Archive for the 'Here & There' Category


Makeshift Society backstory

Today Rena Tom and her team are opening the doors of the Makeshift Society in San Francisco. It’s a 1000 square foot private clubhouse where members can make, learn, teach, and think.

A big congratulations is due to the team, who’ve done a great job realizing their vision. And I should mention up front that I’ve made a small investment in the project, so I’m not completely objective in what I write below.

Makeshift Society is about building creative ideas more than it is building businesses. This is what sets it outside the usual grouping of coworking spaces like the Hub or General Assembly. Business may happen at Makeshift Society, but it’s not the driver. What it does borrow from co-working spaces, however, is a recognition that density of activity is important. Being around other people pursuing similar goals increases the interconnectivity of partially formed thoughts, and that’s where good ideas come from. It’s the primary ingredient in what Brian Eno calls “scenius,” the genius of a scene.

Shared studios are common in the creative communities of many cities, so what I find interesting about Makeshift Society beyond colocation is that it introduces within the tech-focused microcosm of San Francisco a place to be serious about matter; a place to remember that atoms exist and although software may eat the world, it won’t necessarily digest it. I hope that Makeshift Society is a place where we can start to make sense of what that implies.

That Rena would end up creating something like this is almost a forgone conclusion if you know her, because she’s both a hyper-connector and an effortless host. The most convincing evidence I have for this is a visit to her home. At Rena’s place an afternoon tea with friends is simple but never plain.

I’ve been lucky enough to watch at close range as Rena traced out the concept for what has become Makeshift Society and then dragged it from the pristine peaks of Good Idea, through the bogs of Reality, and up distant slopes to dry out on the far side, pointing us to new ways of being creative together.

While writing this post I took the opportunity to dig up old emails, some of which are pasted below because I have a soft spot for backstories.

From: bryan Boyer
Subject: Re: Pitching a salon?
Date: October 18, 2011 1:39:22 AM GMT+03:00
To: rena tom

[…]

About space: because you want flexibility for different uses by different groups concurrently, the circulation is almost as important as the square footage. Where are the entrances? How many? How do you move from one room to the next? These are critical. It depends on the specifics.

[…]

Clubs have records. Guilds have important but opaque books, and tools of the trade. So, yes, I am drawn to this and I think it plays into a larger movement that is going on. Have you been to the Hub there? It’s pretty cool here in Europe. Not the same as what you’re talking about, but worth you having a look: http://bayarea.the-hub.net/public/

I think you might be creating a guild for people who think with their hands, make with their heads, and vice versa.

From: rena tom
Subject: Re: Pitching a salon?
Date: October 18, 2011 5:47:02 AM GMT+03:00
To: bryan Boyer

[…]

haven’t checked out the Hub but i guess i will do some visits this year.

what i’m thinking now is: front desk/small selling area, book area, lockers and kitchenette, and then one seating area that is comfy, with coffee/side tables. i don’t even know if i want full-size tables because i don’t want it to be laptop central. i could bring out a nice large table/chairs if people want to rent the space for powwows but i don’t think i want it out all the time.

From: bryan Boyer
Subject: Re: Pitching a salon?
Date: October 18, 2011 9:06:48 AM GMT+03:00
To: rena tom

[…]

Laptops: just have a rule. We don’t do that here. This is a place for another ritual. You could even ‘offer’ to check peoples’ phones at the door (inside a Danish teak desk, I think). Cubby holes! Adam jokes about opening a cafe called Faraday’s—not far off!

A large table with room to spread out books and things is so so nice. I love large tables with few chairs.

Your space is for time travelers: it’s one for people who appreciate the best parts of the past, who enjoy living today, and are building tomorrow. Seems to me there’s something deeply non-linear about it.

[…]

I think you probably need some sort of short but not too short (and very clever and passionate) explanation of what the space is for in simple terms. Like: it’s for not working when you’re not at home. Or: it’s for thinking with other people. Or: it’s for conversation. If libraries were massively supported by Rockefeller as a way to spread knowledge, Contrariwise is started by rena to…..?

From: rena tom
Subject: Re: Pitching a salon?
Date: October 18, 2011 7:49:35 PM GMT+03:00
To: bryan Boyer

customer service is expensive and very awesome. though in the bay area, people are so used to doing things for themselves (proudly whipping out their iphone etc) that i have to make sure things are efficient, yet luxurious, right? like getting a fancy cocktail made.

[…]

i don’t know if i can enforce laptop check. would love to though. i could have charging station concierge for phones like banana republic used to do though, that would help a little. if there are no tables for laptops, it will cut it down tremendously.

so ok, we leave the large table in – but no laptops and no outlets. just nice reading lamps.

i like “think with your hands, make with your heads” very much. might steal that. i guess i should start writing all of this down, huh?

From: bryan Boyer
Subject: Re: Pitching a salon?
Date: October 19, 2011 8:46:43 AM GMT+03:00
To: rena tom

This is so good!

There’s still room, so go have a peek and then sign up if you need a thirdspace in San Francisco.

Tale of Two Hearts

I wrote the essay below for Helsinki Beyond Dreams, a book edited by Hella Hernberg and available… today! It’s a collection of essays from a variety of contributors speculating on how to use the city as a resource for all. A bit exasperated after writing a lot earlier in the year, I chose to write my piece as a bit of near-future fiction.

Illustration by Pent Talvet

A generation from now, will Helsinki and Tallinn be connected as a twin city filled with local urbane industries: small factories, craft workshops, courtyard cafes and scientific research labs flourishing side by side in the city centre?

As soon as she glances at the teacup rattling in its saucer, the jostling stops. “Eighteen minutes left”, Anna says to her seatmate. The rail tunnel between Helsinki and Tallinn – the longest in the world – is also its largest timepiece. It tells one time only, but does it precisely. Eighteen minutes before coming to a careful stop at Helsinki’s Hernesaari station the train passes over a small dimple in the tracks that sets things jittering about, as if to let you know there’s still time for another cup of tea. It’s the kind of quirk that inevitably comes from making real things. Anna appreciates this as she can share the same charms with customers who seek out the bikes built in her courtyard factory in downtown Helsinki.

The train comes to a stop beneath a station built as a careful snowflake of timber and glass. Ghanaian and Chinese tourists are snapping pictures of this curious crystal, as they always do, while daily commuters drowsily sip flat whites and cinnamon rolls at the station’s reputable cafes.

Built in the 2020’s, during a time of careful but daring investment, the connection between Tallinn and Helsinki is now the crown jewel of the Baltic Ring Rail. Many were skeptical about the project, but with some hindsight it was an infrastructural gambit that has breathed a new spirit into the pair of sleeper capitals. It was sold as a mere ‘link’ between the two cities but instead it has proven to be more substantial. Essential, even. At a moment when global cities were fighting aggressively to distinguish themselves, Helsinki and Tallinn willingly rebuilt themselves as conjoined twins.

People who move back and forth frequently refer to “the other side of the lake”. Anna is one of those, having traded her apartment in Vallila, uptown Helsinki, for a townhouse just inside the walls of medieval Tallinn. Although most days she can and does work from home, Anna looks forward to the opportunity to visit her small factory in Punavuori.

Seven minutes by tram and Anna finds herself in the center of Punavuori’s lumpy streetscape. The district is now living a new revival as its many courtyards, previously closed and divided between housing cooperatives, have been opened up. In the end it was a citizens’ initiative in the neighborhood council that pushed through changes to property law and real estate tax and enabled new uses for the large interior spaces of the blocks. Many of the district’s courtyards have been converted into thriving pockets of activity including communal gardens, micro industrial parks, and restaurants.

In the past fifteen years, Helsinki has managed to capitalize on its deep legacy of craft. The hybrid businesses of neighborhoods like Punavuori are recognized as world-leading for their unique blend of technical excellence and pragmatic whimsy. The city’s bet on making better use of the numerous courtyards has paid off by creating new jobs, sure, but also by knitting the city together through the casual necessity of collaboration. Small business in the district’s many manufacturing hotspots would be difficult propositions on their own, but an immense asset when joined up into a flexible network of collaborators.

The building on Tehtaankatu (Factory Street) attracted Anna because its courtyard is renovated into something of an industrial piazza. The large doors that line the court reveal behind them enough talent and tools to manufacture just about anything. It’s a beautiful and productive chaos.

Today’s mix in the block suits Anna’s business better than it did in the past. The addition of an appliance repair shop has allowed her to quickly pull in additional help by hiring their staff during downtimes. This diversity makes sense for her business, and also helps the neighborhood feel more knitted together. The ma  who operates the adjacent shop, comes out to offer a friendly “mooooooi” as Anna watches the front of her bicycle factory slowly fold into the ceiling.

“What do you have for me today?”

“The coating I mentioned yesterday is behaving better. Nothing sticks to it!”

“When you can figure out how to apply that to carbon fibre we have a mountain bike waiting to happen.”

That a nanochemist and a cycling entrepreneur would have anything to chit chat about at the start of the day, let alone collaborate on, was the gamble that the cities of Helsinki and Tallinn took when they adopted the Joined, Overlapping, & Dense strategy. By encouraging a diversity of endeavors to flourish in proximity to each other, by making this legible and by creating new incentives to encourage collaboration between business, individuals, and the public sector, this strategy continues to pay dividends.  The “lake”, née Gulf of Finland, is now a go-to node in global innovation conversations, attracting clients from all over the world who desire the best of bespoke products.

Fifteen years ago it would have been almost unthinkable to find scientific research companies, factories, coffee shops and a school all in the same neighborhood, but now this kind of diversity is what allows Helsinki/Tallinn to punch above its weight.

Walking from the courtyard into the depth of her shop, Anna passes by assembly bays of differing levels of messiness containing bicycles at various states of completion. As the lights dance to life, she looks across the low tables of accessories and other wares that occupy the retail half of her shop, and out through the windows to spot the first people of the morning already on a stroll.

Despite a lucrative offer to move her family and the business to Rio de Janeiro, Anna stays because for her Helsinki/Tallinn is a city of happiness. It’s a place where small gestures matter, where connections are made easily, and where the streets are diverse and active. This is a place where one may feel part of the rushing flows of information, goods, and opinion – but still have time to enjoy a cup of tea and a bit of chatter with a friendly neighbor.

1095+

Somewhere in a dusty book there is likely an agreed upon point at which an ex-patriot makes the graceful transition to being, simply, a patriot minus the paperwork. I’m not there yet, but after three years living in Finland I begin to wonder about such distinctions. Not that I was ever an ex-patriot anyways. Perhaps an also patriot.


March, 2011

The third anniversary of my arrival here has been on my mind for a week or two now thanks to a stalwart reminder in my calendar. Trusty, that. In the modern world we never forget dates, even the ones that are probably best left to the leaves of discarded calendars. In this time I’ve reaffirmed my own particular interest in noting such events on a yearly basis. No need to take a personal holiday or anything, but it is nice to have a nudge to reflect on the previous 365 days in a way that is free of Hallmark.


October, 2011

The story of my third year in Finland was largely a domestic one. In both senses of the word I spent more time here, in my apartment and in the country.

Living alone in the center of town I am struck by how quiet Helsinki can be even on an average work day—how excruciatingly quiet, and how marvelously quiet. It has taken me until now to enjoy it, but I am grateful that I can appreciate the nothingness without needing it or becoming addicted to it.

I have met people who claim that even Helsinki is too loud for them and I wonder where such delicate creatures will ever be happy. After visiting a cabin in Lapland I do have a deeper appreciation for the addicting ring in your ear of nothingness, but for me this remains more of a salve than a solution.

While I spent more time than usual at home it was not always my home. I also enjoyed many visits to the gracious households and neighborhoods of friends around town. Especially Dan and Celia, whose move to Helsinki was during this period under consideration, and Justin, who despite living elsewhere occasionally shows up for a week or two and makes a go of ‘apartment’ living when he’s here.

My third year has been more about cooking too. Lohikeitto, pastas, cakes, and giant piles of roasted vegetables were most common. The most successful venture was probably a jar of cocktail cherries made at the tail end of summer and which I have been enjoying since. The bump in cooking has been less about food and more about being OK with being home. Being at home. And testing out the arch-Finnish trait/habit of being alone.


July, 2011

It was also pragmatic, as I spent the first half of 2011 engrossed in writing a book with my colleagues Marco and Justin. That mean’t a lot of time cooking so as to remove for myself the temptation to socialize instead of writing. The irony of locking myself away to complete a task that is inherently collaborative is not lost on me. 2011 was a year of connected isolation at home and in the city.


April and then September, 2011

In Helsinki it’s easy to feel alone, even when you are not. Here the blocks in the center of town present uniform street walls ranging from 125-150 meters. These almost-square blocks are divided up into a number of buildings around the perimeter and again on the interior. The result feels like a massive, solid chunk of inhabitation that has landed next to the sidewalk. But weasel your way into the block and you are likely to find a circuit of 6, 8, 12 or more courtyards, some of them stunning and many waiting to be wonderful just as soon as the parked cars are removed.


My apartment here on the 5th floor looks onto one of these courtyards. From my window I can see four housing blocks each with about five floors and in total perhaps 20-30 units. From what I can tell, two of these units are inhabited regularly. Another two have occasional occupants. Some almost never show signs of life. One set of neighbors across the way have had holiday lights on their balcony since November. And I don’t just mean physically present, I mean on and shining continuously. I noticed that they were home once when they briefly opened the blinds and then shut them again.

Cutest dog in town?
March, 2011: the owners are visible once every 5 days or so

So who lives in this block? Apparently not very many people, despite what the apartment nameplates say (they are full). Or perhaps people who do not care much for electricity, with the exception of the absentee holiday revelers.

At times it feels like I’m watching Rear Window but without noticing I’ve accidentally sat on the pause button. Where’s the action? Where’s the life?

In observing this tableau I’ve accidentally derived a basic truth of life in Finland: the thing about those that live here enjoying quiet, silence, and being alone? It’s a coping strategy for a place that has very low effective density even in its not-so-bustling center. It’s like a tall person that is happy about being able to reach things on high shelves. Tall people are good to have around. Fair enough.


February, 2012

The mystery of Where Did Everyone Go? is one that I have yet to crack. On the other hand, the mystery of What Else Is Here? is one that I enjoyed exploring during the past year with trips to Rovaniemi, Saarisalkä, Hamina, Högsåra, Lahti, and Fiskars.

With most of these trips being conducted in the cold months, I’ve gained a few extra shades of white as a kind of chromatic upgrade to my internal palette. Perhaps the light eye strain I’ve been experiencing of late is the feeling of new rods marshaling themselves at the backs of my eyes.

This is probably the sum of my experiences so far: if years one and two were about seeing new things, year three was about seeing old things in new ways.

City of Piles

One year ago.

I was fooled by the warm light, really. Expecting Istanbul to be warm in March was rather shortsighted of me.

It’s hard to imagine a place with a color palette such as Istanbul’s ever being cold, but even Hannibal’s elephants made it to the Alps.

Istanbul was cooler than expected, but every bit as bountiful.

It’s is a city of stacks and piles. Domes, buildings, chestnuts. Histories. Piles and promise.

For LLL.

730+

Two years ago today I moved to Helsinki. Having missed the anniversary last time, I’ve gone out of my way to remember the date this year. I try to compare the duration of my residency to grad school or to the time BB,CS,LB,TE and I spent on DeepLeap. Has this felt half as long as grad school? Twice as long as that time in Austin? Time is a fickle shade.

Some reflections on the city of Helsinki and my life in and around it.


April 2, 2010

Even after two years, Helsinki is still largely inscrutable. In particular, the local habit for covering ground floor windows in shops and various commercial spaces with posters confuses me. You find this walking around the outer fringes of Kamppi or the fuzzy edges of Punavuori. What happens in these protected spaces? In a place with little light and few people, why retreat even more? Opacity is special here in a way I have yet to unlock.


May 7, 2010

My favorite breakfast of 2010 was an ad-hoc assortment of unexpected delights, consumed on a day when the air was crisp with promise. Finland can be amazing at breakfast time. Milk that comes in beer bottles, pea tendrils on bread, a pillow of cheese, and milk chocolate? See also: special opacity. Thanks to Jenna and Anni for this.


June 9, 2010

May and June were a single day. Even looking at (lots of) photos now I have difficulty remembering that period of time in any plural unit. Largely because I was so consumed by the studios that I was organizing with the rest of the team at work. This is a snapshot from one of those studios, on a day when we visited the Aalto house to have a small team dinner. Alberto and I lingered in front of the house taking pictures as everyone else filed inside and I snapped this just as Emily popped her head out to look for Alberto. The simple gesture of looking again is rendered so touchingly here by Emily that this photo is very special to me. These two people had met three days before and yet already they and their collaborators shared a unique amity. It makes me happy to think that our project created moments like this. In its many quiet pockets—the forecourt of a confident house, say—Helsinki can be a city of remarkable hospitality.


July 10, 2010

Petri’s excitement about the fire was only multiplied when I introduced the special delight of smores (with digestive biscuits instead of graham crackers) to our picnic.


August 26, 2010

A tour of the plants at the botanical gardens prophetically ended here. It had been a hectic month of small pieces loosely joined. I was ferrying between desks in Kallio, Ruoholahti, and Punavuori. Working late hours. Working weekends. Pulling things together.

HDL Global 2010: Done
September 3, 2010

This was minutes after we wrapped the event that I moved to Helsinki to put together. Well before this image was taken, even before the event started, I knew that the idea of my moving to Helsinki to produce an event was a conceit. I’m tempted to believe that the reason Marco is smiling because he knew this all along. I was exhausted but proud and all I remember of the dinner that followed this photo is that it was good.


October 17, 2010

Douglas came to visit and we took day trips to Turku and Tallinn, both of which are parallel Helsinkis to a non-native. Geography is surprisingly complicit with the rules of mathematics: (T+T)/2 = H? Fall had settled into the trees by then and the shadows were starting to run long.


November 11, 2010

When a tiny tear of sky rips open during fall it’s a special thing. This morning I was headed to Tel Aviv where the temperature was 20 degrees warmer and the sky 120 degrees around the color wheel.


December 7, 2010

Walking through Plague Park rarely saves any time but it’s hard to ignore during fall, spring, and winter when it’s liable to be beautiful. In summer it smells like a toilet, because it is a toilet. Apparently a significant percentage of Helsinki is not potty trained.


January 25, 2011

Weekend mornings I make a pot of coffee and stretch bits of work out across my long desk. When the sun is low like this is reminds me of Cambridge and the mornings I spent there dull-eyed and unshaven, sipping coffee and listening to Concord avenue wake up. From my apartment in the center of Helsinki I rarely hear any traffic. The soundtrack to this photo is the heavy rumble of the #3 tram lumbering by. To an American that’s what Europe sounds like. Trams.

IMG_1749
February 27, 2011

Cities each have their own best scale. San Francisco congeals at the scale of the neighborhood. Manhattan is a place of heroic battles fought within each plot’s zoning envelope. Helsinki is composed street by street.

No one here seems to be able to identify the neighborhoods reliably, and while many of the buildings are interesting few are captivating. Streets here, on the other hand, are artful. Humans are small in a city whose scale is the street. Maybe this is why doorways are often diminutive in Helsinki.

Convection

Morning: coffee and to-dos. Lists, logistics, and schedules. Dialing in–that is, tuning, not bytes.

Between: Before lunch rolls around the first crisis has landed. It’s not a real crisis but it’s something that needs attention in a marginally more urgent fashion than everything else. Either that or you’re already asleep somewhere up above 35,000 feet.

Lunch: quick but never hasty. Better when it’s long followed by a longer coffee.

Afternoon: The to-do list is now a half-useless piece of paper. It can neither be used to record new information, being full, nor be thrown away, being not fully marked off. Progress is quicker than expected but never fast enough. Thoughts now turn to medium term goals, defining aspects of projects and qualifying the Things To Be Done. This step feels both useless and absolutely necessary.

Sunset: It’s possible that you observe the sunset through the oval portholes of a jetplane. If so, sleep well. Otherwise, the day’s thoughts about strategy, policy, and “innovation systems” are slowing down.

Night: Where highfalutin thoughts have rested, new bits bubble up: pricing models, impediments, skill profiles, mechanisms of commitment, occasionally a walnut or two.

Meeting, by chance, in San Francisco Ben asked me, “Are you still in convection?”

370 And Counting

An important date slipped by last week without my even noticing it. Caught up in the hubbub of work, the anniversary of my move to Helsinki came and went without a moment of reflection.

I moved.

As the inherited template of Important Days becomes less and less relevant, I find myself seeking events of my own choosing to celebrate with whatever seems most appropriate. Who doesn’t claim to hate celebrating their birthday? And do we really need to keep up the charade of celebrating some guy’s winter birthday by putting up decorated pine trees? I’d rather pick new days and wrap them in new rituals.

The anniversary of moving from one continent to another feels like a pretty significant thing. Particularly this move, as it was the culmination of an awkward and difficult period of migration between Europe and America spanning August 2008 to March 2009. I moved to Finland with two suitcases and a credit card ready for Ikea. I expected a new life but was foolishly unprepared for the extent to which that would become true.

Carbon sequestration

This is an easy place to move to and an easy place to like, but in some ways it’s a difficult place to love. Helsinki, more than many most cities I’ve lived in, holds its cards close. The best moments of my time here have been spent in the homes of friends, tucked in the corner of public spaces, or deep within the irrepressible beauty of Finland’s forests and parks. As with the glorious summer that follows Finland’s long winter, Helsinki rewards commitment and the longer I stay the more its wonders reveal themselves to me.

Three hundred and seventy days later and I finally find myself at home on my own street – in this city I’m starting to know.

On Things Elastic, Idle, and Vast

I am lucky enough to have an incredible job which puts me up to unusual things. Like visiting five continents for research. In one month. November was pretty unique. I visited London, New York, Santiago, Sydney, Torquay, Melbourne, Singapore, and Beijing in the span of 25 days. Seeing such a wide variety of climates (meteorologically, economically), geographies, and cultures has stretched my brain in new ways. This trip will leave a mark on me.

long trip

Idleness

Employed by Idleness

On my first visit to mainland China the most striking thing was the sheer number of people who are employed by idleness. My experience was probably a bit skewed by staying in the middle of the embassy district where literally every building is attended to 24 hours a day by a plank-straight guard, but buildings all over the city are similarly kept company.

The way that idleness is handled seems to me a useful way to understand a culture. In India something like a simple transaction in a store involves two or three more people than it would in the west. Cultures in warm climates generally tolerate a greater degree of loitering – doing nothing but watching the sun pass through the sky. In Europe and North America we stuff our idle people into offices. On paper these people look employed but there’s a reason that Windows comes with Solitaire installed. In China everything is guarded.

Vanishing of the Vanishing Point

Obligatory Beijing smog + giant bldg shot

Arriving around Midnight, I slip into Beijing under the cover of darkness. The cold is a shock after being in the southern hemisphere for two weeks but everywhere it smells lightly, pleasantly of burning things. From the width of the roads alone it’s clear that Beijing is a big place, but it’s not until the next morning that I wake up early and hop in a cab to visit some sites that the size becomes palpable. That smell of burning reveals itself as a mix of coal and dust and who knows what. Avenues fade to blue; everything beyond 100 meters is a silhouette in the smog.

As a visitor it’s pathetically easy for me to put aside the sad reality of the pollution and its long-term effects on the people who live there. For the moment I’m in thrall with the incredible optics of a city that is so vast it yields the potential for, but ultimately denies, infinite vistas with vanishing points in every cardinal direction. These forever-boulevards literally choked by smog are tragically beautiful with something akin to the sad sadism of foie gras. In so many ways, Beijing is the foie gras of cities: ethically complicated but undeniably exquisite.

It’s a city that any kid who grew up with video games already knows: the Z-buffer culling of distant objects to reduce render time is exactly what dense smog produces. Successive layers of massive buildings and leafless trees rendered as increasingly pale outlines encapsulate you in a little sphere of existence, your own little microcosm of the endless city, as if seeing the whole thing at once would simply require too much processing power from your human brain. Please upgrade your buffers before you visit the city of the future.

Beijing has vanquished the vanishing point. What’s next?

Elasticity

Between the events of my personal life and the myriad places I’ve visited and people I’ve met for work during the course of this year, I keep returning to an earnest appreciation for the ultimate elasticity of the human condition.

On every continent, in every income bracket, under diverse conditions, what I’m in awe of these past few months is the ability of humanity to cope, to make due, and to recover. I’ve watched people close to me suffer life threatening injury, give birth to children, get married, get divorced, freak out, cash out, break things, die. But we keep going.

louvre-figurines

In Search of Magnificent Things

Light bouncing off those trillion tiny molecules of water in the body of a fog: this is reading San Francisco in the original. Every place has its own way of expressing volume to its visitors, of showing us how to think about the act of containing and being contained. London has its parks, New York has its grid, and San Francisco has its weather. On my last of four nights in the city I’m glad to have had one that was not clear. Empty skies are the enemy of anyone who hopes to visit San Francisco; without fog it’s just scenography.

Tall buildings caught in the volumetric light of a San Francisco night have me pondering whether it is the land that gives foundation to the towers, or the towers themselves that began with penthouses and shaped the topography by growing downward. Pushing and cracking the earth of the bay into hills and valleys in an act of hyper literal settling.

Twelve hours later, along the hollow center of an anonymous corporate campus: steady winds render the surface of an artificial lake into a conveyor belt moving fast and consistent against the shore. Water ends cleanly in land and perpetually keeps doing so with no margin or edge. The illusion is pulled off through a careful balance of sight lines, retaining walls, and a natural-looking distribution of “shore material” that erase any break of the waves.

Although efforts to lump San Francisco into some larger Bay Area are overzealous, these vignettes bracket my time in Northern California well: a pure beauty, a beautiful artifice, a careful contest.

Unexpected, but we seem to be getting back to the old sort of writing that used to be on this site.

Moving Two Ways

When I left California two weeks ago life seemed like an abstraction, a collection of letters and numbers splayed across the page with little hint of their kinetic potential. Having arrived to Helsinki, acquired a Finnish social security number, found an apartment and stuffed some furniture in it, and then took off on the Helsinki Design Lab 2010 (sort of) Grand Tour, I am here to report that my brain is currently oscillating through perpendicular planes of excitement and exhaustion.

3363424402_30094b92bf.jpg

Last week I departed Helsinki to meet up with my colleague Marco Steinberg in balmy Singapore. Marco runs the Strategic Design Unit at Sitra, which I am part of, and has been traveling westward around this little planet since the 10th of March. As I write this Marco and our colleague Pia are making their way back to the shores of Finland, but I am continuing the tour to Seoul, Honolulu, and Los Angeles over the next two weeks.

3255118171_185b9d284d_o.jpg

If you plan to attend Postopolis LA you’ll be able to see me present a more complete picture of what we’re up to on April 3rd, but for those that will not make it to California you may enjoy the blog we’ve been keeping on this Tour. If you’re in Honolulu, I’ll be hosting a lunchtime salon at the University of Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies on April 1st, thanks to a kind invite from Stuart Candy.

You’re Going To Get Sick Of Me Talking About This…

…But let me try to lay out a brief vision for Helsinki Design Lab 2010, the 3rd in a series of events that started in 1968 on the island of Suomenlinna. Our goal for 2010 is to put the emphasis on doing. There are plenty of great design conferences that offer their participants an opportunity to meet great people, see good work, and talk about powerpoint slides. We’re interested in something different: we want to give our guests the opportunity to work together on real problems.

This will be a small event where designers sit at the same table as experts from the business, academic, and policy communities in a collaborative team. Our guests will meet with stakeholders within Finland who face significant challenges in their own domain (health care, education, industry, etc). The idea of HDL is then to charrette on specific, bracketed problems in search of two outcomes: a road map for their strategic rethinking and the identification of discrete opportunities that may be turned in to pilot projects. We believe strongly in using specific, tangible problems as a way to unlock the complexity that besots the massive, tangled issues which society faces today. For instance, everyone knows that health care needs help (even in a place like Finland!), but what exactly is the problem? What is the terrain of the health care? HDL 2010 will use Sitra’s unique position as a government agency to offer a framework and resources to help clarify these questions by applying the skills and mindset of the designer to strategic issues.

We’re interested in changing the world but realize that it’s going to take a while. If HDL 2010 succeeds it will be because the event proves the value of having designers involved with decisions at the highest levels of business and national policy. The problems we choose to tackle will be used as case studies that affirm a process which may be replicated in other contexts, thus making the proceedings of HDL 2010 relevant beyond the confines of Finland. After all, no single country owns climate change just as no single corporation can fix health care: these issues require a framework that is agnostic to borders of all kinds.

What’s up, Bangalore? (And ARN, LHR, BOS, SFO, NRT, SIN, HKG, ICN, HNL, LAX…)

This is the basic question we’ve been asking of each stop on the tour. We set out from Helsinki to check in with people around the planet who have a similar mindset about the potential of design to create meaningful impact beyond the shaping of objects. HDL 2010 will be a prototyping lab but we’re humble enough to realize that our efforts will be small compared to the number and diversity of problems out there in the world. This is why it’s important for us to escape the confines of Finland, see what’s happening everywhere else, and learn what keeps the rest of the world moving.

Are you redesigning your world? If so, we gotta talk.

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