Helsinki Design Lab helps government leaders see the "architecture of problems." We assist decision-makers to view challenges from a big-picture perspective, and provide guidance toward more complete solutions that consider all aspects of a problem. Our mission is to advance this way of working—we call it strategic design.
Summer was here, but then it left. We're back to gray and rainy skies. This has given me license to indulge, temporarily, some of the more arcane reaches of our team discourse. It starts here:
We talk a lot about dark matter because it's the focus of our work, really. But the problem with dark matter is that you can't see it and you can't detect it by definition. It's out there shaping the things we can see, but dark matter itself is known to us only by virtue of the effects it creates. Since we can't see the thing, those effects crop up at unexpected moments and in unexpected ways.
This means we need instruments that help us flesh it out, ones that show us the shape of the dark matter, and reveal its boundaries. If we were physicists we would be building space probes, but since we're not we make projects. For the strategic designer, a project (making a thing or interaction) becomes a way to flesh out the unknowns.
Or if we borrow from Joi Ito again, doing projects is often a cheaper way of identifying needs and innovation opportunities than it would be to analyze a situation. So that booklet floating in space becomes this...
...a token that's launched into as many situations as possible, to bump into as many edges as possible, and eventually send back details of its voyage. Now that our food booklet has been floating around the city for a few months we're building up a decent understanding of the situations it has ended up in—and hopefully the dots it is connecting. It's not the only tool we use, of course. We're also in regular meetings with various stakeholders. But that's the point: the probe/project takes on its own life.
This is (slowly) leading to two bodies of work: one within other institutions, where Sitra can act as a neutral host for shared discussions and decisions. Another in the community, where we hope to be announcing a programme in September which will offer a way around some of the blockages and knotty bits that our space probe has sent us details of.
So, yes, we obsess over the documents, websites, spaces, and other things we're stewarding into the world, but those details are not the source of our motivation nor the locus of ambition.
- 12 floor renovation: enabling a new culture of collaboration at Sitra
- Food booklet: mapping out the diverse field of 'owners' of food business and bureaucracy in Helsinki... helping us define the opportunity space
- Brickstarter as a product: creating concrete discussions about frictions existing in the regulatory & financial sectors and increasing community know-how around civic entrepreneurship
Speaking of Brickstarter, things continue apace. Maija has been doing a good bit of research on other crowdfunding and crowdsourcing initiatives, for example the Avoin Ministeriö or "open parliament" which is set up to receive suggestions for new laws. This is the first in a series of 10-20 summaries of relevant efforts from Finland and elsewhere.
It's great to have an expanded team and the impact of Maija and Kalle is already starting to show.
Marco spent the better part of an afternoon with Sara from the Design Exchange Programme, talking through the strategy for the next couple months. He was also working with the Helsinki Department of Social Services to finalize the selection for the exchangee who will begin working there in August. We'll reveal the name of that lucky individual after the summer holiday.
From his homebase in Boston, Justin has been contributing to the ongoing development of Sitra's sustainable economy thematic area which is under 'construction' at the moment. He has also been in talks with a Boston-based group who's interested in utilizing the Studio model.
On that front, we're officially done with the first edition of 1000 copies and the second edition has arrived. There are some small tweaks, of which my favorite is an adjustment to the page edges in the appendix so it's easier to flip to the each of the individual challenge briefings. There are other minute changes throughout such that if the book had a version number this would be 1.1. We're going to try to get some copies up on Amazon for those of you who've mailed asking about how to get a physical copy.
Otherwise: on the horn with Chicago, Geneva, San Francisco, and London. Partially for HDL 2012 prep but also for other assorted bits.
With July hitting next week we're a bit in scramble mode. Finland more or less shuts down completely for the month, which is both amazing and maddening. If you're on holiday it's great. If you're not, it can be a big impediment to getting work done. One of the open questions for us is whether the renovation of our 12th floor, a project which Dan and I have been spearheading, will actually be completed before our target of August 1.
A strategic design challenge of significant difficulty: convince the Nordics to split their holiday month into shifts so that no more than half a country is away for 2-6 weeks at any given moment.
Right. While some bright young designer is figuring that out, we'll be in various states of holiday! During the next month or so updates will likely dwindle but Maija, Kalle, and I will be holding the fort down while Marco, Justin, and Dan enjoy some well-earned time off.
Hyvää kesää kaikille!
And another two-for-one, which illustrates a) that we're busy, which is good, and b) that for many of us, holidays are approaching rapidly, like a broad sweep of clear blue sky appearing on the horizon, which is also good.
Summer is here, by the way.
After giving a talk at the European Centre for Living Technology in Venice, Bryan then took the opportunity of being in Italy for a quick well-earned break featuring la dolce vita, I believe. ECLT seem to be doing some really interesting work regarding "economically viable"/sustainable mountain communities in Italy—definitely worth a look, according to Bryan. Meanwhile, Marco and Justin have been knee-deep in Low2No as usual, partly working on this aspect, amongst other things. And Maija Oksanen has joined us too, as a summer intern. With Kalle, we now have a fuller team, and thankfully some more native Finnish speakers. That is already helping us hugely, though Maija and Kalle bring a lot more than just their exemplary language skills.
In the last few weeks I've been to Milan, London, and Amsterdam. Oh and I had to unfortunately cancel a trip to Moscow, which is probably just as well given that diary. (But still, Russian visa timelines! Why, in this day and age, is it still so difficult for non-Russians to do business in Russia? Legacy dark matter.) I'm sorry not to have made it to Moscow, but these trips are always a whirl of talks, lectures, meetings, logistics, and brief, stolen moments of peace and reflection amidst the bustle of these fine, old cities.
The Russia trip was to be a talk at Strelka Institute, which I'm hoping to be able to do later in the (northern) summer. Strelka are one of the more interesting design schools in Europe at the moment. They also happen to have recently released the essay I wrote about six months ago (Bryan referred to it last time): "Trojan Horses & Dark Matter: A Strategic Design Vocabulary."
This is part of the new Strelka Press series, curated by Justin McGuirk, which features other essays by the likes of Owen Hatherley, Sam Jacob, Keller Easterling, Julia Lovell and Alexandra Lange, as well as Justin himself. It's an interesting approach, exploring the e-book format for essay-length writing, and priced at a level that makes it accessible to a wide audience.
My essay covers a lot of the terms, and background conversations and thinking, that underpin some of the things we've been writing about — and more importantly, trying to get done. It's intended to be a kind of primer, or "playbook", which presents the idea of a vocabulary - as a way of starting and developing conversations in this new area. With that in mind, please do let me/us know what you think.
The other trips were to the Politecnico di Milano's architecture summer school for a talk, but with a short hop over to Frog Design Milano to discuss strategic design with them. Also, Joseph Grima of Domus magazine, to talk Istanbul Design Biennale amongst other things.
London was more of a meeting-based trip, featuring a catch-up with the indefatigable Tom Loosemore, an old colleague from BBC days, who is now doing great things at Government Digital Services, which is part of the UK Cabinet Office (we mentioned their design principles previously). They, too, are going well beyond "this is just a website" work. Also, a useful catch-up with Philip Colligan and Laura Bunt at our sister organisation NESTA RE Helsinki Design Lab 2012, and a good chat with Laura afterwards. Plus a meeting with Gill Ereaut of Linguistic Landscapes, who do fascinating work working with organisations (often public sector) to understand and unpick their habitual behaviours through the prism of their everyday working language.
I also met up with Ricky Burdett of the London School of Economics 'Cities' programme. Burdett is a hugely influential figure in the field of urbanism and cities generally, so it was a pleasure and privilege to meet him. It looks like we'll be working together on a new LSE Cities conference in London at the end of the year, where I'll be talking Brickstarter and beyond, hopefully, in the context of "smart" and "not so smart" cities.
Ricky and I are also on the advisory board - with Sir Peter Hall and Saskia Sassen - for a new Young Foundation project called "The Social Life of Cities", in association with Cisco. We had a first meeting of that last week, for which I had to endure a visit to a terrible business park in Espoo. The irony of being there - virtually alone, surrounded by concrete flyovers and lazy, ugly, damaging buildings - and yet talking about "the social life of cities" was not lost on me. Perhaps it's useful research just to be there! Still, the project could be very valuable and we got off to a good start with an engaging discussion.
Back in London, I spent a long but enjoyable day at BERG London, judging the Core77 Interaction Design awards, with Bonnier's Sara Öhrvall, BBC's Julia Whitney and BERG principals Matt Jones, Jack Schulze and Matt Webb. Results out in July.
While at BERG's studio, Sara and I were addressed by a certain Little Printer.
Finally, Amsterdam was a speech at the start of the 'kennisdag' (knowledge day) for the 500 staff of the City of Amsterdam's "spatial sector" (architects, planners, engineers, real estate etc.) The City had lined up a very impressive day of workshops for their staff, all held at the wonderful Felix Meritus building on beautiful Keizergracht. It was great to see a city government actively working at shared thinking and discussion, particularly given the challenges all city governments are beginning to face (and so the Brickstarter work was again germane to their thinking.)
For Brickstarter, we brought energy policy expert Robert Brückmann (of Eclarion) over from Berlin, to talk to Sitra and a few other representatives from relevant sectors in Finland. We had a great discussion about Germany's energiewunder - also discussed previously here. Again, we are hugely inspirted by what Germany have done here. This follows previous Brickstarter talks from Marcus Westbury and Rodrigo Araya, and more to follow after the summer break.
We'll have some major updates on Brickstarter.org shortly. I've been handling the stewarding of a clickable prototype "conversation starter", and that will soon be up. Maija has been plugging away researching 'adjacent' services. Expect to see lots of little 'fact card'-like blog posts up there soon. Kalle has also been developing some similar 'fact cards' around food scenes in cities - focusing on the legislative environment (dark matter), rather than cuisine as such - for use in our food-related projects. (Just after that, Kalle, who is a barista, headed off to Vienna for the World Cup Tasters Championships, where he placed ninth. Amazing. Well done Kalle!)
That food work is progressing rapidly now, in partnership with Antto Melasniemi & Elina Forss, as well as the City of Helsinki (Ville Relander) and will soon be appearing on its own project blog.
Meanwhile, it seems that every other week we're discussing what we do with representatives of various pioneering Canadian social innovation organisations and foundations - they seem like they are on the brink of becoming the most fertile place for that kind of work, interestingly. A couple of weeks ago, Bryan had a chat with Lisa Tjorman, of the aforementioned excellent Labs report, and last week, we were happy to discuss our work with Allyson Hewitt, also of Social Innovation Generation in Toronto. Watch that space, is all I'll say for now, but they're heading somewhere very interesting over there …
And finally, as they say at the end of British news broadcasts, we're spending a lot of time on internal culture, and particularly the notion of "ideas", "projects" and the relationship between those things. Which, of course, is not always self-evident, or simple.
With that in mind, Bryan forwarded on this post from Adam Mathes, formerly a product manager at Google, about his practice:
My conclusion after a few years is that the best product management is about providing the vision of what to build and why and then creating the context where great things can be made. That context usually involves the right people, space, time, and patience...
But for truly innovative and creative products, project management may not matter as much. If you are making something new and creative and different, it’s hard to know exactly how to make it. You may be building the tools and technology you need because they don’t exist yet. And may be impossible to properly estimate how long it will all take.
More on Adam's blog.
And finally and finally, we spied our "In Studio" book on John Thackara's bookshelf in the lovely "virtual tour" of his workspace recently posted. It's apparently creeping its way towards him, day by day. As it should you.
Another newcomer reporting! My name is Maija and I just joined the Strategic Design Unit as an intern. Originally from Finland, I’m currently enrolled in a Master’s course in Gothenburg, Sweden. I study at the University of Gothenburg in a program called Business & Design. The two-year program is a joint venture between HDK (the School of Design and Crafts) and the School of Economics and focuses on working with design strategically within organisations. After finishing the first year I’m joining Sitra for a semester as a part of my studies.
My background is in the field of culture, literature and the arts and I’ve been working with arts management as well as event production both in non- and for-profit organisations. I’m looking forward to an interesting time here at Sitra; already my first day has been quite a ride!
Aside from work I plan to enjoy the Finnish summer and you’ll most likely find me sailing in the archipelago or enjoying the quietness of our summer house by the sea. I am a Finn, after all.
Ha det bra!
When a weeknote stretches to two weeks, we're flat out. This is a two-week-note. Marco's in Chicago with the mayor, Dan's in Milan giving a lecture at the Politecnico, and Justin's about to board a plane bound for Finland. In Helsinki, Kalle is with the Sitra gardening club planting herbs on the roof of the Sitra tower and I'm here, in my chair, typing this for you.
The Cumulus conference bought a torrent of design educators to town, old and new friends both. We enjoyed seeing Liz Danzico again, a prolific designer, author, educator, and tourer-of-Helsinki. Mariana Amatullo was visiting from Art Center in Pasadena, California where is the director of the Designmatters department. She spent a day and a half doing research for her PhD by interviewing stakeholders in our Design Exchange Programme and grilling us with thoughtful questions. Eduardo Staszowski and Lara Penin from Parsons School of Design Strategies dropped by too, and we had a good conversation about the differences between strategic design practice in a place like Finland which has a strong public sector and somewhere like the US which has a more fragmented landscape. Brenton Caffin was here briefly at the beginning of last week too. This is what the World Design Capital year is like.
With learning in the air, one of the things that popped up in each of these conversations was our position on the practice of strategic design and innovation more broadly. We call it legible practice and I've written up those notes in a separate post:
Doing things in the open is not the best way to help them grow. To encourage scale, we must do work in ways that are inviting, easily read, and digestible.
Dan has ben writing too. He has a book out as part of Stelka Press' inaugural series. It's called Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: a strategic design vocabulary and it rather provocatively argues for...
...A new vocabulary of design, one that needs to be smuggled into the upper echelons of power... Increasingly, effective design means engaging with the messy politics – the “dark matter” – taking place above the designer’s head.
If you're in Moscow on June 18th you can hear about this at his public lecture at Stelka.
Brickstarter continues apace. Right now we have a local web shop coding the first clickable mockup. It will be viewable on the Brickstarter website in due time, but not just yet. We're also reading, reflecting, and interviewing existing projects about their experiences with self-initiated development.
It's basically impossible to get Kalle to stop talking about food, which is a good thing since that's what he's here to do. During the last Ravintolapäivä he operated a pop-up coffee stand which also served as a community idea collection point, resulting in some telling (and often humorous) drawings. Most of his time is spent wading through city webpages, collecting and sorting information about getting a food business off the ground. This will eventually be part of something we're calling This Is Not A Cookbook (a guide to Everything But The Food?) which will be part of the food entrepreneurship bootcamp we're planning for later this year.
I've been on the horn with groups US and Chile, coordinating a meeting for this summer to dig into two case studies for HDL 2012. It's constant logistics on that front at the moment as I attempt to wrangle diaries of 28 people in five time zones across the total of six case studies we're hoping to pull together. To amuse myself, I tinker with the spreadsheet that keeps all of this straight (and on budget). Two words: conditional formatting.
Marco and Justin are both 110% on Low2No at the moment as some critical decisions get made. On a much smaller scale, we had a few triage meetings about the renovation project that's ongoing in the current Sitra tower. Finland shuts down for all of July, which is a wonderful and maddening fact of the way of life here. This wreaks a special kind of havoc on production timelines and there was some danger that our 12th floor renovation would get pushed until after summer. After some decisive action I think we've narrowly managed to avoid that delay, and we're still currently on track to have the new spaces by August. Hyvää.
Then this happened:
The city has exploded into greens and blossoms as the trees come back to life, dusk and dawn melting into a continuum of tarry daylight. Welcome, summer.
During the past week or so we've been hosted visitors from three continents who are curious about strategic design at Sitra. In each of these discussions we've touched on something that we call "legible practice". I first used the term on this blog less than a year ago, but it worked its way into our daily vocabulary somewhat before that. We use it as a way to split hairs with all the hype around "openness". Open data, open innovation, etc.
At risk of sounding arch, "legibility" has become a core notion of how we think about innovation, or perhaps more specifically public innovation, and this post is an attempt to define the term and describe its value. Very simply, doing things in the open is not the best way to help them grow. To encourage scale, we must do work in ways that are inviting, easily read, and digestible.
Let's hop back to 1994.
The world wide web used to be a very different place. Much of what's available on this website was not possible twenty-some years ago. Few people knew how to make websites in 1994, and there were certainly no schools graduating students who were versed in the subject. Most people learned like I did, from a friend who taught them the basics of HTML and showed them the most important command in the history of the internet: view source.
"View Source" is a command that lets you see the code that makes a webpage work. This is unique to the web—your word processor, for instance, does not allow you to see the source code that makes it tick. That's proprietary code (unless it's open source).
But the ability to see the web page and the code that manifests it has been built into web browsers since the early days, and liberal use of the command is an invaluable tool for self-learning. HTML is a simple language, so as long as one can access the source code they can usually 'read' it without too much pain. I don't know why someone decided to add "view source" as a feature of the web browser, but it facilitated the spread of knowledge about how to make web pages. Here we unearth the imperative for legible practice.
Not only was the web new and rapidly evolving, but since there was not an in-built stock of Web Experts the group of people who happened to find themselves as members of a community building the web—and simultaneously learning how to build it—were all coming from different backgrounds. A lot of them were computer scientists, but there were also bored architects, distracted social scientists, news junkies, eager business students, and probably more than a few video gamers. The sheer diversity of the community meant that tropes and models from any particular tradition of knowledge could not be relied upon. Tutorials and other learning resources tended towards a more general audience because the community itself was more general in composition. The knowledge base and the community were in flux.
Innovation is in a similar moment of rapid development. The View-source paradigm implies that the more a developing practice enables and supports self-learning, the quicker it can grow and spread despite having a diverse composition. If you want something to go viral, you have to think about how it spreads. Practices tend to be a fair bit more dry than your average animated gif meme, so those of us who are invested in spreading a way of working have to think extra carefully about how they spread. We try to bring this concern into the core of our work.
As a public institution we enjoy the ability to do just about everything in the open, free for others to pick up and build upon. This comes in small gestures, like making our publications available under a Creative Commons Share-Alike license, but openness is not enough. As we aspire to maintain a legible practice, we're in the habit of not just sharing our work, but sharing how and why we do things in a particular way.
To invoke a bit of an infinite loop, this post is an example of what I'm describing, as are the rest of the how-tos. And we're not alone. Friends at Government Digital Services in the UK are conducting their own legible practice, and we would be happy to have other examples posted as comments below.
Other examples include our book In Studio, which features documentation of three studios we hosted side-by-side with a thorough how-to; full documentation of the Low2No competition including brief, process, and outcomes; and the Brickstarter project blog, where we're documenting every aspect of the project's development.
In each instance we are attempting to take a step back from the work itself and describe how we approached the problem as well as the methods, tools, or techniques we used to address it. We do this as an invitation to engage in a discussion about the work and its practices. In an ideal world, everything we produce would come with a "view source" regardless of medium.
The reason that we invest time in sharing in a legible way is twofold. Primarily, we feel that it's important to reflect upon the practices that we're developing, especially at a moment like this where knowledge is productively fluid. Doing so helps us hone our skills. It makes us smarter. Second, making our work legible enhances the likelihood that it will be copied.
An innovation fund is only as useful as it's innovations are influential. And what better way to be influential than to be as easy to copy and build upon as possible? Besides, when we see someone pick up a bit of our work and use it in their own way, we benefit by having our thinking reflected back to us in new ways. When describing practices, that reflecting-back is exactly what scale looks like.
What follows next is a pro barista tip courtesy of Strategic Design Unit. If you want to gather people somewhere, make them stay there longer and boost their creativity - serve them really good, well brewed and freshly roasted coffee.
Last Saturday was the Ravintolapäivä ( "Restaurant Day" ) when anyone "can" set up a pop up restaurant, cafe or a bar just for that one great day. People reclaim the streets and fill them with cheerful chatter, buzz and food. There's a very diverse range of food available from North Korean pork buns to Lady Gaga cupcakes. The fact that this was the 5th Restaurant Day clearly show that there's demand for inexpensive, well-prepared and diverse street food. However, the day after the restaurants and cafes are gone. Cars are back, there's no food, and people have abandoned the streets again.
This phenomenon sparked the idea for last weekend's "Sitra Coffee Lab" if you like. Besides me serving espresso based drinks we had a hidden agenda. While the customers were waiting for the drinks we asked them to sketch what would they like to see, eat, drink, feel or listen to on the streets of Helsinki in everyday life.
As a tool for this we used iconic yellow Lippakioskis (in Finnish) (translates a "baseballcap kiosk", from the canopy) that are largely unused nowadays (many open for 3 months over summer, but only for basic fare, and remain unused at other times.) Designed in the 1930's and built during 1940's and 50's, there are now 19 kiosks standing around the city. Dan had made these blank A3's with a vector rendering of such a kiosk.
We ended up with almost 30 papers with some great ideas on them. Some people wanted to grow carrots and flowers on the roof of a kiosk, others to set up a summer lounge and use the kiosk as a DJ booth. There were a few especially noteworthy things. First, many of the papers had people socializing outside of kiosks. Could these kiosks act as community hubs for people to meet each others and socialize? The kiosks are dotted around the town mostly by the tram lines. These different districts have their own characteristics and atmosphere. How could Lippakioskis reflect those nuances of different parts of the city, just like they do in Käpylä and Kallio?
Besides the social aspect people would like to see more diverse offerings on the culinary side. Nowadays the kiosks serve, as mentioned ealier, just a basic fare - filter coffee, buns, soda and candy. Why nothing more interesting like espresso or home made doughnuts? Or why not organic local beer? What would you like to see, eat or drink in a Kioski?
Hello, it's me again, and so predictably this is a few days late.
Before I run through last week's events, I thought I'd share this. Bryan tweeted a Dezeen article about the new Shard tower in London—an interview with the lead architect, Renzo Piano—noting in particular the usefully low car parking provision. There are 87 floors in The Shard, 72 of which are habitable, and it has 47 parking spaces, essentially to cover the requirements of disabled people, according to Piano.
Having worked on a few so-called sustainable developments in my time (admittedly mostly in car-dominated Australian cities) this is extraordinarily impressive. Piano also notes that the direction here came from Mayor Ken Livingstone, which is also impressive—politicians driving that number down is rare; usually they're in a defensive mode, worried about their constituents (often underestimating their constituents' own ability to change, actually) and pushing back against the design teams.
Here in Helsinki, every day we look out onto Jätkäsaari, which is one of the city's strategic sites for sustainable development. A typical block there will be designed to have around 7 floors and have to make space for approximately 120 parking spaces. Both cities are well-served by public transport (in fact, Helsinki has previously been voted as having the best public transport in Europe) and Helsinki being a compact city, you could walk to most bits of central Helsinki from Jätkäsaari. This quite different parking ratio here is also directed by the city council, of course.
This disparity seemed so ludicrous I had to draw it. First, the two developments: The Shard at 87 floors, and 47 parking spaces; a new "sustainable" development in Helsinki's Jätkäsaari has 7 floors, and 120 parking spaces:
To put it another way, the ratio for The Shard is around 0.5 parking spaces per floor, whereas Jätkäsaari's ratio is around 17 spaces per floor. What if you applied the ratio for The Shard to Jätkäsaari and vice versa?
Thought for the day.
Anyway, last week's thoughts had a big public holiday-shaped hole in them on Thursday, but the rest of the week was full of life.
I was knee-deep in designing Brickstarter mock-ups—more on that soon, but some old sketches are now up at brickstarter.org—and working with the Sitra management team on our new working patterns, workspaces and so on. Kalle was researching street food legislation in global cities, roaming (via the web) from Portland to Stockholm.
Meetings-wise, I had time for a poor cup of coffee but a good chat with Melinda Sipos, a Hungarian designer/artist whose provenance includes the seemingly excellent Kitchen Budapest. I met up with web developer Ville Kolehmaimen from Fusion Inc, had lunch with our own Pekka Salmi to discuss what we (Sitra) might research around crowdfunding legislation in Finland, and Kali Auvinen and I had a fascinating Brickstarter-related conversation RE NIMBYism and sustainable development with the chairman of the Finnish wind power association.
Meanwhile, Bryan was in the USA for an equally full week, culminating with a panel at the inspiring Studio-X NYC (run by our chums Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley) which centred around the future of design practice in a plural, political world. He also was part of a panel at WantedDesign about the possibility of entrepreneurial design to sketch out new cultural possibilities, including +Pool, Brickstarter, and games that reveal the richness of the spectrum of possible social interactions. In between he was meeting and on the phone to line things up for HDL 2012.
Working across the Helsinki-Boston axis, Marco and Justin were embroiled in the usual intense stewardship required by our Low2No project.
Meanwhile, back in Helsinki, by the end of the week we were privileged to have Marcus Westbury of Renew Newcastle/Renew Newcastle fame in town. Marcus is an old colleague and friend from Australia, and we took advantage of him visiting London to bring him across to Helsinki for a couple of talks, as part of our Brickstarter research (for more on Marcus's work in this context, read the notes from this discussion we had a few months back, or this old post on "emergent urbanism" from my blog a few years ago.)
As those notes describe the general area I won't go into the ideas again here, suffice to say Marcus did a great talk for Sitra colleagues over lunch ...
Although it was so chilly that the pavilion felt like a wooden memorial to optimism, we had a good crowd of 40 to 50 or so (thanks!) and a good discussion after too.
Thanks to Marcus for coming over, and sharing his numerous insights, and thanks also to Tommi and the Demos crew.
Fortuitously, the following Saturday was Ravintolapäivä, Helsinki's festival of pop-up restaurants, and so I was able to walk Marcus around that too. This was in no way a hardship—it was the city at its best—and easy on the stomach too. Ravintolapäivä demonstrates a different kind of urban activism to Renew, but they're derived from similar instincts: creating a framework for encouraging everyday experimentation within the city. Saturday also demonstrated to Marcus that spring in Helsinki can be warm.
I've written all that up over at City of Sound, so do have a read over there if you want to learn more about the wondrous event that is Ravintolapäivä aka Restaurant Day, and what it might mean for cities like Helsinki. While you're there, note the use of Kalle's coffee stall as a honey-pot for design research—more on that soon from Kalle.
As Dan already mentioned in his previous post, I just recently started here at the Strategic Design Unit as an intern. Currently I'm studying marketing at the University of Helsinki's Viikki campus. While telling people I'm a marketing student almost all of them reply "Marketing - at the Aalto University School of Economics, right?" The difference is that in Viikki we focus and specialize in understanding the marketing needs of the food industry and other players on the edible field whereas at Aalto it's purely marketing itself. I'm also doing a minor consisting of all kinds of food related subjects - a little bit of chemistry, logistics and so on.
The first weeks at Sitra has been very interesting and exciting - never before have I had a desk of my own and a view from the 14th floor, overseeing the beautiful seafront and archipelago of Helsinki and Espoo.
Being a barista, the first project I assigned to myself was to think of a better solution for the office coffee. Also, I've read at least a dozen articles and papers regarding the Helsinki Street Eats project.
Recently +Studio, a "design accelerator" and co-working space in the creative Punavuori district of Helsinki, held a breakfast session titled as the New Visions for Food. Futures specialist Ville Tikka, who also contributed to the Helsinki Street Eats book, from Wevolve agency presented his idea on how the food systems might change in the future. The linear value chain from farm to fork is likely (and already has in some cases) to transform into a network of functions interconnected to each other.
That concept will surely hover around the Street Eats project which is the one that I'll be working most with. We'll be taking a close look to street food in Helsinki and hopefully finding new ways to develop it. In addition to all things food related, I'll be helping out with Brickstarter as well as HDL 2012, as that shapes up.
During the first few weeks here at Sitra I've met so many interesting people. I'm very excited to start working with all these professionals and to really get my hands on the various projects at hand.
OK, latenote for last week. The highlight was perhaps a great conversation with various representatives of Canada's Social Innovation Generation partnership (SIG), who were in the neighbourhood (well, Stockholm) and were kind enough to swing by Helsinki for a chat.
They're doing really interesting work scoping out what they call the "change lab" model, preparing the ground in Canada. We were visited by Cheryl Rose (Associate Director of Waterloo Institute for Social Resilence and Director, Program Development for SIG), Tim Brodhead, (JW McConnel Family Foundation, SIG, MaRS Discovery District), and Sam Laban (Education Program Manager, SIG). We have lots of visitors to Sitra and HDL, and always enjoy and learn from the discussions and connections, but rarely has a group been so well-prepared and asked such perceptive and insightful questions.
I'm intrigued by Canada, having never been but idly marking it as a kind of mirror/inverse of Australia (vast, sparsely-populated, resource-rich, echoes of empire, Anglo in bits, fine cities, incredible landscape, great cities etc. etc.—and it is of course completely different, I'm sure). And we've been delighted to see the thinking emerging there—as noted previously, their summary of lab-like iniatives ("Labs: Designing the Future") is definitely worth a read—and so we're really pleased to open up this diaglogue. It looks like I'll be visiting Canada in return, this November, which I'll update you about nearer the time. Thanks to Cheryl, Tim and Sam for popping in.
Bryan had to rush off after lunch with the Canadians, heading over to Derry. After noting the preponderance of wind turbines in the Irish countryside ...
... he took part in the Academy of Urbanism's Annual Congress on The Resilient City, and he reports that It Was Good. The level of conversation was excellent, and the very particular context of Northern Ireland perhaps lent the affair a seriousness and motivation that is often lacking in similar events.
Bryan pointed me at one project—a comprehensive regeneration plan for Derry-Londonderry [read the full PDF or summary PDF]. It looks to have a good strategic edge, which foregrounds what I'd call the real drivers of cities (economy, culture, community) but views them holistically alongside some necessary strategic interventions (improving health, approaching sustainability) and then draws in secondary or tertiary matters like infrastruture, buildings and so on. Have a squint at the diagrams on page 7 and 8 of the shorter PDF:
Meanwhile, lots of work on Brickstarter. I've started designing the first 'alpha' version of the web service, which we'll share some details of shortly. As ever, we're using the website as a kind of token in order to open up wider, systemic issues—but you have to build the thing in order to flush them out. So it's been very interesting, and very rewarding, to finally be discussing the details of the various interactions we want to explore i.e. crowdfunding versus voting? What do we mean by voting? How do we balance a democratic model alongside crowdfunding? How explicit do we make the council? How to do a slow reveal on the dark matter so as to enable a low barrier to entry yet subtly unpack it over time such that the project proposals are robust enough to be taken seriously? All this and more emerging over at brickstarter.org shortly.
I love getting to this stage of a project, as everything starts to come together. With a project straddling governance and democratic models, crowdfunding and emergent community actions, sustainable development across use of shared space, shared resources, energy and so on, it actually helps crystallise the project considerably. Then our job is to draw out the shifts in this otherwise imperceptible dark matter implied by such a product or service, such that we might enable their productive reshaping. (I also happen to love spending hours in Photoshop and Illustrator, frankly. For the strategic designer, the challenge is always to balance the lure of exercising your craft skills with the requirements of the strategic, systemic view. But one enables a better view of the other, and vice versa.)
Kalle's been doing some nice background research on 'food profiles' for other cities, for Helsinki Street Eats. We'll have a set of cards emerging for different cities shortly, to enable productive comparison with Sydney, looking at the regulations, governance culture, scene on the streets, and so on. We're also now in discussions about how and what we can fund in this area—more on that shortly.
I've also been helping out with the organisation's imminent reorganisation in our building. With Bryan, we've been leading a renovation of one of the floors, but again, really we're looking at the organisation's culture, the way we work, and interract, and so on. (Again, the balance of crafting a specific output with the wider strategic, cultural view.) We have a 'bootcamp' with the management team next week to draw up the first sketch of a new organisation.
And two good lunches. First, Bryan and I with Artek's Ville Kokkonen (design director) and Anna Vartiainen (marketing director). Artek are one of the genuinely great Finnish brands and operations, founded by Aino and Alvar Aalto (a bit of background). Their 2nd Cycle concept is a particular favourite in the Sitra office, indicating a form of "resilence" in which the firm buys back its own products and re-sells them, a simple concept that gracefully indicates the ongoing value of good design and production, as opposed to "throwawayism".
Secondly, I had a good catch-up with Tommi Laitio of the powerhouse that is Demos Helsinki, covering many topics: Baana, Brickstarter and beyond. In particular, we discussed the forthcoming event that Demos are curating at the World Design Capital pavilion (or "paviljonki" as it's known here), where we've invited Marcus Westbury of Renew Newcastle/Renew Australia fame to speak, on an afternoon/early evening session about urban development dubbed "City 2.0" (read a previous conversation with Marcus here.) More info on Facebook, and if you're in town, do come on down. (By the way, a tilt-shift time-lapse of the WDC Pavilion going up. It's designed at Aalto University's Wood Program.)
Oh, and it's the Helsinki-originated increasingly global sensation that is Ravntolapäivä (Restaurant Day) this weekend (May 19th) (for background, read our "Helsinki Street Eats" book-let). Make sure you visit Kalle's coffee stall—"Gaffebaari"—in particular!
Finally, some quick linkage: Brickstarter was mentioned in another scene-surveying post about crowdfunding urban development, this time at ArchDaily; John Thackara asks whether we need an Arne Jacobsen of urban food systems, and "Making Planning Popular: A Manifesto" (related to "Sub-Plan".)
And a little more controversially, an interesting take-down of the open data and transparency movements and a reaction to the perceived over-spending on buildings and infrastructure in Valencia, Spain, homing in on Santiaga Calatrava. Sadly, there's little public controvery here about the proposed (or is it?) road tunnel under central Helsinki, which is apparently still sitting on the city's plans somewhere, and has been for years—or is at least alive in the minds of the current generation of city planners. Not only is this a ridiculously outdated idea ("sell by" circa 1970) it is apparently preventing or otherwise hindering other projects from happening. The local media is asleep at the wheel on such matters, as far as we can tell. More here if/when we get it.
Oh, and I forgot to report: Vappu, a couple of weeks back, was a blast. Very special indeed, and no way near as bacchanalian as I had been led to believe (caveat: I went to bed early.)
What we learned in #163 is that Berlin has jumped straight to summer while Helsinki is taking its time with spring. A quick update to keep up the tempo, but not as much depth as usual because Dan and I are hosting a visit from the MaRS / WISIR / SIG in about 3 minutes! Edit: I did not make it, so this is being completed after a very good conversation with the Canadians, but you'll have to wait till next week to hear about that one.
In Week 163 Dan, Kali, and I were in Berlin to do some research for Brickstarter looking into the ways that people are working on community engagement and energy infrastructure. Separate things but deeply related, as we suspected, and as we found.
Perhaps surprisingly, amongst the many threads that tied these two together was the role of narrative. As Anna Poblocka of Eclareon put it, Germany's ability to create a narrative around the move towards renewable energy is an important part of their ability to aggressively pursue this transformation. The next day Dieter Genske expanded this notion by introducing us to the linguistics of this particular narrative which is called energiewende in German.
Use of the word "wende" connects the renewables effort with the importance and scale of another significant act, the reunification of Germany after the wall came down. This is an example of the way that we talk about a specific change helps prime conversation to be positive or negative, empowering or overwhelming, one that preferences the status quo as immutable or sees it as merely a current-state. And while linguistics is a soft topic in comparison to the significant rigidity of (current) energy infrastructure, it's a powerful bit of soft stuff. Narrative is the connective tissue of systemic change.
The Finnish experience maps onto Dieter's point very well, but in reverse. Whereas Germany has created a narrative of change-by-renewable-energy, big decisions about Finland's energy future two years ago relied on narratives of past success to rouse political will in support of maintaining nuclear and propping up traditional industries such as pulp and paper manufacturing. Today, small scale energy production in Finland is stymied by the overhead of permitting, which is designed for nuclear-scale plants, and a limited community of willing investors.
The way Robert Brückmann of Eclareon explained the German experience to date, Merkel's narrative worked in parallel with opportunities that could be acted on directly by individuals and communities. Well-designed feed-in tariffs made renewable energy a safe investment that has snowballed as more people take advantage of the opportunities in the marketplace. After two days of discussion around the growth of renewable energy I began to imagine in my head the German case as an Olympics logo of interlocking virtuous cycles: narrative and discrete opportunity, government and market, individual and community, environment and economic development, short term gain and long term security.
More on all of this in a future Brickstarter.org post but we came back from Germany with new insights into the importance of combined action on the level of large-scale cultural debate and discussion paired with discrete and delicate tinkering within the dark matter of our institutions.
Taking these findings up a level of abstraction and mapping it onto our work in Helsinki, we want to understand cultures of decision making better so that we can pursue innovation from two angles: first, by inflecting public debate towards a perspective of shared-value and shared decisions. Second, by de-risking innovative acts on an individual level.
Internally we joke about this as the glue and the tiny hammer. We're searching for ways to glue together things that have been silo'd or separated, and for ways to carefully begin to crack into big, opaque boxes (like most institutions).
While in Berlin Deiter shared his insights during a walking tour of his own neighborhood. Dan wrote it up on his site. How does he find the time to do that so thoroughly?
As a last note for Berlin, we also had a good visit with Neighborhood Labs which one of us will write up soon for the Brickstarter site. It was a compact but excellent excursion.
Brickstarter is making its way into the wider world as well: a post at Design Observer that has a good conversation going in the comments and there's another one on the Atlantic Cities blog. We're very happy to see the discussion spreading bit by bit. More of this, please!
Mike Monteiro recently wrote a good book for designers entitled Design Is A Job. It's geared for web designers, mostly, but relevant for others too. Actually, it's a useful book for anyone who is uncomfortable dealing with contracts, lawyers, management, and other business basics in the context of practice which is as much qualitative as it is quantitative.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the NYT graphics team have set up a blog that reveals their process behind some of the graphics featured in the paper and online.
This side of the Atlantic, The London Olympics have gone a bit appallingly off the deep end in an attempt to keep their sponsors happy.
Since the audio's a bit hard to hear, a snippet from Philip Colligan:
I think we should design all public services with people, not do public service to people. So it's about changing the way we think about delivering outcomes. Not about professionals giving service to people, but defining outcomes with people, and using all the resources available to us to deliver those outcomes.
And finally, it's not often that we have the wherewithal to post here before an event happens, but we do have two events coming up next week.
Friday May 18th: Marcus Westbury, of Renew Australia fame, will be here in Helsinki to give a public talk about his work revitalizing disused parts of the city. Dan has been putting this together with Tommi Laitio of Demos. Details are on Facebook. I'm shattered to miss it, but I expect to hear all about it via Twitter.
Saturday May 19th: I will be in New York to take part in New Finnish Design City, an ICFF satellite event. Friends of HDL Q&A are curating three days of panel discussions and workshops which you can read about here. I'll be sharing a panel with Dong-Ping Wong and Colleen Macklin about using design to framing the right questions.
And in honor of Maurice Sendak who passed away this week: Goodnight, Week 163.