The Design Possibilities in Redefinition

By: Johanna Johnson

Futurice recently hosted an event at their downtown Helsinki headquarters titled “Futurice Design Presents: Redefining Meanings”.  During the opening speech given by one of the employees of Futurice, they encouraged us to redefine the meanings of things we think we already know and carefully curated the themes of the evening to illustrate this concept.  This event featured four different speakers exploring four very different topics converging around the central idea of design as a driver for transformation. 

Redefining a Library

“Oodi was designed together with customers for a long period of time. We received more than 2,000 ideas from customers to serve as the basis of the architectural competition. ALA Architects designed an amazing and unique building that takes all the elements most desired by customers into account. The customers immediately made Oodi their own, which is our greatest success.”

-Anna-Maria Soininvaara (Director of Oodi)

The first talk was by Antti Nousjoki of ALA Architects.  He was part of the team that designed the new Helsinki Central Library Oodi, which has recently won the award for 2019 Public Library of the Year.  I have visited Oodi many times since it has opened this past year, but I did not know the full history of how this space came to be.  I found this talk to be very interesting.  The main goal of this project was to give Helsinki residents what they have long desired and dreamed from a combination of a public space and a library.  In creating this new “urban living room” as Nousjoki affectionately referred to this space, the aim was to create a public area that incorporated as many of the public wishes for the new library (that had been collected since the 90’s) into this project as possible.

This project redefined what a library is by creating a space that challenged the traditional idea of what a library should encompass.  In an increasingly digital society that does not rely on colossal volumes of literature as the sole source of information, it was time for the modern library to get a facelift in order to remain relevant in today’s society.  This space was co-created by the community of Helsinki and has caught the attention of the world in its ingenious redefinition of what it means to be a “library”.  It has greatly widened the parameters of what a community library can contain, and with this project as the first of its kind, I look forward to how the public libraries of the future will continue to evolve.  

Check out this clip to see some of the other technological innovations and re-definitions happening at Oodi:

Redefining Artificial Intelligence for Designers

The next section was a closer look at the future of artificial intelligence (AI), specifically in the world of service designers.  This section was a talk by Annina Antinranta and Eeva Nikkari of Futurice.  In this talk we got a crash course about the history of AI and a glimpse into the future possibilities and implications of this rapidly evolving technology.  

At this moment in time, AI has come a very long way, but it is still somewhat limited.  The modern AI is currently capable of astonishing feats, and the sheer computational power has unarguably far surpassed that of the average human.  During this talk there was an example given of a computer that could create something like over a hundred (or hundreds) of visual banners in a matter of moments.  We are all aware of the new AI that is slowly replacing jobs in the form of assembly line jobs, self-driving cars, and other applications made to streamline various processes. In this current AI boom, we will eventually see this ubiquitous technology everywhere:

As exciting or scary as this advancement may seem, there are still limitations as to what AI can currently do.  I remember when I was in elementary school my first computer science teacher would repeatedly say “A computer is only as smart as it’s user”.  There are certain things that AI can not currently do:

This talk encouraged the designer to be aware of the advancement of AI and its place in the future society.  We were encouraged to re-think the designers’ position as sole designer in the process and think about the role of AI as an aid in the creative process.  This reminds me of the debate between quantitative and qualitative data.  A computer is 100% quantitative data.  It is up to the designer to insert the soul and human factor of qualitative data in the AI output in order to be able in tandem to create new concepts and ideas.

In the TED talk below given by Garry Kasparaov (the chess grandmaster who was beaten by the computer program Deep Blue in 1998), titled “Don’t Fear Intelligent Machines.  Work with Them” he says that “There’s only one thing a human can do, dream.  So dream big.” 

For now AI can’t dream.  Whenever it starts to be able to dream, I suppose we will be having a different type of conversation. 🤖 Until then, enjoy this TED Talk:

Redefining Complexity and Wellbeing

The next talk by Timo Hämäläinen was a deep dive into the history of civilization and the current state of our society.  In this talk he said that economic and social development is the main driver behind the development of civilizations and explored the theory that when society becomes too complex to be governed from the top it will collapse.  We have seen this in the past for example in the rise and ultimate fall of ancient Mayan civilization and the Roman Empire.

According to this lecture, before societal implosion occurs there is a bifurcation point that each civilization or society reaches where they can either achieve a breakthrough and continue to exist, moving forward by re-creating their existing institutions, or continue down the road of compounding complexity induced chaos that is riddled with conflict, polarization, and violence that ultimately leads to the previously mentioned societal or civilizational collapse.  He states that our current worldwide civilization is at such a bifurcation point. 

Over the course of this talk he talks about the challenges of this modern society and suggests that a possible solution to this complexity crisis could be found in the realm of cybernetic laws with William Ross Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety.  Applied to this type of situation, it implies that societal collapse happens when you have an insufficient variety of responses to deal with a variety of problems.  He proposes that the two main strategies to deal with our modern complexity issues are through complexity reduction and complexity absorption.

It was interesting to note that the speaker pointed out that currently in Finland mental illness is the number 1 reason of sickness pension in people under the age of 55.  This rise of anxiety and other mental illnesses in modern society could be a direct result of the current level of continually evolving complexity in modern civilization.  In order to combat this issue, we must look more deeply at our current ecosystems and their multitude of connections and deviations.  This talk challenged us to redefine what it means to approach problem solving and wellbeing in modern society. 

Redefining the Future

The final talk by Mia Muurimäki and Annika Hamann, they proposed the idea that every designer should be a futures thinker.  They challenged us to think about what it would be to not design just for today, but to expand our ideas and to think what could be possible 5 or 10 years down the line.  One way to do this is through provotyping:

“A provotype is a provocative prototype.  It is introduced in the early exploratory phases of the design development process to cause a reaction- to provoke and engage people to imagine possible futures.”

-Stratos Innovation Group

During this talk they described a case study from their organization that highlighted how provotyping can be a way for people to “feel the future” and for them to gather good insights and feedback about potential future solutions.   They also raised the debate as to whether or not our current design solutions are too short sighted and suggested that we could use futures planning to stretch our ideas into the future and beyond.

You can read more about the provotyping concept in the article here: https://medium.com/@thestratosgroup/moving-from-prototyping-to-provotyping-cedf42a48e90

Conclusion

This was an interesting evening of talks aimed at getting us as designers to think further outside the box, more critically, and imaginatively about the world around us.  As designers we can create new ideas and we can also choose to redefine paradigms.  We are limited only by our imagination. 

Sources

Helsinki Central Library Oodi chosen as the best new public library in the world. 2019.  Accessed 26 December 2019. https://www.sttinfo.fi/tiedote/helsinki-central-library-oodi-chosen-as-the-best-new-public-library-in-the-world?publisherId=60579873&releaseId=69863829

Stratos Innovation Group. Moving from Prototyping to “Provotyping”.  Posted 24 August 2016.  Accessed 26 December 2019.  https://medium.com/@thestratosgroup/moving-from-prototyping-to-provotyping-cedf42a48e90

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