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.
Things reached a state of near-froth on Friday as everyone was zipping around taking care of last minute items for next week's three concurrent studios. Actually no, let me revise that statement after glancing at the clock: this week's three concurrent studios.
We will be located at the Hub Helsinki space all week. It's a wide open floor with plenty of room for three separate teams of 8-9 people. Or so we hope! Last week was the official opening of the Hub so we're helping them beta test the space.
Otherwise things are huming along in the way that they do just before summer. Helsinki is finally starting to show signs of warmth and the snow is banished, with the exception of a few piles that are still lingering in shadowy corners.
Visits this week from WeVolve, who are helping us to produce a small 'field guide' for the studios to use next this week, and Sunkyung Han of the Hope Institute, who we had the pleasure to meet a couple years ago in Seoul. Meanwhile, as Justin and Marco have been hammering away on Low2No, I dropped by the Aalto University Department of Architecture for an end of semester critique with Tuomas Toivonen's students. There was some good thinking about how to design intergenerational spaces as well as Low2No-inspired ideas of transitional design.
We ended #111 with an all-hands meeting of Sitra's Strategic Design Unit, except this one was special because we have a new pair of hands! We'll close this weekntoe with a bit of suspense but you'll find out soon enough: #112 will be written by the newest member of our team.
This week was as pleasant as 110 is round. Progress on many fronts and no emergencies, though we do have a glimpse of a storm that might be rumbling our way.
Two weeks from today we will be wrapping up a round of three concurrent studios. With next week as the home stretch, we've been busy working with the Synergize Finland team to nail down all the details. This includes orchestrating field visits to various organizations as part of the Tuesday schedule, inviting guests for our 'final review' on Friday, as well as coaching the design leads and generally preparing everyone for what is likely to be a very busy week.
This week we're also collecing all of the basics, such as schedule of the week and headshots of everyone who will be in the studio at various times, and making sure they get formatted and printed out as giant posters that will be located near the entrance to the studio. That's right, a poster is one of the tricks of the trade. But it's an important poster!
One of the things we learned from the three studios we ran last year (as well as one in Umeå this January) is that it's important to reduce cognitive overhead as much as possible for our participants. This includes making sure people have easy access the information that they need while they're with us for the week. Basically anything we can do to reduce anxiety is key, because that means peoples' minds are free to concentrate on the task at hand.
We also got a nice surprise in the mail. VOLUME magazine sent us a couple copies of issue 27 which focuses on the theme of Ageing and features an essay by myself with contributions from Justin and Marco. The essay recaps the HDL Studioon ageing and delves into the potential of using the studio as a modelfor tackling similar issues in other contexts.
Although we've had opportunities to blab in interviews, we do not often have the chance to reflect on our own work in written form, so this was a (occasionally frustrating) treat. Thanks, VOLUME!
The issue is highly recommended and includes essays from Indy Johar, who was part of our studio, as well as Martti Kalliala who will be leading one of the studios in May and is also the person behind the New Architect's Atlas.
This was a week of incremental updates. Each of our ongoing projects moved forward in silence, so there's little visible progress that we can share in a meaningful way. When writing weeknotes these are frustrating weeks, but in reality they're important for pace-keeping.
A sizable chunk of Week 109 was spent preparing for, hosting, and processing meetings with various teams within Sitra. A week of meetings sounds like it might be dull, but we're starting to build a nice rhythym out of it. It's important work as we continue expanding the surface area between the Strategic Design Unit and the rest of Sitra. Most of these meetings revolve around refining the big picture ideas into an actionable plan, which includes stuff like spending the time to talk through seemingly obvious terms so that everyone in the room is on the same page. Sometimes we also invent and play games.
Personally, my favorite part is wrapping up a session into a document that captures the essence of the ideas. We've been using something that we colloquially refer to as the augmented reality whiteboard. What this actually means is that we take pictures of the whiteboard and then draw in some lines and words on top of them in InDesign so that the bits which are in chicken scratch come through more clearly. It gets to be a nice challenge to see how much can be left to the marks on the whiteboard and how much needs to be added on top.
Aalto University School of Art and Design professor Tarja Nieminen visited with some of her graphic design students to talk about strategic design. They were especially interested to hear what its like to work at Sitra and within the government more broadly, and I was keen to hear how they think about their role as graphic designers in the context of upstream issues (like usability/legibility). We also geeked out on the way that type design has to contend with variable ink flow on different newprint paper stocks.
Somewhere in between meetings and visits, Marco revealed a shocking statistic: currently his mailbox includes 22,924 unread emails. He would like you to know that he's not proud of this fact (and most of them are from mailing lists).
Some vignettes from these two blurry weeks.
It's monday and Carl Mossfeldt of the Tallberg Foundation stops by for a chat at Sitra. Our two organizations have a region and a culture in common, not to mention a lot of overlap in our respective missions, so how can we work together? It starts—like many things—with a long lunch.
By coincidence, later that day Marco travels to Stockholm to share Sitra's work on strategic design with Members of the Swedish Parliament and the design community at an event organized by SVID.
Marco and I are in a conference room with Sitra's Energy and Landmarks programmes, spending a couple hours on a session to assess our combined activities that touch on land use issues in Finland. We're doing more and more of this lately. It doesn't feel like facilitation, but I suppose you could call it that. It feels more like being a portfolio manager of ideas. That was Wednesday.
Next day same thing, but this time with Sitra's Synergize Finland programme who we are assisting by organizing three studios next month. With about four weeks till the kick off there is a constant buzz of activity. We're revisiting the details that have been confimed for months to make sure they're still supporting the way the plans have evolved. "How much freedom do we have to adjust the space, did you say? Can we put a curtain here to add acoustic isolation?"
This is our first time opening up the operating model of the studio to people outside of our own small team, so it's a good learning experience. The most painful "whys" are the best ones and most important ones to answer—to make explicit. There are alot of "whys," especially around the role of the softer details.
Another Monday: I'm standing in front of 30 people in Bilbao explaining Sitra's use of strategic design as a way to match vision, which can be powerfully vague, with intent, which requires more focus and specificity so that it may guide action and decision. I was delighted to be presenting as part of the 'faculty' of the Young Foundation's Global Innovation Academy (GIA) inaugural programme. We also had a chance to do a quick iteration of the network mapping method that HDL initiated last year in our 2010 studios.
The academy's goal is an important one. If I have to put it into simple words I would say that their challenge is to make social innovation the norm within the public and 3rd sectors. When that happens it will cease to be the buzz-enabled "social innovation" per se and become, more simply, the new definition of good public service. Best of luck to Andrea, Cynthia, Louise, Rob, and the team. We'll be following along!
Tuesday: an SMS arrives heralding a successful decision in the Helsinki City council with regards to bicycle lanes around Töölö bay. This came after a breif chat with Martti T. wherein he took it upon himself to visualize the issue using Sketchup, and in doing so change the nature of the debate. We hope to have Martti contribute a guest post on the decision in the near future. Until then we take it as a positive sign that even simple visualizations can have a transformative affect on decisions.
Friday. Finally Friday. It's all hands on deck for Sitra's Strategy team and we're huddled around the 14th floor conference room to learn some tips on design ethnography from Ville and Nuppu of WeVolve. This is one small part of the on-going changes at Sitra. It feels good. It feels like an exciting way to end week 108.
It feels a bit like an air traffic control tower in our corner of Sitra-house these days. Between various physical comings and goings, we've also been in the thick of routing projects to and fro.
A big item for us was getting the first 100% text draft of the HDL Studio publication out the door. It was a bit later than we had hoped, so it's nice to have relief from the pressure of being behind schedule. Now that we're receiving feedback from a couple people who have been enlisted to be critical readers it's starting to feel more real. Soon TwoPoints will be doing layouts and then it's truly off. Throttle up.
Marco has been spending his time between Low2No and exploratory meetings for a new (and yet to be named) project. Early feedback is positive but we're still awaiting clearance for take off.
Meanwhile we've been continuing our in-house collaborations as well. In the past month we have really begun to dig into what the Synergize Finland studios will look like. Stuff like securing the studio leads, nailing down key bits of the schedule, and also taking the time to revisit some of the core principles and renew our shared commitment to them. Boarding completed. Requesting clearance to push back from the gate.
On Tuesday I was in Brussels to share Sitra's work with the guests of the SEE Project at their Policy, Innovation, and Design conference. I left the event feeling optimistic that the economic advantages of design+business, the so-called creative economy or ceative industries, is broadly appreciated. Design was also being used in multiple presentations as a way to bring the needs of users back into the center of decision making, particularly in the public sector.
It was nice to see the launch fo the Service Design Toolkit, for instance, because it gives tools to people who might already have the desire to work in a more empathetic way but are struggling to find a structured way to do so.
The mixed content of the event brought to the fore a point which seems unclear at times, particularly when "design" gets introduced to policy contexts. Does "design policy" focus on increasing the demand for design services in a "policy for (to support) design" sort of way? Or, on the other hand, does "design policy" refer to the use of design methods to deliver new or improved services, systems, or strategies?
The latter we think of as "policy by design" and that's squarely where we put our focus at Sitra through initiatives such as HDL. Both 'policy for design' and 'policy by design' have important roles to play, but being specific about which one is on the table at any given moment helps an audience to evaluate the value proposition of design. Thanks to Mark Vanderbeeken of Experientia for putting together a well-rounded lineup that succinctly crystalized these thoughts. Cleared for landing.
I suspect that our week ended the same way that yours did: in utter shock and dismay over the events in Japan. Between the floods in Australia and the ongoing crisis in Japan, the Pacifim Rim has already had a difficult 2011. It has been hard to do anything without checking the news regularly. Half a world away there's little we can do but hope for the best and give what we can.
Before the crisis began, last week was split between writing and sharing.
We continue to draft a document describing the HDL Studios in more depth and detail. This involves a lot of conversations about metaphors, sometimes visual and sometimes not, that can be used to explain abstract concepts like "working with uncertainty." In my brain that equates to the difference between navigating in a forest and navigating on a body of water. In the forest there is a long delay before a trail fades, but a wake disappears as quickly as it is created. Not exactly sure what this means yet.
Marco had a good meeting with the World Design Capital team and a group of representatives from various ministeries to see what's in the works and how public institutions might be involved in WDC2012. We are working on some aspects of this and hope to have some concrete plans to share before summer. Broadly speaking, we want to make it easier for government bodies to use strategic design. Surprise!
Elsewhere, Marco gave a presentation to the Creative Metropoles group about Low2No, using it as an opportunity to look at the new kinds of pressures that today's innovation challenges put on designers and new skills that designers need to develop if they want to be involved in strategic processes.
Coincidentally, friend-of-HDL Paul Nakazawa shared work from RioStudio, a series of architectural design studio that he has been teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, first with Bjarke Ingels and now with Jorge Silvetti and Gabriel Duarte. The studio is exploring the connections between strategic design and architecture by looking at ways in which Rio de Janeiro's build up in advance of the World Cup and Olympics can be focused to create a more lasting, positive impact. This video by one of the students gives a hint at the way they're integrating ideas about phsyical infrastructure with the development strategy:
But yeah, time to check the news again and then get back to writing.
March is a good name for this month. That's what it feels like: a march. Summer is already just around the corner but there's a lot to be done between now and then. These past two weeks have mostly been about sharing.
Sharing with other teams at Sitra, sharing with the world via writing, and sharing with similar organizations who are developing new ways of working on comlex problems.
Marco and I continue to work with the Synergize Finland team as they will be using the Studio model this May. I gave them a brain dump on what a Challenge Briefing is, what role it plays in the studio, and how you structure a similar document. They're off and running on briefings for their studios and it will be cool to see the concept reflected back to us through their experience with it. Marco has been recruiting designers to play the role of studio lead.
During the past two weeks we've also submitted three article for publication on three continents. Two of those discuss the Studio model in greater detail, and the third looks at strategic design vis-a-vis the practice of architecture. We'll post links here when they are available—I believe the first will be the forthcoming issue of Volume Magazine on Ageing.
It feels great to have these deadlines behind us, and I wish I could say that the typing hands can rest now, but no! We soldier on with another big deadline for a draft due in the middle of March. This one is a self-imposed deadline to more thoroughly document the Studio model and our three studios last summer.
"In a world of constant change, [design is] the ability to imagine, the ability to take close assessments of where you are versus where you want to be, and figure out how to move from here to there. Design was a nice thing to have in the last few hundred years in a world of stability, but really the form of productive inquiry underlying design is now critical in a world of constant change.
Basically we're living in a world now where our skills have about a 5 year half life. when I started out doing stuff it was a 30 year half-life, so today we have to be at any age able to pick up brand new skills... The studio is one of the most concrete ways of working with the real, working with the concrete, letting the imagination fly, and then collectively with folks around you and mentors actually produce new knowledge."
We were out and about too. I gave a talk to Aalto University's Creative Sustainability course. Marco was in London to participate in the Ecobuild conference and share some of our experiences with Low2No. Afterwards he and I spent a morning catching up up with Nick Mabey at the HQ of E3G. They've just published Degrees of Risk which I haven't had time to read, but knowing Nick and his team it's should be thorough and insightful.
Degrees of Risk is the output of a multi-year process working with climate scientists and security experts to flesh out a framework for moving to a risk management approach to climate change, in contrast to the singular focus on migitiation. Doing so implicates a much wider array of decision-makers, from security to infrastructure, each with established ways to plan for future risk. The framework is an intensely clever way for hacking the climate debate to put it into terms that a larger group of people—everyone—gets: risk.
And now for an abrupt transition: from climate risk to sea ice. Under an unusually bright Sunday sky, I went for a walk on the sea ice last weekend to do a bit of research on Helsinki food culture.
One of the delightful things about northern cities is the degree to which their geography changes during winter. Helsinki comes alive with recreational opportunities all across the frozen sea. Suddenly the isolated boat gas station becomes a winter cafe, with a new arrival path across the iced-over harbor. Remote coffee shops have new streams of guests who come to roast sausages on outdoor fire pits. Or have a curling match. This won't last for too much longer, given the warm weather we've been having, so I'll have to wait for next year to corral my colleagues into starting the Sitra Curling team.
Week 102 closes with a steady hum—and the clickety clack of more writing.
This momentous week (100!) passed as a flurry of early-stage discussions on emerging areas of work in Sitra Strategic Design land.
Three of the many plates spinning, offered with little or no context:
Right now we're interested in food culture in Finland's major cities, and especially street food. This means we've been thinking about Grillis, Snakkeris, and Kahvilas. Olli from the Sitra's Energy Programme has been drafted to help Justin and I bite into this new topic.
It's still surprising how much interita simple terms can posess, and similarly how freeing it can be to rephrase known terms in new words. As the Strategic Design Unit begins working on project with two other programmes in-house, we're devoting a lot of effort to figuring out how the internal collaboration should work, and the basic vocabulary that we all use is first on the list.
Marco is working with the Synergize Finland team to bring the HDL Studio model to one of their projects this spring. Whereas with HDL we ran three studios in sequence last summer, the Synergize team are going to do three at the same time. We're curious to see how this creates new potentials and new stress points. It's always nice to work with another team because it the process of sharing forces us to be more articulate about what we do and how we do it. This adds a welcome level of rigor.
Here in the strategic design corner of Sitra we continue to noodle on a collection of related topics that have been stewing since last fall.
The topics in play during thse last weeks have now bubbled up at different times during the evolution of HDL. We're in the middle of fleshing out the documentation of the HDL Studio in an attempt to describe it as a model that may be useful to others. There's also an increasingly apparent lack of a strong strategic design literature, or even a single regular publication that covers strategic design. Our case studies are not enough! And as always, the difficulties that offices experience in building a practice around strategic design still persist, even in a design market as developed as Finland.
These categories loosely map to the triad of knowledge (available approaches), capability (available business models), and achievement (success stories) that we identified as key targets when we crafted the first HDL mission statement one year ago. Our activities in 2010 were weighted towards developing and testing the studio model, so we have some activity on development of useful knowledge. We also dedicated a lot of time and effort into getting out to meet people and see who is acting in this space and learn what their experiences have been.
Now in 2011 we're tilting a bit towards fostering capabilities, both internally within Sitra as well as within Finland more broadly, and thinking about ways to share and communicate the achievements of the entire strategic design community.
Elsewhere in strategic design at Sitra, the Low2No team held a day-long seminar 'opening the books' on the development of Sitra's block in Jätkäsaari. Not a lot of questions were asked after each presentation, but there was lively chatter during the coffee breaks. That's when people ask the tough questions anyways, so we were happy. Design work continues on that project with an impressive international collaboration spanning between Finland, the UK, Germany, Italy, the US, and Australia.
Meanwhile, Justin and I are taking a moment to focus on architecture. Thanks to the kind invitation from a respected journal of architecture in the US, we're taking a stab at applying the precepts of strategic design to the practice of architecture. With reflections from the Low2No process and our other work, combined with our individual backgrounds in architecture, it's a gratifying challenge to develop a meaningful criticism of architecture as it is typically practiced while using what we've learned about the possibility of a strategic design role to point at future possibilities. What do new models of architecture practice look like in that area?
Kevin Slavin's talk at Lift '11 brings up the question of new models of practice through a brilliant exploration of the role of algorithms in contemporary life, and especially in financial markets. Slavin discusses the role of genetic algorithms in contemporary computation and highlights the critical difference that these algorithms have self-learning capabilities which allow them to "write things [that] we can't read anymore." The 'Flash Crash' of the New York Stock Exchange last May is a very palpable example of how much impact these un-readable writings can have.
Kevin illustrates this in another way by showing two exmaples of pathways used by floor-cleaning robots. One follows a familiar logic of cleaning around the edges while the other appears random and chaotic to human eyes, yet it's intensely calculated and intentional. As we are increasingly forced to confront the wicked nature of some problems before us, I'm expecting that we will find ourselves developing solutions that look more like the Roomba and less like the Neato. In other words, when designing for the unpredictable, we should not be surprised to arrive at the unexpected.
Calendaring and planning work continue here in the strategic design corner of Sitra as we start to lock into place commitments for our various projects this year. One of our focuses is 2011 is beginning to transfer some of our findings in strategic design methods, ability, and content to our fellow teams at Sitra. This means we're spending a lot of time in the elevator buzzing from floor to floor visting people in the Energy, Landmarks, and Public Leadership programmes as well as our communications team. Doing this has spurred much self reflection as we try to articulate how we work and be more specific about what the tools are and when they are best utilized.
What seems like endless planning and prep is now beginning to gel (really!) and Marco will chime in soon with an update about strategic design's role at Sitra, but until then we're happy to direct you to the full dossier of our studio with Umeå Institute of Design that we mentioned last week. The students did a great job or having zero experience with strategic research and analysis, let alone merging that with their design background. Have a look at the Growing Västerbotten dossier.
We've also begun a number of writing projects including a couple articles for publications here and there, as well as a summary of the HDL Studios we conducted in 2010. More on this soon. Good night, week 97!