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Strategic Design Stewardship

November 19th, 2012

Nate Archer

OCADU’s Strategic Innovation Lab (sLab)
hosted Bryan Boyer last week to discuss the Helsinki Design Lab, an innovative organization that promotes strategic design in the social sphere, through self-directed initiatives and in partnership with organizations. Hearing about their projects was top of my priority list going in to the talk, but I came out with key insights on the lab’s organization and processes, as well as the way they describe the work they do; all of which apply to anyone working in design.

As a bit of background, the Helsinki Design Lab is a small group of people who work within an organization called Sitra, which is a public fund dedicated to innovation in Finland that reports directly to the Finnish Parliament. The HDL works on Sitra projects and with others within the realm of strategic design and innovation.

On Problem Framing

For the first section of the talk, Bryan described the strategic design approach the lab uses in their work. Boyer described strategic design as a way to “frame the right problem”, which I think succinctly captures the essence of this approach and puts it in a way that is immediately understandable to all people, including those not in the design industry.

The emphasis they place on strategic design enables them to move away from prescriptive deliverables and outcomes, opening up more innovative and newer solutions that better suit the evolving nature of social issues. But he is also quick to point out that this type of work isn’t just about research and analysis. to paraphrase Boyer, we don’t need more analysis in this world, we need synthesis, and this is exactly where designers can offer significant value.

Making it Real

By getting involved early, designers can help guide and shape activity to insure that the problem is framed correctly. The lab works at this stage of projects to synthesize the information and transform it into tangible outcomes that capture the problem and often demonstrate it first hand.

Whether its a well thought out report, demonstration or the creation of an experimental platform, they are big on framing the problem, putting it out there and getting feedback to iterate quickly.

As they like to think about it, the problems they are tackling have new dimensions that aren’t captured in standard documentation, plus building quick and dirty tests for things allow them to see if they will really work or not. Often these demonstrations and experiments serve to prove things that might be hotly contested or even against the nature of the organizations they work with.

As a very lean team, the design lab can’t carry out their projects forever and thus its up to organizations, formal or informal, to carry out the work and make these experiments a reality.

Design Stewardship

Boyer describes their role during this implementation phase as design stewardship, not designing solutions outright, but facilitating organizations to implement solutions using their own resources and ingenuity. Applying the role of stewards to designers doing this type of work really resonated with me and it is something that I think I will write more about in the near future, so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, I will just say that thinking about a designer’s role through the lense of facilitation is something that seems to really resonate with the way user experience and many design disciplines are shifting.

Innovation In The Social Sphere

Working in the area of social change is a tricky one indeed, often deals with organizations filled with bureaucracy and unable to absorb change. HDL approaches this issue by trying to create trojan horses of change, as they like to say. Through their work they aim to turn activism into activity by thinking about the action itself and the after effects. Their experiments enable them to test ideas and show organizations the effects without wading through the hierarchies of approval; often proving the validity of an idea is most effective way to win support.

Boyer used the analogy that most activism is like a person swimming in water, its very hard for them to swim because there is no trail and they don’t leave one behind them either. What the HDL aims to do is ensure that the swimmer leaves a trail, making it easier for others to follow in their footsteps, making it easier to swim for each successive person.

This talk was a great showcase of an innovative approach to design that holds lessons for designers and organization across many disciplines. I’m eager to see what the HDL does next and also integrating some of these ideas into my own work.

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