All posts by Bryan Boyer

Bryan Boyer was Strategic Design Lead at Sitra and project manager of all things HDL.

Weeknotes Week 067

This update comes from somewhere over the middle west of the United States, as I type away thanks to inflight wifi. Marco, Justin, and I have been in San Francisco for the Design Management Institute's Re-Thinking the Future of Design conference. Largely focused on the effectiveness of an expanded use of design within commercial organizations, Marco was sharing our work on a panel with Kyung-Won Chung from the Mayor's office in Seoul, South Korea, as well as Bruce Nussbaum, Roger Martin, and Jeanne Liedtka that discussed design in a larger societal context.

The event had a pretty good Twitter feed going and there were lots of lively discussions. The crowd skewed towards a more experienced, and thus older, level of individuals but it was nice to see some young faces in the audience as well. My eyes are especially attuned to these kind of demographics when I visit events these days.

With the HDL Studios and now HDL Global we've made a conscious effort to make space for younger voices in the conversation. Not only is the youthful perspective important, but we want to create opportunities to expose them to a new way of working and a new set of tools while they have an entire career ahead of them.  

Speaking of students, this week concludes the work of Anna-Leena and Christina who have been supporting the ageing studio. Rather than work part time for a month, they compressed their work into a focused week-long charrette, which might explain the "brain self portraits" they drew.

Not sure what this says about HDL, but it's a fun exercise to draw a brain self portrait. Give it a try!
Not sure what this says about HDL, but it's a fun exercise to draw a brain self portrait. Give it a try!

While in San Francisco, Justin and Marco managed to sneak in a couple Low2No working sessions with Arup and I paid a visit to Adaptive Path, where I had a chat with Peter Merholz about his growing design consultancy, and global design practice in general.

It was a good week and now we begin our laser focus on getting ready for September.


Weeknotes Week 066

Last week was the HDL Studio on Ageing, our third and final for 2010. It was a lively, intellectually powerful five days spent in Helsinki and Jyväskylä and a perfect endcap to the HDL Studios experience. Here's a glimpse of our 2010 Studios by the numbers:

  • 1 studio space
  • 6 weeks
  • 3 studios
  • 24 studio Members
  • 17 of which came from abroad
  • 2 combined count of volcanos and labor strikes that our travel plans managed to survive without incident
  • 7 studio assistants
  • 25 guest speakers
  • 7 Sitra organizers (either full or part time)
  • 9 fieldwork visits by the studios
  • 13 "final review" guests
  • 18 group dinners

We'll be spending the next couple months wrapping up the work of the studios and determining the best way to proceed. If you're curious about the outcomes, please check back here, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Twitter. As soon as we have concrete news, it will be posted to this site.

A snapshot from the Ageing Studio final review
A snapshot from the Ageing Studio final review

With the studios now behind us, we've accumulated a body of strategic knowledge relevant to the three thematic topics of ageing, sustainability, and education, but we've also learned a lot about how one practices strategic design. During the summer months I'll be sketching out some basic thoughts about the experience and we'll hopefully have some guest blog posts from a few of the studio members as well. If you're interested in how to organize and operate a focused, fast, collaborative strategic environment stay tuned!

Since Helsinki Design Lab was re-calibrated as an initiative to foster 'government meets design' we've had three initial mini-projects. The first was this website, the second were the HDL Studios, and now our sights are set on HDL Global 2010, an invitational event this fall. So, in other words, tomorrow. Not that we're feeling the pressure or anything.

We've started to get a few little bits of press. The Talouselämä interviewed Darrel Rhea (printed in Finnish) when he was here for the Studio on Education. Linda Nathan wrote about the same week on her blog. Elsewhere, The World Changing Blog had some very nice things to say about us. We like you too, World Changing. And if you're the visual sort, Dan Hill has posted a whole heap of photos from his time in the HDL Studio on Sustainability.

Taru and Kristiina were suspiciously happy about their last day at HDL.
Taru and Kristiina were suspiciously happy about their last day at HDL.

All that's left for this week are some very important thank yous. Taru and Kristiina, two Aalto students who were the research team for the sustainability studio have completed their work, so we say thank you and goodbye to them. Thanks also to Adriel and Ezra, who longtime readers will remember as the primary researchers of the Challenge Briefings for our Ageing and Education studios. And finally, a very big thanks to Hanna, Minna, Sanna, Miku, and Seungho for their continuing contributions to the project. Without such a great team offering logistical, practical, and psychological support there's no chance that the HDL Studios would have come off as well as they have.


HDL Studios On the ground in Jyväskylä

Yesterday was a whirlwind tour of Jyväskylä, which we visited to see a cross section of how one city thinks about its elders.

Welcome to Jyväskylä
Welcome to Jyväskylä

The balance between the human and infrastructural/institutional presence at an individual's front door inside an assisted living facility... interesting.
The balance between the human and infrastructural/institutional presence at an individual's front door inside an assisted living facility... interesting.

What it looks like at 11pm in the summer when you're at 62° north.
What it looks like at 11pm in the summer when you're at 62° north.


HDL Studios Opening up Ageing

As Helsinki continues to warm up for the summer, we welcome a new group of guests who comprise our third HDL Studio, this time on ageing society. While the first two studios had relatively focused questions, this one is more open-ended. Around the world there's a lot of attention towards the coming "silver wave" of retiring Baby Boomers whose quantity, diversity of needs, and consumer orientation will put new demands on welfare systems. The challenge we face now, and the focus of this studio, is to develop an understanding of the relationships within this knotty issue—How do the pieces fit together?

Is ageing a health issue or a social issue? Is it a question of environments, isolation, mobility, independence? Is ageing just about the elderly? The nature of the challenge exists somewhere at the intersection of these many issues.

Maslow's <a href="'s_hierarchy_of_needs">hierarchy of needs</a> expanded to a torus of actors.
Maslow's hierarchy of needs expanded to a torus of actors.

Christina and Ankki, two Aalto University students who have been doing preparatory research in advance of the Ageing Studio's arrival, struck on an interesting way to map this web of needs and the groups responding to them. They started with Maslow's Hierarchy of needs in one dimension and the different scales of activity and support—from private, to city, to national—in another dimension. The key actors related to ageing are then slotted into this matrix. The result looks something like this draft:

The network of actors related to ageing in the city of Helsinki. In progress.
The network of actors related to ageing in the city of Helsinki. In progress.

The visualization itself makes the gaps very apparent and the act of drawing becomes a process of discovery. More as this work develops.

And now, a hearty welcome to our HDL Studio on Ageing:

If you want a peek into the life of the studio, follow #HDL2010 on Twitter where Inderpaul Johar is actively posting. Tomorrow we're heading to Jyväskylä for a full day of site visits as the studio continues to immerse themselves in the challenge.


Weeknotes Week 065

When planning the HDL Studios we intended to have a two week gap between each. In the end, the schedule wiggled around a bit and we ended up with the HDL Studio on Sustainability and the HDL Studio on Ageing separated by only one week. Judging by the facial expressions I saw while looking around during our final prep meeting for the ageing studio, the difference in prep time is, in fact, no small difference. In honor of the hectic week, let's keep this short, sweet, and mostly photographic.

Taru and Kristiina began the wrap up work for the sustainability studio. This involves reviewing the tapes of the final presentation, transcribing all the stuff from the walls, and beginning to collate the two. Ultimately this will result in a document which summarizes the 'final review' of the studio and supports it with further information that was discussed early in the week but just couldn't fit into the final conversation.

One of the paper "slides" from the sustainability studio, proposing one of ten action areas.
One of the paper "slides" from the sustainability studio, proposing one of ten action areas.

Alongside this work is a project to map the decision making territory around carbon. Who are all of the parties at the municipal, national, EU, and supranational level that have a decision making role affecting carbon? This is no small task and the research assistant teams have been fearlessly wading into the morass as they attempt to sort it out. When we started, I asked them to "draw the org chart of the problem," but now I see that this is more or less impossible: it's more of a disorg chart. These are huge messy tangles of relationships and it has been a very juicy challenge to sort it all out.

Working on a map of the decision making structure of climate change. The typical "org chart" style seen at the top has been abandoned for a radial arrangement in recognition that this situation is anything but organized.
Working on a map of the decision making structure of climate change. The typical "org chart" style seen at the top has been abandoned for a radial arrangement in recognition that this situation is anything but organized.

Elsewhere in the studio, Christina and Ankki are at an earlier stage of a similar process, only their focus is on ageing rather than carbon. They started out with a pencil sketch, which is always a good idea.

The decision making map for ageing in Helsinki is shaping up.
The decision making map for ageing in Helsinki is shaping up.

Just as the ageing studio is about to begin, the education studio is being fully wrapped up. Johanna and Rodrigo put in their last day of work as research assistants at HDL. Although their work on the education studio is over, we're still in the early stages of a larger arc of work to discover how the outcomes of the studio can be best applied. In fact, on Thursday we hosted some folks from the City of Helsinki to see if there's a possibility of collaborating on their work related to supporting immigrant students.

Rodrigo and Johanna completed their the education studio wrap up work today. It's been great to work with them, and we wish these two luck in whatever they pursue next.
Rodrigo and Johanna completed their the education studio wrap up work today. It's been great to work with them, and we wish these two luck in whatever they pursue next.

This week Seungho also introduced us to a bit of his student work at Aalto University in a pair of posts (onetwo) about Cambodia. He has promised to check in again with some of the outcomes of the semester, including a strategic framework to rethink the role of NGOs in that context.

So with that we will say goodbye to Week 065, as well as thank you to Johanna and Rodrigo.


Weeknotes Week 064

During week 064 we tested the limits of the human brain by subjecting the eight members of the HDL Studio on Sustainability to an intense week of work. Like the Studio on Education before it, this was a rewarding week that left all of us energized to continue our work on these topics but desperately in need of a few days to decompress.

An array of research inquiry memos laid out on the "science lab table" in the studio. Supporting the studio members is a team of three research assistants who track down answers to questions and fix appointments. As the week wore on this table filled up.
An array of research inquiry memos laid out on the "science lab table" in the studio. Supporting the studio members is a team of three research assistants who track down answers to questions and fix appointments. As the week wore on this table filled up.

For the final "review" we were joined by Mikko Kosonen, President of Sitra; Jukka Noponen, Director of Sitra's Energy program; Peter Lund, professor at Aalto and one of Finland's top experts in energy policy; Timo Mäkelä from the EC's Environment Directorate-General; and Helena Säteri, Director General of the Ministry of the Environment in Finland.

The conversation was wide-ranging but one major theme was the question of how to enable cross-ministerial action on sustainability, rather than just talk. As the studio heard from different stakeholders over the course of the week there are many cooperative relationships between the ministries and other key bodies, but these are generally non-binding. They have no teeth. The studio wondered if a "war on carbon" and a matching war cabinet be the right approach.

For now I'll leave you with that juicy tidbit and we'll check in later with the full outcomes, once the work has been transcribed and formatted in a sharable manner.

Wondering what the studio activities look like? Here's a video of five completely packed days compressed into 18 seconds. Looks easy, right?

While the Sustainability studio was ongoing, the HDL team was busy fixing last minute logistics for our next Studio on Ageing that begins in just six days, as well as continued effort on HDL Global 2010.

Justin had to duck out for a few days to attend a Low2No design meeting in London. While we were sad to have him gone in the middle of the Sustainability Studio, it's very exciting to watch Low2No begin to shape up.

What else?

Darrel Rhea wrote up his experience of the Studio on Education over at the Cheskin blog. We showed up in the Social Innovator methods index created as a collaboration between the excellent folks at NESTA and the Young Foundation. And did you know that you can follow HDL on twitter at @HDL2010?


Weeknotes Week 063

It's already the wee hours of Monday, so technically this weeknote is being written on the first day of the HDL Studio on Sustainability. Tonight we welcomed the team to Helsinki with a quick dinner at Kuu Kuu before sending everyone back to the hotel to rest up in preparation for the quixotic week ahead.

Since we're at the very beginning of the week, let me introduce the studio:

This talented bunch will be spending the next five days with in Helsinki where their mission is to begin unpacking the complexities of carbon neutrality for Finland and to think about what a roadmap to carbon neutrality would look like.

One question we often get is "how do you pick the studio teams?" During the HDL Studio on Education someone went so far as to say that they felt like they were participating in an Agatha Christie novel: a group of people are mysteriously pulled together out of thin air—why are they here and what will they do now?

So, a few brief words describing our best guess as to how you build a successful team for this kind of work. To begin, it's important to know that as the research for the Challenge Briefings developed, we created expertise profiles for each studio. These were running lists that identified what we consider to be key perspectives for each studio topic.

In Sustainability we knew that building physics, transit, and policy would be essential areas, for instance. These are quite predictable. But we also sought some perspectives that might at first be unexpected. The thought behind this is simple: if you only include the regular suspects you will only get regular results.

Here are the basic rules of thumb that we used when thinking about the mix of the team and how to select the right individuals: 

Keep it small: With too few people there's a danger that conversation will not be robust enough, but with too many people in the room it's difficult to have a single conversation. Based on experience, and a bit of advice from Dan Goldin, a team of eight is optimal. This has worked out very well for us. Some things work well in large groups, but strategy sessions are not one of them.

No room for duplicates: The studio team will be working quickly, which means that the collective expertise and experience in the room is the team's largest asset. Although team members may have some overlaps in their interests, it's best if each member is the master of their own domain and offers serious, focused expertise about their field. Each member becomes a 'representative' of their expertise and no one is redundant.

Only accept the best: When it comes to selecting individuals, we've gone straight to the top. Across the board, we feel that the studio members we've attracted are either at the top of their respective fields or upcoming talents. High quality input may not quite guarantee high quality output, but it's certainly a prerequisite.

Flexible expertise: It doesn't matter if you're the top expert on the planet in subject XYZ unless you're able to relate to others and convey your ideas in an open, productive manner. For this reason, we look for people who are at the top of their field, know their material inside and out, but are also naturally curious about the world around them, and able to sociably entertain models that conflict with their own.

Be (a bit) local: One of the great strengths of the HDL Studio format is that it offers a very fast and focused infusion of international expertise. But bringing in a wholly international group can lead to fruitless conversations when the cultural context is not understood. We set a rule of thumb for ourselves that two of the studio members would be Finns so there would always be 'cultural ambassadors' in the core team.

Design is the glue: Each of the studios have two designers who work as facilitators amongst a group of peer-experts. It's their job to ensure that the conversation is balanced and holistic. Only a particular kind of designer will work in this context. They need to be able to apply their training to strategic issues.

If these are the rules that guide our choices, one might ask how we first narrow the field. So far, the best indicator we have is that the kinds of people who succeed in collaborations with HDL are those who have significant experience in multiple cultures. Marco likes to use the term Third Culture Kid. This may be "culture" as it's typically defined or it may also refer to different cultures of expertise or work.

If I have the choice between an expert in astrophysics and an expert in astrophysics with a previous background in agriculture, my bet is on the latter. There's something about having lived in multiple cultures that prepares an individual for the kind of lateral thinking that is required in an HDL Studio.

Finally, the mix of the studio in terms of both expertise and personality is important. While one my be able to judge an individual's expertise by broswing a CV and reading some publications, it's very difficult to assess whether an individual will work well as part of a team unless you meet them in person. Sharing a phone call works too, but it's not as effective as having a face to face conversation with someone.

For all of these reasons listed above, we devote a lot of time to sketching out the right mix for a team, courting a qualified pool of invitees, and working to secure their participation. By way of example, the process of defining the HDL Studio teams began eight months before the first studio.

Editor's note: These reflections on developing the HDL Studio Teams have been updated in a new post here.

Which brings us to the end of this rather long weeknote. It was full of powerpoints: Marco spent Tuesday in Valamo, where he gave a presentation the Valamo Monastery's seminar on Divinity and Truth, and then closed the week as a respondent on a panel entitled "Helsinki – an Open and Cosmopolitan City?"

Meanwhile, I was in Paris to attend the SIX Spring School, to share our work at HDL, and to continue digging in to the ageing content in advance of our own Ageing studio which will happen in June. Thanks GeoffLouise, and everyone else for a great event!


Weeknotes Week 062

Hearing from each of the studio members as they made their way home last week, it sounds like it was an exhausting and exhilarating time for everyone. It has been more than a week since the HDL Studio on Education ended and personally I'm just now getting back to the normal routines of life.

Friday. A group discussion after the studio presented its findings and recommendations
Friday. A group discussion after the studio presented its findings and recommendations

Last time we checked in on the Education studio they were in the throes of developing a synthesized position on the education challenge. That work continued through the morning and afternoon on Friday and then we ended the day with a discussion between the studio, a number of people from Sitra, Timo Lankinen of the Finnish National Board of Education, and Maruja Gutierrez-Diaz of the European Commission. It was great to have such a high powered conversation in a group small enough that we could really dig into issues, a discussion that continued over dinner in the studio with the work of the week pinned up on the walls around us.

The question is: what next? One of the difficulties of the work of HDL and Sitra more broadly is that we're in the business of creating opportunities. Sometimes this means helping two organizations or individuals meet and discuss areas of possible collaboration; sometimes this means helping foster new business ventures, as Sitra's venture capital operation is well versed in; sometimes it means introducing new ideas into Finland, like the ways that Low2No has contributed to the discussion about sustainability; and sometimes it means creating space for reconsidering challenges from a new point of view.

So back to that question of what's next. From here we will continue the conversation with Timo and his colleagues, as well as our partners at the Ministry of Education, and other groups which are keen to learn more about the outcomes of the studio. In short, we're going to follow the opportunities as they arise—and we'll try to nudge a few along too.

Of course we have a couple ideas of what's next, but if we gave away all of our plans where would the fun be in that?

Besides feeling like a pack of exhausted zombies, this week was spent ramping up our next studio on sustainability while ramping down the studio on education. Ramping down involves transcribing the whiteboards, photographing everything, and reviewing the tapes of the final conversation. Ramping up involves continued work tracking down answers to questions that the studio members have sent in advance, so that they can hit the ground running.

And what else? It's spring, so we got some new flowers!

Actually, <a href="">OK Do</a> brought us the flowers. Thanks!
Actually, OK Do brought us the flowers. Thanks!


HDL Studios Education Studio Full Steam Ahead

This summer HDL is hosting three separate studios here in Helsinki, each focusing on a topic that is critical to maintaining the wellbeing of Finland. Education, Sustainability, and Ageing are huge topics and there's no pretense that the studios will magically "solve" these issues. Rather, the goal of these studios is act as rocket fuel in the process of developing a strategic understanding of the issue. HDL Studios are part of a longer arc of work that began with the writing the Challenge Briefings last fall and will continue through this fall, if not longer.

HDL Studios are about making sure we ask the right questions. It's more about inspiration and insight than truth, as Rama Gheerawo eloquently put it


Each studio is a group of eight people who've been assembled to represent key perspectives on the problem. For the education studio we have people with very deep experience in founding and running schools, extensive classroom teaching, as well as health, developmental psychology, learning, and media, and two designers with backgrounds in strategic work. Their task is to help the Ministry of Education think about its work in new ways, particularly with regards to Finland's dropouts.

In shaping the team HDL has been careful to look for people who have different points of view but are also able to suspend disbelief and engage other ways of thinking. It's probably also worth mentioning that for us the process of building the team was an intensely social one. Not only do the studio members have to be at the top of their field and able to collaborate well, but this specific group of people needs to gel socially. From the intensity of the work over the past couple days it seems like this is exactly what has happened. 

Without further ado, the HDL Studio on Education:

The team is here in Helsinki for just one week. In this incredibly limited window of opportunity we've pre-arranged a schedule for them that is front-loaded with opportunities to hear from local stakeholders before transitioning into synthesis mode, which is where they're at right now as Thursday winds down.


Monday was focused on macro-level issues here in Finland. From the socioeconomic development of the country to the realities of multiculturalism in schools, it was an intense and diverse brain dump of information. The next day we visited a school in Helsinki to see what education looks like on the ground. Wednesday and Thursday were intense days of discussion and now everyone is working in smaller groups to bring the salient thoughts into focus. Tomorrow afternoon the studio will share their thoughts with guests from Helsinki and Brussels and then we'll continue that discussion over dinner.

Principal Erja Hoven taking the studio on a tour of Ressu, one of Helsinki's comprehensive schools
Principal Erja Hoven taking the studio on a tour of Ressu, one of Helsinki's comprehensive schools

Meals are not to be underestimated in a process like this. Since the team has precious little time together, meals are very important opportunities to change the tenor of the conversation and let ideas percolate in a different way. At one point on Tuesday I counted seventeen cups and beverage containers on the table with eight chairs around it—a messy table is a productive table.

More soon.

1 comment

Weeknotes Week 060

We continued the sprint to wrap up the final details of preparing the studio space for our first guests. This involved lots of tiny things like getting the our name on the sign downstairs and finding a good water pitcher. Seungho took care of these with aplomb.

Meanwhile, Rodrigo and Johanna have been wading through piles of official documents and lots of phone calls to continue their work drawing out the organizational chart of the education system. This sort of work very easily turns into spaghetti, so we've been taking it slow. Part of the ramp up phase for the studio assistants is a nice dinner to get to know everyone. Annikki and I had the pleasure of taking the Sustainability Studio and the Ageing Studio to dinner this week which means that all three teams have officially booted up.

Marco, Hanna, Annikki, and I spent Thursday in Jyväskylä, where Sitra sponsored a workshop with a wide cross section of stakeholders who deal with issues relating to the elderly in that city. We heard a bit about some of the challenges of delivering care to a broad variety of different groups of people. One of the key issues in Jyväskylä, as well as the rest of Finland, is that it includes a dense urban core as well as vast expanses of lightly populated rural areas. Delivering equal levels of care to people in such disperate physical environments becomes a tricky proposition. This was preliminary work for the Ageing Studio which happens in early June.

And tonight things suddenly became very real. Marco and I met the Education Studio members who've just flown in from Singapore, London, San Francisco, Boston, as well as the two locals from Helsinki, and took them out to a neighborhood dinner in Töölö. Shaking the hands of these excellent people who've come to spend a week with us really underscored the fact that, oh yeah, this thing we've been planning for over a year begins tomorrow!


Weeknotes Week 059

With just a few short days before the first studio guests arrive, we're in loppukiri ("final sprint") mode. 

Seungho, Minna, Sanna, and Hanna have been handling all sorts of last minute items for the studio. We now have furniture, a full wall of whiteboard writing surface, internet access, a conference phone that looks like a space ship, and – most importantly – an account at the cafe next door.

Still rough around the edges, but getting there.
Still rough around the edges, but getting there.

The instant we had furniture the studio assistants for our Education Studio were already powering full steam ahead. Rodrigo, Johanna, and Annikki have been covering a lot of ground as they research and map out the territory of education in Finland. Who are the key actors and what are the relationships between them? How are these institutions, organizations, and entities structured? Sunday is when the eight members of our studio arrive, so this work is not a minute too soon.

With May just a few days away, we ended the week with an all-hands meeting to review HDL Global 2010. The crowd grew from 10 to 12 as we welcomed Emil+Stephanie to present their work on the visual identity. The event plans are generally shaping up but there's still a lot to nail down, which is why Marco has been on the horn with Moscow, Washington, and many points in between.

Oh, and we launched the new website.

Feeling good about the accomplishments of 059, but already half way through week 060, it's time to turn up the Piazzolla and get back to work.


Weeknotes Welcome to the new HDL

What do single use surgical instruments for the global market, social housing in Chile, and waste management in Bangalore have in common? When we set out to define what Helsinki Design Lab means by "strategic design" we knew that it would require illustrating our ideas with concrete examples, but none of us expected an initial group of case studies this diverse.

Unifying these projects is the ability of the teams behind them to work between different scales of their respective challenges, coordinating discrete decisions in a way that created opportunities to impact entire systems. We've started with three case studies but want to grow the library. Perhaps you have some ideas?

Can the specific architectural decisions of a house help lift its future residents out of poverty? Can something as basic as the material choice for a surgical tool improve patient outcomes? In the course of writing these case studies we found that the answers is yes! Talented designers are finding themselves increasingly able to tackle strategic questions and deliver measurable improvements for clients ranging from individual citizens, to global corporations, and government ministries.

Helsinki Design Lab wants to see more designers able to work at this level, more success stories, and more governmental clients benefitting from strategic design.

I'll let Marco follow up with a more complete introduction Helsinki Design Lab later this week, but for now "tervetuloa" and please enjoy our new site.

This site came together through the fantastic and speedy work of XOXCO and Rumors during the last six months, as well as early conversations with BERG on a fine September day, and a stellar visual identity courtesy of TwoPoints. Thanks everyone!


Weeknotes Week 058

It was a big week for us, this week 058.

We moved in to our summer studio, printed a newspaper, and finished the new website. Go team!

Our location, soon to be furnished.
Our location, soon to be furnished.

The studio space is located right in the heart of Helsinki, along the pedestrian patch of Kalevankatu. We've taken over from the excellent team at Nordkapp, who've moved on to a bigger office elsewhere in the city. To inaugurate the space we had a small party on Thursday with some of our local friends. With a bunch of people dropping by it seemed like a good opportunity to make sure they go home with some information about Helsinki Design Lab, so we designed and printed a tabloid newspaper in one week. Seungho took the lead on this and he did a great job. We'll have to figure out a way to make these papers available if you want a copy.

The first newsprint publication of HDL.
The first newsprint publication of HDL.

And the last big item is that we finally completed our new site. Once the eyes have been dotted and the tees crossed we will launch it, which means that the next time you read a weeknote like this it will be via our new online home.

But the biggest thing on our minds this weekend is what will happen with Eyjafjallajökull. If the skies don't clear up soon we're going to have to figure out a plan B for the HDL Studios, so this week ends with cautious optimism.

Courtesy of <a href="">NASA Goddard's</a> Flickr stream
Courtesy of NASA Goddard's Flickr stream

1 comment

Competencies Space as a capability

Announcing a new approach to space exploration yesterday, President Obama shifted the focus from getting somewhere to building capability.

“Step by step, we will push the boundaries not only of where we can go but what we can do... In short, 50 years after the creation of NASA, our goal is no longer just a destination to reach. Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn, operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time.”

-President Obama in the New York Times

The Apollo project of the 1960s mobilized a massive amount of money, people, and effort to put a man on the moon. In the eight years between President Kennedy's announcement that the US would shoot for the moon and Neil Armstrong's first steps on lunar soil, NASA answered questions no one had ever asked before.

To be simplistic, there's no such thing as a single challenge. Challenges come in bundles. The difficulty is that it's very hard to predict in advance the nature of the bundle and to define the boundaries of the challenge. One may aspire to go to the moon but would they expect, from the outset, to research food enrichment as a step to getting there? 

The sheer size of the Apollo project's ambition required the people involved to invent solutions to seemingly unrelated problems. The results of this are important to our everyday lives in ways that most people (including me) don't acknowledge, probably don't even know about. From enriched baby food to computer controlled fabrication (CNC), the secondary benefits of the space program are many, even if their pace has slowed.

Source: <a href="">Wikipedia</a>
Source: Wikipedia

NASA's leadership of the space effort was a success in the 20th century when the target was difficult yet clear defined. One could argue that the success of the moon mission was derived from an institutional ability to pursue the right answer.

Nowadays we increasingly encounter problems that are ill-defined (or fuzzy or wicked, take your pick) and the question, as such, might not even exist yet. Today success still relies on choosing the right answer, as it always will, but we also have to ask the right questions.

This requires a shift of focus from building institutional capability towards building a culture of capability. Setting a new target, like Mars, may be dramatic, but it's not responsive to the ways that our context has changed in the past 40 years. We know the headlines (climate change, health care, etc) but the actual boundaries of these challenges need to be continually developed. To do this we need a culture that understands problems and solutions as moving targets, constantly in development together. HDL sees strategic design as one of the steps towards building this culture.

Neil Armstrong tacitly acknowledged the diminishing returns of a business-as-usual space program by noting that, "[going to Mars] will be expensive [and] it will take a lot of energy and a complex spacecraft. But I suspect that even though the various questions are difficult and many, they are not as difficult and many as those we faced when we started the Apollo (space program) in 1961." In other words, we know the boundaries of that problem pretty well and the development of new knowledge will be now incremental rather than stepwise.

The sheer complexity of working in space makes it a crucible of innovation, but unless we're asking the right questions and setting the right targets–unless we continue to define the boundaries of the challenge–the returns will continue to diminish.

For Mr. Kennedy it was enough to go to the moon because "it is there" and those were heady days. To deliver on Mr. Obama's intentions of an expanded capability to work and live in space we'll have to first figure out what it is we want to do. That sounds like a mighty design brief to me.

1 comment

Weeknotes Week 057

Three weeks from today, the first batch of HDL studio members will walk into the studio space and begin an intense week of work. Good thing we're picking up the keys tomorrow and can begin the build out!

We've been so focused on getting the studios squared away that it's hard to stop thinking about the week ahead. But last week some important things happened, so let's try to remember them.

The big item is that we welcomed another six new people to the team. Each of the three studio will have two Aalto University students supporting their work. Marco, Annikki, and I spent Friday morning introducing the new team members to HDL and strategic design. We're very excited to have them–and it's pretty amazing how quickly this team is growing. The studio assistants will be working with us through June.

Justin and I continued to shape up the case studies and website content while XOXCO made a final round of bug fixes. The new site is so very close to being done that I can barely stand it.

Tuesday was dedicated to video editing. Like our website, the brief interviews about HDL 1968 have been one of the items that we've been slowly chipping away at for a long time and they're finally getting close to done. Antti made some magic happen in Final Cut Pro. It will be great to have those videos online eventually.

We continued conversations with Emil+Stephanie who are providing design services for HDL Global 2010. It was a good meeting and we have some exciting plans in the works for the visual character of the event.

Seungho dedicated week 57 to designing a tabloid newspaper that explains HDL. We've been getting so many questions about what we do that it seems useful to have some kind of packaged information. That goes to press on Monday.

And thus week 57 comes to a close. It was busy, but with the first studio looming and many things on the docket, week 58 promises to be even more intense!


Weeknotes Week 056

Sitting next to me on the desk is a stack of three slim volumes, each containing about 50 pages of research and argument. These books are called challenge briefings and they're the first step in organizing a strategic design studio.

The first batch of Challenge Briefings are back from the printer! This is also a sneak peak into the new look of HDL. More when the new site launches.
The first batch of Challenge Briefings are back from the printer! This is also a sneak peak into the new look of HDL. More when the new site launches.

A what?

A strategic design studio! HDL is hosting three studios this summer, each one looking at a systemic problem here in Finland. Since our new website is still forthcoming, here's a little peak into what the HDL Studios are all about.

The first studio will look at the broad theme of education with a specific focus on the "lost boys" of Finland, dropouts who disappear from the system completely. Our second studio is an extension of the intellectual capital devleoped by the Low2No competition and will concentrate on a national sustainability strategy with a focus on carbon neutrality in the built environment. Finally, the third studio is focusing on the challenges of an ageing society and how this impacts welfare and the welfare system.

For each of these studios we've built a small, top-notch team of eight experts with demonstrated leadership in their respective fields and a commitment to open and collaborative work. These teams will come together to spend a week with us in Helsinki and charrette on the topic. They are free to choose an appropriate medium, but each studio has been asked to develop a roadmap to strategic improvement and identify a "top ten" list of possible interventions. Given the understanding of the problem that will be collectively developing, what can be done to deliver significant improvement?

But back to those Briefings. They're following on the competition brief developed for Low2No and will be familiar to anyone who has seen a design brief before – only they're focusing on the opportunities for the redesign of systems rather than objects. Once we've seen how the studios make use of them we will revise the briefing documents and make them available on this website. This should happen later in the summer, so please bear with us.

With this one small but significant part of the puzzle completed, I'd like to thank Adriel Mesznik and Ezra block who took the lead on developing content for the Ageing and Education briefings respectively. Thanks, guys!

This was week 56: a short and blurry week. Three publications done and printed, one publication ramping up, a website that's almost done, and lots of other little bits keeping us busy.


Weeknotes Week 055

The Ambiguous Middle Phase of the project – where we work all day, every day and seemingly have little to show for it – is still going strong. This was another week of familiar logistics and confirmations with a few highlights:

Leif Sonkin and Kimmo Rönkä, two of the authors of a Sitra report entitled Seniori 2000 looking at ageing society, dropped by for a meeting. They are enthusiastically revisiting the material and will be checking in with the municipalities involved to see what has come of their visions for the year 2000, now that we're ten years on. This will feed into our ageing studio.

The Challenge Briefings (one for each of our three studios) are 100% complete and press ready. Those files will be waiting in the press' inbox Monday morning. We're treating these as versioned documents so this will be version 1.0. That version number should tick up after the studio as our thinking develops, and hopefully many times after as well.

Finalizing the covers.
Finalizing the covers.

Marco was on the phone with Palo Alto and New York, as well as a few places around Europe. Interesting things developing for both HDL and Low2No but my lips are sealed for the moment.

We ended the week with an all-hands away day meeting to review the full compliment of plans for HDL studios and HDL Global. With the first studio beginning in just over a month, things are starting to feel more discrete. Sure, there's still a lot to do, but the work is less and less abstract. The to-do list is growing longer but the individual items are easier to check off, which is probably indicative of some equilibrium of work Law Of The Universe.

Finally, we would like to welcome Annikki to the team! She is going to be helping us with the HDL Studios by coordinating the teams of student research assistants who will be supporting each studio. In the coming weeks we'll post more about what a studio looks like and Annikki will have a better chance to introduce herself then.

Looking to the week ahead – um, tomorrow – we have a bit of a sprint before Easter holidays shut down Finland for a long weekend. Back to it!


Weeknotes Week 054

This week felt a bit like a curling match: hastily tidying up a clean trajectory in advance of a moving object.

It involved some conversations with the in-house technology people who are now working on ICT for September, some preparations to bring on six Aalto University interns, confirming more guests for September, steadily taking care of logistics for the summer studios, and ongoing work on the Briefing documents.

Those Briefings are more work than we had expected, so they're eating into other projects (like the website). But it's worth it because the Challenge Briefings are the basis for the summer studios – they have to be great. We're supposed to send them to press in the upcoming week. That's a little scary.

Work on the case studies continued with calls to Leeds and London about knee caps and social housing, respectively.

Kari stopped by to fill us in on the plans for Helsinki Design Week. It's nice to have visitors, but I always feel a little guilty making them come down to Ruoholahti.

Which is why the big news of the week is that we finally confirmed the location of our summer studio space. It's a great spot right in the middle of Helsinki. I'm looking forward to seeing what Seungho whips up when he gets a chance to kit out the raw space as a hospitable studio environment for twelve people. We're going to look into having some open visitors' hours so that you can drop by and check out HDL too. Details on this when they develop.

We're definitely still in Ambiguous Middle Phase, but getting the hang of it now. If the next couple weeks go well, we should leave AMP behind and move to something that feels less like preparing and more like executing.


Weeknotes Week 053

Here we are, currently closing out week two of a three-week intensive writing storm. Justin and I spent last week filling sheets of paper with what we call "fleshy skeletons," essentially long outlines that dip into narrative prose when inspiration strikes. This week he and I have shunted off to our own corners to put some meat on those skeletons. We're a bit behind schedule, but the week ahead will be a good one as the cases come into focus. Once we've drafted the bits we each committed to the files will go onto Google Docs and that's when the authorship-bending, polyvocal, swarm editing begins. Between writing stints we've had calls with the various parties being profiled in the cases as well as a good bit of research to fill in some of the gaps.

Marco has been steadily knocking things off the to-do list. Mostly in the section having to do with logistics and participants. We added two more confirmations to the Ageing studio, which is now almost full, as well as continued lining up speakers for all three studios. Jaana dropped by at the very end of the day on Friday with some special all-white, embossed Sitra stationery that none of us had ever seen before. Apparently it's reserved for diplomatic communiques.

I spent Friday interviewing Aalto students for the role of studio assistant. We're going to be brining on about three people to help with each of the studios, so that's a total of somewhere in the neighborhood of nine people to bring up to speed. Not to mention nine more seats that will be needed. Our new location in the Sitra building is bigger, but not that big.

Thus the studio. The biggest news is no news at all: we're still trying to confirm the HDL studio space. A couple very exciting options and we're very close, but the whole HDL team is quite ready to sign a lease and put this arduous task behind us. Who would have thought the real estate market in Helsinki to be so convoluted?

Week 053 feels like an extension of 052, one of the longest weeks of the project yet.



Weeknotes Week 051

Ambiguous Middle Phase continues but now with some glimmering of what lays ahead, beyond this chaotic period for HDL.

The week was bookended by a laundry list of activities related to the three Studios we're planning for summer: visiting a possible space right next to Delicato; interviewing students to join the team in supporting research roles; confirming studio members; interviewing two top talents experts on ageing; hunting down a map of internal migrations; and checking in with Gaia, who are preparing some futures projections. That's the sort of stuff that is continually churning, but I'm making note of it here so that we can look back in a couple months and remind ourselves of the rich crucible of everyday chores that created a background for deeper considerations about HDL.

On Tuesday Marco, Minna, and I took a day trip to Copenhagen to meet the fine people at MindLab and INDEX. Established as a design facility by three ministries (Employment, Taxation, Economic & Business Affairs), MindLab is one of the very few examples that we know of where design capability is explicitly integrated into government activities. They're been working to help government bodies improve the services they offer to the citizens of Denmark with a mix of design, social science, and public policy expertise.

After a very good and very hurried lunch we met with Kigge and Liza at INDEX:, the world's largest design award. It's set up as something along the lines of a Pritzker or Nobel for socially-beneficial "design to improve life." Naturally this high ambition for the contribution of design is something that we very much share. As is the recognition that to foster the ability of designers around the world to make a larger impact means very literally supporting them, enabling them to work without immediate clients. Or even markets. In particular it was nice to hear a bit about where their thinking is headed in the future. We're sworn to secrecy though, so stay tuned!

It's great to find allies – more and more of them every day. Not so long ago, if you said that you're interested in design with a social motivation and a practical imperative, you would have found very few people to share those aspirations with. Both of these discussions in Copenhagen underscored the fact that not only is this broader definition of design becoming a simple fact of the word's definition, but that there are more and more groups developing keen insights into implementation. What are the barriers to delivering improvements? How do we rethink the structure of design practice to open new opportunities? Who can designers involve in their work to benefit from expanded expertise on making things happen?

This is exciting to us because the design community is finally beginning to answer 50 year old questions. We're making those visionary "what ifs" from the 1960s into "why nots" – and "why not" is a much more operable question.

Victor Papanek in front of a prototype learning environment for children at HDL 1968. Photo by Kristian Runeberg.
Victor Papanek in front of a prototype learning environment for children at HDL 1968. Photo by Kristian Runeberg.

With my laptop battery dying, I'll close with a quotation from HDL 1968 by Victor Papanek, the father of green design. It's unusual to see him praise the consumer products industry, but here his message is more about bootstrapping than cars. Replace "industrial designer" with "strategic designer" and this quote pretty much sums up the transition we're experiencing right now, as design is increasingly integrated as a core competency in governmental-scale problem solving.

If we go back to the history of the design profession we find that it started in the late twenties... around 1927, 1928, 1929 is when industrial design began in the United States.

It started by someone saying "I am an industrial designer." And then going around to radio companies, to electric companies, to truck people and so forth saying "I am an industrial designer, and I can do this and this and this and this."

And the companies were sometimes impressed and hired this man, be he Raymond Loewy or anybody else, and the same people are still working for the same companies.

Suomenlinna, Helsinki. July 17, 1968.

We agree with Victor: it takes a daring few to open new areas of opportunity!