Last month, Design for Europe was invited to participate in Helsinki Design Week and to host a key event around the theme ‘Design Driven Society’. Helsinki has a long-standing history with design that has deepened over time, going beyond just well-designed objects and into the realms of social and public design.

We took the opportunity to ask Laura Aalto, Communications Director at Design Driven City, about their programme of work over the last few years and in particular what they could share with other cities across Europe about the value of design in the public sector.

Finland’s design story

In Finland, design has always belonged to everyone. The roots of socially aware design lie deep in post-war Finland. At the time of rebuilding the nation after World War II, designers and architects were at the forefront of developing Finland into a modern society. Architect Alvar Aalto designed municipal buildings for Helsinki while fellow designer Kaj Franck created affordable tableware for modest houses and their small cupboards.

Finlandia Hall designed by Alvar Aalto

The City of Helsinki’s current commitment to design is a continuation of this tradition. We believe that design helps us to develop a human-centric city. Design is a good tool for making smart decisions for the future. Understanding the needs and expectations of people helps renew the city and to produce better solutions.

Two years ago we started a project called Design Driven City. It continues the process started in Helsinki’s year as World Design Capital 2012 to build a better city with design. We hired three designers to educate city departments and agencies about the possibilities of design and how to use it. The ambition was to work hand in hand with city staff in selected projects.

The best result of our work is that design has now become a permanent tool for the city to seek human-centered solutions. Below is a list of things we’ve learnt during this journey of embedding design thinking into public sector processes.

1. Bring planning and doing back together

Design is a simultaneous process of thinking and doing. The two can’t be separated. In cities, however, the two have been taken apart: civil servants and officials plan things, and then they get someone else to actually make them happen. The problem is that a lot of things are impossible to know – and plan – before you actually start doing them. If we want to create better societies, we need to integrate planning with doing again. Even if this sounds simple, it is a quite radical thought for a public sector organisation.

2. Design as future making

Design has the potential to forecast, envision and make futures. There’s a huge need for the perspectives that design can bring to cities, especially in:

  • Public schemes that demand structural changes
  • Fast-paced service development that demands carefully targeted solutions that are guaranteed to work
  • Designing spaces and their functions simultaneously

The biggest gain from involving design in these things is that we can predict the future more accurately, so the solutions we come up with will be more likely to actually work.

Render for the proposed Guggenheim Helsinki designed by Moreau Kusunoki Architects.

3. The power of empathy

Design thinking has a lot to offer when it comes to urban development. Key lessons we’ve learnt include customer understanding, public engagement and co-design methods, as well as experimenting more and visualising things better. But above all, design thinking gives cities tools to empathise and co-create. Empathy is a skill to see life from other people’s point of view. Sometimes civil servants seem to be far away from people’s everyday lives.

The Youth Department of Helsinki Community meet with young people as part of their programme to tackle youth homelessness.

Last year, the 353 employees of the Youth Department of Helsinki took to the streets of Helsinki, to shopping malls and recreational groups, to speak with young people. They decided to see how their work would change if they started with people’s lives. They didn't ask about services. They listened to them talk about their daily lives and asked further questions. As Tommi Laitio, Director of Youth Affairs at the city Helsinki says, “Design methods have allowed us to create a value base for renewing youth work.”

4. Experimenting with a goal

Instead of planning things to death, we could start changing our urban structure with experiments. Experimenting and trying things out have a huge impact on people’s attitudes as well as actual results. However, experiments should always have clear goals. They shouldn’t be yet another separate project, but a mindset for everyday work. This also means you should communicate the experiments you do. Release early and often. Design has to cherish experimentation and have inbuilt tolerance for incompleteness.

Sharing something unfinished brings you valuable information and new ideas. You may even find a useful trigger to shift the direction completely. The best communication happens in two ways : staying in constant dialogue with people and listening to users.

5. More is more in communication

If you want to increase your use of design, you need to speak about it in a way that everyone understands. Do not underestimate the power of stories and personal testimony. It makes design more accessible and brings it alive. For this we created the website Design Stories from Helsinki. It tells eight stories of a city in transition. The text and supporting videos show the type of things that have been developed with design in Helsinki. They range from library services to construction sites, and from youth homelessness to public transport services. The stories offer insight and advice from these projects that have all produced something new. In this publication, we speak about design in plain language, without complex concepts and jargon.

Watch the design story of Helsinki's New Central Library

Watch the design story of Helsinki's New Central Library

Design is for everyone, not just for designers. Everybody dealing with city development should learn about design. I often say we don’t need only one Chief Design Officer for cities – we need thousands of civil servants with a clear vision of how to use design. Design skills need to reach all levels of the city administration.

6. Public procurement

The big change happens when those in the public procurement process realise that design has a lot to offer them as well. Some weeks ago I got a phone call from a lawyer at Helsinki City Transport. Next spring Helsinki will launch a city bike scheme, as the city strives to increase the number of urban cyclists. After an unsuccessful experiment with city bikes some 15 years ago, people have been eagerly waiting for the new city bikes to arrive. The lawyer asked me whether we could help them to include user experience as part of the criteria for selecting the city bikes. We’ve since brought in a design agency to help them recruit a range of user groups to test and evaluate the options. The evaluations are translated into scores, which will influence the procurement decision.

I’m extremely happy to see that the design perspective and user experience are already being included in city procurement activities. To sum up, design enables cities to make changes that both save money and hit their target. Talk less and do more. We believe it is important to take action and try out design methods in new environments.