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Helsinki Design Lab: Addressing society’s wicked challenges

November 27, 2012

It may seem odd to start a blog post with talk of toasters, but in a conversation with Bryan Boyer this month, that is where the discussion took us. Bryan is the strategic design lead for Helsinki Design Lab, a division of Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, and he reminded those assembled at the MaRS Global Leadership event on November 13 that once humans developed the capacity to generate electricity, all sorts of inventions became possible.

Somebody at some time in the last century thought of a new, easier and faster way of cooking bread. Sure, this inventor thought about what the device might look like and how it would function. What’s more interesting, though, is that this inventor had to think about something that had never been done before, something that would radically redefine the way people thought about bread. The toaster would produce new meaning and new beliefs around what was possible.

Sitra hopes to advance society’s ability to cope with complex issues such as climate change and demographic shifts by developing strategic design as a tool to better conceptualize and respond to so-called “wicked” challenges.

In using strategic design, Helsinki Design Lab has the potential to introduce new products or services to the city, changing the ways people interact with it and the values and beliefs they associate with it.

“We’re at the fuzzy front end of innovation,” says Bryan. “We are looking at change at a scale similar to the 1960s, but we don’t have a word for it yet.”

I like this quote from Bryan, but I would add that the current time period – as people look at ways to address these systemic, complex challenges – is far more dramatic than the 1960s. It is a culmination of multiple crises and myriad opportunities that could either defeat us or radically shift the ways in which societies operate.

Social Innovation Generation and MaRS are also very interested in exploring the various ways that design thinking and systems thinking can be applied to Canada’s wicked challenges, and Bryan’s visit gave us the opportunity to learn from Helsinki’s experience in this work.

During his presentation Bryan referenced the following quote from Wouter Vanstiphout, a historian of architecture and, since 2009, a professor of design and politics at the Delft University of Technology:

“If you really want to change a city… then it will require re-engaging with things like public planning, for example, or re-engaging with government, or re-engaging with large-scale institutionalized developers. I think that’s where the real struggle lies, that we re-engage with these structures and these institutions, this horribly complex dark matter.”

Bryan Boyer of Helsinki Design Lab at the Global Leadership Series event

I love this articulation of the need to engage with institutions and systems in our cities and countries that are tough, uncomfortable and fuzzy. The following are some questions that arise when you start looking at re-engaging those structures and institutions to co-create solutions.

  • What does it look like when government is capable of design?
  • What does it look like when the public is engaged in reimagining their city?
  • What challenges arise when introducing new innovations into a system that millions of people interact with?

This is an exciting time for Ontario as MaRS and its partners continue development of the MaRS Solutions Lab. Every opportunity we have to learn more about what works and what does not—and what that means for a city—is valuable learning.

Bryan made me think not so much about the importance of good process and a cool lab methodology (though the Helsinki Design Lab also has those), but about the consequences of this kind of work: that fuzzy stuff of producing new meaning, new beliefs and new values, and how these things can’t be measured so much as observed and felt across generations. It’s what makes this work so important and why nobody does it alone.

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Geraldine Cahill @ MaRS

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Geraldine is the Communications Manager for Social Innovation Generation, a group that addresses Canada's social and ecological challenges by creating a culture of continuous social innovation.

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