Once more on designing a better Helsinki and why activism isn’t just diversionary or frivolous

Make sense not war

Whilst I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say that “everyone is an environmentalist” (in Helsinki or anywhere else), I do think it’s fair to suggest that folks in all walks of life are tending towards the activist. Many, many people are trying to change things.

And why not? I don’t remember a time in my almost 50-year-old life when things were in quite this much need of being otherwise. Judging by the text painted on the wall of the old gasworks in Suvilahti that I spotted today, I’m not alone.

Below are (still) more thoughts on why we need to think about what the craze for self-organizing means. Grassroots urbanism, DIY (do-it-yourself) cities, DIWO (do-it-with-others) actions, P2P (peer-to-peer) networks, design activism, urban prototyping, low-budget urban design should be enjoyed but also better understood.

I look forward to collective efforts to make changes for the better as Helsinki’s long cold spring shows signs of turning into a summer. So:

Locally initiated informal actions for “alternative” ways of making cities are an undisputed reality. Recently social scientists have mostly been framing this in relation to economic crisis, and seeing it as a diffuse but significant social movement (Bialski et al. 2015, Novy and Colomb 2013, Susser and Tonnelat 2013). Urban experiments are also often seen as responses, even partial solutions, to frightening problems of global scale, notably environmental unsustainability. Many are celebrated by the media and welcomed by urban governments as proof of citizens’ entrepreneurialism. And of course, they contribute to a creative and sociable “buzz”. They are a way of instrumentalizing [sic] culture and creativity that Helsinki’s urban managers are increasingly likely to support.

And so in the Finnish capital Helsinki the self-reliant and self-directed urbanite is both a critic of and an accomplice to creative city policy-making (Comedia 2010). Growing numbers of people who work in creative production (architecture, design, communications) and for whom environmental concern is a norm find DIY urbanism to come very naturally.

This is not surprising. Helsinki itself is a green city in many ways. Seen from the air, it almost looks like a large village at the edge of an endless forest. The Green party is prominent in municipal government. A green-tinged vocabulary of design thinking geared to transitioning into a sustainable future complements older discourses of managing the city. Helsinki today appears more than willing to experiment in the face of uncertain futures.

Change making of the most literal kind is also big business in today’s Helsinki. Noteworthy physical change has started to take place across Helsinki since a new cargo port was opened in the suburbs in 2008 leaving city centre sites free for residential and business development. Print and online publications and the Department of Planning’s own info and exhibition space, Laituri, provide an endless stream of information and imagery of the beautiful New Horizons for Helsinki.  Here, large-scale architectural and infrastructure projects are offered as keys to better futures not forgetting the importance, of course, of us participants.

Meanwhile controversies over prestige architecture animate public debate. The New York-based Guggenheim Foundation’s desire for a museum on a site in the city’s historic centre has seduced some and enraged others (some note here in Finnish), as have other combinations of footloose capital and showy architecture. The pattern is familiar across the world.

At issue is not just physical but also cultural and social change. One avenue has been to add the lexicon of design to that of urban development (Julier and Leerberg 2014). In Helsinki this imported trend is being grafted onto an older nature-loving self-image as well as a home-grown culture of practical action.

Just in the last few years a local ecology of self-organising grassroots initiatives has grown. Its success is usually attributed to Finns’ enthusiasm for technology and social media but also for a national tradition of mutual aid within the community, talkoot (Paterson 2010) as well as international fashions. Restaurant Day began as a gentle protest against laws that make it hard for people to go into the restaurant business and evolved into a celebration of a DIY-spirit but also a way for Helsinki’s ethnic minorities to come into public view in a positive way. Maker culture and artistic practices cross-fertilise each other producing smaller and larger gatherings of people, recycling, reusing and cooperation schemes in countless neighbourhood level projects (Botero et al. 2012, Berglund 2013).

Two low-tech greenhouses, where people put their skills to work in imagining but also literally building alternatives to an unsustainable present, serve as examples of a wider phenomenon. Although not everyone involved has considered themselves activist, both projects have been activist in the sense of seeking change and seeking to make a point. Designating them as critique let alone protest may not be quite accurate. This, however, does not make them automatic stooges of an all-consuming neoliberalism.

No authority but yourself

Gentle rebellion

(The text below has only two hyperlinks. Maybe more later).

The Oxygen Room was built for the summer of 2000 in shrubbery overlooked by the parliament building and not far from several venues for high culture. Helsinki was a European capital of culture, so it made sense for the city to grant permission for building a glass pavilion made of recycled materials here, in what had long been derelict land but was now becoming the edge of a temporary art garden. A private foundation financed the project, professionals and volunteers from a network called “Kvinnor i extas” (Swedish for “women in ecstasy”, Finland being a bilingual country) built and ran the beautiful pavilion, and tourists, locals and the media loved it. It eventually came into the hands of the Finnish chapter of o2, the international network for sustainable design whose varied summer programmes continued until 2007, to the surprise of many. As exhausting as they were, those who were involved speak of those years with great fondness. Ecologically and socially oriented, events at the Oxygen Room contrasted hugely with the commercial world around, and even more perhaps with the subsequent transformation of the area into standard-issue twenty-first-century office architecture, a process still underway.

The other greenhouse is the Turntable urban farm and vegan café a little to the north of where the Oxygen Room once stood. The Turntable started as squatting, but later an environmental organisation, Dodo ry, helped it get more established. With institutional backing and external funding activists were able to expand gardening into an old railway turntable near the original guerrilla plot. The turntable’s steel frame has been turned into a functioning greenhouse while the area around has been transformed into plantings of various kinds, where activists experiment with permaculture and closed-loop urban agriculture. There is also a café that runs from time to time, partly on a volunteer basis, and importantly, the space is used for educational events and parties, as a launch-pad for spreading ideas and skills.

As elements of urban culture, both greenhouses have been opportunities for people to experiment with techniques, with reorganising labour, forging alternative identities but they have also been sources of joy. Both sites have been places where global vocabularies of commoning and participating in making the future city have been rooted in local ways of thinking and doing. It is no surprise that design – a practice requiring conceptual and practical skills at the same time – offers a shorthand if vague language for articulating what is going on: people are designing a better world.

Creative policy and informational fog

Yet the creation of alternative spaces and practices is also part of, rather than simply opposed to, policy goals in Helsinki. In a sense there is a top-down commitment to the bottom-up here as elsewhere, most obviously manifest in an official enthusiasm for creativity (Comedia 2010). This is not entirely new, as both artistic and engineering creativity have been imagined as particularly Finnish achievements since before independence in 1917. Native creativity was integral to the narrative of how design developed in Finland after the second world war when urbanization and reliance on industrial products became a majority experience even though the economy remained overwhelmingly based on a natural resource, forests. Closeness to nature was turned into a cultural virtue with 1950s Finnish design associated with forested landscapes and bearded design geniuses were almost imagined to grow out of its soil. However, nature-loving as a virtue took new meanings in the late twentieth century and environmental values became particularly visible in 2012, when Helsinki became World Design Capital.[i] The programme was designed to show that Helsinki was perfectly placed to become a vanguard of global green knowledge, a pioneer of designing solutions to global problems.

The city’s bid to be World Design Capital built on the idea that in Helsinki:

… design has for decades been a pivotal enabler to building an open city. The concept of ‘Embedded Design’ has tied design to innovation and has enabled desirable solutions that have addressed the needs of its inhabitants. Helsinki Design is also part of world design – it is created together with the international design community and the people of the world. (World Design Capital, press release 25.11.2009)

The World Design Capital year could be seen as signalling the arrival in policy not just of creativity but specifically of design. In particular there were two institutions, the small but growing think-tank Demos Helsinki, and Helsinki Design Lab (HDL), a well-resourced but small team of design and engineering professionals working under the auspices of Sitra/the Finnish Fund for Innovation, that promoted design’s potential in helping to solve wicked problems of global scope if not actually save the world or even the Finnish economy. These two institutions were prominent promoters of the idea that Finland (and the world) needs to get rid of of “eighteenth century institutions” (Boyer et al. 2011) and make space for new expertise and new politics. They argued that specialist expertise was old-fashioned and that rather than compartmentalized knowledge filtering through hierarchies down to the grassroots, better tomorrows will come from horizontal collaborations that work bottom-up. Design and design thinking were said to offer the “joined up thinking” and “people-centred” solutions that would facilitate such a transformation. And so the idea of design – in all its vagueness and new uses – was promoted by these two organisations as something that Finnish policy making really needed.

It was often not clear whether the promoters of these innovations were making normative or empirical statements, after all, much of the time they were talking of the future and playing with future scenarios. However, many saw new hope in small entrepreneurship growing from the grassroots, and the city and the national government continued to promote economic policies based on adding value through creativity, innovation and design (Muotoile Suomi / National Design Program 2013). And so grassroots activism easily merged into profit-seeking entrepreneurial activity.

What kind of critique is this then?

This also means that although these greenhouse projects and other forms design-influenced activism have been critical in intent and self-consciously “alternative”, they could be – and they have been – dismissed as banal extensions of Helsinki’s creative city policies. In the first as adding value to Helsinki as European capital of culture in 2000, and in the second, adding value to Helsinki as World Design Capital in 2012.

The likelihood that critique voiced by urban “creatives” is prone to being co-opted has been highlighted by many social scientists (Novy and Colomb 2013, Taylor 2013). Their critique echoes the suggestion that the environmentalist argument has been used to shut down, rather than open up, political space (Swyngedouw 2009). What is one person’s environment-friendly design is more work for someone else who is already over-worked and under-paid. And what looks like activism may be little more than eco-chic or, at best, hipsters feeling radical while fuelling capitalism-as-usual.

There is of course also the danger that large scale collective services and decision making – the things that in Nordic welfare states used to help the poor become wealthier – will simply be lost in the enthusiasm for self-organising. Then there is the problem is scale, for instance the current support of city governments for temporary uses of under-exploited spaces. “Pop-up” or temporary uses and occupancy of formerly derelict land – like both the greenhouse examples – are often encouraged by authorities and developers. In the end, however, they lead to the same corporate glass and steel that activists are often against. These temporary solutions can even be seen as “cosmetic” supports of speculative urban development whose association with activism can be cynically exploited (Tonkiss 2014).

At a more abstract level, we might note how the “informational fog” (Thrift 2012) of contemporary capitalism confounds understandings of change as economic activity becomes an accelerated race to simultaneously produce and consume. Embedded within the urban infrastructure and people’s intimate lives, information technologies fuel endless feedback loops and a sense of perpetual forward motion that serves profit, not people. So maybe activists are contributing to a smokescreen circus of only seemingly wholesome and planet-loving activity. However, they are also doing much that a narrowly neoliberal imagination cannot comprehend because it cannot make it commensurate with its main measure of value: money.

But it still feels to me that these collective grassroots design experiments are too important a site of creative collaboration to be dismissed as unwitting supports of creative capitalism. They require but also reward hard work and ingenuity and many, many hours of volunteer work. And I’d not say this is in vain. The intellectual labour of activism – gentle or otherwise – has for a long time been an under-appreciated aspect of what passes for shared knowledge. And in many ways, today’s grassroots designers are truly denaturalising the normality that industrialism (and industrial design) put into place, making us ask more persistently: “why are we being so stupid?”.

Perhaps because we’re so used to normality as (or in) a rush and the subjective sense of blur this induces, that ordinary fog I alluded to earlier. In an activist mode we do get to step out of our habitual informational fog from time to time, into a greenhouse, for example. Things appear differently here.

Turntable April 2014 by EB


Bialski, Paula; Heike Derwanz; Birke Otto; Hans Vollmer (2015) ‘”Saving the city: Collective low-budget organising and urban practice’, Ephemerajournal, online http://www.ephemerajournal.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/issue/15-1ephemera-feb15.pdf

Botero, A.; A.G.Paterson; J. Saad-Sulonen (eds) 2012. Towards Peer Production in Public Services: Cases from Finland, Helsinki: Aalto University.

Boyer, B.; J. W. Cook; M. Steinberg. 2011. In Studio: Recipes for Systemic Change. Helsinki: Sitra.

Comedia ‘Helsinki as an Open and Intercultural City: Final Report’, Comedia/the City of Helsinki, March 2010.

Julier, Guy and Malene Leerberg (2014) ‘Kolding – We Design For Life: embedding a new design culture into urban regeneration’, Yhdyskuntasuunnittelu / Finnish Journal of Urban Studies, pp.39-56. Also online http://www.yss.fi/journal/kolding-we-design-for-life/

Muotoile Suomi / National Design Program (2013) www.tem.fi/innovaatiot/kysynta-_ja_kayttajalahtoinen_innovaatiotoiminta/kayttajalahtoinen_innovaatiopolitiikka/muotoilu/kansallinen_muotoiluohjelma [accessed 29.04.2015]

Novy, J. & Colomb, C. 2013. ‘Struggling for the Right to the Creative. City in Berlin and Hamburg: new urban social movements, new “spaces of hope”’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol.37(5): 1816-38.

Paterson, Andrew Gryf. 2010. ‘A Buzz between Rural Cooperation and the Online Swarm’, Affinities: Theory, Culture, Action (online http://p2pfoundation.net/Rural_Cooperation_and_the_Online_Swarm accessed April 2015)

Swyngedouw, E. 2009. ‘The Antinomies of the Postpolitical City: In Search of a Democratic Politics of Environmental Production’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. Vol. 33.3: 601-20.

Taylor, B. (2013) ‘From alterglobalization to Occupy Wall Street: Neoanarchism and the new spirit of the left’, CITY, Vol.17(6): 729-747.

Thrift, N. (2012) ‘The insubstantial pageant: producing an untoward land’, Cultural Geographies, 19: 141-168.

[i] The status is granted every two years to a city by ICSID (International Council of Societies of Industrial Design): Turin 2008, Soeul 2010, Helsinki 2012, Cape Town 2014, Taipei 2016.

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