Design-led policy: A discussion with Marco Steinberg, Director of Strategic Design, Finnish Innovation Fund
Opening the event, Jill Rutter introduced Marco Steinberg, Director of Strategic Design at the Finnish Innovation Fund. Steinberg initially trained as an architect, and was formerly a professor at the Harvard Design School. The Helsinki Design Lab was established to bring together the strategic design community, function as an experimentation platform, and help the government achieve design-led solutions to problems. Jill pointed out the relevance of the Helsinki Design Lab’s work to the Institute for Government’s report Making Policy Better, which argued that insufficient attention had been paid to designing policies that could be effectively implemented.
Steinberg began by claiming that that we are currently in ‘crisis’ and facing some of the biggest problems of our time (from social inequality to climate change), yet the government is insufficiently equipped to deal with them. In spite of the interconnectedness inherent in the issues we face, government continues to take a ‘siloed’ approach in which one group of people is charged with creating visions for change (politicians), and another who is charged with delivering on those visions (civil servants). Marco argued that the flaw in this system is that it creates a disconnect between design and delivery, and that a fundamental re-think in the way government approaches big projects is needed.
In contrast to the ‘siloed’ approach, Steinberg explained that strategic design is about working ‘upstream’: looking at the strands of forces which affect an issue in order to develop a solution. This was an approach taken in the Helsinki Design Lab’s Low2No project, which sought to create a zero carbon development market. Given that a zero carbon solution would draw upon a diversity of factors – planning, transportation, food choice, energy choice, building construction, behaviour – the team examined the entire architecture of the issue by taking these into account. This ultimately led to a variety of innovations, from providing community bicycles to placing all the community’s saunas in one block rather than separate appartments, collectively reducing energy use and carbon emissions.
Steinberg explained that achieving this kind of innovation is more like getting to the moon than crossing a street: it requires re-thinking the question at hand, rather than replicating against a benchmark. To change the approach taken, Steinberg stated that leadership must navigate a higher degree of uncertainty, cultures require a different kind of trust, and incentives, relationships, resourcing and culture must be aligned with the nature of the mission.
Steinberg then explained three key ideas:
1) The power of projects: rather than changing entire organisations, Steinberg argued that it was more effective to lead with projects in order to create the aforementioned culture changes.
2) Mergers and acquisitions: Steinberg observed that, in general, being successful hinders your ability to re-think what success is going forward and therefore slows innovation. Companies find smaller companies where there are fewer barriers to innovation and take them in. This is an approach government could take.
3) Demilitarised military zones: create a space that is free from a dominant culture, where new behaviours can emerge.
To serve as an innovation platform, Steinberg also emphasised the importance of diversity both in the composition of the lab’s team, and in who it gets input from. This helps question the way things are done conventionally, helps to appreciate how many issues there are, and creates a solution that adapts to logic.
Questions focused on dealing with the government’s approach to risk, achieving buy-in from politicians, the long-term impact the lab had made, why it was soon closing, and changing education to establish a strategic design way of thinking.