Taking Human Insights into the Field of Architecture and Urban Planning

Human beings always experience the world through physical space. We might not be very aware of the space around us, but it’s an essential component affecting our lives. Everyday environments define what kind of opportunities people have and the design of space reflects and produces power and status differences between people depending on age, gender and other attributes. In other words, physical spaces are theatres of power structures. I’ve recently had some exciting opportunities to try and bridge this conceptual understanding and practice by working on urban planning projects together with architects.
 

Competing with Ideas for Nordic Design Solutions in the Urban Space

Nordic Innovation organized a challenge competition for designing urban spaces in 6 different Nordic locations. Together with a few architects and a landscape architect I took part in the Icelandic leg of the competition that concerned an old industrial port freed up for urban re-development into a compact multi-use area. We were successful enough to get through to the final stage and refined our proposal by traveling to the site and empirically studying the local life in order to form insights that would support us in finding the most fruitful solutions for our plan.

The competition was based on a charter that emphasizes the built environment as a field of innovations that have the potential to improve quality of life, make our living environment more sustainable and be economically viable, providing opportunities for Nordic companies in scaling their solutions globally.
 

Viewing Space as a Vehicle for Social Change

Urban planning and architecture are the basis of choice architecture in everyday life of the users of the space. In our plan we considered the small everyday default choices when planning for an ecologically and socially sustainable community. The Idea was to use spatial solutions as a vehicle to build a lifestyle that would already appeal to many, and at the same time nudge people towards more sustainable choices in transportation, food and sharing resources.

Besides the ecological challenge we wanted the plan to have a role in the large-scale social issues such as the population aging in Western countries and the rising living costs making urban lifestyles unaffordable to common people. We paid attention to affordability further than just the affordability of an apartment, which is an obvious path if you view housing as a service instead of just buildings with apartments. All the choices in the plan are guided by human values and aim to create a certain kind of social reality. Being aware of and transparent with these makes the comparison between different suggestions fruitful.

Our proposal for the competition, called Solborg, consists of a short video and pdf report, which can be seen here among other interesting proposals.

As digital architecture has already begun to make a full use of user experience research, human insights and service design, one would expect more traditional physical architecture to follow. In the future it will increasingly be about what the design of space prohibits or enables for whom, and not just about creating something cool and functional on a general level.

 

 

Why Design Thinking is becoming an Essential Element in the Development of Public Sector

Design for Government is a multi-disciplinary project-based Master's course at Aalto University, Helsinki. Finnish ministries assign real projects with complex challenges for the diverse teams of students to work on. Last year I was delighted to mentor a few of the teams and today we will start with a new batch of students and a new set of challenges. I've been pleasantly surprised by how excited the civil servants have been to work with the students and to apply new kind of methods and patterns of thinking.

"We only have time for easily digestible bullet points"

Back in the days, as a first year student of sociology in 2006 I had great expectations of learning by applying theories to empirical research of contemporary social problems. I thought students would work in teams helping their professors in larger research projects and most important findings would be conveyed to real decision-makers.  I quickly noticed the weakness of this link between academic social sciences and decision-making, namely that it barely existed. I believe it's partially due to the aim for the independence of science, but also because of the types  of deliverables coming out from academia.

One of our most accomplished professors told us a story of how their research team had managed to squeeze their hard work of many years into a book. The important, contemporary topic was well analyzed and had evoked well-deserved interest in one of the Finnish ministries. The problem was that they approached the professor via e-mail, asking for the key points on one A4-sheet. "Nobody has time to read books in the hectic work life."

The topics the students are working on in Design for Government are similar, but the excitement with which civil servants are engaging with the projects is on a whole other level from merely browsing executive summaries. I believe there are at least four crucial reasons to why design thinking fits well in the pursuit to address some of the complex social issues faced by the public sector.

1. It's not about the specialists with authority, but about generalists with curiosity

Researchers are more focused on a specific topic than most of the civil servants, thus when they challenge the thinking of civil servants they posses a level of authority that sets them above the civil servants, or at least makes them an independent authority. A specialized and independent critical approach is hard to translate into fruitful opportunities for change, because it easily becomes a mere debate on the pros and cons of the existing structures.

Design thinking is more about asking questions from an outsider’s perspective without expertise. The lack of specialized expertise allows for stupid questions, which can turn into new ways of approaching the problem. Such an outsider role can be easier to work with as it calls for trying out new viewpoints instead of defending the existing ones against criticism.

2. It provides a solution-oriented and constructive approach to problems

 Analytical research de-constructs problems to be viewed through different theoretical lenses. It critically examines existing practices. Design, on the other hand, is about providing solutions in the form of creative ideas. For civil servants working with policies and public services on a daily basis the productive approach is more urgent than the de-construction.

3. It's not about masterminds working in isolation, but co-creation and participation of different players

Design thinking encourages the inclusion of different stakeholders into the problem solving process and makes it a joint venture. Including more people into the change process gives them a sense of ownership, thus making them advocates in favour of executing the solutions, rather than suspicious outsiders or mere objects of changes.

4. You don't need to have a master plan that solves all wicked problems - small steps and experiments are all right

Prototyping with the minimum viable solution allows iteration and learning by trial and error. Framing trials as experiments and trying them early on is different from the more traditional approach of pilots that are rather expected to prove the big solution works. If it doesn't, the project is a failure. With experiments the learning itself is a success.

Necessary perspectives on the framing of public sector problems

In order to be successful, design of government is still too important to be left only for the cooperation of creative minds. Analytical rigor needs to be present in a well-formulated understanding of at least two different perspectives.

A) The human perspective on the problem

Public policies affect people and any tinkering with them should be based on an understanding of the everyday realities of these people. Real stories from real people make the settings of policy changes more tangible and help in adopting the perspective of actual human beings in evaluating the potential consequences of different decisions.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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     Visiting the real settings is crucial in gaining sufficient understanding - picture from last year’s team working on primary producers’ notification and application systems. (http://dfg-course.aalto.fi Primary Producers Team 1)

Visiting the real settings is crucial in gaining sufficient understanding - picture from last year’s team working on primary producers’ notification and application systems. (http://dfg-course.aalto.fi Primary Producers Team 1)

B) The systemic perspective on the problem

All complex problems are problems of multiple institutions. Mapping the networks around the problem is crucial for providing a successful solution. What kind of inputs and outputs do the important stakeholders share and how would the proposed solutions affect them? Building stories that align the ways in which different institutions view the problem greatly increases the likelihood of finding a solution that matches the goals of the key players, who can also enable its execution in reality. 

   
  
 
  
    
  
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     Visiting the real settings is crucial in gaining sufficient understanding - picture from last year’s team working on primary producers’ notification and application systems. (http://dfg-course.aalto.fi Primary Producers Team 1)

Visiting the real settings is crucial in gaining sufficient understanding - picture from last year’s team working on primary producers’ notification and application systems. (http://dfg-course.aalto.fi Primary Producers Team 1)

With all of this in mind, I'm looking forward to challenging my own thinking with the help of our student teams and to learn from their novel experiments with this year’s challenges provided by the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Transport and Communication.  Multi-disciplinary teams putting design thinking into practice have a great opportunity to get their clients excited about new solutions, and if they manage to analyze the systemic and human perspectives of the problem in a fruitful way they can set a few more examples on how the challenges of public sectors will be tackled in the future. 

Insights on the growing need to combine care and independence in Nordic societies

Through the research for Real Challenge -competition we learned a lot about how Nordic societies relate to the independent living of the elderly and disabled. How we view independence, disabilities and ageing is deeply rooted in the Nordic version of Western culture. It’s important to consider these views since our societies are inevitably changing with the shift in the population structure. As the change unfolds our culture needs to somehow adapt – we urgently need to address the questions of what is good care in the age of scarce resources, what is good elderly life, how do we take care of each other?

Some of the insights I found most fundamental for framing the challenge of independent living in the future are:

Independence is not just about being able to stay in your home, but also having the possibility to leave your home 

Municipalities tend to measure independent living as the share of elderly and disabled living in public care institutions against the share of those living in their own apartments. Usually it’s cheaper if people live in their own apartments and most people wish to live at home as long as possible. Yet, when considering what living at home means we shouldn’t focus too much on the place of residence. Being able to stay alive in a specific apartment is a really insufficient definition of independent living. 

Retired people emphasize the importance of staying active and maintaining curiosity and inquisitiveness. A concrete way of doing this is leaving your house and going out every day. Staying inside makes you passive. When forced to stay indoors for long periods we easily experience a growing mental barrier for going out. For example, staying indoors for weeks after a hip surgery will probably make you see going out as a set of risks – you might fall, get robbed, not have enough money on your bus card. 

Staying at home makes your world small. Home is essentially a place you come back to – if you’re never leaving and coming back, is it really a home?

 Mental barriers that keep people indoors are sometimes as small as the price tag of a local bus trip.

Mental barriers that keep people indoors are sometimes as small as the price tag of a local bus trip.

Independence is about being recognized and having control 

Instead of home vs. institution, a more accurate juxtaposition is independent living vs. institutionalized living. 

You can be institutionalized in your home. You may have little to no control over your routines, which are set by institutions. You’ll get out of bed when the home nurse appears in the morning. You’ll wait for the food delivery to arrive in the afternoon. You’ll wait for someone to take you to bathroom. You’ll wait for someone to put you to bed in the evening. You don’t decide when these things happen and how long you wait. You don’t decide the food you have. You don’t decide the people who come to your home. You have no influence over the fact that they are hurried, stressed and late. 

Institutions define your needs. Then they set your routines by answering the needs in ways that are efficient according to the spreadsheet.

People fight in order to get some control over their daily routines. They request the personnel they have a good relationship with. They try to give feedback. They call and ask for the timetables. They complain about the changes that ruined their meals after the latest procurement round. The lucky ones get more help from their children, find a great voluntary service or happen to have the best neighbors ever.

Many get frustrated when they lose control of their own use of time. People talk over your head about your issues like you’re unable to understand anything. You come from the health center and they give your papers to the taxi driver like you were some idiot. Our societies only see the “fully functional productive members” as the decision-makers. When we lose some physical abilities, we also tend to lose many possibilities to take decisions. If institutions control your needs and routines and your opportunities to take decisions diminish, can you really be independent?

Cure often overshadows care, but for a good life we need both 

Medical treatment is at the core of our healthcare systems. It aims at curing people by treating the symptoms of sickness and disease. Cure focuses on fixing problems and treats a human being as an object with a body. The role of the person being cured is to passively follow the recommendations and rules set by the professionals treating them. 

Care on the other hand is not a goal-oriented activity of the professionals with special knowledge. Care is teamwork in which the role of the patient and their social network is active and important. It is about making the best possible life with the disease or problem and what the best possible life is may differ between lives. It calls for an attentive process of exchanging experiences, sharing knowledge and suggestions. Treatment is not just prescribed, but it’s decided upon together. When decisions are based on two-way communication, the communication itself helps make lives better.

Medical professionalism is important for health care, but taking care and making the best possible life with health problems and disabilities is about much more. It’s not the same for all lives, which makes it difficult to measure and standardize. On the other hand it seems to be well acknowledged fact of Western culture that living a good life is not easy.

 It seems challenging to find successful ways to lead your life in the midst of all the advice.

It seems challenging to find successful ways to lead your life in the midst of all the advice.

Our culture is too obsessed with living to care enough about dying

Death is hidden somewhere in the backyard of our societies. It has been handed over to the professionals. It happens in clinical spaces. It’s rarely present in the public discussion. We are so busy on trying to perform our lives that we forget they’re ending. We have thousands of self-help books on how to live a good life, but none that would tell us how to die well. Discussions of dying well are a taboo in our society. There are tv-shows about euthanasia, but no chance to actually put it on the political agenda. And that’s just one topic around the theme of good death and our independence in facing it.

Most of the entries in the challenge competition will most likely focus on solving really practical challenges, but we also have deeply rooted cultural challenges around the theme of independent living. At best, concrete creative solutions serve as Trojan horses which also subtly smuggle changes into our culture.

Help solve the challenge of independent living for the elderly and disabled

Ever wanted to have a crucial role in solving one of our societies most urgent problems? Ever feel like you’re Bruce Willis in Armageddon while stroking the keyboard in your cubicle? It’s possible, especially if you’re interested in the future of health and wellbeing. We as societies have some real problems to solve regarding health, wellbeing and care. 

Nordic Innovation is organizing a challenge competition to find solutions to improve the quality of the independent living of the fragile elderly and disabled. By 2030 the share of the elderly in Nordic countries is expected to rise from the current 25% to 40% of the population. At the same time, between 13 and 21% of the population have some kind of disability. While the need for care and support is rising drastically the resources seem to be getting scarcer and scarcer. This challenge competition aims to gather ideas for solutions from anyone from student groups to start-ups and established companies.

 Nordic Innovation, together with the municipalities of Nordic capitals have opened the registration for competition at  realchallenge.info .

Nordic Innovation, together with the municipalities of Nordic capitals have opened the registration for competition at realchallenge.info.

I had the privilege to be part of the team at Diagonal conducting an ethnographic research project in order to help frame the challenge for the competition and provide background material for it. One of the great things about doing ethnographic research is that you get to be a guest in other peoples’ lives. By listening and observing peoples’ stories you learn a lot. 

We identified some of the main challenges by piecing together the experiences of the people who work with care and of those who need the care in their daily lives. These are presented in the form of personas, which are based on combining findings from different interviews. This is one way of presenting the users through stories, which highlight some of the most important insights in an accessible way.

The competition is open for anyone and I'm hoping to see interesting solutions coming out of it. For us it was a demanding project as we had to frame the challenge that consists of a variety of needs and challenges that different kinds of people face in their everyday lives. It was also important to package the research in an accessible format for a wide variety of potential participants aiming to solve different aspects of the real challenge. The Nordic countries are facing a change which will touch our lives in profound ways and we should prepare for it. Let's hope that some of the outcomes of this competition serve the preparation.

 

 

Consumer insight - too important to be a temporary fad

Traditional models of homo economicus view human beings as rational and self-interested decision makers maximizing their own utility. These models work nicely as linear extrapolations that support decision-making of companies by giving rough estimates of the target market. The problem with these models is that they over-simplify consumer behavior, thus not serving as good strategic tools in providing true value to the consumer which is crucial in today's competitive markets. In order to understand what is valuable for people it is insufficient to view them as merely rational decision-making individuals. Companies have realized this and the need to get closer to the everyday lives of their customers, to understand how they live and think. 

Consumer insight has become a buzzword in business because it holds the promise of providing a magical microscope into the head of the currently unpredictable consumer. Promises this lucrative will inevitably flood the market with even more related buzzwords creating a hairy mess. Market researchers, ad agencies, design firms, and pretty much any strategic partners of consumer companies promise they will help these companies become customer-centric by offering better consumer insights and solutions based on these insights. 

The demand for insights arises as companies are facing new types of changes that make it more difficult to succeed in the marketplace. Business decisions have become more complex as consumers have become hard to predict and their reactions are more often seemingly irrational from the companies’ point of view.

Consumer behaviour is harder to predict because of these changes;

  • There's more competition for consumers’ attention.

The amount of products, services and stories is overwhelming. We used to have national markets with one or two chains selling products advertised in one of a few TV channels. Now we have infinitely more always-open online stores as new forms of advertisement are constantly trying to push targeted messages onto our radars. To succeed in this environment you need to provide something truly meaningful in the right place and at the right time.

  • Consumers have a multiplicity of rationalities.

Consumers have heaps of information and knowledge within reach so they are not easy to fool. In a more globalised and digitised world, different cultures and subcultures mesh together and entangle in a variety of ways. This creates different sets of information and different ways of making sense of that information. There are plenty of value and opinion bubbles in online and offline networks. These, along with different aims people have, translate into diverse rationalities instead of one commonly shared uniform rational model.

  • Consumers make more decisions on autopilot mode.

At the same time as we have more information available than ever, we seem to have less time to make judgments based on reviewing this information. Decision fatigue hits us and during our days in the overwhelming consumer environments we often operate on an autopilot mode and just go with the flow of a habit or routine instead of engaging in considered decision-making. This often translates into seemingly irrational and contradictory actions. We do things we have said we wouldn’t do and forget to do the ones we were supposed to.

Because of the increasing amount of consumer options and the increasing amount of ways of making sense of them by consumers, making business decisions about what to offer, where to offer it, and with what kind of messages has become increasingly difficult. 

Insights try to ease these decisions by having explanations for why consumers behave the way they do. Promise of these explanations is the catalyst of the insight industry. The rise of the consumer insight can either be a true turn towards a better world in which companies create more meaningful and more valuable products and services for their customers or a fad that will fade away. 

In order for the buzz to become a true turn, we who operate in the field of insights, should work hard towards having clarity and sense emerge from all the noise around insights. We should define what our beloved insights are, why they are needed, and what are they supposed to change and how. In the end the insights’ success will be defined by how well they arm companies in their quest to meet consumers’ needs and desires.


 

If you feel like consumers are lying, dig deeper and spend some time with them

Companies are often puzzled because consumers are saying one thing, but then in reality they seem to be doing something completely different:

“Every time we run a survey people are telling that they like to eat organic and wish to have more organic choices in stores. Then, when we offer more organic stuff nobody is buying it.”

Faced with traditional survey questions people seem to see themselves in a more positive light than what their everyday actions speak of. This is an annoyance for businesses trying to understand what the market wants. “Consumers are lying to us and messing up our plans.” This is a dilemma that consumer insights and ethnographic research often promise to solve - serving as a kind of lie detector revealing the true nature of consumers.

“We need to be able to distinguish between what consumers say they do, and what they actually do.”

This distinction is often emphasized as the talk is considered to be something merely symbolic and acts something concrete. Businesses are interested in concrete acts because they can potentially be connected to measurable transactions. Thus, the idea of studying what people actually do instead of what they say they do seems to make perfect sense. However, dismissing what is being said as an unreliable source of information makes little sense.

Crucial aspects of truth can only be understood by analysing the connections and discontinuities between what is being said and what is being done. People rarely intentionally lie in their responses. There are three key reasons to why people seem to be “lying” in their survey answers. These open up interesting and fruitful further questions to be studied in relation to what is being claimed to be done, and to what is actually being done.

  • We really don’t know what we are doing.

We all have routines and habits that we pay little to no attention to. Often, the people we spend a lot of time with are actually better at pointing out our habits than we are ourselves; and their remarks are the only way we become aware of something we’ve been doing for ages. This is not to say that other people remarking on your weird routines are always correct, but sometimes the perspective they have helps us see things we weren’t aware of.

 

  • We really don’t remember what we have been doing.

Surveys often ask if we have been to a shop or bought a product from a specific brand over the course of the past 12 months. Most products and shops are not – and don’t need to be – that memorable for most of us. We might have been well aware of what we were doing last Tuesday, but still not be able to recall much anything of that day. The more mundane the thing, the less it stays in our mind.

For example cookies are extremely important for the people who work in the companies selling them, but for most of us they are banal. Even if we genuinely try, we just can’t remember if we bought a specific brand this year or even this month. It really doesn’t matter unless it breaks the flow of our daily lives. As a cookie producer you might be more interested in understanding how that flow actually works, and how to become a mostly unmemorable - but often purchased - part of that flow. Business-as-usual can be a lucrative business.

 

  • We are not capable of doing what we see ourselves doing.

I see myself as a person who goes to the gym and runs every week, but I really don’t keep a count of it. I also see myself as a person who eats healthily. And while I do eat healthy foods, I also go to McDonalds, of which I don’t keep a count either. I sustain an idea of myself as a fit person with healthy habits even though I don’t consistently act according to my ideals. 

We all have ideals of things we say we do or will do. Yet for some reason, we don’t manage to get that “doing” to emerge. It might often be our own fault, but faults are also contextual:

“I didn’t have enough time or energy because I had to work so late.”

“It was just too expensive. It was towards the end of the month, and I was running low on funds.”

“Nobody came along and I couldn’t bother to go running alone.”

Reasons for not being able to realise our ideals, as well as the ideals themselves, all have a social aspect. Understanding how these ideas come into being, and how we fail to do the things we would value is much more fruitful than just understanding the difference between what we say we do and what we really do.

Sometimes the questions we get asked about ourselves in the surveys can also be extremely difficult. We are asked to choose from options which are really hard to distinct and rank. For examples, such a questions might go as follows:

“If you had to spend a few days with two of these people, who would you choose? And who would be the one you would least like to spend time with?” 

The answer choices may be: 

a) somebody who knows your family and the place you grew up in 

b) somebody who knows about other countries 

c) somebody who knows about new business opportunities

d) somebody who knows about high tech 

e) somebody who knows about nature and the environment 

f) somebody who knows a lot of different kinds of people.

  This is an actual background question for a massive survey on brands and products in Finland.

This is an actual background question for a massive survey on brands and products in Finland.

At least for me this was really hard to answer. Somebody who is telling me about new business opportunities could either be the most annoying, or the best person to spend time with. The one who knows where I grew up – well, he or she is probably from the same small town I’m from. We might have some shared interests or none. Wouldn’t somebody who knows about new business opportunities also know about high tech? And aren’t there other more important factors to consider? What would these people look like? Would they have annoying habits? Should I just consider topics I’d like to discuss over the few days? How can I be sure they haven’t been lying when reporting they know what they know? I think I might have to spend some time with them.