Field Reports What is Strategic Design and Who is Marco?

In a few days we’re starting the Almost Grand Tour of 10 cities in 10 days to reconnect with some familiar faces from Helsinki Design Lab 2008 and make some new friends too. This is one of many ways for us to start developing HDL 2010. We’re thinking of Helsinki Design Lab 2010 as a crucible for strategic design on the global scale, so what better way to start than to visit designers around the planet and see what they’re up to?

My travels will take me to Stockholm, London, Boston, San Francisco, Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangalore, and back to Helsinki. Along with my colleagues Bryan, Minna, and Pia (who are each joining me on various stops) we’ll be updating this blog daily with some reflections on the trip and the people we meet.

Helsinki Design Lab 2010 is still a ways off, but we’re getting started early and thought that some of you may want to get a peek into organizing a global event like this. Where better to start than introducing ourselves?

I joined Sitra, The Finnish Innovation Fund, as Director of Strategic Design last August. For the past 10 years I’ve also been an Associate Professor at the Harvard Design School, where I am currently on leave. While at Harvard my work focused on healthcare system design and sustainability issues for small and medium-sized enterprises .

Here at Sitra I head the Strategic Design & Networks team. While I was adamant about adopting the term “strategic design” I also recognize the potential downside to this word combo… design means everything and nothing. And strategy… well that seems to color everything worthy of attention these days! Putting linguistics aside, I think strategic design is important because it describes what we do (I hope!) and it reframes the word “design” in a more competitive context, which is critical if design is to be understood as a valuable asset. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you already value design as a way of thinking. At Sitra I’m working to make sure that designers have not only the interest in involving themselves with strategic decision making, but also the opportunity.

But why the term “Strategic Design,” you may ask? Design requires the integration of multiple deep knowledge sets; visualization of complex multidimensional problems; and the ability to synthesize conflicting views, data points, and opinions in hopes of developing a holistic understanding so that we can create better and  more complete answers to our problems.  Traditionally design has been used to help shape better objects (a phone, cup, car). At Sitra my team is using design to help shape better decisions.

I think the bottleneck with today’s large scale challenges (such as health care, the environment, education, justice) is that we don’t even know how to think about them. We all know that heath care is a problem… but what exactly is the issue and how do we make operable something so large and messy? Strategic design helps us ask the right questions and shape decision-making towards more complete and holistic solutions. Better vision leads to better solutions… this is our hope.