Redesigning the core of government

(Tommi Laitio´s speech at the Closing Summit of World Design Capital Helsinki 2012 at Finlandia Hall on 29 November 2012)
The true test for the World Design Capital year is whether it changes the core of government. We´re off to a good start in motivating communities of people to work with us.

When tackling the theme of an open city, I want to kick off by telling you about two significant phone calls this year.

The first one came in April and the message was clear: ”It’s down by 10 percent.” The caller was our project partner, the head of maintenance for Helsinki´s 8500 student apartments. Over the previous 2 years, we had been carrying out various social and design experiments in numerous buildings testing ways to enhance shared and sustainable living. The 10 percent call referred to a notorious exchange student building where we had revamped the signage, redesigned the hallways and shared spaces and recruited two students to act as building hosts. The caller referred to electricity and water usage in the building. When consumption normally goes up annually by 5 percent, we and they knew we were onto something.

The second phone call came on 13 June. We at think tank Demos Helsinki were in charge of the programme of the World Design Capital Pavilion and the location had been open for only a month. The call came rather late and the caller said:”It´s totally packed, to the last seat.” The Pavilion, the crown jewel of the World Design Capital designed by Aalto University architecture students, was on that day given to a group of students to do an event on natural science. Science Slam, sort of a Pecha Kucha presentation evening for example for latest cancer research, was one of our biggest hits during the summer.

Why am I telling you about these phone calls? Because they are part of the biggest success story of Open Helsinki. At the student house it was proved that we can make meaningful changes towards sustainable living by broadening our toolbox from engineering, architecture and regulation to peer-to-peer systems. The summer of the Pavilion, on the other hand, proved how vibrant and diverse venues with 80 000 visitors can be created with communities of urban activists, whether they happen work in a design agency, the city library or run a tango school or a clothing brand. The student building and Pavilion both are examples of rethinking key resources, seeing citizens and their communities as the main components for building a good city.

But for the World Design Capital to live up to its promise of an Open Helsinki, the legacy has to go beyond savvy anecdotes. For the World Design Capital to be a success, the findings have to change the core of government. I mean the way our children are taught, how our parents are taken care of at the hospital, how we get from place to place, how a new neighborhood is planned or how the annual budget of the city is created and spent.  We have a lot of work to do in proving how the experiments genuinely scale up to open protocols and systems where the citizens can and want to be the lead users. The changes have to go further than inventing new; they have to transform the existing. Because in the end, the job of the government is not to come up with great ideas, it is to make systems that enable people to live their lives together.

For Helsinki to be a truly Open Helsinki, I feel  we need three things.

First, we need systems that can be opened and tweaked. As the motto of the open movement goes, if you can´t open it, you don´t own it. It means that we have to be able to make information and services not only available but also easy to use. For instance, in my new job as the head of Youth Affairs, I have realized how poorly people in this city know about their rights to use our moped repair shops, dance studios, tents, animal farms and meeting rooms. People do not have the obligation to use them but we as civil servants – as an Open Helsinki government – have an obligation to make the services as easy to use as possible.

Second, we need strong equality measures. Whilst there´s been genuine improvement in this city during the last decade, there´s no shying away from the fact that the difference between poor and rich neighborhoods or the number of poor families with children is growing. There´s a clear need for reorientation, when in some districts only 37 percent of adults vote in local elections. I genuinely feel design thinking and tools can contribute to getting to the root of the situation and making sure we are fixing the right problems. For this city to be an Open City for all, we need to make sure that everyone – despite their background or family history – has both the motivation and the skills to take part in city making.

And third, we have a moral, financial and ecological need to reduce our dependency on unrenewable natural resources. Last year, Helsinki alone created 3 million tons of CO2 emissions.

This is exactly where Open Helsinki comes in. Luckily enough, some resources are increasing. The 600 000 citizens of this city are more educated, healthier, more travelled, more diverse and have more free time than ever in our history. Open Helsinki should mean that we have a clear and fair deal with the people of this city and we see communities of people as resources and partners, not as needy clients. For this to happen in a sustainable manner, we need to use the existing infrastructure more efficiently. That’s why we at the Youth Department give all vacant hours from our 90 locations for free to NGOs and youth communities to use. But Open Helsinki ought to also mean designing better peer-to-peer systems for hospice, parental support or integration.

 I think we´ve had a good start for an open Helsinki but we have a long way to go. But at least I am terribly excited. Thank you.