For nearly two decades, Helsinki, Finland, has been gaining traction as a center of innovative urban growth. GLOBIS faculty Cristian Vlad interviews Anne Stenros, chief design officer of the City of Helsinki.
CV: To begin, can you explain how design became so important in Helsinki?
AS: It all started in 2000 when the EU designated Helsinki as the European Capital of Culture. Design was a focal point of celebration at that time. Throughout the year, many interesting design projects were made visible to the public. Later, in 2012, Helsinki was designated the World Design Capital at WDC2012. The whole year felt like a flow of design events and exhibitions. Helsinki branded itself a design-driven city. Finally, we established the Chief Design Officer role for the City of Helsinki. It was the first time in history that a city deliberately named design one of its strategic city and regional development initiatives.
CV: So how have you approached design and innovation?
AS: Design thinking was integrated into Helsinki’s five-year development strategy. Through a complex planning process, many of the city’s leaders got to work co-creating a future vision that included organization, education, culture, and values.
Taking a step back, design – or simply creative problem solving – starts with questioning the very beginnings of whatever you’re working on. What are the real needs and desires of users? What is the context? This way of looking at the bigger picture makes us more open to understanding existing systems and available platforms, which in turn helps us implement disruptive innovation on all levels: products, services, processes, people, and society. Designers are focused on the future. It’s all about what’s next.
Helsinki is also helping private businesses thrive. To facilitate the design-oriented approach, we have introduced a series of cultural and emotional intelligence practices to encourage businesses and social engineers to think ahead. Some companies do projects based on design; others are considered design-driven companies, and they build design competence within a wider context. For example, there is a hub called Maria, Europe’s largest start-up campus. There is also the Helsinki Business Hub, aimed at accelerating business growth, as well as NewCo Helsinki, which provides business consultation. All of these use design thinking to develop their services.
CV: What kind of collaboration has Helsinki done with Japanese designers?
AS: Last year, Helsinki welcomed the Japanese brand MUJI to open its largest store in Europe. That will certainly have an impact on the design scene in the Helsinki area. It will also familiarize the Finnish audience with Japanese design intelligence.
I myself have had the pleasure to work closely with prominent thought leaders from Japanese companies such as Toyota, IBM, and 14 Lab. Each engagement I have with Japanese designers, product engineers, and service developers is a fresh breeze of inspiration.
CV: What strengths have you observed in Japanese companies?
AS: Japanese businesses have one important advantage: their deep, consistent respect for quality and details. Innovation needs that solid maintenance of high quality standards. That is equally important for a competitive edge. You can see a radical innovative impact when you combine novel thinking with the quality mindset.
Japanese culture also has a huge strength in team spirit. Today, most innovation is collaborative and co-creative by nature. It needs those strong team dynamics. I am extremely hopeful when it comes to the future expansion of Japanese products and services in the European market. I believe that there is high cultural affinity between Japan and Europe that should really be explored further.
CV: Coming back to Helsinki, what obstacles have you encountered during the city’s design transformation, and what have you learned?
AS: Throughout my career as a design director, I have had to deal with the status quo. That is inevitable when you want to question what has been done and why. On the other hand, there are always people who welcome change for the sake of finding solutions.
Working from nudge theory, we have been experimenting with how to positively influence people, first by changing their perception of the world. We have learned that you can really impact the way people feel through their living situation, the nature surrounding them, and the education or healthcare programs available to them. We’ve found that positive mindsets can be engineered through positive experiences.
Having said that, none of the problems of Helsinki have a single right answer. The only way forward is through collaboration. Designers cannot work alone. Design thinking is a tool for strategic discussion and co-creation that can guide us to the future.