Helsinki WDC and the misunderstood openness

When Helsinki World Design Capital 2012 announced its theme to be ‘Open Helsinki – embedding design in life’, my first reaction was – excitement! Choosing openness as a theme seemed like a bold move from the Helsinki WDC organisers – a commitment to try out new things, to take risks, to support the realisation of diverse ideas. Now, approximately one year later, it seems that there was some kind of misunderstanding.

I have to admit that when I say this, I’m partly just speculating, since most of the programme for Helsinki WDC 2012 year still remains a mystery. But since it’s only a few months left until the start of this supposedly grand year, I think it’s an appropriate time to start guessing.

The process had a pretty good start – Helsinki WDC organised many open calls and brainstorming sessions, where professional actors in the scene and common citizens could propose ideas. But if Helsinki WDC would be committed to openness then this would be just the beginning. The next necessary steps would be to go through a proper process of selecting the most promising ideas and making sure that these can be realised. Unfortunately it seems that in this part of Helsinki WDC is failing.

The first problem is the lack of expertise. Instead of organising a various expert committees to evaluate the proposals, a lot of responsibility has been given to a small number of producers hired by Helsinki WDC, many of whom readily admit that they are not experts in the content. And it seems that instead of actually dealing with production issues, the task of these producers is to make sure that Helsinki WDC logo gets appropriate visibility. This seems strange – I remember this was the way sponsoring arrangements were done 15 years ago?

The second problem is the uneven distribution of resources. Helsinki WDC has got a big budget but it seems that only a small number of large, institutionally initiated projects are going to get any financial support. If only the usual suspects get more resources then Helsinki WDC is supporting a closed system, not an ‘Open Helsinki’.

Helsinki WDC should really give financial support for a broad range of different actors and projects. This would be a concrete and simple way to pass on some of responsibility of realising an impressive programme for 2012 and accumulating art and design expertise that the Helsinki WDC organisation itself lacks.

It will be interesting to see what kind of projects eventually received support and how much. I assume that this information will become public very soon? Otherwise it’s really strange to use the title ‘Open Helsinki’. Transparency about decision-making is a crucial aspect of openness.

Perhaps the title ‘Open Helsinki’ was just a wrong choice. Instead, it should have been ‘Simple Helsinki’, ‘Easy Helsinki’ or ‘Entertaining Helsinki’. One evidence for this are the Helsinki WDC flyers that have been spread around the city:

The two key events associated with Helsinki World Design Capital 2012 year are the Athletics & Ice hockey Championships! When I happened to see a draft of this flyer (before they were printed) I thought that these two events were just placeholders for something else, a kind of ‘lorem ipsum’ that graphic designers use. But no, this is the real thing, this is the kind of ‘design year’ we are supposed to be looking forward to.

So – why ice hockey? Ice hockey belongs to category of events that can attract general audience, that don’t try to be too smart, that don’t try to raise any complicated questions. These are the kind of events that ‘Helsinki the venue’ organisation is specialised in. I don’t know if one can really call this an organisation, since it’s more like a tightly knit symbiosis between a small group of city officials and certain cultural production companies. The events they realise are easy-going, entertaining, often suitable for the whole family… but meanwhile so tame and generic that they are forgotten quicker than one can pronounce Helsinki-World-Design-Capital-Two-Thousand-And-Twelve.

Anyway – ‘Helsinki the venue’ is doing a pretty good job at what they do and I think this kind of events have their place in the city. The important questions is how big slice of the resources is dedicated for these events compared to resources given for the independent cultural actors in the city? And how transparent is the decision-making process about this?

It seems that Helsinki WDC aims to follow the same logic as ‘Helsinki the venue’ and in fact many of the same people are directly involved. And the logic is that there is a big investment in marketing and communications but not so much ambition regarding the content. The aim is not to try out something new and radical, to push the envelope of what design today can be, to do something that would have relevance in the professional design scene. It’s enough to give an entertaining experience for the audience who happens to show up.

If one follows this logic then it’s not a suprise that Helsinki WDC is organised the way it is. And I would predict that much of the programme for next year will be organised around popular big events and in specific easy-access venues. ‘Come and see new exciting art and design in venue XXX!’ – ‘Anyone can participate!’ – ‘Please propose content in Facebook!’. But this is not about ‘openness’ or ‘embedding design in life’, it’s about offering easy entertainment.

PS. Of course, one should not say things like this aloud – criticising Helsinki WDC and City of Helsinki is like shooting oneself in the foot, since so many important funders are involved in this. But ‘Open Helsinki’ theme should as a minimum give some room for open critique and debate, right?

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  1. rajatonvimma
    Posted August 30, 2011 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Hyvä keskustelunavaus!
    pax pax pax

  2. Posted August 30, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    Good points. I think many art and design actors in Helsinki feel similar way about the WDC. So, do I.

    To make your argument stronger and more open, it could be a good idea to explain (if needed) your organization’s relationship with the WDC organizers and funding from the Helsinki city. I don’t know how it is, but, because you do not include any disclaimer in your post but still write about “shooting oneself in the foot” it raises the question.


    – Teemu

  3. Robert
    Posted August 31, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    this is ridiculously stupid! Juhuu you are spot on!!! Please don’t get off the soap box :)

    Dear Helsinki officials, please spend the money on a real art and design event and not on better design for ice hockey event promotion!!!!!!!!

  4. juhuu
    Posted August 31, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Answer for Teemu –

    I’ve actually been working with Helsinki WDC, at least indirectly, I curated the ‘Open Helsinki’ programme for the MakerLab in DMY festival in Berlin in June which was part of Helsinki WDC pre-programme. I usually tend to focus on rather doing something positive proactively rather than criticising… But this time there seemed to be such a big contradiction between the ‘Open Helsinki’ statement and the reality of what is going on that I had to write something. In my own practice the word ‘openness’ has been important and I wish it would not be missused.

    My PS comment about shooting oneself in the foot – the art / design / culture scene is so small in Helsinki that people (including me) tend to be careful with their comments, it’s not nice to complain about the activities of your former / current / future collaborators…. The point of the PS comment was to highlight one reason why there hasn’t been a proper debate about WDC so far.

  5. wasapl
    Posted August 31, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps somekind of WDC2012-OFF event could result from these ideas. And it should NOT even be called WDC OFF. How about WDC2012 – OPEN. What would be the point… Perhaps a strike of culture workers for the year 2012.

    • I do agree
      Posted August 31, 2011 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

      I´m in!

      Is there people who would like to take part in exhibitions “outside from WDC” ? It is so difficult to know about all the projects… Maybe I´m paranoid, but it makes me think still, is this exactly the way WDC organizers planned this? Cheapest way?

  6. I do agree
    Posted August 31, 2011 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    I would like to say “nice to hear that there are people who talk about this problem too” but that would give a negative image of the writer… It is not nice that we have this problem ALREADY.

    I´m writing from the point of view of Lahti located designer. I consider myself and my colleaques here in Lahti as very talented designers and experts, who would have had many nice and open-minded projects to offer for WDC, but we didn´t get any support from the decision-makers. Decision-makers want to organize their WDC 2012 and we designers want to organize our own WDC. But if we do it also financially by ourselves we are really shooting ourselves in the foot. Everyone is counting on “designers and artists who will do their designs anyway and who will have to make themselves visible in a way or another”. So, we are not the onces to support, even if we are the expert-onces to make real design and to think how design should really be embedded in life AND even if this should be our chance to show what we CAN do!

    Even if I would have a small possibility to take part on some projects I´m not sure if I want to do it. On the other hand it would be nice to make super nice design year with my colleagues, without money, but what for have we studied for? Is this just part of some bigger plan to educate more and more artists and designers to Finland so that we make design for free because we are too many, there´s too much competence and competition? So many developing ideas come from designers, because we can do so versatile things as conceptual design, design based on forms, art, interiors, graphics, user interface etc!

    I´m part of “the peaceful generation” but when it comes to WDC 2012 I feel like making a demonstration. Anyone else?…

  7. Maarit
    Posted August 31, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    Greetings from the World Design Capital Helsinki 2012 office. First of all, I’m sorry that it took us almost a day to reply – this day, as many of them, was fully booked with meetings with different people from the 2012 projects. Projects that will soon be ready to publish! We’re waiting for that as well.. It’ll be so much easier to explain what we are about to do when there are real examples of the actions.

    So, soon there will be no need to guess or speculate the 2012 programme. We hope that then you’ll notice that there are loads of different actors and projects involved, ranging from private persons to NGOs and from businesses to public sector, and from design experts to newcomers. There’ll be around 250 different projects in the official programme.

    And how do these 250 projects end up into the official programme? Through some serious background work that is done by our producers. Each and every one those almost 1400 programme suggestions has been studied carefully, and a great number of negotiations have been carried out. Everything that ends up in the official programme goes through a discussion in our board. That means around 300 individual discussions, at least. And let’s not forget the mother of the World Design Capital concept, Icsid (International Council of Societies of Industrial Design). We discuss and communicate about the programme with them regularly.

    A couple of words about the flyer. It’s actually not a World Design Capital Helsinki 2012 flyer, it is Helsinki the Venue’s flyer about all the big projects that are taking place in Helsinki next year. We let them borrow our visual identity because we thought it would be a nice gesture. If it were our flyer the blue logo would most definitely be there.

    And that brings us to the logo. And the fact that we have to make sure that it’s used in a right way. The logo is owned by Icsid, the same organisation that invented the whole concept of World Design Capital. The logo has been protected by international copyright and we’re only borrowing it until the end of 2012. There are some rules that came with the WDC designation and the rules are not negotiable. If we use the logo in a wrong way, or let someone else use it in a wrong way, there would be financial consequences – and that’s not how we want to use any of our budget.

    Anyways, it’s good that we talk about this. Let’s keep the discussion open! It’ll be interesting to hear what you think about the programme when it actually comes out.

    All the best,
    Senior Communications Officer at the WDC Helsinki 2012 office (I’m not fan of the titles but I thought it would be good to let you know that I do work with the project)

    PS: Almost forgot about the ice hockey! We are co-operating, indeed. There’s so much design in sports that this seems quite natural for us. Really natural actually. Sports equipment, sports arenas & architecture, service design at sporting events, information design in visualizing the games, graphic design, you name it. There are some hard-working and talented designers behind this all, and we respect that. (And, isn’t this one way to demonstrate openness and the fact that design is embedded in life, also in sports?)

  8. Tomi Po
    Posted September 1, 2011 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    Just a quick comment: If we truly wanted to enter the world of design with all of our hearts, we need to get the society as a whole involved. It’s not just what is done, but what is not done just as well. We need crazy projects, the kind that push and provoke the minds of the public masses until we get to the point when ordinary people start talking about the design and openly question and challenge the projects. Ultimately, we’ll need projects that will never get finished, because public masses raise up to shout ‘NO!’. The value here is not the money that has been spent, also it’s not how many people have seen the projects. The real value, in my mind anyway, comes indirectly. How valuable is it to have whole society thinking about design and design process? Average Janes and Joes talking about design in cafeterias or just in their own livingrooms. That’s value. It’ll change their thinking. It’ll produce unpredictable results. But I think it’s worth it.

  9. juhuu
    Posted September 1, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Maarit / WDC – thanks for the clarifying answer, which in fact gives a pretty good explanation for the issues I raised in my posting.

    It’s very problematic if all the accepted projects have to go through the central board of Helsinki WDC. The Helsinki WDC board is a small group of professional people who have their own daytime jobs and can only spend a limited time on WDC work. And it’s a big problem if the only facilitators involved are the producers who are not experts in production issues, not fields of design, art and urban culture.

    It seems that the tight rules of lcsid are one reason why there has to be so strict centralised control in the project. Based on Maarit’s comment, Helsinki WDC foundation has taken the responsibility to oversee every project that has the right to use the Helsinki WDC logo (and if lucky, has received some funding from Helsinki WDC). This is a very heavy responsibility to take for a small organisation like Helsinki WDC, so it’s no wonder if things have not been proceeding very smoothly.

    The link to my blog posting was featured in Helsinki WDC Facebook page with a question:

    “We are four months from the start of 2012 and it seems we’re not communicating openly enough. What do you think? What could we do better? ”

    Someone wrote this comment as a reply:

    “erm communicate perhaps? my company tried to communicate (unsuccessfully) with your organisation during a period of 12 months. Our application (which involved a significant amount of effort and work) was submitted on time for the early 2011… deadline. At no point did anyone discuss the proposal with us, discussions should have taken place in order that the proposal had the chance to be altered according to WDC requirements. The first communication (summer 2011) was to tell us we had been unsuccessfull after the producer had spent an hour or so that same day looking at it. There is no transparency as to what is going on in the programme and who and what is involved in the decision making and planning process. Sending the odd news email in Finnish is unacceptable for a project with global relevance and interest.”

    This comment has now mysteriously disappeared and unfortunately I don’t remember the name of the writer (I happened to send the text to a friend so I had it in my mailbox). This is the kind of critique that WDC should take seriously – I’ve heard a similar story from many other people. The Helsinki WDC organisation is clearly under-resourced to facilitate and support the amount of open activity that it would wish to happen next year.

    From the very beginning there should have been more responsibility given for a wide range of actors in the field. They should be made responsible for every penny of Helsinki WDC funding they use and for the correct use of the logo. This was the way things were arranged for the Helsinki Cultural Capital Year in 2000. Helsinki WDC seems to have borrowed the model of concentrating a lot of control for a central office from the current Turku Cultural Capital (with many of the same problems).

    About my comment about the flyer – yes, it’s true that it’s a Helsinki 2012 flyer, not just Helsinki WDC flyer. The problem is that at least in my knowledge, this is the only Helsinki WDC related flyer there is. I don’t have anything against sports events as such, but there should be signs of so many other things already by now, a lot of preparations going on and a lot of noise made about upcoming activities. Maybe there is a lot going on somewhere, behind closed doors, but again this would be strange considering the theme ‘Open Helsinki’.

  10. Posted September 1, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    I also would like to point out the same experience of having to wait for months and months, and some other issues which I would like to share. However, I must say, that I have enjoyed talking with various people at the WDC office, so no complaints about them as persons — I think it is just the scale of the project, lack of time and perhaps wrong processes that makes the outcome from a content producer’s point of view somewhat strange.

    Here are my experiences:

    I submitted our Alternative Party ry’s WDC application on time in February and only in June I got a reply from the WDC (where they said they would be interested in co-operating, but without any financial support). We then met at their office, but it looked like they were interested in completely other things than what the application was about. Of course, that is not a problem as such that we discussed other program ideas – some of them would be very interesting and we got lots of contact suggestions from WDC, which we are grateful – but I would perhaps would also been interested in implementing our own ideas… :)

    The main issue here is however that: to get a confirmation from WDC in June or July means that it becomes very difficult or impossible to get financial supporters for the projects. For example, the public sector (e.g. grants) or from corporations etc is simply too late. (You should apply for grants typically even over one year before the program begins.)

    Another thing I have been wondering is that I worked hard to get our application ready in time for the February deadline, but soon afterwards the WDC announced that “No problem if you didn’t make it in time. You can still submit your application.” — Somehow I don’t think this is fair and it is at least somewhat annoying that if you did your work in time, you still didn’t get any benefits from it.

    Anyway, I look forward to co-operate with WDC and some projects are already being planned and executed very soon. I would also be happy to discuss with the WDC how we could learn about these experiences for the future since I’m most interested in open innovation and collaborative content/design/product/etc creation methods and practices — both via my digital culture producing activities and my work in our research group at the Aalto University.

    Kim Viljanen
    Chairman, Alternative Party ry; Doctoral candidate, Aalto University
    some background about me and contact info: http://iki.fi/digikim

  11. Posted September 1, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    I have some in-depth knowledge to share on this matter, having been in Helsinki for two whole days last week….
    It sounds to me as if there are two interacting narratives here: the process by which projects have been selected [or not] for funding; and the theme of WDC as a whole.
    On the first question, I must say that 1,400 is a gigantic number of submissions by any standards. The WDC staffers I spoke to said they had indeed been somewhat overwhelmed by the scale of this response, and regretted that communications with applicants had been so patchy. For what it’s worth, they emphasized to me that a high proportion of these applications had been very professionally put together – so they do realize how much work was done, that did not bring a reward.
    Concerning the theme: it strikes me that Helsinki has positioned itself astride a fault line concerning WDC – and indeed all expos, fairs, festivals and the like. I say fault-line because openness, as a concept [and the wellbeing theme that Aalto University is leading on] are divisive – in a good way. They divide the “design world” into those for, and those against, openness, social responsibility, sustainability and transition to a new economy.
    WDC, as a model, does not exist to explore differences. It was set up to promote design as a good thing in-and-of-itself – which of course is nonsense. Eighty per cent of the environmental impact of products and services is determined at the design stage; and the great majority of the communications and branding that fuel the ecocidal consumer economy is carried out by the design business. If WDC 2012 marks the moment that we stop pretending that all design is marvelous, great – and I congratulate Helsinki for being the agent of a much needed breaking open of a too-cosy consensus.

  12. juhuu
    Posted September 2, 2011 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    John – thanks a lot for commenting this discussion!

    I think you are absolutely right in pointing out that Helsinki WDC is trying to do something different than previous WDC cities and many other design expos, fairs, etc. They definitely deserve credit for choosing a non-conventional theme for the year and I also believe that the staff is genuinely trying to do as good job as they can.

    The theme ‘Open Helsinki – embedding design in life’ has motivated all kinds of cultural actors to submit proposals, not just the usual suspects of the design scene, and this is clearly one source of the difficulties. There is a clash between different organisation cultures and mismatching expectations (some of these were pointed out in previous comments). One could even say that this clash cannot and should not be avoided – that it is bound to happen when vertical meets horisontal, formal meets informal, solid meets precarious.

    Hopefully the discussion can continue (here and/or elsewhere) and we can all learn from this.

  13. Maarit
    Posted September 2, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Dear Juha and dear all,

    it’s Maarit from WDC Helsinki 2012 office again. Now there are so many comments that need some kind of a reply that I really do have to take my time during the weekend. I just quickly wanted to say something about the WDC Helsinki 2012 Facebook page. Juha had spotted a comment there and said that it had “mysteriously” disappeared. Somehow this makes people wonder if we, at the WDC Helsinki 2012 office, deleted it. No we didn’t, the person who posted it had deleted it him/herself. All comments are welcome on the page, positive or negative (we’re trying to keep the wall clean from commercial messages, and of course inapproriate content, eg. racist comments).

    Best, and happy Friday

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