Q: At the close of WDC Helsinki 2012, it was mentioned that Finland needed to see design not just as art, but also as a way to address social issues. How did this help shape what came next?
PT: Once WDC was over, we had two options. One, to close everything and say “That was it, and now please nurture the good things that came out of this experience.” Or, option two, we could remain as a small organisation, a small project group that made sure that some of the most important findings and developments to come out of WDC would continue. So we chose option two. We decided to work together further and ensure a legacy.
Given our very limited resources, the next question was where to put our focus. What was the most valuable thing we could do after WDC? We concentrated on how a city as an organisation, and as a community, could efficiently use design to move forward, how they could take design and embed it more deeply into their processes. So the organisation that managed WDC Helsinki 2012, the International Design Foundation, continued as a task force called Design Driven City. It’s an independent foundation but with a very close relationship with the cities and the central government.
Q: Can you tell us more about the Design Driven City task force and what it hopes to achieve?
TL: Firstly we hired three ‘City Designers’ for a two-year project to increase the use of prototyping, and to test the ways design can be used in different parts of city organisations in the project planning phases and beyond.
The project has been changing work models, with employees learning all the time what works and what doesn’t, and it has changed our approach. The task force has been sharing the results and the information gathered with design organisations, companies, city organisations… so we are really open. And we share as we are going through the process – not just final results but also preliminary results – so that people can participate in the learning process.
PT: These City Designers participate in concrete projects with the city organisations, projects that vary from infrastructure projects to healthcare, from very small-scale projects to huge ones. So they’re really putting their hours into specific projects, joining working groups and project groups and being there for the city employees.
The second initiative to come out of Design Driven City was a helpline. Within the city organisations we promoted the idea that if design comes to your mind – because after WDC this was a good thing, people were touched by, or at least, there was an interest in design – then call us. We can help you get started.
So we promised anyone who called the helpline the services of a professional designer for one day at no charge. Just to help them figure out how to get started.
Q: So is the helpline a success?
PT: It’s very successful. Let’s imagine there’s a city department thinking about some traffic services and they say “Oh, well you know, we have never worked with designers” and they see it as a potential risk. Well they can call us and we send them a designer for one day who can discuss their experience with the project team. This designer could explain to them how they might get started with incorporating design and design thinking into the project, what the costs would be, give them an idea of the process and essentially help them figure out what it would involve and whether this is something they want to jump into or not. Usually they become more positive when they see that they can understand the process, that it’s economical, and that it’s something they should be doing.
The third initiative to come out of Design Driven City is the establishment of a network of design agents inside the city government. There are now 600 employees whose superiors have given them permission to be a design agent within their own various organisations or departments. They are figuring out what design can do for them in their role and for their respective organisations. It’s being there in a meeting, and then raising their hand and asking “Well, what about this? Can we do this? Should we do this?” and then providing the ‘how’.
TL: They are very active and they work independently, sharing information amongst themselves. We don’t keep track of what they are doing exactly; our task was just to start the process.
And one very simple advantage of that group, when you think there are 40 000 people working in the City of Helsinki, is that they can meet in a place where they don’t have an official role; there are employees from different parts of the hierarchy so it’s a very neutral place to meet. That allows them to really share information. They can find out “Oh, you are doing the same thing that we have been doing. We did that half a year ago – we are halfway through but we didn’t know!” And that’s because the official information channels in an organisation don’t always pass along the information you need. That’s why these unofficial channels are so useful.
PT: We believe that this network is a permanent legacy, that it can now function on its own. But we also have ensured that the city governments of the metropolitan region will support it and allow it to function. They see it’s an important network. It’s a horizontal network, so it breaks down organisational structures in a way that is usually very difficult to achieve inside big organisations like cities.
At the beginning of the WDC process, we believed we could create something of a design driven city. So it’s still on its way. We don’t know what it is – what kind of animal it will be in the end – but in contrast to when we were applying for WDC, all the stakeholders are now much more convinced that this is an experiment that we must undertake. Their commitment to the idea of a design driven city is far stronger today than it was during the time of the bid.
The announcement of the World Design Capital 2018 shortlisted cities presents an opportunity to look back at other WDC cities and how they have used the programme to create a lasting, positive change. Icsid spoke to Pekka Timonen and Tiina-Kaisa Laakso-Liukkonen, respectively Chairman and Secretary General of the International Design Foundation, to find out more about the legacy of WDC Helsinki 2012.
In part two of this two-part interview, we find out more about what’s next for the City of Helsinki, and for Finland, as they move forward with design as a catalyst for growth and development.