do we make decisions when it's not possible to agree to disagree, such as when there's a chunk of the city involved. A park, a disused lot, a nice corner, a store front. That kind of thing.
Although this is a very nascent topic for us as yet, we've been doing some sketching. This one in particular is a quick study of the 'hidden' courtyards of Helsinki. Although the city is full of wonderful interior courtyards, they're mostly out of sight and really quite out of mind. How could these spaces become more of an asset to the city?
Both of these projects are orbiting around ideas that we explored with Clues to Open Hesinki, a pack of 'postcards from the future' that we created with the help of OK Do last spring. And while both the food and the courtyards have come back onto the radar through their own paths, it is interesting to reflect on the fact that they were also amongst the dominant themes of the conversations we had when developing Clues. I suppose I should say that it's gratifying, actually. The small bet we made with that project is now repaying its dividends and proving to be useful preliminary research for two projects which have their own focus at a new scale of ambition.
A small note about the book: I've updated the page to include information about where to find it in book stores. Currently there are only two, but I'm hoping to have time to work on expanding this list a bit. If you have suggestions for appropriate shops in your neck of the woods please leave a comment here.
Other projects: Justin continues to tweak the Low2No website, which is overflowing with details about the project; Marco had some promising meetings relating to the exchange, as well as work related to World Design Capital; Dan has been wrapping up some essential elements of groundwork for the smart systems aspects of Low2No as well as writing about food; I was out half the week on a mini-break and then handling the technical bits of the Low2No site; and Johanna is handling logistics and administration steady as ever.
To close this weeknote I'll leave you with a link to MindLab's wrap up summary of their How Public Design? event that Marco and I enjoyed last month. Have a look—we'll be doing the same, perhaps after a visit to the Helsinki Baltic Herring Fair.
Before the launch though, Bryan, Marco and I take part in a roundtable on 'getting systemic change done'. We'd jointly organised the event with E3G, who hosted it at their Southwark HQ. We actually started on Monday night, pulling most of the participants together for dinner. (We often like to use this tactic of the-dinner-the-night-before; it breaks the ice in a natural, convivial way rather than through some dreadful exercise in which people are forced to suggest what kind of animal they would be if indeed they were an animal. It also enables people to tentatively pitch a starting position and rehearse some of the conversation. And it means you can hit the ground running in the morning. Plus, it's dinner.)
And Tuesday was excellent. Participants included Alejandro Litovsky from Earth Security Initiative, Sam Bickesteth from Climate and Development Knowledge Network, Kipper Blakely from Social Investors, 00/The Hub's Indy Johar, E3G's Nick Mabey, Malini Mehra from Centre for Social Markets, Peter Sharratt from Deloitte, and Dimitri Zhengelis from Cisco/LSE Cities. It was a long but fruitful day, with the morning spent presenting and comparing case studies, and the afternoon spent poring over the common ground.
With much of the group talking about inspirational change projects around climate change, sustainability and government, often from the context of exerting change from 'outside' a system, I decided to present a contrast, talking about my work at the BBC, around the iPlayer on-demand media service. This was a form of design work conducted from deep inside an organisation; sometimes instinctive, sometimes tactical, sometimes strategic.
This preparatory sketch from my notebook, scribbled over breakfast, really represents the tip of the iceberg in terms of design of both context and product. I transferred the diagram to the whiteboard as I told the story, in order to give a sense of how messy, complex and multi-dimensional this embedded design work can be. I never thought of it as "strategic design" at the time, and indeed though it's quite different to much of the work now, there are many shared elements—not least as these services do represent a form of systemic change, albeit with different purpose.
Ultimately, this was a demonstration of understanding 'the architecture of the problem', as we would now call it, or how contemporary media works as a system (see some earlier thinking about how contemporary media works) and how that connects to organisations and culture. This was beyond editorial concerns; that the design of media systems and organisations themselves was the strategic act that would alter the greater system.
Indeed, though it was a deliberate choice as contrast, what was interesting in the morning's discussion was seeing how much commonality there was between case studies and discussions. The others round the table presented some fascinating projects, ranging from the UK's Green Infrastructure Bank to The Hub project, via case studies from South Africa, India, Thailand, UAE, Argentina and of course Finland.
Much to chew on, and we're looking to develop that and other discussions over the next few months. As this territory is yet to be coherently mapped, we draw a lot from these conversations.
We launched the HDL In Studio book at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) on Wednesday morning. We had a good gathering for coffee and korvapuusti (Finnish cinamon buns, sourced from the Nordic Bakery in Marylebone via Bryan!).
Marco gave an introduction and hosted a discussion with Peter Sharratt, an architect and sustainable development leader now working at Deloitte, and Marianne Guldbransen, Head of Design Strategy at the UK's Design Council.
Our books disappeared faster than the korvapuusti, which is surely a good sign.
As a self-indulgent sidenote, it was a particular pleasure to be back at RIBA. When I was at the BBC, based at Broadcasting House down the road, we would often use the place for awaydays and meetings of all kinds; plus, it was a favourite 'hiding place' from my team when I needed to get some concentrated work done. (Sorry team.) It's a wonderful space.
After the launch, we hot-foot it across town to Whitehall, accompanied by NESTA's Laura Bunt, to visit the UK government, with whom we swapped notes in another fascinating, thought-provoking session. This was followed by lunch and more productive note-swapping (a theme of the week) at the Institute for Government in Carlton Gardens.
The rest of the week was spent back in Helsinki, keeping various projects ticking over. I gave a talk at Fjord Helsinki on Friday morning (thanks for the invite, Fjord!) on various aspects of our work. It was good to see their team, and their space. Their regular Friday morning shared-breakfast-at-long-table-plus-talk will be something I'll take into our conversations at Sitra, concerning our future workspace.
I also met a local researcher (via Demos Helsinki—ta!) who we'll ask to unpack some food supply chains for us. I've been working on a briefing document around food culture in Finland, and a diagram laying out just how, say, a hot dog emerges on a Helsinki street corner late one night will probably be particularly interesting.
Justin and Bryan have been knee-deep in re-launching the Low2No website (Low2No is one of our key 'systemic change' projects, predicated on building a new neighbourhood in Helsinki.) Do take a look and have a poke around; there's lots of new material and a sharper design to help you find it (which will be familiar to users of this site.) We're starting to carefully pick apart the difference between the block and the model (watch for some forthcoming writing on this 'hook/trojan horse' approach) as well as some curated contributions unpacking the idea of sustainable cities in general.
For instance, read the essay by Federico Parolotto and Francesca Arcuri of Mobility in Chain on sustainable mobility. I had the pleasure of working with Federico in last year's 'zero-carbon Finland' HDL studio, and it's always interesting to hear Mobility In Chain's thoughts on these issues.
Finally, Marco has been hard at work setting up our third major project area, alongside HDL and L2N. Known internally as 'Exchange' at the moment, we'll reveal more of this as it emerges, but suffice to say it should test a new and important angle for our work. Pretty exciting if it comes off. More later.
When the calendar looks like this you know it's going to be a steamroller of a week.
The easiest place to begin is with the book that we mentioned last time. One week on from launch and we've had a modest bit of attention on that. So far a lot of encouraging feedback, so we are happy to hear that it is finding its way usefully into peoples' lives.
On Wednesday we held a launch event here in Helsinki to discuss some of the broader innovation challenges that the Studio Model was designed to tackle. And of course to give away copies of the book. We were humbled by the fact that About 60 people showed up on a rainy and blustery afternoon. Kiitos, kaikki!
On that note, if you're in London we will be in town this week for some meetings and are taking advantage of the opportunity to have a book launch there as well. See the Facebook page for details and please RSVP (soon!) if you would like to come.
As I was cleaning my desk I came across some sketches done in preparation for the book trailer video. We stayed pretty true to these thumbnails. Not bad for ideas drawn on a sick bag.
Enough with this book thing. Things continue apace on other endeavors. This includes work in-house that Dan and I are doing with our colleagues Olli and Tapio to prototype some of the working environments and habits we anticipate fostering in the eventual new offices which are part of Low2No. More on this soon.
It also means Justin, and to a lesser extent myself, spending late nights working on the new Low2No website which we will be soft launching soon. It should look familiar to readers of this blog.
Because three's a charm, another piece of great news came in for Low2No this week. The project has received an Acknowledgement Prize from the Holcim Foundation. Thanks to our partners at Arup, Sauerbruch Hutton, and Experientia are due as well for this.
Markko kindly invited us along to hear Joi give a talk at Nokia. Joi deftly connected many dots and it was a true pleasure to hear him talk about his plans for the MIT Media Lab, which he now directs. I'll keep this brief because the thoughts deserve a more careful bit of writing, but if there's one thing I took away from Joi's presentation it was this:
Because of the declining cost of doing things and increasing levels of complexity in the systems around us, it's often cheaper to prototype (and recover from potential failures) than it is to assess risk.
This dovetails nicely with some slow burn research we've been doing into what you might call 'cultures of decsion making.' Ultimately the ways in which we perceive, assess, and mitigate risk shape so much of what we allow ourselves to do. Likewise, the manner in which we anticipate, plan for, and recover from failure defines the outer limits of what we allow ourselves to reach for.
When we look at the rise of the open source software movement, agile project management, and the popularity of design these things add up to a new culture of decision making. The better we can coherently articulate the value of these approaches as ways to cope with the GFC and other black swans, the more likely we are to find a way through.
Or at least that's the hypothesis we're prototyping.
Perhaps the last thing we expected to do Thursday was end the day by moving 742 kilograms of paper, cardboard, and ink around Sitra HQ. But when a shipment arrives and the palette it sits on does not fit into the elevator, this is what happens. In other words, the book that we've been mentioning on this blog is finally here! Thanks to the helping hands of Seppo, who makes this building tick through his steady management of the front desk, we were able to get everything in from the loading dock in no time.
Inside were lots of these:
In Studio: Recipes for Systemic Change is a book about crafting vision. It's about how to take something big, messy, and complex and very rapidly begin developing a way to respond to the problem. It gives an introduction to the what and why of strategic design, documents the studios that we hosted last year, and then offers a practical "how-to" manual for hosting your own studio. Hop over to the book page and watch the trailer video.
Marco, Justin, and I are really honored to have a Foreword from Geoff Mulgan of NESTA and an Afterword by our very own Mikko Kosonen. These contributions put the work of Sitra's strategic design unit into the wider context of Sitra's activities as a whole, as well as the social innovation more broadly.
We have some launch events coming up and are looking forward to these as opportunities to meet old friends and hopefully also some new ones. If you've been following the blog or interested in Sitra's strategic design work it would be great to meet you. Please join us for one of the events in Helsinki or London.
Putting the book together has been an excellent—if sometimes grueling—opportunity to revisit the ways that we talk about our work. But it's also amazing the number of decisions put into motion by something seemingly as simple as "let's write a book". What began with documenting our work in a format that is easy to share, grew into a mess of micro projects that looks something like this:
TwoPoints have done a stellar job with the physical object; we've tried our best to create a PDF that is as easy as possible to use (for instance, it has a hyperlinked table of contents); and Sitra Communications team have been doing bang-up job helping with the press stuff. Well done, everyone.
More pictures. Or in other words, this is where we fulfill Justin's dream of being a hand model.
To highlight some of the ancillary things we've been lining up before the book launch, there's a new dossier on design ethnography. This includes a "fieldguide" available in English and Finnish. It comes out of the Synergize Finland studios that we hosted earlier this year. We've also been adjusting this website to link up with Facebook, for instance, and to be more suitable for reading on an iPad and other tablet devices.
Onwards, onwards. If you're here in Helsinki enjoy Design Week and perhaps we'll see you around town.
Catching up, catching up. As predicted, Autumn is here and the pace is picking up. Several of us are just back from Copenhagen Design Week, where we did a number of productive things, as well as just enjoying that fine city.
I was there to speak at the Copenhagen Interaction Design Institute (CIID), with Matt Jones of BERG and Karsten Schmidt of PostSpectacular, organised by the great Matt Cottam (Tellart etc.) and Alie Rose (CIID). The talks from Matt and Karsten were both chock-full of challenging, brilliant thinking and as ever it was a privilege to share the bill with them.
I'll try to post some thoughts from my talk here (or there) later, but essentially it covered the shift from interaction design at the urban scale to strategic design at systemic scale, and the importance of designing both the matter (the objects, spaces, services) at the same time as the meta (the context, the organisation, the culture.)
Low2No is one of our primary examples. Here, what looks like a building project is actually a 'trojan horse' or 'hook' for a whole series of other systemic changes, around the forestry industry, smart cities, food culture, design methods, ownership models, carbon accounting, innovation environments and so on. So this was 'From Matter to Meta' and back again. There's a lot more to come here, but thanks to CIID for organizing and thanks to an attentive crowd, particularly taking the time out from a sunny Saturday afternoon.
Bryan and I joined Team CIID + BERG for Sunday brunch at Toldboden, which we suspect may be currently the best brunch place in Europe, if not the world. We understand that this is quite a claim, but still.
Then just time for a quick excursion to Ørestad, to see a couple of fine, and by now well-known buildings by Bjarke Ingels Group (but also the fairly bereft streetscape there. Hmm.)
Bryan and Marco were in town to participate in a conference organised by our good friends MindLab. 'How Public Design? Leading Change in Government' was an international seminar featuring government, academics, design practitioners, and others. The foundations for the conversation were laid down by rich stories and case studies about existing design work within the public sector; the conversation itself often focused on how to scale this work up, and what new cultures of public sector might result, or otherwise be enabled. Thanks also to MindLab for a great event.
As well as general INDEX Award shenanigans (and congrats to one of our collaborators, Alejandro Aravena, for his firm Elemental's award there) we were also in Copenhagen to meet a consignment of The Book (around twelve copies sent to our hotel).
We finally have it in our hands. Called 'In Studio: Recipes for Systemic Change', the content unpacks the studio model and its use in terms of understanding the architecture of systemic challenges and quickly sketching out coherent, practical and imaginative visions that address such interlocking problems. Hopefully you'll find it a useful resource and a good read. Again, credit to Bryan, Justin and Marco for producing a genuinely original contribution, and particularly for Bryan for handling the production. The book looks and feels great, thanks to design by Two Points in Barcelona.There's a foreword by Geoff Mulgan of NESTA, and an afterword by our president, Mikko Kosonen. We'll post about the book separately, very shortly, including details on how to get it.
We've also been working on a dossier around design ethnography; please have a look and let us know what you think. Any comments gratefully received, particularly other references or case studies you think we should link to.
In other work, we've been working hard on Low2No, and I've been picking up two threads in particular: the 'smart systems' work (our informatics-led angles developed by Arup and Experientia) around the building, and then how our organisation develops in the context of the new building. The relationship between building projects and the organisations that inhabit them is complex and symbiotic, and as part of the client body for the block, and ultimately an occupant, we'll be using this opportunity to continue the development of Sitra the organisation too.
In terms of 'smart systems', we're trying to develop a more sophisticated understanding of what this might mean, particularly as compared to yer usual building project. On a typical project, ‘smart systems’ can essentially be seen as shorthand for 'automating everything in sight', which we feel would remove the opportunity for engagement, agency and responsibility from the various users of the building. Which doesn’t feel particularly smart to us.
So we're trying to build up a simpler but more engaged relationship between occupant and other users, building, building technology, organisation, and city. This should take advantage of contemporary thinking around smart systems and smart cities whilst preserving, even expanding, the role of people within and around the building. This is partly to do with our strategic objectives around 'sustainable well-being', and the desire to produce replicable strategies for systemic change, but also to do with creating a simpler, more effective, more enjoyable workplace.
These words might come back to haunt us—until a building is built and occupied, one never knows—but we want the exact opposite of the all-too-familiar hotel room experience in which you're searching for the impenetrable remote control required to turn on the standard lamp. Some things are not problems that need fixing.
Some are, however, and we think we're on to something new and useful with our approaches here. We'll report back on this too, as it develops, on the soon-to-be-relaunched Low2No website. (Yes, I'm aware this is turning into a series of nested links to future posts.)
In the aforementioned CIID talk, around matter and meta, one thing I touched on was redesigning the context around products, services, relationships. Or, as I put it here, "You can't design a transformative service without redesigning the organisation."
This follows the legendary Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen's quote: "Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context - a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan." i.e. the context is often an organisation, and so a complex net of relationships, one way or another. As I pointed out in my talk, I think you can go the other way too i.e. design the context considering the thing it is intended to produce. Again, it's symbiotic.
With this in mind, our work in terms of organisational change at Sitra is therefore part of this building project, part of this ICT procurement, and so on. Given that Low2No represents one component in another stage of development for our organisation—a Sitra v4.0 perhaps—we have also been exploring what a Sitra v3.1 or v3.2 might be (this numbering is just an example, as organisations are actually in multiple stages of development simultaneously; it also deliberately avoids using the dread word '2.0'!).
These are small-step experiments that we can do right now, iterations along the way to the new organisation in the new building. These are never binary or direct relationships i.e. the new building does not 'effect' the new organisation into life from day one, nor does a new organisation necessitate or articulate a new spatial context. It's never that simple.
So the .1, .2, .3 series of hops in effect enables the organisation to 'try on' new working methods, relationships, identities, new layouts, patterns and habits. It 'de-risks' the change implied to some extent—it makes a new building three years away into something more tangible and at-hand—whilst enabling the kind of instructive forward momentum that prototypes bring to other fields.
Not that Sitra needs redesigning, but Bryan and I did some work at our recent summer awayday in the beautiful forest around Mikkeli, helping our teams constructively imagine some new working habits, patterns and spaces. We may even be able to prototype some of these in our existing building in Ruoholahti, which helped this become more than just a paper exercise.
Oh, and I've also been writing up our research into food culture in Finland. More on that soon too!
Lots of little things, these last weeks. Perhaps this is appropriate since some of the trees around town are already starting to let go of their leaves. Increasingly, there are lots of little things all over the ground.
Justin and I have been doing a bit of work on a new website for Low2No, but it's mostly him down in the mine at the moment. I'm pitching in with advice here and there as we navigate that towards launch in early September.
Marco and Justin have been looking after the Low2No block itself, as they do in some form or another just about every single day. Justin was in Berlin meeting with our architects, Sauerbruch & Hutton, on the design of Sitra's new offices. Meanwhile Dan and I have been working in-house on the continued development at the intersection of Sitra's offices and the cultural aspects that this change will open up. In the process we've been making lots of lists, often involving spectrums or continuums, that try to articulate the qualities we're looking for in the new offices. Boxes, be gone.
We shared a brief but good discussion with the Elinvoima team trying to help them narrow in on a fertile topic for the next round of the forum. It was a discussion that spanned from the invention of democracy to the national anthem of the Czech Republic and the rhino-shaped capital of South Sudan. Marco was with them again for a longer planning session.
True fact: the team was in Lahti for half a day and the train ride back (and subsequent lunch) were some of the most productive hours of the entire week. During which time we revisited the conversations Dan mentioned last time and got one step closer to An Answer. I suspect it surprised all of us how quickly a disjointed set of possibilites seemed to lock into place just at the end of lunch. Undoubtedly this will have jostled itself loose again by next week, but as long as things come together for a moment of clarity on a regular basis we're on the right track.
Otherwise: more book related odds and ends, a visit from Sanna and her three month old baby boy, sorting out our need for interns (get those portfolios ready), a braindump from the legal team, and some hurried videography shooting ghostly clouds dropping rain. Lots of little things.
And ... we're back.
Finland returns from its summer break en-masse this week. Cafes, trams and shops are suddenly full again, although the collective mood still seems to be sunny, light-headed, and a little, er, un-focused perhaps.
However, the aforementioned Book finally made it over the line, not least thanks to Herculean efforts by Boyer, who apparently barely got the aforementioned summer break. We have a dummy copy in the office, but the real thing is emerging from printers as we speak. Given it was largely produced before I got here - I merely helped with the edit a bit - I can say it's looking great. More details soon.
The team spent much of the break with the next iteration of Helsinki Design Lab ticking over in the back of our minds, our emerging ideas no doubt inflected by several of us being in the US, UK and China at various times, as well as Finland. Occasionally, a couple of us were in the same place at the same time, and took the opportunity to scribble and think.
And we're getting there. We know it's going to be a progression of last year's studio work (which will be the subject of The Book, by the way).
If the studios were about trying to shape the right questions - or to understand 'the architecture of the problem' - then perhaps we now want to look at the way we shape processes to get things done; to connect vision and opportunity to reality.
A key word from our mission here would be stewardship, but we're also finding ourselves discussing prototyping and procurement, courage and risk. We have an all-day session next week during which we'll unpack this a little more.
Something else that couldn't help but "inflect our thinking" has been the unfolding dramas in the debt crises across Europe and the US: It continues to be uncomfortable if compelling viewing, from one which can only conclude that our current approaches are not coping with the 21st century particularly well so far. It's interesting how this is often an expression of something as intangible, qualitatitive and complex as confidence or trust - or rather lack of it - and so today's overly reductive analytical tools and processes also seem ill-equipped to address it.
And finally, with respect to governance and deliberation, two things caught our attention this week.
Firstly, the Mayor of Vilnius takes the matter of illegal parking into his own hands, deciding that "a tank is the best solution".
Secondly, Switzerland, we salute you!