I’m writing this from the 14th floor of a Helsinki office building, looking out onto a perfect blue harbour hemmed in by pine forests and dotted with tiny islands, and over the vast power station of Ruoholahti and the cranes and trucks crawling over the redeveloping Jätkäsaari, all glowing in the bright spring sunshine. I’ve swapped one harbour for another.
Perhaps more importantly it’s the first day of my new job: I’m now a Strategic Design Lead at Sitra. I left Arup last week, where I’d had a happy and productive three years, and have relocated with family to Helsinki.
The Strategic Design Unit here is, to my mind, conducting some of the most exploratory, interesting and important work associated with design, innovation and culture anywhere in the world, and I’m hugely honoured and excited to be able to join this small but high-powered team.
I struggle to find good analogues for Sitra anywhere. Here’s how they describe themselves:
“Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund, is an independent public foundation promoting the well-being of society under the supervision of the Finnish Parliament.
Sitra’s responsibilities are stipulated by law. Sitra’s duty is to promote stable and balanced development of Finland, qualititative and quantitative growth of the economy and international competitiveness and cooperation. Sitra’s activities have a strong international dimension in sharing knowledge, exchanging best practices and participating in innovative projects.
Sitra’s aim is to help Finland prosper as a global pioneer of systemic changes that generate well-being. A systemic change is a broad far-reaching change of the kind that simultaneously affects the structures and practices of society and the everyday lives of its citizens. Sitra is a visionary and an enabler of such changes: to see is to do.”
So Sitra is at once a research function, an investment fund, and a body that runs experimental and development projects. It belongs to the people of Finland, as an investment in the future of the country, by the country.
The Strategic Design Unit within Sitra is a newish function, set up by Marco Steinberg, Bryan Boyer and Justin W. Cook a couple of years ago. I haven't written much about my work with this team over the last couple of years at Arup, though I suspect all that's about to change - besides, anyone who's heard me speak over the last year will know I've rattled on about little else. Their work has been exemplary, and thoroughly inspirational to those of us who have been grappling with systems, governance and culture(s) at urban or global scale.
It’s not exactly a Victor Kiam situation, but having worked as a designer on two of the SDU’s primary projects - Low2No (easily one of the most interesting urban development projects anywhere) and the ambitious and brilliantly executed Helsinki Design Lab (tiptoe-ing softly in the mighty footsteps of Buckminster Fuller, Juhani Pallasmaa, Victor Papanek, Christopher Alexander et al) – I’m incredibly pleased to find myself working from the inside now. From designer-as-consultant to designer-as-client, and more besides.
Strategic Design is, to me, potentially the most interesting recent development in design. It's neatly defined at the Helsinki Design Lab site:
“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.”
It feels (and is) quite different to design thinking, which is a term and way of thinking I think will fade quite rapidly, for some good reasons (the incorporation of its basic tenets into everyday processes) and bad reasons (the lack of rigor, awareness and responsibility on the part of many who have been actively pushing it in recent years). Either way, strategic design feels like something else, and its careful, integrated and thoughtful focus on meaningful, systemic challenges like health care, education, and climate change is particularly relevant. It's also sketched out well here.
Since being part of Helsinki Design Lab, I’d realised that this was work I’d been doing for a while - that there was a small but growing group of people beginning to breathe life into a new practice - and I quickly began to address is as such in recent projects (not just Low2No but also major urban developments such as Knox Central and Maribyrnong in Melbourne and Tonsley Park in Adelaide) as well as in recent thinking/writing - the 'Same Old New World Cities' piece for AA, re-posted here recently, takes this approach, trying to address "the architecture of the problem" of Australian cities and use design strategically to focus on and articulate the right questions in the first place.
To me, it might do nothing less than give design a genuine point once again. It’s not simply about moving design ‘up the food chain’ in order to draw out the true benefits of its practice at the most useful stage – rather than simply the end delivery of a product or service, which is often a position of little influence – but about reconceiving how we address these systemic challenges in the first place. As Marco puts it, we have 18th century institutions facing 21st century problems – this in itself is a genuinely important design challenge.
The chance to work more intensively with Marco, Bryan Boyer and Justin W Cook and future as-yet-undiscovered colleagues is also a huge draw. I'm looking forward to being in a very small, nimble team again, and these guys are as good as it gets in terms of thinking and capability. I’ve also known Bryan for many years now, and always been hugely impressed by his work and thinking, so it’s a particular pleasure to finally get to work with him properly (see also my write-up of his talk from Postopolis! LA, and his great projects Our New Capitol and Shadows and Straws).
I don't have to write too much about my interest in Finland at this point; that will all come out in the wash, as we say. Suffice to say the reasons that Newsweek chose it as 'best country in the world' last year are probably all valid - even accepting the faintly ludicrous notion of such a ranking system in the first place - and there are many other more subtle reasons too, not usually captured in ranking systems. But such qualities also need identifying, articulating, assessing, developing, nurturing, and shaping - and these ideas of national identities, cultures, facets, and characteristics is something I'm looking to engage with (as my recent thinking made clear, I hope.)
But the very idea of the Nordic model is attractive enough to warrant a closer look. The reality of, for instance, one of the world's best basic education systems being effectively universally free and public is so counter recent orthodoxy in Anglo-Saxon countries that it barely seems possible. I'm interested in exploring how these models work, under what conditions, when they don't, how they will continue to prosper and thrive, and so on. And again, using design as the lens through which we look at this. And for education, read healthcare, public transport and mobility systems, public space and civic life, manufacturing and knowledge economies, businesses and industries, entrepreneurship and social values, governance and social responsibility, agriculture and food culture, craft and design sensibilities, architecture and urbanism ... 'Culture' in both the Raymond Williams sense - as in a way of living - and in terms of cultural production and consumption; in short, the instruments and components of everyday life.
It's also an interesting time to move to Finland, of course, with some domestic political upheaval on the scene, almost a return of politics itself after many years of consensus, and part of a pattern repeating across much of northern Europe. Suffice to say I’m attracted to Finland for deeper reasons than are being played out in this current transition; for a small population, it punches well above its weight, having continually produced a environment that values innovation, culture and the very idea of civic and public life. It’s a high-functioning society that ‘just works’ in many everyday ways (public education, healthcare, transport, childcare etc.), with a diversified economy that has retaining manufacturing capacity whilst embracing high-value services, and in particular a strong design and craft culture. It appears to have an ability to create increasingly good urban environments – and Helsinki in particular is a city I’ve wanted to live in for a while, due to its numerous subtle charms – whilst retaining a deep, near mystical connection with nature and rural environments. And it posesses a ‘strategic position’ as a key hinge between east and west, and is highly integrated within European and global networks.
I’m not unfamiliar with its potential issues, challenges and limitations too, however, though I’m looking forward to seeing how these can be nudged and calibrated. Again, as a "delicate servo-mechanism guiding a much larger machine, perhaps. Respectfully, and bearing in mind that 'you can't design culture', that’s the job now.
This is also about moving back to Europe. For all its very real issues, being clearly expressed now as much as any time in its modern history, the notion of Europe itself is still beguiling and entrancing. Working with the reality of Europe is often different, but this idea and this reality converge often enough and approximately enough to keep striving for the ideals underpinning it - almost as a "militant Europhile", in the words of Fernando Savater. I'm hugely looking forward to assessing and engaging the old continent again, this time from a different vantage point, further north and further east.
Finally, a word for Arup, and Australia. While I'm incredibly excited about the move to Sitra, I have mixed feelings about moving on from Arup. They're a fantastic firm - the best in the built environment business - and I'm immensely proud to have worked there. They gave me a fabulous platform upon which I could pursue my ideas, and I'm immensely grateful for the support; I learned a huge amount. And a word for my great team too: Jason McDermott, Michelle Tabet and Pei-Hong Jessie Hsu. Watch that space; they're going far.
As for Australia, we had four great years there, and we leave with numerous fond memories. Some have suggested that my previous essay was a parting shot of sorts - it wasn't that at all, or at least it wasn't written consciously as that. While it does summarise some strategic thinking about Australia, it in no way captures the warmth I feel for the place, and for our numerous good friends and able colleagues there. I leave with several grappling hooks still embedded in the old rock, both professionally and personally, and so we're happy to leave in the knowledge that we're retaining connections with Australia too. We'll miss it, but I'll be back from time to time for sure. You move on from places, but you never really leave anywhere.
But enough of all this high-minded commentary; tonight, I board a plane for Lapland, and tomorrow a meeting at Santa Park!
It's a new map, new terrains, new cultures, new work, new ideas. What could be more exciting?