Aline Alonso
Author - Aline Alonso

Meet Anne Stenros, the Chief Design Officer (CDO) of Helsinki, and learn about her vision of the design impact in the city of Helsinki. Anne sees the city as an organisation and her objective is to to utilise design knowledge and enforce an experimentation culture among the city leaders.

Last year the SDN launched the first Service Design Impact Report dedicated to the topic of the public sector. Due to its success and enthusiastic reception, the next two editions are already in the making. 

Aline Alonso, the manager of the SDN Impact Report series, and Zeynep von Flittner, an Impact Report collaborator, had the opportunity to interview Anne Stenros, the Chief Design Officer (CDO) of Helsinki, about her vision of the design impact in the city of Helsinki. Anne sees the city as an organisation and her objective is to to utilise design knowledge and enforce an experimentation culture among the city leaders.

Aline Alonso and Zeynep von Flittner: The city of Helsinki is undergoing a lot of changes. What is the role and the value of design in these transformations?

Anne Stenros: The city of Helsinki wants to renew the working culture and the leadership in the city. As a CDO, I have introduced something like a ‘Service Experience Camp’ to the top leaders of the city. They have really enjoyed the idea of small, agile, fast-speed workshops with templates that they can fill in by themselves or as a group. These have been very valuable tools to spark strategic discussions.

I believe one very important tool of design is to make futures visible. From my experience, if we only use numbers or text, the discussions tend to be very abstract and 'un-emotional'. However, if we use any type of visualisation, for instance scenarios and personas, it enables the people present in those meetings to use their empathic skills too. In order to understand better how the future is going to be. This way we will not be talking only about hard numbers but values too; ‘what kind of future we would like to see?’

How did these ‘Service Experience Camps’ work?

To open up the discussion about the future transformational trends, we created a foldable map with four scenarios for Helsinki by 2030, seeing the city as a civic platform. It was based on the idea that in the future, more and more is going to happen either in collaboration with citizens or as a bottom-up activity. The aim was to discuss the presence of this collaborative environment in the city. For example, in the scenario of the ‘Resilient Welfare City’, the collaborative environment almost doesn’t exist. On the other hand, in the ‘Civic Sharing City’ scenario, things happen in co-production in a very much actively-collaborative involvement. These parallel views can be combined, as all of them will happen eventually in the future. And serve as a base for discussion for the city officials and city leaders.

We were looking for the different functions of the city, such as placemaking, lifelong learning and cultural life. With the aim to create the best citizen experience. We were looking for the generation of value, functional, emotional and also life changing values that would deliver real social impact.

Design can support citizen democracy, and that is the biggest driver when it comes to the city’s organisation in the future. Cities have been closed organisations, but they must open up themselves and become platform organisations in the future, where each independent unit will become more agile and collaborative. It will take some time, depending on the cultural and social context of each city, but I believe this transformation is inevitable. 

The activities and methods you described are very similar to service design. Do you use the term service design to refer to them?

I would rather refer to it as strategic design because it didn’t follow the service design process ‘by the book’. It was more focusing on using design to get the people out of their comfort zone, than in a final service outcome. And this was possible to see in the faces of the civil servants during the workshops. In the first hour they were a little bit confused. Their expectation of a workshop was that they would sit and listen to somebody, and now we put them in the centre of the action. But soon they got into the flow and got really engaged; much more than with top-down approaches. 

How does the use of these design methods impact the work of the civil servants and city leaders of Helsinki?

I heard from different departments that they are using this type of approach in their own strategic discussions. That shows that the use of the methodology is very valuable for them.

We had ten workshops with more than 250 people in total. The outcome was a booklet called ‘City Compass of the Future’, in which we collected a summary of the discussions. Dynamic, attractive, open and equal are some of the trends for the future of the city. In the end, we built a map pointing to what should be done at the leadership level - the steps to get to the kind of future that we want to see.

The last activity of the ‘Camp’ with the city leaders was to build a house of cards with the promises of each one of us answering the question: “What I am going to do in the coming four weeks to support the changes in the leadership level?”

We use different types of design methods and tools to inspire people to approach everyday problems in a totally different way than they have been doing. And they enjoy it because it opens up new avenues. Rather than discussing about numbers – for example, “If we have these many people, how many houses we need to build?" – the discussion changes to, “If we need more housing, how can we ease the regulations to make it happen easier and faster?” 

Can you see the difference in their way to work? Is it already possible to spot the impact of the introduction of design?

I believe design has introduced new types of approaches and a new type of thinking for the city leaders. But also a new way to understand where we are heading to. As we all know, linear thinking is not applicable anymore for the complex issues we are dealing with.

I can see that the city leaders are more interested in the future and they are more willing to test new ways to approach a challenge. They enjoy very much this kind of multidisciplinary discussion and different viewpoints. Even the politicians, they love it! Since they are just among people that share the same set of values as they have, the exchange of viewpoints has a strength on its own.

How do you measure the impact that you are creating?

We are just taking the first steps, so we haven't had the time to measure it yet. But after my two years as a Chief Design Officer, we will need to do this employee experience assessment in order to see how much it has been changed. However, we have to understand that there are so many other changes going on at the same time within the city of Helsinki that is hard know what is the impact of design alone.

But I may say that as a public sector organisation, we don't have really a good criteria for measuring the impact. If we think about design in business, there are already some measurements, especially when we talk about the hard stuff, like technology. But if we want to understand the impact we should not only have the hard measures. The Mayor is more interested in what kind of cultural changes we can create within the city organisation to be more agile, resilient and effective. He is talking about digitisation of course, but on the other side he is emphasising the importance of soft value.

So then, how do you believe this impact can be measured in the long term?

We can measure citizen satisfaction, like most companies have a system to measure customer satisfaction. But maybe we don't have to ask questions, because we can screen the understanding of the collective mind from data. If we start to use artificial intelligence following the discussion of citizens, we can come up with a quite good understanding of how happy people are. Data and technology can allow us to get a more coherent picture of society, with real-time understanding.

In the discussion about impact, of course we can always improve. But if we build the most efficient machine, we can end up forgetting the human side. We need a person, a human heart, interfering in critical moments and saying: “No, we are not following the process now because of this human reason.” This is more relevant for me than this endless search for a more efficient system.

This year the focus of the Service Design Impact Report is the health sector, and the publication aims to investigate the impact of service design in healthcare in different countries. The Finnish health system will undergo a big reform in the coming years. Does design have a positive impact on how current healthcare reform is being defined and managed?

The current healthcare reform is quite a top-down process and therefore gets a lot of criticism. I haven’t been personally involved in any of the discussions and don’t have much information. But I assume that a more collaborative and involving decision making process (which design could bring) would have benefited the adaptation and implementation of the decisions.

The design process can help to create a buy-in, and a mindset change before starting to implement a decision. It can lead discussions and the creation of a shared set of values. During our processes, we mixed different city divisions with very different political views, and it was very interesting to see how people came up with shared ideas about how we should live in the future.

From my perspective, there should be more pressure for cities to promote healthier lifestyle. We should think holistically and create visions on how the city environment can support a healthy lifestyle, for example with more bike lanes, offering sports, culture, etc.

We have in Helsinki a very nice case, where design has been used in a very impactful way: the city’s new central library. Before the architectural project began, there have been many design projects done in order to understand the needs of the citizens and exploring new roles that the library could play in city life. This design work and the vision it created influenced the new mindset and culture change among different stakeholders before the actual project started. Making it much easier to start to implement new ways of working.

The current library concept is not only about books, there are different hubs, it offers different type of activities; it is a learning space for citizens. The city strategy should influence the physical city and building decisions. And they need to be shaped by larger discussions on shared values, and how citizen experience should be.

To wrap up, how do you see the global evolution of service design for the public sector in the next ten years?

I see the next level as political. I think we are coming back to the era of value discussion in design, how to change by design. I haven't had this discussion since the 1980s, when I finished my studies. It is interesting to see that in all these years in between, design has been considered as a non-political activity. Recently a young designer told me that service design is always a political act. Yes! Because it has an impact on people. We can't say that we are non-political designers and still do service design. You have a set of values beyond your decisions. I see young people starting movements by political design. Instead of waiting for the cities to implement something, they are doing it themselves. I don't want to emphasise that it should be political, but the world is nowadays more political than it used to be.

This interview is part of Touchpoint Vol. 9 No. 2 - Measuring Impact and Value. Touchpoint Journal is available to purchase in print and PDF format. Become an SDN member, or upgrade your community membership, to be able to read all articles online and download the full-issue PDF at no charge.

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