Competencies How did HDL choose projects?

This might be the most common question we've received lately, so as we prepare to close out HDL and this blog we want to share some thoughts on the subject. Below I dip into the weeds a bit with some macro thoughts on social change but, if you can stick with it, I do actually answer the question eventually.

Organizations, like Sitra, think about the world and the impact they want to create, which is usually expressed in a mission statement. This describes the world we would like to see. On a more frequent basis we define strategies that represent our best guess about how we will most likely be able to achieve the impact we believe is important.

And while these missions and strategies may be well formulated, they do not always necessarily match up with society. Indeed, a good bit of the value of an independent organization like Sitra is that it has the mandate and resources to think about things which are not on the top of society's mind right this moment.

But this also creates a challenge: Sitra represents approximately 120 out of the 5.4 million people who live in Finland. How do the actions of 0.0022% of a country create meaningful change?

Organizations like ours often try to push society. We prepare reports and studies that compile the facts, and those facts in turn lay out a case for change. By launching programmes and initiatives we attempt to push individuals and other organizations to behave differently—to seek different outcomes.

With the HDL projects we've been testing a different approach, one that works by pulling individuals and organizations towards our vision. In a time of low signal-to-noise ratio—when there's lots of noise—being smart and having the facts is not enough. We also have to provide an offering that is so compelling, perhaps even seductive, that it can attract attention and interest of collaborators.

Push makes sense when you know exactly what the market wants (be it a literal market or a 'market of ideas'). Pull makes sense in a more dynamic context, or when cash and/or authority are limited.

When we think about social change through the lens of push and pull, I offer the anti-smoking campaigns of 20th century as an example of push. Reducing the prevalence of smoking in society was a massive effort that was not aligned with the popular culture and media of the time, it also ran counter to the interests of some large corporations. There was significant inertia that resisted a specific and desired change: namely lowered tobacco usage rates. Affecting this change required prolonged effort on behalf of countless organizations. The movement had to be created more or less from scratch. Societies across the western world and beyond were literally pushed towards a different baseline behavior: from smoking as an acceptable norm to a default of non-smoking in many places.

To understand social change through pull, Facebook offers a good example. The world's largest social network is used by over one billion people and as much as the platform itself is a piece of technology, that technology has begun to change the world around it. Facebook affects how people convene for events, celebrate birthdays, spread gossip, and, according to the NSA in the US, how terrorism operates. All of this has happened relatively quickly and with very little money spent on attracting attention through traditional means such as marketing—Facebook did not grow through a push strategy. Instead Facebook offered something that was so attractive it pulled people in.

Without trying to valorize a particular company, what we've taken from this observation is a recognition of the competitive landscape that good ideas have to survive today. Good ideas are not enough anymore. Rarely does any one group have enough money to push ideas into the world anymore; rarely does any one group have the requisite authority to create meaningful social change by fiat.

HDL does not have the means to affect change on its own. Sitra does not have the means to affect change alone. The whole of Finland does not have the means when we think about the large scale issues such as climate! Therefore our projects have been an experiment in pulling participants, collaborators, and onlookers into projects. We pursued a pull strategy because it gave us a plausible way to leverage deeper flows of change within Finnish society.

Back to the original question: how did HDL select its projects?

The answer is that we looked for opportunities that lay between the vision that Sitra has for Finland's future and the interests of Finnish society right now. Within that opportunistic space the real challenge is not identifying a potential area or subject to work on, but to find the vehicle of change that has a high possibility of success.

A concrete example is Low2No. Sitra's interest in sustainable well-being means that we will need to address many (if not most) aspects of our economy and how we live together on a finite planet. Citymaking, the focus of Low2No, is as good of a place to start as any! We had indications that a project focusing on sustainable city making was well-timed to pull interest from the communities of development, real estate, construction, and design in Finland. When we began Low2No we were also considering a relocation of the Sitra office, so this also gave us the opportunity to address multiple needs at the same time, and for our organization to have some skin in the game.

Open Kitchen provides another example. Although Open Kitchen is ostensibly about food in Helsinki, our motivations were in addressing the sustainability of consumer choices in Finland (starting with diet), strengthening everyday entrepreneurism, and in creating proactive opportunities for new generations of immigrants to knit themselves—and be knitted—into Finnish society. Those same goals could have been addressed with a project that focused on groceries instead of street food, or even a focus-area that has nothing to do food, such as small retail shops. The reason we chose food is because there was already an existing groundswell of interest in food thanks to the successful Ravintolapäivä festival.

The project was Open Kitchen because food was a hot topic in Finnish society and our agnosticism about the content allowed us to connect our strategic goals to a variety of potential vehicles. If cycling were the thing, or meanwhile usage of spaces, or pop-up shops, or childcare, or energy, or anything else were the hot topic we would have developed Open Cycling, Open Spaces, Open Shops, etc. instead, leveraging the interest of the community. These stand a better chance to pull in the attention of finnish society, saving us from the need to create attention and interest in our subject, before we can even begin to generate interest in our project, before we can even hope to have a successful project.

How did HDL select its projects? By looking for opportunities where we could inflect existing energy within Finnish society towards the strategic priorities of Sitra and our assessment of what will be critical for Finland's vitality in the future. The financiers aren't the only ones who can enjoy the benefits of leverage.

For more on choosing vehicles for change, see the introduction chapter to Legible Practises. Readers may also enjoy a brief discussion of using projects and publications as probes to help discover opportunity.