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.)