Competencies The Pivot

Last week we finally went live with Open Kitchen. I'll let Antto explain it briefly and if you want more detail you should check the site; this post will focus more on how we ended up with Open Kitchen as a project.

Readers of this blog will know that we like our food, but the motivations for this project go well beyond the desire to get a decent falafel, banh mi, or reindeer sausage in Helsinki. We engage food because we're interested in broadening sustainable consumer choices and fostering social diversity within Finland. Food is a good way to address these topics because it's the original social object. It's a familiar, tangible, and inescapable thing that's deeply tangled in individual preference, shared culture, and dark matter. This is a familiar story, so I wont belabor it. Instead, I'd like to share some of the backstory to the project and use it as an example of the pivot—a play that we've been adapting from the world of startups into our public sector practice.

To plan is to change your business, to pivot is to let your business change you. Despite best efforts to analyze and plan, the world does not always play out according to the script we write for it. In these situations, where you find yourself standing before unexpected opportunity or pitfalls, to pivot is to change the means that you're using to achieve the ends you desire. After a pivot you're headed in a new direction, but still rooted in the same first principles.

One year ago, when we began working on what has now become Open Kitchen, the concept looked like this:

Belly First Sustainability (Food, Public Debate, Business) — Concept Note

We want to accelerate the development of the sustainable food industry and culture in Finland by incubating the Low2No service partnership in anticipation of 2013. The aim is to sell sustainability, one bite at a time.

This is accomplished by building a Sustainable Grilli in Helsinki during the WDC2012 to create an accessible and first-hand entry point to public debate about sustainable lifestyles in Finland. The project is executed in three components: a competition, a temporary food cart business, and an events programme (in Helsinki and other cities) concurrent with the business.

In this draft (from September 15, 2011) you can see that the emphasis is split between providing a platform to prototype part of Low2No and larger systemic change goals around sustainable food. The means we had settled on to achieve this goal was to create and operate a sustainable grilli kioski for the summer.

Between the first conversations Justin and I had about 'belly first sustainability' and writing this concept note, two important things happened: the Camionette and Ravintolapäivä. Both of these unexpected events changed the context of food and food culture in Helsinki, and more importantly they provided tangible evidence of a new group of self-starters. Both involved demonstrations of what that new culture looks like, how it tastes, and how it changes the experience of the city in ways beyond just the foods on offer.

This is a snap of <a href="">Koepala</a>, a popup during Helsinki Design Week. New food-related concepts are popping up all the time now. Open Kitchen is designed to help them take root.
This is a snap of Koepala, a popup during Helsinki Design Week. New food-related concepts are popping up all the time now. Open Kitchen is designed to help them take root.

Both also highlighted problems in public sector decision making. The silos of our regulatory context were not set up to handle initiatives that came in the 'shape' of a food truck or a create-you-own-restaurant festival. The result was some rather public shaming of various public bodies through traditional and social media when those institutions did their normal, conservative thing. To their credit these same organizations responded quickly and positively, but not very coherently.

The "shape" of the city's organization doesn't match the interests and experiments of the citizens—here the Camionette. So when something like a food cart first comes along as a question, public bodies can be caught off guard.
The "shape" of the city's organization doesn't match the interests and experiments of the citizens—here the Camionette. So when something like a food cart first comes along as a question, public bodies can be caught off guard.

It literally doesn't fit into the silos that the city is organized around.
It literally doesn't fit into the silos that the city is organized around.

As we were working the concept note through various parts of the internal machinery of Sitra we were gleefully watching these changes happening on the street. And then something funny happened: we realized that we were developing a project for a world that didn't exist anymore. By the autumn of 2011 Helsinki didn't need a demonstration that sustainable street food was viable. That had been done already by entrepreneurs like Tio Tikka and activists like Olli Sirén.

Yet despite the positive blips that we observed, it remained difficult to get started in sustainable food in Helsinki. There was (and still is) a gap between the effervescent vitality of Restaurant Day and the day after restaurant day, when all of that surplus energy, excitement, and talent subsides back into previous routines. The ladder of innovation is missing some rungs, you might say. Restaurant day is a great way to test out an idea, but for those few who want to go further, where next? What steps exist between a pop-up and taking out a lease on 200 square meters of restaurant real estate?

Ravintolapäivä August 2012
Ravintolapäivä August 2012

These missing rungs of the ladder became our focus. We pivoted from a sustainable grilli demonstrating a new food culture, to a dark matter academy that could illuminate the tacit knowledge of sustainable food pioneers in Finland. We want to make it easier to create lasting, thriving sustainable food businesses in Finland. Open Kitchen relies on people who've "been there, done that" to share their knowledge and experience with others.

While this was unfolding we were writing the story, quite literally, in the form of a print-on-demand book. The research that went into the book and early development of the concept led us to meeting people all over the city, from restauranteurs to regulators to politicians, and everyone in between. We wrote it because that was an easy way to send us careening into the thick of things. Rather than sit in Sitra HQ and try to abstractly reason a view of the world, we got out there and started asking people how their corner of it works—or doesn't. Consistent across these meetings was a feeling that there's a good bit of knowledge and experience in the city, but it remains caught in pools—dark pools—within isolated communities.


Amidst our first proper blizzard of the 2011-2012 winter, Dan and I paid a visit to Ville Relander, who heads up Food Strategy for the City of Helsinki, and Elina Forss of Marrot Oy at the newly opened offices of Tukkutori. As we explained our interest in food the conversation fell quickly into a productive rhythm. Marrot, with the support of Ville and others, had been developing Kellohalli as a food culture hub for the city. It was to feature a strong programme of events, a library, and other activities. As strong as the plan was, it still pointed to the missing rungs of the ladder: once people get excited about food, what next? How do you go from enthusiast to entrepreneur?

The idea of the dark matter academy that we had been simmering (sorry!) was suddenly congruent with an opportunity right in front of us, with real names and availability and interest. That was that. In Marrot we had found partners who were already well positioned to help us develop and execute the concept of the dark matter academy for sustainable food. The pivot happened immediately, almost without a thought, because in fact the thinking had already been done and we merely catching up to the full implications of our intentions.

Pivoting can be difficult to accept, especially inside an organization that is used to a linear sequence from scoping to planning to execution to measurement. One of the ways that we try to deal with this is to focus on establishing the first principles of a project early on, revisit them often, and always explain our projects by building upwards from those principles. It leads to a bit of a broken record syndrome, but the best way to make sure the principles of a project are carried with the work itself is to repeat them over and over again—to yourself, and to everyone you're working with. This prepares us to make on-the-spot project decisions based on those principles, to align what we do with what we think, even in the smallest details.

Here, once again, we find that a useful play such as pivoting requires the right culture. Had any of the people in the team been rigidly locked into the grilli as The Thing To Do, or had the internal Sitra procedures rejected the Open Kitchen proposal, the attempt to pivot would have broken the project instead.