City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

In Studio: Recipes for Systemic Change (book)

In short: Our team, the Strategic Design Unit at Sitra, has just published a new book, In Studio: Recipes for Strategic Design, written by my three colleagues. More here, context below. But now …

“There arrived an invitation to the North Pole – at least, that was how he described it to himself and everyone else. In fact, the destination was well below the eightieth parallel, and he would be staying on a ‘well-appointed, toastily-heated vessel of richly-carpeted oak-panelled corridors with tasselled wall lamps’, so a brochure promised, on a ship that would be placidly frozen into a semi-remote fjord, a long snowmobile ride north of Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen. The three hardships would be the size of his cabin, limited email opportunities, and a wine list confined to a North African vin de pays. The party would comprise twenty artists and scientists concerned with climate change, and conveniently, just ten miles away, was a dramatically retreating glacier whose sheer blue cliffs regularly calved mansion-sized blocks of ice onto the shore of the fjord. An Italian chef of ‘international renown’ would be in attendance, and predatory polar bears would be shot if necessary by a guide with a high-calibre rifle.”—Solar, Ian McEwan (2010)

Last year, I too was invited to a place near(ish) the North Pole, to a gathering comprising of illustrious people plucked from all over the world, in which we were given a week to devise a pathway towards carbon neutrality for the host country. Yet the event I participated in could not have been more different to that being offered to Ian McEwan’s odious anti-hero Michael Beard.

Instead, the setting was Helsinki, and the week-long event hovered around the idea of strategic design and its ability to unlock the particularly interlocking problems around climate change and carbon, with Finland as the pivot. The patron in my case was Sitra, the Finnish Innovation fund, and in particular its Strategic Design Unit, which I would later join. The food was good, since you ask, but we saw neither Italian chefs nor polar bears.

And the week, under the Helsinki Design Lab programme, was fascinating, instructive and, it would later become clear, a transformative experience personally. More importantly, it was genuinely productive. Sitra’s unique position—self-funded and independent, though under the auspices of parliament, and so both arm’s length from government and embedded at the same time—means that initiatives it creates can actually begin to get traction right away. This is in stark contrast to most workshop-led consultancy, which often pitches ideas in from outside, despite the presence of 'inside' in the workshop. These subsequently bounce off the host organisation’s shields of indifference or institutional inertia as, beyond a certain scale, an organisation’s first instinct is often to protect itself against transformative ideas. (fig.1 below)

In particular, much strategic work for government clients in particular suffers from a major flaw—the lack of a ‘hinge’ connecting the work to a clear pathway to projects, or further work. If the workshop is free, as it often is in new, challenging, transformational areas where there is no clear understanding of value from previous efforts, it's particularly difficult, Here, the client is barely a client at all in one of the moremeaningful senses i.e. they haven’t paid for it, they don’t have ‘skin in the game’.

Equally, studios can usefully bring together multiple stakeholders. Yet with complex interdependent problems requiring holistic thinking and action—e.g. climate change, health, urbanisation, education—this can lead to no one body taking responsibility, and so potential solutions fall through the cracks between organisations or within one organisation's architecture (fig.2 below) i.e. education is no longer the sole responsibility of the Department of Educaiton; it's more complex, hybrid, layered, networked than that (add your descriptor of choice).

Fig.1 and Fig.2

Finally, workshops or studios lend themselves to a particular kind of focus, based on conversation and collaboration—yet they rarely provide the depth of analysis to tightly define an issue such that it can be developed into action. This often requires subsequent work, by which time the potential client has left the building and achieved escape velocity, easily side-stepping momentum generated in the workshop. The workshop model, which is often the foot-in-the-door for consultancies in this field, is intrinsically flawed.

The Helsinki Design Lab studio model is designed to side-step or otherwise deal with many of these problems. This is partly due to the nature and position of Sitra itself, particularly if strategic connections can be generated across relevant government bodies. Sitra has, to some extent, the capacity to can reach into and manipulate the 'dark matter' of organisation, governance, culture, industry (fig.3). [PS. "Dark matter" is a phrase I've been using in recent presentations and conversations (drawn from Wouter Vanstiphout in a great interview with Rory Hyde) and one I'll return to. It's not as bad as it sounds, just like real dark matter. Though it can be.]


This embedded nature of strategic design is one simple way of differentiating it from the consultant’s model of design thinking, and a key facet. (I should really write up my thoughts on the value of organisations having internal design departments, rather than outsourcing design to consultancies and agencies in the first place, with reference to great internal teams like the mid-century London County Council architecture department, for instance, never mind most industrial design efforts, or some of the great teams I was lucky enough to work with and lead at the BBC.)

With Helsinki Design Lab, the week’s work concluded with a presentation to representatives from the Finnish parliament, Aalto University, Sitra and the European Parliament, who variously stated interest in several of the initiatives right away, with one of the proposals in particular acted upon very quickly. 

Even with a week, which is longer than most workshops could take, it is of course difficult to create coherent strategies with the depth most public sector clients feel they need. However, according to Joi Ito, in a fine presentation at Nokia yesterday, contemporary venture capital thinking is beginning to realise that it's now costing more to assess the risk involved in an investment than the cost of the risk itself. So you might as well just do it, particularly if you can look to reduce the cost of failure while deriving valuable learning from it.

Government projects are different to start-ups—'ROI' is far more complex and risk more meaningful—but part of the rationale with the studio is to change the tenor of the conversation around risk, and so action. This might include suggesting a more iterative model, akin to a portfolio of investments in rapid strategic prorotypes, each based on clear strategic orientation as opposed to a fixed strategy. The studio model tends to generate several compelling strategic orientations, recognising that orientation has to change in response to learning from execution, but that a clear strategic orientation at any one time is necessary either way. This is different from having 'a strategy', which can sometime be an inhibitor i.e. if you want to get to the North Pole, you don't need to know true north to get going; you just need to head in a northerly direction and take it from there.

Strategic orientation

The Helsinki Design Lab approach, which we're developing rapidly now, is an attempt to flesh out many strands of strategic design that we're pursuing. This first aspect, the studio, is about sketching vision. The idea of studio itself is at least three-fold, simultaneously conjuring up the idea of a space, a team or organisation, and an act of being 'in studio'.

I won't go into the details of the studio week I was part of, as a design-led culture tends to generate such extraordinary attention to detail it could, well, fill a book. Plus, there's a dossier for the outcomes. But some quick hits: at last year's Sustainabilty studio, our team was superb, and ably led by Alejandro Aravena of Elemental in Chile. The invited speakers were almost all extremely interesting and useful—a very high hit-rate. The field trips likewise. While the visit to an extraordinary kindergarten-in-the-woods was perhaps the most influential, almost in a visceral sense, the trip to the City Planning office was perhaps the most revealing.


Aalto house

Aalto house


Studio team in the studio

Detail of studio whiteboard

Interestingly, the dinners really were a core feature of the structure, in terms of processing the day’s inputs as well as building relationships and informal reflection (and the experience of Muru cooking for a dinner/discussion at Alvar Aalto's house will probably stay with me forever.)

I could say much, much more about the composition of the week's events, and its follow-up at HDL Global later that year, but fortunately, I don't have to, as my now-colleagues Bryan Boyer, Justin W. Cook and Marco Steinberg wrote it all up in a new book, In Studio: Recipes for Systemic Change, which we've just self-published. You can find out more about it here.

Bryan has a good summary of the book:

"In Studio: Recipes for Systemic Change is a book about crafting vision. It's about how to take something big, messy, and complex and very rapidly begin developing a way to respond to the problem. It gives an introduction to the what and why of strategic design, documents the studios that we hosted last year, and then offers a practical "how-to" manual for hosting your own studio."

I didn't have anything to do with the writing—I wrote a very tiny bit, but 99% of it was already done by the time I joined, thankfully. But I've read every word, pored over every diagram, and discussed most of its content for over a year now, and I can attest to its quality with a little objectivity at least.


I think, I hope, that it suggests one possible meaningful way forward for design itself, as well as suggesting new cultures for the public sector, for thinking about complex, interdependent problems, and for rapidly creating practical yet compelling visions built on a clear understanding of 'the architecture of the problem', as we call it. 


Huge credit must go to the estimable Bryan Boyer, who led the effort, contributing much of the writing and handling all the production. It was a pleasure to see that quality of thinking and execution at close quarters. Graphic design is by the excellent firm Two Points in Barcelona, who have helped create a genuinely valuable object to sit alongside the download. We're using the physical book as a token to generate interactions—you have to come and meet us to get one, either through talking to us when one of us is in your city, or coming to one of our events, or visiting us here in Helsinki. (This is another strategic design tactic we're writing up now, and which I spoke about a little at my recent talk at CIID for Copenhagen Design Week i.e. the alibi, or Trojan Horse, where the book is a mere detail, in a way, working as a physical hook that can generate something else. Low2No is another example)

The book includes the studio briefings, which were coordinated and written by Bryan, Justin and others, and there were numerous other contributions from inside and outside Sitra, in terms of getting it over the line. Geoff Mulgan of NESTA wrote the foreword, and Sitra's president Mikko Kosonen wrote the afterword.


I should add, the details in terms of designing the spaces of interaction, presentation, reflection, idea generation were absolutely crucial, and are unpacked in detail here. Likewise the rhythm of the week, the variation in events, modes and levels of intensity. Even the catering. Very very few workshops or consultants think carefully about these details, and yet we would argue that they are profoundly affective.


More fundamentally though, we intend that this is the first in a series of projects which describe how design can be used beyond these details of production of space, realisation of product or service. Often, of course, design is used in this traditional if limited role of process improvement and problem solving—the realisation of 'the thing'—without addressing the core issue, the core strategy, the vision and organisations behind 'the thing' in the first place. We think design has a role to play before we even know what the questions are, never mind the solutions. That's what this book begins to address. Subsequent projects—some products/services/things, some events, some discussion—will develop this idea.

Bryan's written a little about the production, and about the work he and I did on creating the 'superstructure' around the book, in terms of promotion, distribution, events, interactions and so on. Books are not easy, and ironically this is made harder by self-publishing, self-distributing, and not charging for it. We try to make as much of our work as legible as possible—as usefully seamful as possible, to remember an old phrase. This is part of the work itself, rather than a separate activity.


It was also good to make a (very) short film again, and we're looking forward to doing more of that to document the next projects, starting very soon.

So the book contains all of the above and more, unpacking in detail the design of the studio approach, detailing how we think about the relationship between idea generation and spatial qualities, the composition of teams, the importance of synthesis over analysis, how to balance preparatory briefings with what I call the 'Le Mans start', what those preparatory briefings look like, why you should be able to find five days to ‘solve’ climate change or healthcare, and why dinner is so important.

It's a form of manual as much as anything, and we produce these things in part to understand what we're doing, but we hope you find it useful too. And please do tell us what you think—details of how to do that are on the book's page at the HDL site, and if you're lucky enough to obtain a physical copy, you'll find a Wonka-esque golden bookmark inside also asking for feedback. The PDF version's cover page has a similar function. We thought that producing these 'hooks for comments' would serve as a kind of lo-fi instrumentation for the book, prompting more feedback than one would usually get. Please prove us right!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: