Social Innovator Dialogue – Dan Hill, Helsinki Design Lab

[Originally published on the Australian Government Public Sector Innovation Network under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

On Tuesday 15 November 2011 I was lucky enough to attend the Social Innovator Dialogue discussion in Sydney with Dan Hill, Strategic Design Lead at Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund, in Helsinki.

Dan spoke about strategic design where the public sector and civic life itself is the design challenge and

    • where problems are interdependent and interlinked
    • it may not be clear what, exactly, the problem is
    • where there may not be a client (or where there may be too many clients)
    • the problem requires more than existing policy and process improvement measures to solve it.

He spoke of how it is important to see the system as it is enacted – including the tensions and stress fractures that occur where previous design decisions no longer fit with the problems at hand.

His talk covered the techniques used by the Helsinki Design Lab, including ‘the Studio’, sketching out the architecture of the problem, involving a multi-disciplinary team of experts based around the theme/problem being looked at, conducting site visits to provide quantitative and qualitative information, and rapid prototyping.

I won’t go into detail about the processes, because handily the Helsinki Design Lab (HDL) has produced the book, Recipes for Systemic ChangeThis book explores the HDL Studio Model, a unique way of bringing together the right people, a carefully framed problem, a supportive place, and an open-ended process to craft an integrated vision and sketch the pathway towards strategic improvement. It is geared towards problems that have no single owner.

The book includes an introduction to Strategic Design, a “how-to” manual for organizing Studios, and three practical examples of what a HDL Studio looks like in action. The book has been released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-ShareAlike 2.0 licence, and as the cover makes clear, they are interested in others working in similar ways and hearing what they have learnt. (Hopefully in the Australian Public Service we can codify our methodology for such approaches in a similar fashion over time.)

Some other points that Dan’s talk covered:

    • the notion of ‘dark matter’ – just like in the universe, in the civic sphere there is dark matter – the systems and processes that make things happen but that we cannot see and only know about because of the effect on how things are done
    • the importance of prototypes as a means of building something to motivate people to change – a sales pitch won’t be enough, you have to make the thing that will drive the change
    • if you want to deliver a transformative product or service then you need to redesign the organisation that is going to deliver it
    • everything is a result of a series of decisions – you can change those decisions and change the result.

There was also some interesting discussion about strategic design in Australia and how such approaches can be incorporated into the Australian public sector – something that is being looked at within the context of the APS Innovation Action Plan.

It was a great event and generated some interesting discussion and I highly recommend having a look at Recipes for Systemic Change.

(My apologies to Dan if I have mis-characterised anything he said).