On June 10, 2013 PhD candidates Clara Vuletich (TED) and Kirsti Reitan Andersen (CBS) attended the Helsinki Design Lab (HDL) Closing Event, as part of their respective PhD projects under the MISTRA Future Fashion Project (MFF). HDL was established in 2009 with the overall aim to explore how strategic design can be made useful to the public sector - using strategic design to uncover the "architecture" of large-scale challenges and develop more holistic, complete solutions for improvement (HDL). Following four years of work on experimental projects, research, and articulating the practice of strategic design the team decided it was time to move on to new adventures. With their focus on social change and systemic challenges, i.e. environmental sustainability, the work and approach of HDL is a source of inspiration to our research. The Closing Event program included talks by HDL team members and invited guest speakers.
Marco Steinberg, the then Director of HDL, opened the event with an overview of HDL’s work in the past four years: The What, Why, When, Where of HDL. In his talk Steinberg emphasized that governments, as we know them, have been built to administer, not to innovate. Today there is a need for these governments to re-invent themselves and society, “.... a need to re-design the engine.” According to Steinberg, strategic design can be used to create such cultural change, being applied from within the institutions in question. Indy Johar, co-founder of 00:/ in London, encouraged building communities of interest (shared purpose) as a means to work with social change. Having delivered significant large scale multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder projects, Johar pointed to the fact that today we still miss the tools needed for large scale collaborative working. The talk by Timo Arnall, creative director at BERG in London and research fellow at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, underlined the (invisible) complexity of current societies. His research on “immaterials” - making the invisible visible, has the potential to enable us to see and develop an understanding about the invisible pervasive technologies in our cities and our daily lives - and thus also put ourselves in a better position to work with challenges of a systemic nature. Based on years of experience as the executive director of Public Policy Lab, New York, Chelsea Mauldin, Executive Director of Public Policy Lab in New York, brought up the question of how to approach change processes: Let’s design the heck out of the little box and then we’ll go on and do it in 15 of them and then we’ll change. But maybe this is too slow? Is most of the value going to the designers? Maybe the little box approach is not the solution?Having thrown the question out to the audience, Mauldin left the stage, leaving the audience wondering - what is the alternative?
Central to HDL’s research have been their work on stewardship (HDL) and “vehicles for change.” According to HDL stewardship “... is the art of aligning decisions with impact when many minds are involved in making a plan, and many hands in enacting it.” Interesting in the light of TED’s work as “facilitators,” HDL has been trying to codify the practices of stewardship, as exhibited by innovators who are consciously rethinking institutions to better meet the challenges of today (HDL, Six Stories about the Craft of Stewardship). In an interview with Bryan Boyer, co-founder of HDL, we discuss the question raised by Mauldin, how to create change fast enough? Boyer brings the topic of vehicles of change to the table: “If some change takes time because it is not about something technical but about building culture, and culture builds slowly, then how do you buy yourself the time to create meaningful culture change? ... If we are serious about wanting to change the way designers’ work, and society, we need to also think about the concrete question of how do we transmit - or how do we spread a way of working. And that means engaging with the outputs you’re producing.”
While some might interpret the closing of HDL as a failure - the Closing Event, with its 116 participants from five continents, was an indication of the community and extensive knowledge that the group has built in only four years. While some of their experimental projects remain experiments, the work of HDL have demonstrated that design can play a valuable part of strategic decision making, they have grown a community around this practice, and advanced the discourse.