Design Activism in Helsinki [...]

Berglund discusses the role of design in urban planning and in policy, and how design thinking and approaches are closely tied to activism efforts in Helsinki. Berglund defines the term "design activism" in this way:

I understand design activism first as “designerly” – that is, its interventions are material, practical, and aesthetic all at once and in a self-conscious way (Markussen 2011). Further, design activism affirms the world as it is, embracing contingency and complexity as fundamental. Put another way, it echoes design thinking in that it builds on the design professional’s expertise in facilitation, where designers do not create objects or services so much as work constructively with multiple stakeholders dealing with multifaceted problems (Kimbell 2011). And thirdly, design activism has a rather specific relationship with the mainstream: even though design as a profession is a product of capitalist institutions, it has long nurtured an idealist streak highly critical of them (Julier 2011).

Berglund discusses how this design activism seems a natural fit for Finland's culture of cooperation:

The Finnish word talkoo/talkoot refers to jointly done, one-off tasks – a gathering for the purposes of mutual help. With the new arrival of design discourse, Finns have found themselves needing to translate the word only to discover a positive feature of their own culture: it must mean something that other languages should lack a word for what is considered an unremarkable feature of Finnish life. However, design activism in Helsinki is substantially an international affair, as an insightful essay (Paterson 2010) on the talkoo-legacy’s role in online activism makes clear. The inspirations for the “scene” are heterogeneous, with echoes of appropriate technology and other utopian movements of decades past (Scott 2007), but also of DIY protest cultures or DIT (do it together) and DIWO (do it with others) cultures known internationally.

Burglund notes concern, though, with the rhetoric that is often used in promoting design thinking, as largely technocratic and uncritical:

The report, partly produced by Demos Helsinki, also claimed that Finland is already the best country in the world and stated that Finland’s “greatest strength is the unbiased, solution-focused approach to problems, which derives from our history and culture. When faced with an impossible situation, we roll up our sleeves and double our efforts.”16 The text, as a whole, argues that the historical success of Finnish design in consumer durables can and will be repeated as its principles – functionality and durability (sustainability) – are applied to designing not just artifacts, but social institutions and business practices...I suggest that as the design activist tone seeps into even more domains, along with the comfortable notion that design in Finland is always for the better, this may be robbing design of potential critical traction and transformative impact.

As activism at the margins shades into design policy and commercial opportunities,a disturbing form of compliance arises. Design appears as an unquestioned cultural good, but the economic and policy drivers that fuel it remain hidden. I have tried to sketch out an emerging and complex picture – and I have wanted to keep my balance as I seek to occupy the insideroutsider position typical of the anthropologist, without passing judgment yet aware that the entanglements of design activism and mainstream policy require urgent unpacking and critical reflection. I fear design’s activist promises are unlikely to be fulfilled and that by invoking “spectres of pending catastrophe if urgent and decisive action is not taken” (Swyngedouw 2011: 372), design will contribute to further depoliticization, and not simply through apathy as Swyngedouw suggests, but through the fun-filled rounds of activity that fuel Helsinki’s new urban vibe.


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