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!
We're still technically on holiday here until next week, but things are coming along with our book project so I thought I would share some pics from the process of bringing something to press.
Back next week with a real weeknote!
It's July so most of us are on vacation (along with the rest of Finland). Unfortunately publishing deadlines do not go on holiday, so we are still clocking in to work on the book. Getting there.
Well, that's something.
We did start the week with that conference call Dan mentioned, and it was good, but otherwise pretty quite around these parts. Justin and Dan are on holiday. I'm on partial holiday. And Marco has been out of the office at the Tällberg Forum.
Recommendation: Enjoy summer. Weeknotes will be thin now till August.
In brief: Summer continues to unfold in all its richness. (This is actually code for highly variable weather and a flurry of increasingly urgent meetings, but still.) Marco, Justin and I continue to work on Low2No, including several meetings with Sauerbruch Hutton, Arup and Experientia, as well as the local client body. I talked to Monocle about some of the related challenges facing Helsinki in terms of these and other redevelopments. Bryan heads off to the US for a series of catch-up meetings and book edits, initially in New York before joining forces with Justin in Boston. And while the cats are away, Marco and I have a good first planning session on what a 'Helsinki Design Lab 2012' might be.
Further: After a few hours of Marco and I whiteboard hacking on Thursday morning, the place is a mess of intriguing scribbles—graphs, maps, arrows, and various molecular diagrams.
While it's too early to describe an emerging agenda for the next iteration of HDL—Marco likened the process to taking the old machinery out of the barn—there are some firm ideas coalescing, particularly around how what governments and governance mean in a world of weak coalitions and apparently dissolving certainties. That's what the scribbles allude to, and both Marco and I are quietly excited by the potential in the directions appearing on the board.
Next week we'll start to unpack these starting points as a team, such that we can begin to develop both a line of enquiry and a plan of attack. We have a loose-fit timeline emerging, which feels good, sketching out a busy year ahead.
Elsewhere: Sitra now has a couple of Jopo bikes for staff use to get to/from meetings. Jopo are a great Finnish design-and-build story, originally from the mid-1960s, and certainly ready for a little more international attention. The name 'Jopo' comes from JOkaisen POlkupyörä, meaning 'everyone's bicycle'. Originally exemplifying the flatness of Finnish society—a kind of "collective individualism", in their words—the design was resurrected in the 2000s, building upon its easy, vibrant, 'everyday industrial design', based around standard, modular frameworks that are fast to modify and personalise. So, a design-to-manufactured system emphasising the collective that is capable to bending to the individual. A lot of metaphors to play with here. In the meantime, a good healthy way to get to meetings.
One such meeting this week was with Jenna Sutela from OK/Do, a local design-think-tank of some repute. Bryan's previously written about the excellent Clues to Open Helsinki cards produced by OK/Do, Sitra and others last year—a gently inspirational project for many of us working in urban strategy. And before my formal involvement with Sitra, I also attended a great discussion they organised last year as part of their OK Talk series, which featured Bryan, Hanna Harris (The Finnish Institute in London), Amanda Levete (AL_A), Shohei Shigematsu (OMA NY) and Nene Tsuboi (NOW for Architecture and Urbanism). At SIS Deli, Jenna and I talked about the work they'd done with the Oivallus project on the future of education and work in a networked economy as well as their lovely new book OK Talk Helsinki-London, of which more later.
We also discussed how small creative firms here seem to have trouble locating good premises, despite there being space available. We thought there might be room for a stackd-like system at an urban scale, that understood—in a Renew Newcastle sense—how the more fluid firms might be able to occupy space, and matched spaces with uses accordingly. We'd certainly be interested in hearing about any examples of such systems.
And though the Anglo-Saxon in me is horribly aware of all the talk of holidays in recent weeknotes, but this particular week happened to coincide with Juhannus, the Midsummer holiday, and so another mention is unavoidable. Given its intensely seasonal nature, and the relatively brief duration of summer, the importance of Juhannus to Finland can hardly be overestimated, and after a brief storm on Thursday night some of us were treated to a long weekend of bright warm sun and long, light nights, perfect for puttering around islands in small motorboats, sauna and swimming in the gentle if frightfully cold Baltic, and big communal dinners of smoked fish and new potatoes.
As a result, all thoughts of systemic change kept returning to local food systems, producing sustainable versions of communal firewood-burning saunas en masse, and creating low-carbon mobility systems between the Nordic region's cities and their distributed footprint of summer houses. Governance will have to wait.
With Juhannus now days away, we're transitioning from a spring of spiky activity that came in high and rapid peaks to a mid-year that is more even-keeled. As Dan mentioned last time, this includes experiments in our collective workflow, such as new rituals involving the whiteboard.
A couple balls rolling at the moment, all in different directions and each with their own pace. Marco, Justin, and Dan are each deep in their own corners of Low2No and I've been pitching in a bit here and there; our peek into the culture of street food in Finland continues; and we've been reflecting on and documenting our experiences as a cross-functional unit within Sitra. This last bit is part of a larger transition that is happening within our organization. So in addition to a lot of time spent at the board, we're also regularly whipping up one-pagers and trying to distill our experiences into easily digestible documents. As frustrating as it may be to constrain oneself to a single page, the discipline of brevity is a good and worthy challenge.
And then there's the book. Now that we've organized and hosted a total of seven studies, our knowledge about how to do this sort of work is stabilizing. With interest about the Studio Model from Belgium to Brazil we decided that a 'recipe book' would be a good format to share some of our experiences (and hopefully insights)—so that's exactly that we're doing. After spending winter and spring writing, we're now in production. Editing, layouts, images, diagrams, and more. Martin at TwoPoints has been peppering us with questions about bindings and other arcana of bookmaking, which usually send us off into a small spiral of consideration before we come back with a decent answer. As these aspects calm down we are starting to think about electronic publishing. There is, quite frankly, a lot to do. So far it has been a relatively painless process. So far.
If you missed it, earlier this week we posted a slew of photos from the studios that we organized last month. Ivo shot in color this time so they look different. Last year was gritty chiaroscuro, but this year the images have an otherworldly lightness.
Over in Denmark, our friends at INDEX send word that they've posted the finalists for the 2011 INDEX: Prize. Congratulations to all of them—and good luck on the final round of competition.
And now that we have a healthy history of weeknotes we can do neat things like this: This was week 117, one year ago we were in Week 065. Moi Moi!
Helsinki is now basking in full summer, with a couple of days touching 30 degrees this week. The city is glorious like this, with every inch of street, park and pavement full of life, and islands like Seurasaari become impossibly appealing places to spend a Sunday afternoon. Like opposing points of a compass, Helsinki can be differently beautiful in hot sun/midsummer and deep snow/midwinter—it's the bits in between we have to work on.
Or work in, perhaps. We are all horribly aware of the month-long summer holiday slowly approaching, in much the same way that Christmas creeps up on British workers. Both are looked forward to, of course, but both compress time either on either side, leading to an increasingly frenetic rush of meetings and proposals.
This week is no exception. Personally, my work on Low2No is beginning to pick up pace, meaning meetings with various people inside and outside Sitra—including a chance to catch up with our partner Irene Cassarino from Experientia, and researcher Tiona Zozul from Harvard Business School—as well as making the most of Justin being in town. Both Justin and Marco were heavily focused on Low2No this week, though also helped guide our other various project ideas into our other various programmes, before Marco disappeared for a well-earned week of R&R in southern Italy and Justin took off to hold the fort back in Boston.
Bryan knocked off some significant milestones in completing the first in what will hopefully be a series of HDL books, exploring the process and potential of strategic design in this context. More to follow on all this, when the time is right.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article about Helsinki for my old employer Monocle magazine (see forthcoming July/August edition on liveable cities) and in doing so I spoke with both Mayor Jussi Pajunen, and the City's project manager for their 'food culture strategy', Ville Relander. Both emphasised how the City's burgeoning food scene has become a weathervane of the changing Helsinki, and perhaps Finland, which has also played to our own interests in food as an area of potential systemic change with regards to sustainable well-being—at least when food is viewed as a deeply cultural and complex field of interdependent networks and supply chains, which affects everyone and all places, one way or another.
So on Wednesday, Bryan, Justin and I went to visit Ville up at his temporary HQ, the city's old wholesale markets amidst the urban regeneration of the Kalasatama area. The markets are a core part of the city's food culture strategy, with the idea that they become a social space as well as a place to source ingredients, perhaps akin to London's Borough Market, Melbourne's Queen Victoria Market or Barcelona's Mercat Santa Catarina, but refracted through the prism of Nordic cuisine and public space.
The main slaughterhouse building is an incredible asset, with a sturdy yet elegant, long low form that is perfect for re-appropriation, and some horrifying/appealing features such as the sikasirkus (yes, that translates to 'pig circus') for transporting pig carcasses through the building. The place still smells fairly porky, but has huge potential.
Ville is clearly an asset too, of a very different kind, and he spoke with enthusiasm and insight about the City's approach to food. The City of Helsinki has significant impact on the food business, not least due to the fact that tens of thousands of hot meals are served every day in the City's kindergartens (päiväkoti in Finnish)—where most kids go to pre-school—and so its aspiration to make half of this kindergarten food organic by 2015 could impact positively on supply chains across the region.
But the City can equally impact the street and its food too. As noted previously, we're researching this area very closely—currently, The Saga of the Camionette, and What It Means for Helsinki. Watch that space.
This also means we're diagramming furiously of course, both for the aforementioned book and also generally, trying to find ways of suggesting a strategic design approach that connects 'the päiväkoti and the camionette'.
Which leads me to a brief note on whiteboards (to follow up our previous on Post-its). Given our rhetoric around 'designing the conditions' around systems, it's only right that we look at our own working environment from time to time. And this last week's iCloud announcement from Apple, combined with our ongoing fascination with services like Square, had Bryan and I trading ideas back and forth, not just about new public and private services made possible by such advances, but also our own workspace.
Accordingly, we've been developing our internal 'knowledge management' systems (hacking together Tumblr, Dropbox, Basecamp, Twitter, Facebook and various other more bespoke systems), the hardware we use (including gearing up for more video, perhaps saving you reading all these words every week), and conjuring up entirely new approaches to sketching and scheduling on our floor-to-ceiling whiteboards.
It's interesting how bespoke this all is—how workflows, tools and culture are hardwired into the particularities of teams and places—and that despite attempts to systemise this, bespoke feels right.
Anyway, if the whiteboard system works for more than a few weeks, we promise a full exposé at a later date. If it doesn't, forget I ever mentioned it.
As June begins we've been working on a number of small bits: helping some of them grow into slightly less-small bits, and eventually real projects. In other words, sketching, discussing, calendaring, prioritizing.
On Thursday we had the luxury of spending an entire day to look at only two issues. That much time dedicated to such a limited agenda is nice and by the end of the day we were all exhausted.
What else? Some quick hits:
Dan was at Aalto University to give a presentation in the Pragmatic Utopias seminar
We at Sitra launched a new website in beta form. This has been a long time coming and we're excited to have it as a more fluid way to share our work. You can read about strategic design in English and in Finnish (and more content will be available in English in the fall).
HDL can now be found on Tumblr, where we are blogging things that look interesting and related to strategic design. If this experiment works out we will figure out a way to bring some of that content onto this site as well, but for now it's in a separate sandbox at helsinkidesignlab.tumblr.com.
So let's face it, if you're reading this site and you just thought about clicking that link for the Tumblr blog, then perhaps it's time that we make our friendship official. Luckily, Facebook is here to help us Become Friends. In other words: HDL can now also be found on Facebook, where you can can give us a thumbs up if you're inclined. Or generally follow along with what we're doing.
And finally, the Strategic Design Unit has been talking a lot about street culture, and in particular the way that food helps set the tone of the street. This was aided by a visit to Camionette, Helsinki's first food truck. Tasty.
Back in the office after 4 days in Hong Kong and Shanghai where I reconnected with many of the local developments with an eye towards its impact on our work at Sitra. By now everyone is quite familiar with the Chinese scale of development but what really caught my eye was how they're doing it, and the numbers behind it. In Shanghai I discussed the sustainability challenge with Prof. Wu, Vice President of Tongji University, comparing the US and the Chinese context and model.
Here's an interesting fact that Prof. Wu was quick to point out: China has 1/6th the developable land the US has, but 4 times the population. This is a factor of 24, meaning that China has to be 24 times more efficient just to meet the US (which is far from the golden standard in sustainability!). So the question in China is not about copying, but rather of redesigning the model, something that is at the heart of what we do.
The other discussion thread that sparked my interest was the fact that the Chinese were quick to distinguish that their politicians are “selected rather than elected”. This is an interesting distinction, making the public sector more akin to business than the European model.
The CEO—so to speak—is selected by the Board of Directors rather than elected by its employees. And in this sense the public sector is more businesslike in its willingness to experiment and R&D solutions. Clearly there are both upsides and downsides to the two political models, but what makes the Chinese context interesting is the coupling of a grand redesign challenge with a system that is more attuned to risk-taking.
In Finland we have a public sector which is highly developed, but our challenge today lies in our ability to move into uncharted territory, rather than improve the existing. How else will our aging society be able to meet growing service needs with a diminishing tax base? How will we meet our sustainability challenge within an energy and resource dependent economy? These are not efficiency challenges, but rather redesign challenges.
And like China, we will have to clarify our attitude towards risk. Doing new things has an associated risk, but doing nothing is arguably much riskier. So what is Finland’s new relationship to risk?
In Shanghai I met up with local practitioners too, to complement the “top down” discussion with a grassroots picture from the ground. One of the highlights was to reconnect with Bill Yen, who is doing great at his RMT practice. The practice field is charged with a passion to do, achieve, and redefine… something which is quickly becoming a rarity in our corner of the world.
While elusive at times, “passion” is something at the core of the European innovation challenge. In this sense while I have my own issues with the recent elections in Finland, it has helped inject a moderate measure of passion into our society. Let’s see if we can maintain an upwardly trend on this.
In Hong Kong, I visited the offices of OMA and was generously hosted by David and Betty. We discussed the changing nature of their practice and a continuing shift from designing buildings to redesigning opportunities. Of particular interest is their recent work with the local metro authority, which involves rethinking the idea of efficiency (how could you otherwise improve one of the world’s most efficient subway systems? A task they were asked to do).
My last anecdotes come for the Design in Education conference that I attended while in Hong Kong. Thank you Lorraine Justice and Ken Friedman for leading on this critical issue! While stimulating overall, my take-away from the event was that there is a very, very broad spread on the definition of design and design research within the academe. It made me wonder if one can even draw a boundary on the design community.
But perhaps the leading question conveniently boiled down to yet another number: it costs society on average $500,000 to educate a PhD in Design. How do we define the return-on-investment discussion on that investment?
With the sun glinting off the Baltic and a cloudless sky stretching to the horizon, this weeknote commemorates the beginning of summer in Helsinki. Amazing.
As much as the weather may entice us to spend the afternoons biking around town in search of the perfect corner of park, we've been busy... as we usually are just before summer.
Chrtistian Bason and his team from MindLab stopped by for a visit and a chat about the realities of practicing design within public sector organizations. We've been inspired by MindLab's excellent work in service design for the Ministries of Economic and Business Affairs, Taxation and Employment in Denmark. They're one of the true success stories of public sector design and as we continue our work in Finland we are looking at how to learn from MindLab while folding strategic and systemic opportunities into the mix.
We've also been reviewing and de-briefing after a very busy week with the three concurrent studios that Dan mentioned in his last post. As always, the studios were a great learning experience for us too—as the participants push and pull the boundaries of the studio 'model' we learn where the critical points are.
Riku Siivonen, a journalist who has been working with Sitra on the Synergize Finland programme, prepared a video of the week embedded below. It's in Finnish, but even if you can't understand the words you can get the gist of how things went.
At about 5:25 into the video you will find the beginning of day 5, which is the 'final review' of the studio work. One thing is conspicuously absent as the studio teams present their work: any kind of digital screen or projection.
As we sparred with the teams throughout the week we pushed them to visualize their ideas with the tools at hand. Especially as we all began to think about the final presentation from a goal oriented point of view: the idea is to conclude the studio with a conversation about the systemic understanding of the problem and a collection of action areas that the studio teams have identified as important opportunities.
It's difficult to have a strong conversation about a system when it's presented in a linear presentation (such as Powerpoint slides). What often happens is that the last thing on the screen gets a disproportionate amount of focus or there's an awkward shuffle back and forth through the slides as conversation moves from topic to topic in a nonlinear fashion. For this reason we pushed each of the teams to think about the strategic objective of the conversation and to use the walls around them—aided by giant prints—to create an environment for rich conversation that would help foster and develop their ideas.
Having the contents of the presentation on the wall enables the invited guests and the entire audience to walk themselves back through the whole collection of ideas and important points in their own order and at their own pace. Ultimately this helps the final review be more of a conversation and less of a presentation followed by response.
With encouragement (and a tiny bit of arm-twisting) each of the three teams to relied on the strength of their presentations and their public speaking skills to begin the conversation without the aid of a digital screen. This worked great and no one seemed to complain that they were without the PPT-prosthesis!
All in all it was a great week.
If I had a time machine and I could change one thing I would hop back to the beginning of last week and remove all of the post-it notes from the studio space (you'll see tons in the video). The reason for this is simple: post-it notes trick people into being lazy.
Let me explain. The way that post-it notes are commonly used in workshop settings is to capture an idea on a portable piece of paper. This paper can then be moved around at will and eventually accumulated on a bigger piece of paper and then rolled up and put into the closet and kept forever. Ideas captured. Success?
Post-it notes record ideas and allow them to be easily migrated and reorganized, but it's not a good medium for mutating and synthesizing ideas.
One of the reasons that we prefer large sheets of paper or whiteboards is that they encourage collaborative mutation. If you realize that something is drawn in the wrong place, it must be erased and re-drawn or somehow altered to meet the new intent. By drawing and redrawing, writing and rewriting, opportunities to adjust the content and format—to literally re-present the ideas—continually emerge.
When shuffling post-it notes these opportunites are lost.
Choices about how thoughts are committed to paper and in what format are the visual equivalent of tone of voice. Think about the dramatic differences in interpretation between a statement vocalized in an earnest tone of voice or a sacrastic one. The differences in perception are huge!
By literally re-writing a statement one is able to revisit the choice of wording, its relationship to other content on the board, the scale, the color, and many other factors of the format which will inflect how it is perceived both by the author and by others... In effect, to change the tone of voice.
Even when sketching something quickly we obsess over the small details of how an idea is comitted to paper because it's in this process that a new level of richness emerges.
If a person holding a hammer is tempted to see all problems as a nail, what does it say about situations where the answer to everything seems to be a flimsy, sticky-backed square of paper? When doing new work it's sometimes important to test out new tools as well. Next time we'll hide the Powerpoint and post-it notes.
Nevertheless, congratulations to the Synergize Finland studio teams on a job well done (even with some post-its)!
As Bryan surreptitiously hinted at last week, I’ve just joined the Strategic Design Unit here at Sitra. I’ve relocated to sunny Helsinki from wintry Sydney, which was not an idle decision, though the unique charms of Finland, Sitra and strategic design work ultimately made it easy, almost obvious.
I’ve been working on ‘the other side’ of Helsinki Design Lab (I was a participant in the Sustainability studio, as well as the moderator of the corresponding session at HDL Global, both last year) as well as being a designer on the Arup team for the Low2No project, working closely with Experientia on service design and urban informatics. Equally, I’ve been practicing something akin to the Sitra understanding of strategic design for a while, dating back to my work at the BBC and on through various urban development and building projects at Arup, but I’m very keen to consolidate, develop and articulate this work. To me, Helsinki Design Lab provides the best possible platform for that.
In this respect, my first week proved fascinating, as we’re deploying the strategic design ‘studio’ model within the Synergize Finland programme. Three concurrent studios run all week at Hub Helsinki, addressing matters such as education, youth, entrepreneurship and the future of work, and often the interdependencies between all four.
My colleagues and I are not 'front of house' – three other local designers are in that role – but we help shape the way the event unfolds over the week in numerous small ways, from the ongoing design and calibration of the space, to participating in discussions (that three of us are recent-ish immigrants proves somewhat useful), to advising on visualization aspects throughout.
Throughout, Marco, Bryan, Justin and I are observing and discussing how the strategic design model is performing, noting the differences between these studios and last year’s set, looking especially for the particular differences that design can make in this context. It’s safe to say that this will be an ongoing discussion, which we'll do our best to report on here and elsewhere.
In other news, I’ve been preparing for an Australian state visit (that's a visit by representatives of an Australian state) in a couple of weeks, who wish to learn more about Low2No in Jätkäsaari. So I’m rapidly catching up on the aspects of the project I couldn’t see from my vantage point at Arup – it’s interesting shifting from designer-as-consultant to designer-as-client (or one of the clients, at least.)
The rest of the time has been spent meeting new colleagues at Sitra. It's a unique organisation, and at first glance is staffed by equally unique specialists, experts and high-achievers of all hues. I hugely enjoy the process of immersion in a new context, a new culture and a new organization. These times are precious, when a new country or context is full of intrigue, history and mystery, tiny details leaping out at you from all corners as you begin the process of recasting ‘foreign’ to become ‘home’. And yet this sponge-like state is, or should be, also part of what it means to be a designer (amongst other trades, of course). I often recall the acerbic words of fictional design educator Winter Sorbeck in Chip Kidd’s novel The Cheese Monkeys:
"You are a designer. You have to eat the world with your eyes. You must look at everything as it you're going to die in the next five minutes, because in the relative scheme of things, you are. You can't miss a trick ..."