A cocktail of childish playing and academic research

Collaboration and direct engagement were the key words when two distinguished service designer specialists discussed the use of creative practices in designing sustainable futures. This inspirational talk was organized by Design Club, on 23rd September 2020.

Associate professor Tuuli Mattelmäki from Aalto University gave an overview of an EU-supported project Creative Practices for Transformational Futures (CreaTures) that aims at bringing in creative practices in the development processes towards socio-ecological sustainability in different sectors. The project is a cross-border and cross-sectoral initiative and includes a consortium of actors such as universities, NGOs and private companies, each of which brings their specific knowhow to the project. The key assumption of the initiative is that collaboration and direct engagement of different stakeholders are key issues when working with transformational processes and planning of different futures.

The results of the pilot project confirmed the immense power of imagination and “thinking out of the box”, that can be best achieved in collaboration with others. Moreover, the process of learning together and seeing things differently has value of its own, as it teaches the participants not only new ways knowing, but also new ways of feeling.

Creative processes have indeed proven to be transformational, but in many cases the problem is that they are fragmented: there are small groups working apart, each of them doing probably the right things but not joining the forces which could give added value to the whole process of transformation. In addition, they are often poorly resourced and not always correctly understood.

CreaTures project includes the whole chain of the design, from the observatory and laboratory to the evaluation & policy recommendations, which are, according to Mattelmäki, vital parts of the process.

Are creative practices under-utilized in developing and transforming societies and businesses?

According to Design Director Zeynep Falay von Flittner from service design agency Hellon, the mission of all service design should be to bring human to the centre of the business. We need more holistic stories about the future, not only technical solutions and processes. We also need tools to help us build different future scenarios and understand the consequences of each of them. The aim of these tools is to trigger conversation and to bring holistic understanding of interdependencies and long-term consequences of the possible actions.

Play!

A tool may sound quite technical and even boring but in fact best tools can be games that are both playful and experimental. One example is the Nordic urban mobility game that Hellon has used in the transport sector development processes together with different cities and communities. The game can be downloaded and printed for free (see the link below). The practice has shown that a game can provoke more and different thinking than normal participatory methods. It being a physical game helps to overcome the time distance and difficulties in immersing oneself into the different futures. A game also triggers action and commitment, as it creates a sense of urgency for the needed change.

Playing games might not cut out all feelings of anxiety and insecurity that are blocking creativity when thinking about different futures. But it definitely gives hope and enables us to see that there really are different pathways we can choose. Hope energizes and focuses actions. Playing games can also make the uncertainty and anxiety that is related to future scenarios more bearable and more fun.

One obvious challenge to using more creative practices is that organisations are often tied to traditional research and ways of working. To overcome that, Mattelmäki suggested to do more prototyping. It brings concrete evidence to even the most skeptical thinkers that there really are different options, and that those options are possible and doable. Like she put it: “the process itself keeps winning the participants”.

Joyful and pleasurable approach is important in envisioning of desirable futures. Designers work as facilitators or midwives in these processes and have an important role in that they help participants to go beyond the “what is realistic” thinking. There is a lot we can learn from children: they are open-minded and it`s natural for them to explore new ways of thinking and doing.

Hard business needs hope

Sustainability is nowadays a hard business, but there is definitely a need to look beyond the normal business solutions and traditional answers. Designers in general have one asset that is needed in the planning of a sustainable future: optimistic and forward-looking mindset. Hope and solution-focused approach is needed, particularly in this field where pessimism tend to take over in many discussions.

One of the biggest hurdles that service designers face in bringing unusual creative practices into traditional contexts is that managers are afraid of something they see as expensive and unpredictable or unreliable when it comes to producing benefits and fulfilling the cost-efficiency goals. Even among the participants of the event (the majority being designers and students), 0 % chose “saving time and resources” as the main benefit of their work in the field of service design. That indicates how cumbersome and costly the process is often seen to be, and how little trust there is on its cost-efficiency.

Perhaps we need more professional studies on the impacts and tangible results of the creative practices and service design. Evaluation and impact studies have spread out to practically all fields during the past years. Everything is measured and indicator has become the word of the day. To overcome the distrust of managers and directors in investing time and resources in playing games (and developing the business through play and creativity), we need to be able to show the undeniable outputs, outcomes and impacts of that investment.

The close relationship of research and business was pointed out by Mattelmäki. According to her, development work based on scientific research gives more credibility and speeds up the implementation. One tangible result of creative innovation and game playing is that there will be a vast amount of wild ideas and enthusiasm, new innovations and innovators.

The next step will then be how the ideas are taken forward. That will be a topic for future discussions, but for sure collaboration and direct engagement will be key elements in that as well.

Laura Ekholm

More information can be found :

CreaTures. https://creatures-eu.org/

Hellon. https://www.hellon.com/

Nordic Urban Mobility 2050 Futures Game. https://www.nordicinnovation.org/tools/NUM2050

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