Background-Interview with keynote speaker Dan Hill

Our great Social Cities-intern Margot van der Kroon conducted this highly recommended interview with keynote speaker Dan Hill.

1. What are your main tasks as Strategic Design Lead at Sitra, and what kind of issues are challenging you in particular?

I’m one of a four person team of designers (I’m an interaction designer by trade, but have spent a lot of time in architecture and urbanism, as well as service design, strategy etc.; the others in the team are architects.) We work at Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund, which has been around since 1967. Our job is to deliver systemic change across Finland and beyond, in order to enable Finland to be a global leader in sustainable well-being.

Our challenges then are those so-called ‘wicked problems’ of climate change, ageing populations, education and so on, particularly as they are played out in Finland – but we know these problems cut across national boundaries and cultures. So our primary focus is in understanding the various cultures of decision.making in play at the moment, and prototyping new approaches to shared decision-making, more appropriate to these highly interconnected challenges.

2. Your bio states, that you and your colleagues ‘are exploring the use and practice of design in enabling systematic change’. What do you mean exactly by ‘systematic change’?

No more ‘one-offs’! While it is possible to draw attention to a particular issue through an intervention, installation or event, they tend not to deliver lasting, systemic change. So we are interested in the systems by which we live our lives – culture, governance, legislation, trade, national identity and so on – and see that as the design challenge. For example, we are delivering a large timber mixed-use development in Helsinki, the first of its kind in Finland, but the building regulations forbid timber buildings (as they were largely written in the 19th century.) We could’ve done that as a one-off, by getting an exception to the regulation, but using Sitra’s positioning we were able to change the building regulations to enable timber buildings in general, such that others can make timber buildings too (there are already a couple more in development now.) That is a systemic change, shifting the entire landscape of the construction sector through pulling levers within the system – in this case, in legislation.

3. In our conference we are trying to bridge a gap between multiple stakeholders in urban design. As an expert operating in a multidisciplinary field, could you name some things you should always keep in mind in such activities: the do’s and the don’ts?

The basic principle is that all urban problems today are multidisciplinary – arguably they always have been – so no one discipline can solve anything meaningful by themselves, nor can one discipline ‘lead’. So the basics of collaboration – respect, openness, listening, sketching in an ‘open’ fashion, pushing back on ideas but not blocking them, constantly learning – are absolutely paramount. These ought to be self-evident but often aren’t.

Beyond that, the key thing is to ignore that ‘expert’ tag – the notion of expertise is vastly overrated, I feel, and particularly right now, where the useful and meaningful solutions will only be found at the intersections of disciplines, boundaries, domains etc. ‘Process improvement’, by funnelling deep within a discipline, is not delivering anymore. So the right stance is one of openness; inquisitiveness and constantly learning. Designers aren’t bad at this, as they tend to know nothing! Or rather, they are often dropped into domains they are not experts in, but have to learn, assimilate and synthesise very quickly. That is their value. Of course, after a while, you develop a content area or subject matter expertise of a sort, but the value is elsewhere, in synthesis.

4. On your weblog you posted future scenario’s, in the street as platform: the locked down street scenario and the open source street scenario. What is the current state of these visions? What are the most notable developments over the last couple of years?

Well, that piece was really saying that all of these things are here now, and they are all occurring simultaneously! There has been little development at any meaningful infrastructural scale across cities – say by large ICT companies or cities; it’s just too hard for them (too big, too complex, too risky, sometimes too expensive) – but lots of development at the consumer technologies end of things. So we have a very fragmented ecosystem in place, mirroring a very fragmented approach to urban systems in general. There are huge opportunities for those who figure out how to stitch these things together into some more meaningful civic fabric, but very few obvious rewards to do so. So we’re taking lots of small steps forward, but in all directions, and somewhat haphazardly. In a way, this just represents western models of urban policy and strategy anyway.

5. What are your hopes for our conference, name one thing that should be established as a result of this event?

I’d hope to see a genuinely wide-ranging set of perspectives; as I said above, there is little value in getting the same kinds of people together – the interesting developments are at the intersections. I also hope that there is little technology driving the conversation – that’s the easy bit to figure out; I hope that we are talking instead about culture, politics and various forms of value that are, or could be, involved in this world. Less about the built fabric or objects or code, and more about people – the former will emerge easily and smartly from a sharp focus on the latter.

6. As a final question, what does a ‘social city’ of the future look like? Could you provide three keywords, and please explain why you have chosen them.

What should it look like or what will it look like? No one knows either way 🙂 Better to prototype and develop something today, and see what happens. So with that in mind, I’d choose:

1. Civic
There’s an unwitting or inadvertent tendency towards individualising with the various social technologies developed at present. For all the talk of *social* networks, feedback loops and modes of interaction often focus on the individual rather than the individual as part of a wider community (or neighbourhood or whatever.) So this civic relationship – exploring how people live, work and play together, and how individual patterns are part of a wider system – needs particular focus.

2. Civics
By which I really mean the social contract, defining an individual’s relationship with government and society and vice versa. Again, the underlying strain in contemporary western politics over the last 30 years has destabilised and fragmented this contract. Ironically, we need it more than ever, due to the challenges we’re facing. So building this back into the idea of ‘social city’ is more necessary than ever. That also implies we have to rethink forms of governance with such technologies and cultures in mind. It does not mean ‘gov2.0’ – which is really just gov1.0 with a web2.0 front-end – but something more fundamental.

3. Citizens
Finally, citizen-centred design and operation will be key; again, the ‘centred’ word there needs careful articulation, and must be seen in the context of 1. and 2., otherwise it will be simply ‘self-centred’. But the key challenge for government is to position and frame itself such that it has far greater meaning and agency for citizens, networks of citizens, and communities, whilst reinforcing those civic relationships and ensuring small, located decisions add up to a big, connected picture.