Archive for the 'Redesigning Design' Category

Thoughts on Venice Architecture Biennale 2012

Curated on the theme of Common Ground by David Chipperfield, the Biennale was a bit scattered for me. Though, as a Martti pointed out, even when you remove all of the banal parts of the show the sheer volume of the Biennale leaves plenty to make up a decent exhibition of its own. We’re cursed by abundance.

Nevertheless, I struggled to find the linkages, the Common Ground that the curators hinted at in the opening room of the show. What links Norman Foster’s boom-boom room of glittery architecture and riot films to Peter Märkli’s collection of borrowed phallic sculptures? What does Urban Think Tank, Justin McGuirk, and Iwan Baan’s excellent Gran Horizonte cafe share with Zaha Hadid’s metal flowers and developmentally-challenged stingrays? FAT’s Museum of Copying was fantastic (best in show for me), and it shared something with Ines Weizman look into the copyright of Loos’ Baker House, but what links these two to the rest of the Arsenale?

Why do we feel compelled to claim a common ground if there is not much of one?

Instead I found two installations which spoke to the common ground which every practice involved with the show, and surely every visitor, can appreciate and truly share.

Free and open wifi:

And a healthy respect for fire safety:

Cultures of Decision Making

Note: Much of the text below is assembled from conversations with my colleagues Marco, Justin, and Dan in the Strategic Design Unit at Sitra. For more on these topics, check the HDL blog or see Dan’s excellent recent eBook: Trojan Horses & Dark Matter: A Strategic Design Vocabulary.  


In the past year 542 humans scaled to the highest point on earth, one visited the planet’s lowest, and a team at CERN confirmed the existence of the Higgs Boson. Right now someone in California is controlling a remote vehicle at least 54.6 million kilometers away on the surface of Mars while a separate vehicle is poised to exit our solar system, still sending back signals. The accomplishments of the past twelve months alone are, taken in and of themselves, staggering. As the human race, it would seem that we’re able to do what we want. An uninitiated traveler who visits from another time, less jaded, and with different baggage, would be sent reeling by these accomplishments, and some of them, like summiting Everest, can now even be considered rather mundane.

As a human race we’re able to launch almost 37 million commercial flights into the air in a single year with a very small fraction of them suffering catastrophic problems, and yet we’re still unable to care for every person on the planet in the most basic of ways. Twenty two percent of the human population lives on less than $1.25 per day. Planet Earth is suffering too, as we know, and have known for some time, yet we’re still trying to agree to do something about it on a global scale. Some places, like the US, are still amassing the will to even confront climate change as a fact, giving us a strong piece of evidence to support Bruno Latour’s assertion that we’ve moved from a world of fixed facts to one of mutable concerns.

From climate change to panda bears, AIDS to homelessness, causes abound and each has someone lobbying for our support. This is life in a world without facts: levels of importance, funding, and attention given to every thing, every idea, every person are choices made by a balance of individuals and collectives. That balance fluctuates, and the decisions fluctuate over time as well. But I think the Goonies may have put it more succinctly:

Down here, in the messy world, it’s our time. We cannot rely on anyone or anything else to tell us what to do, and there are no Adults or Gods up above to help us settle our disputes. Immutable rules do not come from the heavens anymore, nor from nature, nor from institutions. The social contract is a conversation and the choices are ours to make, but how will we make them?

Invoking Latour again, we might compose a “common world… built from utterly heterogenous parts that will never make a whole, but at best a fragile, revisable, and diverse composite material.” The litany of accomplishments and failures that I opened this post with seem to imply that we do not have a common world at our disposal. We have a surplus of ability, to be sure, but it’s not necessarily applied or distributed in the ways we might like it to be. Why?

Narratives of political inaction are littered with villains and their conspiracies. While it makes for good movies, this approach amounts to mythologizing the status quo. Putting the emphasis on blockages and bottlenecks is debilitating because it reduces progress to the conquering of a monolithic enemy. This in turn demands singular heros and lets everyone else off the hook. It’s too simple, too easy.

Single points of corruption, evil, or difficulty that stifle the good and the just certainly exist, but are they the sole explanation for the fractured state of human decision-making today? As a thought experiment, let’s abstain from considering evil and incompetence for a moment. If we remove the easy outs, what is keeping us from agreeing to agree?

I suspect that we suffer from an unacknowledged profusion of cultures of decision-making, and that the fine-grain differences between these various cultures makes agreement across silos of knowledge increasingly difficult. Due to its defining internal coherence, agreement within one culture is easier than agreement between two cultures, which is itself easier than agreement among three, and so on. My hypothesis is that accepting, understanding, and confronting the gaps between our different cultures of decision-making will allow us to work together more effectively.

Geographic and linguistic distinctions are taken for granted, but humans participate in multiple overlapping cultures. Professional cultures are particularly tricky because they are both global and localized at the same time. Content unifies on one layer while geography can divide on another. For example, until recently it was illegal to build large buildings out of wood in Finland, yet legal 1 hour away in Sweden where the same wood construction technology exists, as does a kindred culture. Weathering the climate crisis and the restructuring of society that networked communication continues to unfurl will require that we get comfortable with taking larger risks, and to do that we need to have better knowledge of where we’re safe and where we’re going out on a limb.

The way we make decisions is affected by our professional role(s), including the spaces(s), jargon(s), and relationships that come with that professional community. A dentist will decide what is risky, innovative, good, or bad differently from a lawyer, not just because the content of their decisions is different but because the stew of expectations and incentives that the cultures of dentistry and law have created are distinct from each other, as they are from all other professional communities. And of course individuals are part of families, clubs, parties, and geographies or linguistic communities that each have a unique culture which affects decision-making as well.

Unique cultures have different currencies for personal reputation; they have different standards about sharing credit (or not); they may weight accuracy over precision or vice versa, or not even have a notion of accuracy; they value formal institutions differently; think about scale and time in different ways; construct arguments using different accepted building blocks; use different fonts; go to different bars and live in different cities; dress differently; work under lamps of different power and different temperature; and speak in different tongues. By suggesting that we need to pay attention to cultures of decision-making if we want to learn to act together more effectively, I’m suggesting that we re-internalize these factors which have been assumed to be outside and irrelevant to moments of choice.

The individual is important, but it’s also the part we understand best right now. Thanks to the work of people like Daniel Kahneman we are beginning to have a sketch of the psychology of decision-making. There’s an emerging picture of the sorts of competing forces that are at play inside an individual’s mind when considering options, but how are these individual considerations layered over by the pressures of various groups that one is part of? Cultures of decision-making is about understanding the micro-sociology of conclusions.

Cultures of decision-making in a context of silo’d knowledge is especially tricky, and therefore important. With more specialized knowledge come more silos, and every extra silo exponentially increases the number of silo-to-silo connections. More silos with their own unique ways of making decisions means more of a translation cost—more friction—when those silos have to work together. In our world they increasingly do.

A common response to silo-ification is to create horizontal bridges that link up multiple silos. The Strategic Design Unit I’m part of at Sitra is one example. We have an explicit mandate to work with all parts of the organization to help conceptualize and deliver collaborative projects. By definition these horizontal units will always be the minority, so they might help but they’re not the answer. If we want to deal with the difficulty of working between multiple silos, we’ll have to develop a more robust understanding of their cultures so that individuals can more easily construct their own empathic connections.


A travel guide to Finland, circa 1938

We build scaffolds that enable empathy across national cultures. A tourist heading to Europe will learn that in Switzerland they kiss on the cheeks three times, while across the border in France they do it only twice. It’s a cultural choice with no right or wrong answer but a good bit of potential for awkwardness if bungled. Because we know that, there is some effort taken to discuss and publicize these local choices so that visitors and locals alike can negotiate a common existence. In the future, will there be booklets telling us that neuroendocrinologists prefer short sentences with words of latin root, that plumbers require at least 10 minutes of smalltalk before opening their toolbox, and that Swedish Engineers require 5 decimal places of accuracy to be comfortable? Surely somewhere in an advertising office this knowledge is already codified, so we need to play catch up.

The easy answer is that we rise above what could be considered minor differences, but if it were easy to rise above cultural differences we would have done it already, right? People are trying. Coming to grips with different cultures of decision-making is one of the things that ethnography helps us do, which leads me to read the recent interest in service design, design ethnography, and similar modes of need-finding within business (and increasingly the public sector) as a tacit recognition that we have to understand our customers and our citizen-peers’ own decision making much better if we want to create useful and meaningful experiences, products, services, and interactions for them. That is, if we want people to choose us over the others, we need to understand how they’re doing the choosing. This work is often being led by designers, or at least design studios, which is a bit of a quandary: if needs-finding is the work to be done, and ethnography is the tool, why not go straight to the social sciences?

Without the comfort of easy to find Right Answers, we need new sources of stability to sit between multiple parties who bringing multiple cultures to the table. In this situation matter becomes important, and the design disciplines are the ones who shape matter. Material things are important because they offer us a single source from which divergent interpretations may result. We can go back to things again and again, reformulating the language we use to understand them until there’s a common consensus in ways that are simply more difficult when you’re starting point are words and your ending point also words. One may be able to politicize the implications of a website, a building, a door handle, but it’s hard to argue with atoms. They’re stubbon and far more patient that most humans. I suspect design (like “evidence” in very large quotation marks) is often implicated in strategic circles out of a desire to have something inarguable. As we apply it in the Strategic Design Unit, design is a tool to navigate between the material world and the meta, the abstract, intangible, tacit or unknown aspects of the world. Yes, the dark matter. We often design probes for the explicit purpose of exciting the dark matter so that it becomes visible to us. In our conception of design nothing is fixed, per se, but it’s a way to find your fix, your navigation points.

Latour argued for the importance of things, now it’s our job to build to tools that change the status quo. Our work at Sitra has often gravitated around interfaces between different cultures. Brickstarter is concerned with the interface between municipal government and active citizens. Helsinki Street Eats is attempting to build an interface between enthusiastic hobbyists and pan-searing entrepreneurship. Interfaces imply systems, and in the contemporary world that means platforms: systems which expose their seams and enable participants to do something that was impossible or cost-prohibitive before. But here’s the trick: the interfaces that we need to build are often between ourselves. Democracy needs new interfaces so that we can use it more effectively, more equitably, to resolve our conflicts and make shared decisions.

So in things we find the gaps between our cultures of decision-making illuminated. Below are a few of the stories I’ve collected over the last 18 months, each a vignette showing how mis-matched cultures are making our daily life more frustrating and, ultimately, inhibiting our ability to make progress on Big Issues.

Here are some of my favorites.


Open Office Mouse

Chuffed with the success of developing the Open Office project, an open source clone of Microsoft Office, a group of people decided to create a piece of open source hardware: a mouse to be used with the program.

There probably should have been a hint that this was a bad idea from the get go. After all, spreadsheets, word processing, and presentations are not among the most demanding computing tasks, and most people manage with two or three buttons. The material reality of the Open Office mouse is shocking because it demonstrates the difficulty of making decisions in a zero-sum situation—in a matter battle.

When designing a piece of software, you can have it all. Prefer to use a menu option to make words bold? Ok. How about a keyboard command? Yes! And an icon on the toolbar just to be sure? No problem. Those choices are not made in connection to one another because they are not competing for the same resources. The decision-making process can be less rigorous without becoming a glaring monument to indecision. But apply the same logic to material and your indecision is mirrored back to you in the form of an 18 button mega mouse that no one wanted and no one will use.

As an example of clashing cultures of decision-making, I suspect that diligent ethnography would reveal this to be the product of office software aficionados and more than a couple gamers, the latter have more need for things like thumb joysticks than the average Excel jockey. The tools this group had at hand to resolve disputes in a software project are effective in that arena, but did not work as well for resolving conflicts in the material world. They need new tools and they’re not alone. As cultures of decision-making grind into deadlock we will have to create new tools to help us create our compositions of just-so-ness. It’s poetic that after some disputes about whether the project is making legitimate use of the Open Office branding they have rebranded it as the War Mouse. Zero-sum indeed.


Not in my backyard (NIMBY)

This wind turbine is part of a small wind farm in Hamina, Finland and it owes its existence to the fact that it was moved 500 meters from where it was originally proposed. In this particular case the dispute was over the noise of the turbine which a nearby part-time resident was concerned about. In Finland the maximum acceptable noise levels in an area zoned for summer cottage use are actually lower than they are in permanent residential areas. In other words, cottages that are used at most 3 months out of the year are institutionally more protected than homes which are in use 12 months out of the year.

In the specific example of this turbine there’s a conflict between the engineering of the turbine’s existence and its perception in eyes of some nearby individuals. The former has to do with things like soil stability, wind patterns, land ownership, grid infrastructure, and low carbon energy production. The latter involves aspects such as personal preference, individual physiology, life patterns, and national narratives about ‘the good life.’

In Hamina all of these factors were composed in such a way that the turbine could be built, just in a slightly different location. There are reams of counter examples where no amount of flexibility on behalf of either side would lead to a constructive agreement, and this is what makes NIMBY an excellent example of the friction between different cultures of decision-making. “I like your idea, I just don’t want it in my backyard” is a monolithic villain that can only be conquered by a persistent hero. If we want to reduce NIMBYism and make it easier to execute sustainable infrastructure projects—to pick an example out of a hat—then we need to decompose the monolithic. We will have, as Hamina has begun, to engage the specifics of the cultures in question and negotiate a tentative, wending path to decision.


Parliament Fights

Why are these Ukranian MPs fighting in their chambers? And it’s not only them, it’s also in Korea, Canadians, Indians, Kenya, Taiwan, and probably just about every national chamber of deliberation at some point in history. Although we like to take potshots at our Congresses and our Parliaments, if we take ourselves seriously they should be the places in which the most deliberative, rational, and focused decision-making occurs. I’m curious why they’re not.

Part of the problem is that representative democracy as we’ve inherited it from the 19th century needs facts to argue about. Inherent in the representative model is that facts are constant, so they merely need to be loaded into the deliberative chamber and then representatives can hash out how limited resources are applied across a diverse land. Remove objective facts from this equation and you have an organism that’s all muscle and no bone. Without some form of resistance it’s hard to build up stable conclusions. Decisions and the principles used to make them must be constantly revisited, and every time it’s a task of translating not only between the customs of one corner of the realm and another, but also trying to find some way to compose the relative incongruities of, say, energy production, health, and national security. Add to this the fact that we’re experiencing rapid technological change and it’s a frothy mix where it’s hard to be right, let alone know with confidence that you are right. No wonder it comes to blows.


An apple is not an apple

This example is borrowed from my colleague Marco Steinberg who uses it to illustrate the difficulty of the contemporary design task. How do you compete in a market where differences are materially imperceptible?

On the flip side, how do you make decisions when those differences are invisible, abstract, and in conflict with one another? Of the two above, which apple is the better apple?

Comparing them on a single axis is not too difficult, but making decisions when you, a consumer who just wants a healthy snack, has to figure out how to make sense of competing factors is not insignificant. Is it better to be organic but shipped in from 1000 miles away, or to go with conventionally farmed apples that have a lower carbon footprint? Is your palette prepared to skip the apple altogether if your wallet cannot afford the kind of apple that your values lead you to appreciate? How do you balance hard factors like cost, against hard-but-difficult to quantify factors such as impact on soil biodiversity and carbon foot print, against soft factors such as flavor and appearance?

Multiply this by an entire grocery list and it’s a small feat that shoppers are not reduced to a blubbering mess when walking into the super market. We simplify because we have to, and that’s OK, but this is also a place where it would be useful to know more about how communities pick their allegiances—and how they might be convinced to change.

I usually buy my food with carbon as the primary concern, preferring local products over those from distant shores. Others are more concerned with ensuring that their food is organic for personal health reasons. Still others prefer organic because they are concerned that conventional farming is destroying the ecosystem.

That’s why we need to devote more time to understanding the world’s myriad cultures of decision-making: none of these beliefs are mutually exclusive in the shopping cart, but they often become so at the till.

Brute Force Architecture and its Discontents

“Globalization destabilizes and redefines both the way architecture is produced and that which architecture produces. Architecture is no longer a patient transaction between known quantities that share cultures, no longer the manipulation of established possibilities, no longer a possible judgement in rational terms of investment and return”

—Rem Koolhaas, Globalization, S,M,L,XL

Your lungs are full of foam fumes, your eyes are bloodshot from exhaustion, you’ve slept at your desk. But you stick with it, because you enjoy a pleasing degree of freedom to pursue design ideas that challenge accepted reason, so long as the lead designer sees something they like. Sound familiar?

If so, it’s likely that you work in one of the many global architecture offices who practice in the style of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). Your work may look different but that’s not the focus of this discussion. The operations follows a similar logic.

Amongst the most critically acclaimed offices of the last two decades, OMA has consistently produced innovate architectural ideas, methods, and as we will see below, organizational models. This much is undeniable. The question at hand is whether the almost contagious ability of OMA to replicate itself in the habits of other offices is the result of duplication by admiration, a legitimate response to the challenges of globalized architecture practice which OMA may have pioneered, or the charismatic quirk of OMA’s success overshadowing other possibilities.

This essay is written without any direct knowledge of the inner workings of the offices in question. It’s largely a mythology of the habits of organization, production, and decision making that one office has pursued, written from the outside, aided by accumulated anecdotes.

If the OMA style of working has become a popular drug, this is an attempt to figure out what we’re all taking, why, and what other options may exist. It’s a story that begins in the British countryside 39 years before the founding of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture.

Computing Success

Half way between the brain trusts of Cambridge and Oxford sits Bletchley Park, a spunky but anonymous building that came to house one of the most important British installments of World War II. Inside, a team of scientists and mathematicians were focused on breaking the codes that the Germans used to protect their communications from the prying eyes and ears of the Allies. With some of the brightest minds in the country assembled, the task was difficult enough to still evade them, leaving the Allies no choice but to employ a technique called brute force code breaking.

When a message is encrypted one must have the password— or cipher—to decrypt the message from a jumble of nonsense into legible text. The right password returns sensible text, while the wrong password merely turns gibberish into a different kind of equally useless gibberish. If one cannot obtain the cipher they must devise a way to get it. In other words, if you can’t find the right password, another way to break through is by trying every… single… one… of the wrong possible passwords until you’re left with the single, working, correct option. Those at Bletchley and others in the community of cryptographers call this a brute force attack.

A young mathematician named of Alan Turing was working on a bruce force code cracking machine called the Bombe. It was like playing a game of “guess what word I’m thinking of” by starting on word one, page one of a dictionary and going from there. Except in the case of the Turing’s team their dictionary had up to 150,000,000,000,000,000,000 ‘words’ that had to be tested before the right answer could be found.

When it’s not possible to intelligently find a flaw in the algorithm used to encode the message, the brute force attacker simply tries every possible option until one proves useful. It’s the same technique that lends hackers access to email accounts today: attempt millions of different passwords and one is bound to work. This is why banks and other sensitive sources encourage us to use c0mpLic4t3d! passwords. Each extra letter, number, or punctuation mark expands the possible number of combinations, or “search space”, and makes the password exponentially harder to guess.

As the name implies, brute force attacks are uncomplicated and rely on the most basic ability of the computer to do repetitive tasks ad nauseam without stepping out for a smoke. The faster all the wrong answers can be eliminated, the sooner the correct cipher will be revealed. Two variables determine the speed that a cipher will be broken: the time it takes for each break attempt, and the number of attempts you can make simultaneously. The latter is akin to dividing up the dictionary into sections A-H, I-N, O-Z and giving them to three people to work on at the same time. Parallel processing, as it’s called, only works in situations where the overall task can be neatly divided and the piecemeal portions worked on in isolation of each other.

Decades after Alan Turing and others who made Bletchley Park a famous mansion of mathematics, the same methods were being put to in another industry altogether.

Through the unlikely combination of innovations in drawing and model making techniques, combined with a new theoretical understanding of architecture, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) rewired their office of the late 1990s into a brute force computational device whose efficiency would become wildly contagious.

OMA has been one of the most consistently interesting offices during the past couple decades but we’re more concerned with the how than the what. In probing these depths we want to gain a more sophisticated understand of this engine of success, and perhaps discover some ways in which the downsides may be minimized without losing the potency of its output.

Keeping everything in play

Lesson number 36: Abstraction is a requirement for design because you just can’t take everything into account.

—OMA Progress exhibition pamphlet, curated by Rotor

Architecture can be a hard thing to discuss because it’s an art of integration. The difficulty of separating the overall design task into smaller units of work is at least part of the reason that the stereotype of the architect is one of obsessive detail-oriented control, the Maestro, the creative genius. The lead designer is often one of the only people privy to the way that all of the cumulative decisions in a project come together; seeing, as it were, the many narrowly avoided conflicts that any matter battle is riddled with.

The factors that go into an architectural proposition run the gamut from calculable aspects such as structural performance under gravity loads, financial constraints under a given budget, and the practical realities of human ergonomics as much as they rely on the cultural and symbolic meaning of forms and materials, or even the individual whims of the client. Looking at any of these elements in isolation leads to woe, yet integrating all of them all of the time leads to paralysis.

The design process in most offices follows a general progression from a prompt, to wide range of options, to narrowing in on one or two promising possibilities for further refinement. At the beginning a lead designer offers their team a design question such as “how should this building sit on the site” or “how will people move around this structure” and the team work as individuals to sketch a variety of proposals that answer the question. This basic process is repeated again and again at successive levels of detail until the ‘scheme’ for the entire building has been resolved and can be drawn up as construction documents.

In architecture offices that discuss design proposals as integrated and holistic, these design cycles are drawn out into discussions can take a long time because even the smallest detail, such as a handrail, must be coherent with the logic that defines the whole building. Idea generation and evaluation phases tend to be less distinct in these kinds of offices, as there is an ongoing dialog among colleagues about whether a particular design tactic is appropriate to the project, and to the office’s work in general. Such discussions are often lengthy and full of nuance, consideration, and coffee breaks. It’s a perfectly good model, but it’s one that works best when everyone on the team share a similar level of acumen and are present for the full duration of the design process—if possible in the same room. This is the classic mode of the design atelier complete with a strong-willed lead designer at the helm.

OMA’s invention was to turn lead designers into grand editors. For an office who had global aspirations and highly mobile directors, a more efficient way of working was needed that would allow idea generation phases to happen without extensive indoctrination of young designers to the office’s philosophy and stylistic interests, and without constant supervision of the frenetic leaders. Diversity within any design cycle would be maximized and the ‘time cost’ of decision making would be lowered. Together these two changes made OMA more efficient at iterating through proposals until a viable one could be found.

OMA’s first breakthrough came in the writing of Rem Koolhaas. Initially as analytical observations in Delirious New York and later in a theoretical essay entitled Bigness, Koolhaas describes buildings as related collections of ideas rather than integrated wholes. If previously a building’s outside and inside were meant to add up to one coherent thing, in Koolhaas’ logic they are free to be separate, each with their own logics. This essential cleavage was levied against all aspects of the building. The old model of seeing a building as one integrated design task was now shattered into a family of many individual tasks.

The Dis-integrated building

“Beyond a certain critical mass, a building becomes a Big Building. Such a mass can no longer be controlled by a single architectural gesture, or even by any combination of architectural gestures. This impossibility triggers the autonomy of its parts, but that is not the same as fragmentation: the parts remain committed to the whole.”
—Rem Koolhaas, Bigness essay in S,M,L,XL

Although post modernism had already legitimized the collage aesthetic that this approach encourages, Koolhaas’ writing made it OK for designers—especially those in his office—to treat the design of a building as many separate, smaller design tasks and the outcome of each did not necessarily need to bear clear resemblance to the others. On the contrary, buildings that displayed multiple ideas, forms, and materials became central to the aesthetic of OMA.

Koolhaas’ radically dis-integrated approach to architecture relieved junior designers from having to understand the full nuance of the overall project and freed the lead designer from the burden of providing constant ongoing feedback to keep their team on track with the big picture. Instead, feedback need be applied only at specific points (such as internal reviews) where a range of options are evaluated for their intrinsic value more than than their appropriateness to an external, overriding logic. In this operational model the lead designer need not play the role of Maestro. Rather, they initiate the design process with a provocation and continually curate the results. It’s more like editing a live broadcast than it is painting an image.

With the theoretical means to suspend disbelief during productive phases of idea generation, the individuals on a design team were free to go wild. If the review after a period of wild design proposals did not yield anything satisfactory the process could be repeated again. And again. And again until something useful came out.

The phases of production and evaluation were allowed to become distinct and extreme. Production phases could involve maximum divergence, and evaluations could be viciously binary. Here we find the basic mechanism of brute force hacking: find success by exhausting failure. As many former employees could tell you, it could also be the motto of OMA (and the many offices that now use its model).

The quicker a yes/no decision could be made, the quicker the search space of answers to a given design problem could be iterated through by a group of young designers, even working almost at random. But how to accelerate this process even further?

Blue Foam

New and faster ways to evaluate architectural proposals were needed, namely new means of drawing and model making that shortened the time it required to definitively say yes or no. The answer was blue foam.

OMA is famous for its use of blue foam as a model making material, a technique that uses polystyrene foam cut into desired shapes with a heated wire. Working with foam is a skill that one learns relatively quickly and it allows quick and easy iterations that would be more time consuming to achieve in cardboard. For instance, making a cube from foam can be done with as few as two or three cuts. The same shape out of cardboard would require 24 cuts and the gluing of 6 pieces. Whereas working with cardboard requires planning ahead and some translation of ideas into a workflow of making, with foam the workflow and ideas are collapsed into one. Making is thinking.

One can picture the spark that must have lit up in the eye of a young model maker as their tired fingers parted with a bright yellow Olfa knife and embraced the electrically charged wire of a foam cutter, slicing effortlessly through a block of cool blue foam for the first time.

Working with foam instead of more traditional materials allowed the design teams at OMA to model their ideas quicker, which in turn allowed more ideas to be considered in the same span of time. The adoption of this new technique was akin to upgrading the processor speed of the office.

More so than cardboard or other model making materials, blue foam erases the signature of its creator allowing for an easier ‘apples to apples’ comparison. The anonymizing uniformity of the cut surfaces and alien blueness of the foam itself allowed multiple workers to prepare options in parallel without the differences of personal craft becoming an element of distraction during moments of evaluation. The cumulative effect means that a table covered in foam models all produced by different individuals can be assessed for their ideas rather than the quirks of who made them or how they were created. What’s on display are the ideas themselves, without any distracting metadata or decoration. This is the model making equivalent of Edward Tufte’s quest to eliminate chartjunk.

With extraneous degrees of difference eliminated from the process, the signal to noise ratio of the discussion could be as high as possible. Under these conditions the person making a decision is set up to compare and execute quickly. Once a promising option is chosen, the team can quickly produce an entirely new table of variations based on that as a starting point. The time required for each cycle of development is reduced as much as possible such that a maximum number of iterations are seen, tested, and discarded on the way to finalizing a design proposal.

What blue foam did for model making, the diagram did for drawings. Traditional architectural drawings are laden with detail whereas the diagram is all punch. Favoring diagrams over more traditional means of plans and sections, even in sketch form, allows for the essence of an idea to be transmitted in as compact a form as possible so that it can be iterated as quickly as possible.

This is the essence of brute force architecture. To test and discard as many ideas, produced as quickly as possible, is a luxury that is only afforded to an office that has a theoretical framework allowing design tasks to be simplified and separated, the right tools to do so, and a large pool of able and willing hands to put those tools in motion.

Geography, language, labor, and practice

Thanks to the clarity of roles, the relative degrees of freedom afforded to junior designers, and the reining effect of the blue foam and diagram tactics, brute force architecture is a mode of working that is more resilient to participants coming and going. OMA’s office in Rotterdam could be humming with proposals for the facade of a hotel in Manhattan while Koolhaas and was lecturing in Seoul, without being impeded by the low bandwidth media of international telephone calls and grainy intercontinental facsimiles. The media of decision making was already so compressed that it could survive even the most dreadful of landline connections and thermal paper.

OMA is famous for two things: its astounding output, and the extent to which its operations chew through the majority of the human capital that walks through its doors. As an office that had already made a name for itself and was lucky to enjoy a steady flow of applications from aspiring young interns, OMA could organize around a workflow that depended on the maximum variety and quantity of design explorations before electing one to carry forward. Like Turing 60 years prior, OMA’s operations are based on brute forcing through the search space. Whereas Turing relied on something that would later come to be known as computing power, OMA relies on employees who willfully work long hours to be part of the magical machine.

This maximum variety is the direct output of the bloodshot eyes and over-caffeinated bodies of the legion workforce pushing themselves to create just a few more iterations before calling it quits. Now taking advantage of the very globalized condition that brought it into being, the diversity of the individuals in the office (nationality, language, design background) further enhance the spread of the collective design iterations they churn through, effectively expanding the ability of the machine to exhaust possibilities at an accelerated pace.

The simplification of the way in which ideas were presented through models and diagrams smoothed over the difficulties of running an office with many different mother tongues by giving preference to image over language, in effect turning a potential hurdle into a mechanism to bolster the brute force production system.

The sum of this way of working is one where the search space of ideas is exhausted seconds before the individuals doing the searching. If so, success has been achieved. If not, the office collapses under its own entropy. So far OMA has been able to keep the lights on, but at significant cost. Particularly to the lower ranks who put the “brute” in “brute force”.

OMA has been singled out because their contribution has been so definitive to the last couple generations of professional practice. Although the offices of Renzo Piano, Zaha Hadid, and others are on similar or perhaps even higher levels of success in terms of productive output, none have had as large an impact on the practice of architecture as OMA.

From the point of view of architectural practice, the dominant story of the last twenty years of architecture has been one of OMA-ification. It’s hard to walk through an office nowadays without feeling some shadow of OMA. If not the obsessive model making, then the diagrammatic drawings as idea telegrams. If not the masses of interns, the hands-off yes/no interaction between junior employee and lead designer. Beyond these high level similarities, the specific tactics of OMA are contagious: sections with oversized text stuffed into different programmatic zones, barcode diagrams, unrolled plans, renderings collaged with glib inhabitants, etc.

The pervasiveness of OMA’s habits in other offices are so extreme that one is tempted to ask whether this way of working is a logical outcome of globalized practice, but the dearth of competing operational models hints that perhaps this is not the case. At a moment when formal, tectonic, and material diversity are at the extreme, we as a community of architects lack a healthy discussion of operational models. OMA’s model trundled into a second generation with firms such as MVRDV, BIG, and REX but who else has proposed a coherent idea about how to operate an architecture firm?

Yes, there is interest in potential futures for architecture as a discipline, and this is incredibly important work, but there remains room for innovation in the most traditional of practices. How else might the idea of an office that designs and oversees the construction of buildings be articulated in a way that’s relevant to a global market, and able to survive its wiles? The search space for ways of working hardly seems exhausted, so what’s next?

When thinking about the future of practice after Brute Force, one wonders what models we may employ to develop not only the next generation of architectural ideas, but the next generation of architectural offices as well.

How does an office represent ideas to itself? How do they evaluate proposals as fast as possible? How does an office continually challenge itself by entertaining the most divergent set of propositions it can muster? What mechanisms does an office use to know when they are producing good work?

In a way, these are the easy questions. Or at least the ones that architects and designers have battled with implicitly or explicitly for centuries. The challenge that will define the next generation of architecture is one of organization and operation. How do offices effectively divide tasks? How do they honor a commitment to both community and client? How do they contribute both hard and soft value to the world?

New models of organizing work, new business models, new income streams, and new value propositions are the rich territory for tomorrow’s architects to figure out. As the global market struggles with deleveraging, architecture’s connection to the real economy is an asset waiting to be articulated.

Those who dare to do so assume all the risk of taking the leap away the dissatisfying-but-known practice of brute force architecture. If they’re lucky, and if we’re lucky, a few will land on solid ground.

Valuing Architecture

First off: I’ve re-jigged this site a little so you might need to update your RSS feeds and such. Sorry about that, but now everything should work much more smoothly.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the practice of architecture and trying to make sense of it in relation to the other professions which together might be called the “built environment practices” including the usual engineers, contractors and consultants of various kinds as well as developers, bankers, politicians, and others who have a more distant—but no less important—impact on the built environment.

Inspired by my previous experience steeping in the startup culture of Silicon valley, I’m trying to dig into the difficulties of running an office, especially small offices, and how these difficulties might be thought of as symptoms of a misformulated profession. Or more simply: how can we hack architectural practice to make it more effective?

This is part of the puzzle:

The difference between these graphs can be read either of two ways. On the one hand it’s depressing. The size of the design fee for a significant project, relative to the income of a small office, is often substantial. This puts the office at risk should the project be stalled or canceled, and therefore increases the likelihood said office over-extends itself to satisfy their big client.

When an office’s portfolio is dominated by one client the dynamics of satisfaction begin to change. Because of the importance of the dominant client, their needs begin to eclipse the needs of others, including the development of new clients. Losing the client can mean losing the office, so what else can be done?

The diversity of an office’s portfolio is useful as a hedge against the risk of losing any particular client, but it’s also a useful way to maintain a healthy understanding of the minimum viable product (MVP) which then, in a self-reinforcing feedback loop flowing the opposite direction, increases the office’s availability for self-initiated research and business development.

MVP is a kind of strategic laziness: it’s a reminder to be focused and only develop those threads or ideas that are relevant at the moment. If laziness is choosing not to work, MVP is about choosing when and where to work.

On the other hand, the size of the design fee relative to the overall project makes half of an excellent argument about the leverage of design and its role as a multiplier that can, in the best cases, deliver value beyond its cost. This would be a reformulation from design as spending to design as an investment. Unfortunately the missing half is hard to come by: evidence of the returns. The shining example of Bilbao is often trotted out, and someone somewhere has done real calculations on how much income has been generated by the rebirth of the town (€168 million euros in 2001 alone, according to Forbes).

But this argument is not very useful when made on a case by case basis. It’s especially useless for young offices that have none of the reputation or cache that Gehry does. The more perceived value accumulates on behalf of starchitects, the more it is drained from the profession at large.

My question is how the practice might begin to develop and keep track of small indicators. How much does a renovation increase the resale value of a home, for instance? And by what percentage does a good renovation increase it over a less good renovation? How do we define “good” in a way that non-architects can understand?

How do we measure value in financial and social terms? There’s triple bottom line accounting, which works within the confines of a firm’s balance sheet, but how do we think about the perception of value from the outside? How do we find better ways to see and understand the value of architecture and spending in the built environment in general?

If I had interns they would be reading about contingent valuation and searching for ways to instrumentalize this branch of economics within the context of the built environment. But since I don’t have any interns, I will leave you with this excerpt from a paper subtitled “How to stop worrying and learn to love economics” (PDF link) which makes mention of the difficult task of valuing the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Can the impact ever be valued in an exact way? No, but it can be rigorous. And what’s instructive about this small vignette is the use of contingent valuation to assess the indirect perceptions of value which compliments more familiar ways to value the catastrophe directly.

The method has also been subjected to rigorous scrutiny, one of its biggest tests being its use to estimate the environmental damage caused by the supertanker Exxon Valdez, which ran aground in March 1989 off Alaska. This led to careful scrutiny in the profession, given the enormous interests and large sums of money involved. The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) hired two Nobel prize-winning economic theorists – Kenneth Arrow and Robert Solow – to chair a panel to assess the methods. The report (Arrow et al 1993) concludes “that contingent valuation (CV) studies can produce estimates reliable enough to be the starting point of a judicial process of damage assessment, including lost passive-use values”. This last term refers precisely to the non- use values of the environment consisting of existence, option, and bequest benefits – the very same benefits which we have just been discussing in connection with the valuation of art.

This post is an expanded excerpt from a lecture presented at Aalto University Department of Architecture on February 24th, 2011.

Let’s Burn Architecture

Over on his excellent blog, Rory Hyde has fired up one hell of a conversation about potential futures for design practice. The question is a good one: what will architects and designers do in the future if their involvement with the production of the built environment continues to be marginalized?


The reason I love Rory’s post is because it’s proactive rather than whiny. Admitting you have a problem is the first step and all that. I’ve been very slowly working on some of these thoughts through conversations with Dan Hill, Rory, Alejandro Aravena, and Dash Marshall but have yet to write much down. So thanks go to Rory for providing an impetus to sit down and pound out a couple paragraphs in the comments section on his blog. I’ve also included my comments below for posterity’s sake.

Comment #18:

A lot here, so I will attempt to respond in fragments. Not the best, but if I wait to congeal these thoughts into one coherent narrative it will be 2012.

@rory: your question about whether responsibility should be part of the core requirements of design is one that I think we can safely assume is implicit. A professional undertaking must be done under good intentions with a level of professional responsibility. The question is responsibility to who… and this is particularly difficult when we come to questions of buildings and cities because the multiple groups that we must be responsible to (namely the current owner, the public, future owners, etc) are not always easily represented for decision-making purposes. This brings me to pet peeve #1 when discussing architectural process with product designers. I’ve heard many variations of the question “why don’t architects do user surveys?” Does it need to be more common within architectural practice? Yes! But how do you survey the needs and desires of the person who will occupy (let alone walk by!) your building in 30-50 years time? The time scale of architecture is something that our current modes of ownership (from both financial and moral points of view) are not able to deal with.

To speak more directly to your comment that “the designer is necessarily more invested in the projects success due to increased accountability” I would respond that this is a result of the specific positioning of the architect on the pivot between “analysis” and “execution.” Groups like management consultants are in the business of doing analysis and handing it off for someone else to execute. If there’s value in a design-led method that approaches management consulting, it’s that we move beyond the role of strict analysis and are obligated (whether professionally or personally) to be involved in stewarding the execution. I also argue that it’s this involvement with the execution that is the real value proposition of the strategic architect because it forms a feedback loop which provides valuable insights into subsequent analysis phases. I’ll get back to this below under the heading of “matter representative.”

@gerard and @rory: one of the common threads between both of you is the rightful identification of how damn hard it is to produce a nice chunk of the city. Without placing blame on the profession or everyone outside of the profession (ultimately a futile discussion) I point to what seems to me a basic fact of contemporary culture in the developed ‘west:’ we’ve been bamboozled by the internet. I say this as someone who has been quite involved in the commercial web since its inception, so I’m not a luddite detractor, but my point is that the consequences of material and spatial decisions are generally not understood in any sophisticated manner within our culture(s) and specifically within decision-making in the contexts of business and government. If PwC (or McKinsey or Boston or Doblin…) have been successful it’s because they have been able to offer decision-makers tools to make what they feel are better decisions. I take pains to point out that I have not written “make better decision” but “what they feel are better decisions.”

I choose this specific phrasing because I believe, echoing @Anita’s comments above, that we’re often involved in wicked problems whether we like it or not. Paul Nakazawa is brilliant on this topic by describing the role of the contemporary, forward-thinking architect as operating in a space which is “pre factual.” If you are doing interesting [work that has spatial or material consequences] you will be operating without all the facts. This is no different than the upper echelons of finance where the specific intricacy, and in some cases fragility, of the instruments in use are not known to all players, let alone the majority of players involved, if ever knowable at all.

This begs an interesting question: would architecture be more powerful, profitable, and enjoy a more central role if it were more opaque? I hope not, but that strategy certainly has worked out for the financiers.

I’d like to add to Dan and Marcus’ discussion of hardware/software the notion of contingency. Contingencies between various bits of software and hardware are an important consideration in development and one that we could probably make better use of within architecture. How many times have you had a client ask for a change that cascades necessary adjustments across many other aspects of a project? We need better rhetorical, planning, and even software tools to deal with contingencies in a timely manner.

In conversation with Dustin Stephens, a friend and architect in California, he suggested that some architects create value for their clients and others satisfy the basic need for shelter, unquestioningly drawing up their client’s stated desires. To me this seems like a slightly troubling, yet very useful way to divide up the various ways to practice architecture, or perhaps more broadly to create chunks of the city. It seems as though the available tracks of architectural education are not helping very much. We simultaneously have over-educated draftsman, like many of my classmates who graduated from Ivy League schools and are now doing glorified drafting for starchitects, and under-educated architects, those many developers and contractors who are busy building our cities all day every day.

Medicine has doctors, nurse practitioners, and nurses. Lawyers have paralegals. What do we have? We used to use technical aspects to divide our roles (e.g. draftsmen vs. architect), but perhaps we need a staged definition of professional roles instead. The reality of current architectural education is that it’s not tooled up to produce enough students, no matter how smart and strategic they are, to have an impact at scale. This is the justification that Roger Martin uses when he says that business schools must teach design thinking rather than letting design schools get their act together. Martin asserts that design schools simply don’t have enough students to make a difference. It’s an exaggerated claim but ask your self seriously, how exaggerated is it? Not very.

Which leads me to a comment which touches loosely on notes that Dan, Gerard, Marcus, and Rory have each made. If you believe my assertion above that contemporary society does not fully comprehend the spatial and material consequences of basic decisions [1], then Rory’s excellent list in this post is missing the “matter representative.” Apologies in advance for a bit of Latourian bastardization, but someone needs to figure out how to more convincingly argue for/against material decisions. Same goes for spatial decisions.

To be truly effective here is to provide an enhanced decision-making capability which is currently missing (as I stated above) in many businesses and governments. Light weight spatial analytics (GIS), more sophisticated post-occupancy analysis, and a new diagrammatic language of spatial/material/cost accounting are three areas of work that desperately need smart people to devote some attention.

IMHO, universities are failing to hold up their end of the bargain at the moment. Schools are doing a mediocre job of training students to see the bigger picture of strategic issues at play which will quite narrowly define their sandbox as run-of-the-mill architects. More damning, perhaps, is the fact that no universities are (to my knowledge) producing basic research which bolsters the profession’s ability to operate in the decision making contexts of the contemporary world, nor make explicit the value of architectural practice beyond its “cultural contributions.” Where is the robust dialog of post occupancy analysis? Where are studies of the great architectural failures of the 20th century? Where are the careful studies of all of the external factors for those failures (I’m thinking here of something like Pruitt-Igoe which is often blamed on the architect when in fact it’s a failed social experiment that no amount of skillfully crafted matter could have mitigated)? Yes, it’s a difficult and messy discourse with a tarnished image from the 60s-70s, but that doesn’t make it any less imperative. A lawyer or doctor without a demonstrable record of success is a quack, not a professional. Ouch.

[1] This was the subject of my thesis research on the US Capitol/US Congress. What were the organizational consequences of spatial decisions made without any spatial understanding?

Comment #31

I’ll join in everyone’s appreciation of the conversation here. Rory, I’ve been slowly working on an essay around some of these ideas, so this is a great way to alleviate me from having to finish that!

It seems safe to summarize many of the comments above by saying that there is a general desire to find a way of being more effective.

There are two questions which are touched on a number of times. I’ll replace architect/architecture with XYZ since the term is potentially problematic too:

1. How do we educate the XYZs?

2. What is the business model for XYZ?


I love the idea of rethinking educational paths through design school. And as has been pointed out, there is already a very full curriculum in many nations because the licensure requirements mandate that a certain set of courses are taken. I’ve also heard similar frustrations from colleagues teaching at architecture schools in the US, including my colleague Marco Steinberg who is very articulate about the difficulties of expanding the curriculum to include things like finance, economics, etc.

In the US this leave a school two options: give up on having an accredited program which will graduate students on a pathway towards licensure or find ways to change the accreditation requirements (set by the NAAB). If you give up the license you have a very tough sell to prospective students, whereas seeking to change accreditation is a huge effort that likely takes a long time. I’m curious here how effective programs like Harvard’s Master of Design Studies 2 yr. programs have been. Where do people in those kinds of non-accredited degrees end up? What are they doing?

Let’s take a tangential moment to consider all of the students who attend an architecture school and go off to do something else. A baby step towards legitimating the XYZ may be a comprehensive survey of all of these ex-architects and what they have done with themselves. I can say that in our anecdotal experience at Sitra/Helsinki Design Lab, we have found interesting and successful people in any number of unexpected places who happen to have an architectural education in their past.

To some extent the role of XYZ already exists, it’s just that those people are not calling themselves “architect” or XYZ, but “mogul,” “senator,” or what have you. I bring this up because I think one of the dangers in these conversations is that we see the task of creating a whole new profession (!) as overwhelming and therefore difficult to impossible (not that the voices in this thread are falling into that trap).


Similar to how the education of XYZs is made difficult by a lethargic academic definition of what it means to be an architect, I can speak from my own limited experience in the US and say that our American Institute of Architects is not helping the profession. Basic things like the terms of the standard contract are… weak. I can’t come up with any better word for it.

To think about how much time, energy, and obsessive effort my friends in Silicon Valley pour into the writing of their term sheets (for venture capital financing) I am surprised how little it seems that the average architect thinks of contracts, business model, and even fee structure as design problems.

We need to be better business people. Full stop. And not just in terms of commanding a higher fee for our services, but more importantly drafting the legal/business end of our work with as much intent as our work on form/space/material to *make accomplishing our goals in form/space more achievable.* Fewer conferences about some shiny new CNC technique and more about awesome contracts. Sound exciting, right? It’s about as exciting as drawing plumbing risers, and yet just as important.

For me there are two relatively modest do&document pairs which will help lower the barriers described above. Of course we can also talk about how to renovate institutions like the NAAB and AIA, but that’s a whole different conversation:

A. Be better at engaging atypical consultants (like economists, politicians, etc) and atypical collaborations, as per Noah’s comment above about “speak[ing] both languages” which I completely agree with

B. Be better at giving full credit, including both the collaborators mentioned above, the client, and the given context. The hero myth is baloney, let’s be in the habit of regularly reminding ourselves of this by giving full credit.

C. Take more risk in the kinds of projects we take on and how we engage in them. This is easy for me to say as a youngster, but it’s a pretty simple reality that without risk there is little progress.

D. Celebrate in whatever media/events we can those offices, groups, and individuals who are taking on new roles and pulling it off.

Comment #36

Gerard, I like the quotation from your partner about design research and I’m wondering if we could replace “design research” with the more broad term of “doing.”

Edit: OK, having read over this response which I intended to be quite quick, it has gone a little off the deep end!

“[Doing] operates on the premise that the very act of [doing] results in new knowledge, in other words, that [doing] is not simply an application of knowledge gained elsewhere but rather through the [act] of [doing] we come to know the world in ways that we did not know it prior to [doing].”

This holds true for a professional sportsman just as true as it does for a designer. Why else does a football player practice kicking a ball so many times if not to understand the specificity of the world through the act of kicking?

The argument I’d like to make is that executing on a plan, whether done literally with one’s own hands or under their supervision, introduces all of the micro, macro, and fundamental misconceptions that the plan harbored. This is something that all intentional professions share to varying degrees. For me the question is what your learning cycle is and how quick your feedback loops function.

(This reminds me that I need to dig into the Action Research literature more deeply.)

By way of example, let’s think about drawing a straight line — remember the frustrations of trying to draw a straight line during your first days in architecture school? or maybe that was just me! Or an issue much more complex such as trying to get a rocket into space. NASA as an organization learned tons while trying to launch their first hunk of metal into near-earth orbit, and I’d argue that they benefitted from a very tight feedback loop.

By extension, I would like to rephrase the value of the work of an architect (which I use separate from designer because I believe this to be something which designers can escape if they choose, but architects cannot) as instructive because (the best) architects are translators between abstract intention and concrete social things. They operate at the crux between planning and execution in a unique way. Whether through the *creation* of diagrams, drawings, models, or the carrying out of construction administration, there is a tight feedback loop which benefits the work-in-progress as well as any future work that the designer may undertake. Over the past 6-8 years we’ve seen the tech and business world catching on to the value of prototyping which is evidenced most clearly in the profusion of websites permanently in beta.

What makes the crux role of the designer unique from, say, and engineer (most engineers?) is that architects must synthesize the hard facts of gravity, budget, and others, alongside the softer and more abstract notions of culture, the client’s desires, politics, and notions of architectural correctness (whichever flavor one subscribes to). This should probably be re-written to say that *the best architects* are able to play this role. C.f. “Not all design is research.”

(The best) Architecture is forever haunted by its non-art non-science status.

There’s something to the obsessiveness of architectural planning that is also unique in that it is not applied evenly to an entire building. If we start from the most banal of details, the door jamb, we can zoom out through the layers of the building asking new questions about intention at each of a number of levels of zoom. But! Between each ‘zoom level’ there are implicit questions which the architect does not plan for nor specify except in the most extreme cases. As a young architect I’m still learning to accept that builders do not /always/ follow the details that I draw, they use them as representations of intention and apply their own knowledge to achieve the desired outcome in the best manner possible. So here there’s something about the staccato focus of an architect at certain common scales (site, floor plan, detail, for example) which is unique to the profession. Implicit in this ‘I’ll draw the dots and you connect them’ approach is an understanding that there are questions which have not been answered and that answering them all is probably too complicated or expensive to be realistic. I choose to interpret this artifact of the architectural process as something which may have developed out of the need to reduce the workload to something manageable, but may now be considered in its own right as an extremely useful paradigm through which to think about any ambiguous and dynamic problem.

(The best) Architecture is propositional.

And to get back to that door jamb, I cannot let go of the fact that (the best) design’s fixation is on using material to create non-material impacts. If there’s something here which we can offer it’s a “deep understanding to spot gaps, possibilities, potential” as Dan puts it, which I posit is the result of being sensitive to the feedback loops that feed in predictive knowledge about how the spatial/temporal context of a proposed design works (or doesn’t). Within this seems to be a kind of material empathy that (the best) designers (or XYZs) develop by observing the ways that planned things create unexpected affects when materialized according to seemingly perfect plans. I include services here as well, given that services thread through multiple devices, screens, person-behaviors, and so on.

More so that the points above, I’m interested in the designer’s closeness to material reality and their ability to see the upstream implications of material decisions (often referred to as “poor design choices”). Rory, perhaps you remember the name of the Tasmanian philosopher that I mentioned to you and who I met in Torquay? During the course of a two day “design thinking” event sponsored by Swinburne this this man reinforced the the same cutting point: descriptions of “design thinking” sound an awful lot like descriptions of “good thinkers”. Linking the work of design/architecture to an understanding of material implications is to me one unimpeachable way to escape that critique — not to mention a potential source of great value, as evidenced by the eager work of the management consultancies described above. This begs another question which has come up above in the comments of Doug and others: is the knowledge of design/architecture different from that of craft? It feels more propositional, forward thinking than craft, but I’m not able to fully articulate it.

At the moment thanks to the lack of study devoted to what social, political, and financial affects buildings create, this makes us designers more like Marie Curie: we know exactly what we’re avidly handling on a daily basis but might only know the affects of our work after it’s too late.

Since I’m now re-treading previous comments I know that I should close this post. Sorry, Gerard, if this was a bit of a hijack!

Changing the Definition of Design

Readers of this site will know that I am perplexed by the term “design thinking.” This consternation stems from the lack of a good definition, particularly with regard to what separates a “design thinker” from a plain old good designer. Design culture in North America and Europe has seen a profusion of nomenclature in recent years from interaction, to experience, to service design, all in addition to design thinking (I’ve observed the same thing happening in Australia and Asia as well, but I can only speak with direct experience of the North American and European contexts).

Is there a new practice of design brewing? If so, what makes it unique and how do we define it? How do we understand who is a design thinker and who is not? And perhaps most importantly for the readership of this blog, if design thinking can be “practiced by anyone” as Tim Brown suggests in Change by Design, what is it that professionals contribute? What unique things do design thinkers do?

My hunch is that the recent usage of the name stems from a professional concern for differentiation and is therefore an attempt to establish a competitive advantage by creating-and being a first mover within-a new market of design services. This has obvious benefit for a group such as Brown’s IDEO as they seek to distinguish themselves from the clamor of the world’s many design firms. Professional practices use names to create territories and things that they own, but what happens when the conversation expands beyond a single corporate entity and begins to encompass a larger community? As groups around the world try to redefine the practice of design, we risk a profusion of names for what are essentially just slightly different variations of “good design.”

To ask it another way, is there any reason that some designers should not be design thinkers?

I’m trying to ferret out whether “design thinking” is a useful term amongst the community of designer-peers or if it’s more appropriate, in a non-pejorative way, simply as a PR tool.

The design community has generally not communicated the value of our various practices very well to the public, so it’s exciting to have a new way of posing a value proposition that people actually buy into! If the term “design thinking” is a tool for differentiation within the market then it’s easier to accept, but now that it’s spilling into schools-and particularly business schools-the term is in danger of creating more confusion than value.

The design community seems to be experiencing an identity crisis compounded by its myriad PR failures. The more I dig into this question, I see the energy put into supporting “design thinking” as two matters that are confusingly grouped under one name:

  1. A renovation of the definition of what it means to be a “good designer” to include systems and strategies as well as enhanced skills in observation, analysis, and communication.
  2. Recognition that the best way to increase the standing of “design” in the eyes of non-designers (read: potential clients) is to educate them through exposure to our process

It seems that the hoped-for outcome is:

  1. Designers who understand their work as integral with a variety of contexts: physical, organizational, market, environmental (#1)
  2. Non-designers (“design thinkers”) value the design process as a contribution to their core business/mission whether this is product based or not. (#2)
  3. An increasing number of designers involved in strategic decision making (result of A+B)

As I continue to try to make sense of “design thinking,” I took the opportunity of a recent flight to read Tim Brown’s new book and conducted a little experiment. I’ve transcribed every most mentions of “design thinking” and “design thinker” as a way of attempting to find Brown’s definition. It’s one of the most coherent available at the moment, but it’s still fuzzy and I’m still having problems rectifying the implications of the following statements with their relationship to the deprecated terms of “design” and “designing.”

Taking lines out of context is a cruel and unusual thing to do to another author’s text, but it’s done in good sport as a quick and dirty attempt to conjure a definition where one does not otherwise exist. Sorry, Tim!

Design thinking Is…

Design thinking is founded upon “The willing and even enthusiastic acceptance of competing constraints.” p.18

“Design thinking is expressed within the context of a project that forces us to articulate a clear goal at the outset.” p.21

“Design thinking is the opposite of group thinking, but paradoxically, it takes place in groups.” p.28

“Design thinking is embodied thinking-embodied in teams and projects… but embodied in the physical spaces of innovation as well.” p.35

“Design thinking is rarely a graceful leap from height to height-it tests our emotional constitution and challenges our collaborative skills.” p.65

“Design thinking [is] a continuous movement between divergent and convergent processes, one the one hand, and between analytical and synthetic, on the other.” p.70

“Design thinking is neither art nor science nor religion. It is the capacity… for integrative thinking.” p.85

“Design thinking… [is] allowing customers to write the last chapter of the story themselves.” p.148

“Design thinking is ideally suited to enhance… [a] human-centered, desirability-based approach.” p.159

“Design thinking is unlikely to become an exact science but… there is an opportunity to transform it from a black art into a systematically applied management approach.” p.176

“Design thinking is being applied at new scales in the move from discrete products and services to complex systems.” p.178

“Design thinking is about creating a multipolar experience in which everyone has the opportunity to participate in the conversation.” p.192

Design thinking principals are “user-centered research, brainstorming, analogous observation, prototyping.” p.224

“Design thinking requires bridging the ‘knowing-doing gap.’” p.227

“Design thinking starts with divergence, the deliberate attempt to expand the range of options rather than narrow them.” p.229

“Design thinking balances the perspective of users, technology, and business.” p.229

“Design thinking is fast-paced, unruly, and disruptive.” p.234

“Design thinking has its origins in the training and the professional practice of designers.” p.241

Design thinking needs…

“Design thinking needs to move upstream, closer to the executive suites where strategic decisions are made.” p.37

“Design thinking… demands divergent, synthesis-based methods.” p.160

“Design thinking needs to be turned towards the formulation of a new participatory social contract.” p.178

“Design thinking… must find ways to encourage individuals to move towards more sustainable behavior.” p.195

Design thinking does…

“Design thinking… [translates] observations into insights and insights into products and services that will improve lives.” p.49

“Design thinking extends the perimeter around a problem.” p.205

Design thinking “[builds] on one another’s good ideas.” p.225

“Design thinking can not only contribute to the success of companies but also promote the general welfare of humanity.” p.227

Design thinking can…

“Design thinking can be practiced by everyone.” p.149

“Design thinking can help us chart a path into the future.” p.149

“Design thinking can provide guidance… on a large scale and even at the level of the most challenging problems we face in our society today.” p.201

Design thinkers are…

“Design thinkers… cross the ‘T.’” p.27

“Design thinkers [have] the ability to spot patterns in the mess of complex inputs, synthesize new ideas from fragmented parts, [and] empathize with people from different contexts.” p.86

“Design thinkers can ‘build’ prototypes in the cafeteria, a boardroom, or a hotel suite.” p.106

“Design thinkers… can use… empathy and understanding of people to design experiences that create opportunities for active engagement and participation.” p.115

[Design thinkers have] to be comfortable moving along both… axes [of space and time].” p.133

“Design thinkers have been drawn to the greatest challenges” p.203

“Design thinkers have become adept at approaching important social issues from the angle of individual motivations and the behaviors that follow” p.220

“Design thinkers have become activists and are applying their skills to sources of social dysfunction.” p.220

“Design thinkers observe how people behave [and] how the context of their experience affects their reaction to products and services.” p.229

Design thinkers use a “human centered approach” to “inform new offerings and increase likelihood of their acceptance by connecting them to existing behaviors.” p.229

“Design thinkers may be in short supply, but they exist inside every organization.” p.234

Design thinkers ask “‘Why?’ [as] an opportunity to reframe a problem, redefine the constraints, and open the field to a more innovative answer.” p.236

“Design thinkers observe the ordinary.” p.237

Design thinkers do…

“A design thinker will bring into harmonious balance” desirability, feasibility, and viability. p.18

“Design thinkers… have shifted their thinking from problem to project.” p.21

Design thinkers “[help] people to articulate the latent needs they may not even know they have.” p.40

“Design thinkers have upped the ante, beginning with the premise that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” p.56

“Design thinkers… continue to ‘think with their hands’ throughout the life of a project.” p.106

“Design thinkers… anticipate the needs of their customers and build on the ideas of their colleagues.” p.121

Design thinkers will do…

“Design thinkers must also consider the demand side of the equation.” p.199

Design thinkers should be “sitting on… corporate boards, participating in their strategic marketing decisions, and taking part in the early stages of R&D efforts.” p.229

“Design thinkers will connect the upstream with the downstream.” p.229

Losing (Our) Edge?

[These groups interested in architectural territory] are creating their own discourse from scratch, outside of academia. Architectural discourse has been supported by schools for so long that it is difficult to remember any other way. The fields of Service and Interaction Design seem to be supported by something more like the feudal corporate patronage structure that architects relied on in the Renaissance. That’s very interesting, no? Not the least because despite any purse or apron strings linking them to the corporate world, they still seem to want to talk about ideas, even some of the more out-there quasi-marxist corners of critical theory that academic architects like to frequent. That’s kind of fun, right?


Fred has a thought provoking post over at 765. The comments are also worth your time, I was certainly inspired to respond.

See also: this and this and this.

Three Cultures

Note: What follows is a ramble reflecting the eroding memory and personal views of its author more than an historically accurate recounting of the people and events mentioned.

Last weekend I spent two days in Torquay, Australia amongst designers, educators, and a general cohort of smart people on the invitation of Ken Friedman, Dean of the Design Faculty at Swinburne University of Technology. The theme for the weekend was “design thinking,” a term which I have a lot of misgivings about. Nevertheless, the tone and content of the conversation was refreshing. Upon returning from Torquay I twittered:

having spent the wknd at a “design thinking” cnfrnce I have to say that architects have their shit figured out compared to “designers”. hrmm

Rightfully, Matt Jones and Chad Carpenter called me out on this comment that is ill-suited to a tweet-length post. Perhaps I can put a little meat on those bones. We were asked to consider three man questions through a series of roundtable discussions (remembered as best I can):

What is the specificity of design in design thinking?

What are current and future successful applications of design thinking?

What are the skills that we need to educate design thinkers?

As soon as the conversation began there was already disagreement about the relevance of “design thinking” as a term and further confusion about whether the focus should be on designers or “design” more broadly.

The group fell into two loose camps: slightly more than half seemed intent on “design thinking” being something that is equally relevant to all people whether they’re design practitioners or not. The other camp was more concerned with the ways in which design education, and to a lesser extent practice, needs to change to take advantage of the opportunities now existing as, in the words of MP Ranjan, the scientific era reaches a stage of diminishing returns.

Nerds Unboxing 3/3

Listening to what was generally an older crowd talk about the need to change design education made me feel very fortunate for two reasons. From the sound of their conversation, they had a much more rigid design education than I did. I heard tales of ruthlessly focused Bauhaus masters who only cared about form and composition with little concern for anything beyond the craft-based skills of a guild master. Fair enough: that’s not the sort of education I would wish upon anyone in any discipline.

Personally, I was lucky enough to go to a pretty good design school that excels at being cross-disciplinary in both formal and informal ways. The RISD community is extremely integrated by social fact. Situated in the middle of Providence, RI with relatively cramped facilities, the school yields a remarkably interdisciplinary atmosphere. Soft factors are important too. As one of my first professors put it, “find yourself a girlfriend in the jewelry department and you will always have the best models.” While I never did date a goldsmith, I certainly did benefit from sharing courses with people from just about every department in the school - later making occasional use of their shop facilities or sharing beers.

Neither my undergrad or graduate education involved what I would call “a lot” of teamwork, but there were definitely times when it was encouraged or necessary. It came up at Torquay that teamwork, and especially the ability to effectively collaborate across disciplines, is a necessary addition to design curriculums. While I can agree that more teamwork would be useful, it seemed to me that the tone of the conversation was a little behind the on-the-ground reality. Or perhaps my view is disproportionately framed by recent visits to leading design schools such as the RSA. This is also an area where the nature of the design work plays a determining role: the scale of architectural projects tends to include enough work that teams are a necessity more than an option. From what I see coming out of departments like Design Interactions this is also the case in more advanced conversations around product design.

There was a lot of discussion around the place of the designer in larger teams. Does the designer need to continue importing skills from social sciences and other disciplines or should they be more prepared to “know when they don’t know and be ready to look for help?” The latter happens to be where my personal opinion lays, and it’s something that I again feel privileged to have had some exposure to already through my education as an architect.

In the worst Randian cliché the architect is an ego monger hell bent on manifesting their vision in the world. If we look around with fresh eyes, particularly at younger practitioners, this perspective is increasingly an endangered species. In small and necessary ways, architects cooperate with more trades than ever in the form of an increasingly wide array of consultancies ranging from structural engineering to audio/visual systems. But so too are interests spreading as architects seek collaborations with computer scientists, behavioral experts, philosophers, economists, and others. And in some cases vice versa.

For Matt and Chad, this is what spurred my wine-fueled twitter above. After listening to educators lament how their industrial design students only work at one scale it seems like architecture has a built-in advantage. But again, it depends on the specifics of your education. Even at the best schools it seems that there’s still room to improve the collaboration models. Persnickety things like individual evaluation requirements got in the way of many official, graded collaborations at the GSD. That’s seems like a poor reason to restrict collaborative projects, or at the very least an unnecessary complication.

In Torquay there were many calls for designers to deal with problems that are more complex as practice for the nature of today’s real world challenges. This, too, seems like an area where architectural education has a natural advantage. As a matter of basic fact, architectural problems operate at a scale large enough that they require the coordination and resolution of multiple systems. That the full complement of potential issues contained within a building is so vast provides an essential motivation for architects to develop their work systemically - as a logical system of relationships between components in various levels of definition.

I’m speculating here that what makes design tasks at the urban and architectural scale unique is that they begin to incorporate systems with widely divergent, even opposed, systems of order. To use a mundane example, if followed to their own logical conclusion the structural, the HVAC, cultural, and the formal systems of a building would all yield uncooperative exquisite beauties. Architecture is in the business of making careful monsters through the preferencing of one system over another at critical junctures such that these independent but necessary components may be integrated into a single material whole. (Dear interaction designers: we’re still a long way from changing the stylesheet on a building, let alone outputting it as a multiple different flavors of XML that you can live in.)

Because it’s virtually impossible to scrutinize every minute aspect of a building proposal, the architectural critique is an analytical act set up to illuminate the high level structures that orchestrate local decision making. Discussions about how a stair is disposed or why an elevation has taken on a certain characteristic are w
ays to test the rigor of the system that a student has established for themselves. Material evidence is always linked to the analytical frame that motivated it – that made it be just so – and thus the project is nothing without an analytical feedback loop.

It also seems important to note that at its best the overarching tone of (most) architectural conversations is one of plausibility rather than possibility. Perhaps I’m being a tad conservative here, but the fact that architectural projects have a lurking liability to the inescapable real world of structures, construction, and inhabitation is a useful starting point for holding the work to a high level of rigor. Admittedly, this is a requirement that many architectural educators choose to leave out of the equation.

But this gets at an important question about the nature of education. How can we effectively approach levels of “real world” rigor? In Torquay I heard a number of people express a desire to “educate students through real world projects” and while this is a noble goal it’s a difficult one to scale up. There aren’t that many “real world projects” out there for students to take on. So the question is how we hold ourselves to high levels of rigor despite still operating in a realm of exploration?

Asked another way, what makes an architectural proposal more meaningful/valuable/useful than a sketch from a Hollywood set designer? As someone who is highly invested in designing projects proceeding from a strong base of research, it to me seems like there’s a difference between speculation and proposition. If you’re going to propose, you have to be ready for someone to say yes. A rigorous process is about preparing for that eventual yes. By no means is this something that architectural education has all figured out, but from the conversation in Torquay it seems like a disproportionate number of industrial and graphic designers are still struggling to move beyond questions of style and form. I was surprised by this.

Everything I’ve written above is probably naive to the point of being chauvinistic (way to play to the Randian stereotype, eh?) but I’m genuinely interested in hearing from people who have a differing opinion. What other sorts of design problems have the essential complexity of design at an architectural or urban scale? It strikes me that the recent and developing interest in service design is not only a recognition of the importance of the intangible (which I’ll get to below) but also a desire to operate on a larger scale out of recognition that engagement with more than one system at a time is fundamentally more challenging and more natural. It seems like we could talk about the disciplines of design as having scales which they center on, but that no practice should ever be locked away in a single scale. Cue Saarinen. The same should be said for the socio-econ-cultural-environmental context. Designers (should) trade in things in the Latouring sense, rather than objects. Our projects fundamentally exist within a spectrum of scales and contexts. If there was one crystalized message from Torquay it’s that all design professions need to be more agile in working between these myriad scale & context dispositions.

Thinking, Doing, and Professional Practice

The reason I went to Torquay uneasy about “design thinking” is because it shortsightedly favors half of design. Design is not the most sophisticated way of thinking. Nor, for that matter, is design a more sophisticated way of making than, say, fine art. Only at the intersection of thinking and making does design become a meaningful act. What I’ve been puzzling through over the past few months is why the thinking part has been getting all the attention these days. Is it simply a buzzword that has a lot of traction? If so, why?

When I listen to the loudest voices in the “design thinking” space, they’re mostly commercial. Frankly, this scares me. Design firms have traditionally been involved in projects towards the end of the development cycle. Product designers come in after the product is defined; architects after the assumptions about spatial needs mostly made. When “transformation” and “innovation” consulting became popularized practice among design offices the hourly rates went up. To be overly simplistic and just a little brutal, design practice has been incentivized by the market to favor the “thinking” end of its service spectrum. When you run a for-profit company, particularly one with the typically low margins of a design firm, you have little choice but to gravitate towards the those services which yield more profit. High-level consulting is a win-win since it’s generally at a higher hourly rate and has lower overhead costs. In other words, “design thinking” makes more money than “design doing” and thus it’s no surprise that the conversation has been leaning heavily in that direction when the loudest voices are speaking from within corporations, however altruistic and collegiate they may be.

On the contrary, the quick wins of some big ticket consulting sessions sell our discipline short by pretending that design is some magical elixir that can be poured into a situation and zammo everything is fixed up. Like accounting, medicine, and just about every other profession, design is a practice which is persistently useful at regular intervals. If anything, during this transitional period where business and government are slowly coming to terms with the potential yield of having design as an integral part of the conversation it behooves us to collectively seek longer engagements, not shorter. That means transformative conversations in the board room as well as being embedded within client organizations to act as stewards during the implementation. If “design thinking” becomes the mainstream discourse of the broader community, design is in danger of becoming the new moniker for management consulting thanks to the domination of business schools in this conversation. Yes, design processes can be very useful for a variety of communities, but we need to do a better job of collectively valuing our own expertise.

Over dinner a few nights ago I asked the VP of a major multinational how he made the decision to hire the Idea Factory, a design firm based in Singapore, to help him sort out some of his business challenges. He was frank: to his eyes as a client, the Idea Factory looked like a management consultant. If the empty slot left in the wake of management consultancy is a first foothold for design firms to enter new, more profitable engagements that’s great news. However, we should collectively be careful that these board room opportunities do not becoming defining. In other words, I would hope that the trend is towards design firms being opportunistic rather than capitulating. Design practices should be flexible (and always truthful) in pitching their services so that they can capture these opportunities, but not abandon their core methods, competencies, and attitudes in the process. Personally I don’t know any designers who are satisfied with just thinking and talking - it’s a culture of doing, of making, of sticking around till the job is done.

I should be very clear that I’m an entrepreneur at heart and have absolutely no problem with people profiting from their work. And while I generally like lopsided things, I really don’t like lopsided conversations. This is why the weekend at Torquay seems important to me: the academy and other neutral actors nee
d to speak with a louder voice in the conversation about the future of design so that it maintains a useful balance of consultation and implementation.

As we saw at Torquay, there is a lot that propositional (as opposed to analytical) thinking can contribute to the endeavors of business and government. To paraphrase Stuart Candy, society needs to be better at imagining possible futures - and a dash of design is instrumental in developing this capacity. This is largely the promise of “design thinking.” Designers also tend to be pretty skilled at holding complex and contradictory inputs in play while searching for ways to make sense of the jumble without resorting to oversimplification. Developing a synthetic understanding of the problem is one of design’s value propositions, but the other half of the contribution is a persistent care for realization.

Design has an in-built concern for making. This manifests itself as a cycle of reality checks that reign in “thinking” within achievable brackets as well as sustained attention throughout the process of implementation (or fabrication or construction) which always requires tweaks and adjustments of course as the contingencies of the material world come to bear upon the exuberance of ideation.

Through the practice of producing Things, designers acquire an expertise in the framing of problems, an agility required for executing on ideas, and a particular understanding of material and spatial consequences within manifold contexts. This is the fundamental differentiator of design as a discipline and it’s the foundation of the expert that we call a designer.


Ken Friedman closed the conference with a proposition that CP Snow’s Two Cultures of knowing, science and the humanities, needs to be rewritten to be expanded to include design as a third. In my own monkey brain this works out to something along the lines of science = search for fact, humanities = search for truth, and design = search for opportunity. While my noggin is still churning on that one, it does seem like a valuable framework insofar as it establishes the so-called “design thinking” not as a proprietary skill of the designer but a general cognitive mode which all humans exhibit to some degree or another. As my colleague Marco Steinberg eloquently put it the other day, anyone can be musical but that doesn’t make them a musician.

On Ignorance

Sloterdijk on horse lovers and inter-ignorant systems:

The concept of “society,” [suggests] a coherence that could only be achieved by violent-asserting conformism. The conglomerate of humans that has, since the 18th century, called itself “society” is precisely not based on the atomic dots that we tend to call individuals. Instead, it is a patchwork of milieus that are structured as subcultures. Just think of the world of horse lovers–a huge subculture in which you could lose yourself for the duration of your life but which is as good as invisible if you are not a member of it. There are hundreds if not thousands of milieus in the current social terrain that all have the tendency from their own viewpoint to form the center of the world and yet are as good as nonexistent for the others. I term them “inter-ignorant systems.” And, among other things, they exist by virtue of a blindness rule. They may not know of one another, since otherwise their members would be robbed of the enjoyment of being specialized members of a select few. In terms of their profession, there are only two or three types of humans who can afford poly-valence in dealing with milieus. The first are the architects, who (at least virtually) build containers for all; the second are the novelists, who insert persons from all walks of life into their novels; finally come the priests, who speak at the burials of all possible classes of the dead. But that is probably the entire list. Oops, I forgot the new sociologists à la Latour.

Scharmen on the architect as anti-ignorant:

You can call yourself an ‘X Architect’ (where ‘X’ is information, product, solutions, flavor, etc.) if you can answer yes to the following questions:

Are you self critical?
Do you have a coherent set of ideas that parallels production and allows you to talk about why you make the choices you make?
Are you able to position those ideas relative to the ideas of other peers and define a space for conversation or debate?
Is the task large enough that it requires a division of labor, a
split between concept and execution, and the continuous maintenance of
evolving consensus between multiple stakeholders?

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.


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.


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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