Talk: Stories, Behaviour and Purpose @ Mashable Innovation Series / BMW Guggenheim Labs Berlin

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I recently gave a talk in Berlin about cities, design and technology and since most services made for sharing presentations suck, here is the talk fully transcribed and noted. In case you still want your Slideshare or Speakerdeck-link, see the links at the bottom of the page. Thank you Jennifer & others at Mashable and BMW Guggenheim Labs for the opportunity to share my views, despite the freezing mix of sunshine, rain and thunder. There will be a video later on as well, follow this space.


Hello my name is Sami and I’m here to talk about how to make our surroundings better with design and technology.

I come from Helsinki, Finland. This years World Design Capital, and according to certain glossy, well designed magazines, one of the best places to live in the world. Helsinki is known for it’s convenient size, architecture and recent developments in urban planning.

Since we’ve been talking about urban mobility and bicycles at lot today, this is one of the developments I threw up here literally 15 minutes ago. City of Helsinki converted an unused industrial railroad track running through the city into a bikepath Baana. It was opened in early June, and just crossed 100 000 rides on that meter you see on bottom right. As I don’t own a car and ride a bike instead, this is completely awesome to me, I have literally no traffic lights on my 9km ride to work now.

And people of Helsinki have also this quirky sense of humor, while are as appreciative of design as ever — here is a meme compare the new, beautiful chapel of silence built in the city center to …a kebab.

However, originally I grew up at the beautiful Finnish countryside, literally in the middle of thousand lakes. I grew up in a small rural township in the middle of nowhere. I also grew up in a prison, but that’s a whole another story. (my parents worked there).

The community I grew up in was a strage mix of state-governed facility and actually a fairly close-knit suburban community. With the echoes of socialist era, we shared a lot of things there — no-one had their own lawnmovers, and all the tools where shared. There were wood and metal shops, open for all outside the “office hours” when they were used to rehabilitabe and educate prisoners back to the community. Afterwards I’ve realized how this environment affected me — this was early to late 80s, and we even recycled our papers, not because it was green or trendy but simply because it made sense.

Another thing Finland is known for is it’s design heritage. Alvar Aalto, Iittala, Fiskars and all of that. The small state run school I attended had most of it’s furniture by Artek. The country was and still is basically littered with Aalto Stools from Artek and all kinds of beautiful glassware from Kaj Franck and the Virkkala brothers. The orange Fiskars scissors are found in pretty much every single household in Finland.

I believe this all gives me an unique angle to contribute to cities and urban living through design. What I’m talking about here today is rethinking urban space through the lens of functional and human centric interaction design. What I’m really interested in are questions like how to make and enable things for the city that are meaningful and have either metaphorical or actual tangible place in people’s lives?

Nordkapp — the company I co-founded and work in works on all kinds of products, services and systems. We work a lot with media and emerging tehcnologies, with both corporations being disrupted by digital and startups causing the disruption. One of the things we completed a year a ago is called Urbanflow Helsinki. It’s a concept work, piece of design fiction telling a story of how urban screens have a place in the city enhancing people’s lives and making the city more transparent and friendly for all.

On a personal level, one of the major learnings of the project was really how different parts of the new and old worlds live in completely different space, time and pace. I looked into this, and found out the Clock of Long now where Steward Brand talks about pace layers.

Pace layering theory suggests that buildings can be divided into different “layers,” each defined by the speed by which it changes: while the structure, for instance, changes very slowly, the skin, or exterior surface, changes more rapidly, and the interior layout and the position of furniture change more rapidly.

to me, it kind of feels like watching a landscape from a moving train at high speed.

Closest to you is fashion. It’s kind of blur and unexpectd. It’s followed by commerce (design as well I suppose) Then, much slower and visible already there is infrastructure, governance and the completely in focus at the back culture and nature. What we found out is that things that digital technology enables currently reside somewhere between the first two — trying to better / upgrade infrastructure is already a leap of faith, as is governance. Making a mobile app is easy, but digging a hole on a street in a city not so. The upside here is that with big enough leverage, your reward is major, lasting change on the system.

When working with complex design problems, I always come back to architect Eliel Saarinen‘s principle of designing things to the next largest context — chair in a room, room in the building, etc—which connects to this quite nicely. We’re essentially talking about micro- and macroscale here. When adding digital bits together with physical things, we have to go both ways — the next smaller, human context is quite important too.

What comes to designing for the city, I think this is quite important:

When we make digital things — products, services and connected artefacts — they all tend to add their own traces to the bigger picture. The current augmented reality is a very rudimentary and literal example of what this means. POIs on camera or QR codes printed on paper are just the beginning — there is so much more to this.

These traces form another kind of layering on top of the city. One that is digital, contextual and technologically mutually exclusive — it’s pieces are visible to only the ones who are equipped to see them. iPhone apps, AR, Google Glasses. Robot readable things. The traces are visible to mobile devices, on our digital maps, personal fitness assistants and so forth as points of interest, clues and signs to something deeper. All that. Sometimes they come alive as connected, interlinked blinking wristbands in a rock concert engaging even a deeper connection between the performer with the audience.

One obvious thing to do here is “gamify” the physical space. Checking in/out to planes is one, very rudimentary thing but there’s more to it— we are already seeing glimples of a more meaningful interactions: games like Zombie Run and Shadow Cities create their own universe, which is then anchored very tightly into into physical locations and distances.

On a bit less wizard skills/pointy hat level, the app Strava lets you compete against other riders on your bike rides. This is done by tracking your rides on a map, and then dividing them into segments where anyone can race you.

The urban space suddenly becomes a service, visible to you and your peers by its augmentation through your personal prosthetics: connected devices.

Where this gets interesting is the cognitive layers on how we experience design: things we think, feel and assume based on our gut feeling and existing knowledge. what acts or possibities make a city or a space enjoyable?

The city for you can be very different from the official intent. Things like psychogeography: how does the city feel to you, at day or during the night?

This experience is really about personal and shared states of mind and intent: what is it you are doing, or would like to? Intent is HUGE part of your subjective experience, and a large defining factor on how things feel to you. Being distractive and right on time are not that far apart.

How to make use of all this then? When finding the right application for your phone might be a problem, how does one go finding these digital, mutually exclusive layers of data?

The answer is, it doesn’t work very well yet. The affordance is barely there and yet very selective But one day, one way or the other reading these overlays will be the digital lingua franca — once we find the common denominator that will be the code that lets us in.

Good thing is there are few big shifts on the maker’s side:

People like Marc Andresseen and Douglas Rushkoff have written great amounts about the increasing role of software in our immediate future. Devices like the iPad are penetrating to emergency rooms, airplane cockpits and heavy industry. This is Moore’s law in action— lean consumer devices and experiences are winning over the large IT systems.

What’s more, the basic price and feature set of sensors is pretty fixed now with now major disruptions in the horizon. In practice this means making connected things from atoms is now easier than ever before.

What comes to technology, connected cities & citizens: the future will be more and more pervasive. The internet is already bleeding out from the screens to our everyday surroundings.

I absolutely love If This Then That — it’s basically a service for building internet macros. setting triggers and moving bits from places to another. HW manufacturers like Belkin are also starting to catch up and building their own internet of things around it.

Second, while the technology is matured, the internet works its way up to funding mechanisms as well. Kickstarter is at the moment probably one of the largests and most successful example of this bottom-up, long tail economy of product design, but there are more and more services that let you do this. The basic premise of all of these is that you can now share the risk of developing products with the regular people who you convince.

And it’s not always money that’s needed: Finnish innovation fund Sitra’s Strategic Design Lab is currently tinkering something called Brickstarter. It is a prototype of a service and exploration of 21st century decision making — anyone can suggest, fund and share projects and even volunteer their time and skills for making the city better through bottom up initiatives, like setting up shared workspaces in abandoned space or helping out to set up a new organic cornerstore.

Third, and maybe the most important thing is people are getting used to trading a bit of their privacy into anonymous, quantifiable information. There are an increasing number of wearable gadgets that tap into this, and more and more non consumer things in our immediate environment. Mostly everything is soon connected, and measurable — and there are huge implications for the makers here. Nike’s most valuable asset is no longer the supply chain but the data and behaviour their products collect.

Everything being measurable can be quite beneficial for the city — Making the invisible data visible makes it useful as well. Helsinki City Transport just released travel time maps which let you compare your travel times based in public transport, cycling and so forth.

Desirability and enjoyment comes through the personal relation — I’ve been testing Nike Fuel for about a month now. What surprised me is how easily I find meaning in the fairly abstract numbers through comparison and motivation to anomynized peers around the world. We all want to feel better than our peers.

It is important to acknowledge there’s a few things beyond our control. The unknown unknowns, dark matter that connects everything.

Since these new services mostly live in digital space, they will get to know you pretty well. And since they barter valuable services in exchange, people will be quite happy to share their personal data with the service, without necessarily realizing the implications.

Products and like Instagram and Foursquare are now on the verge of being bit-too-smart puppies and taking too educated guesses of our personal relationships. In this case, my Instagram told me my twitter “friend”—not a brand account I follow—a boutique from Berlin joined their service. As much as I like to ooze over expensive niche products at Firmament, there are all kinds of simple assumptions going wrong here.

There’s another thing at play here as well. Behaviour and language plays a huge role in this. Another thing that struck me with Nike Fuel is how excited it is, all the time. It feels to me they are trying to be that smart puppyness but are yet to quite nail it. Especially to an european it feels the app is super excited all the time. This was my first day using the Fuelband.

Interaction language with human like behaviour isn’t easy, and the last few miles out of the uncanny valley are the hardest. There are many many things that will feel weird or broken until we get it right.

The consequence of digital transactions is that soon the city around us will know our intent before ourselves. Our every action is measurable, and trackable.

I think it’s extremely important that as designers we refuse to leave the city to commercial entities alone. Remember, we are now at the seam of fashion and commerce. We can make things fashionable, but the driving point of all this should be the people and the meaning for them. There’s nothing wrong with commercial value per se, but in the long run the honesty and transparency will win over blatant opportunism.

And things will break down. There is no such thing as seamless. There will always be seams, cracks and ways for the chaos to sneak in. Good thing is these seams are also very fertile ground for disruptions and new things. The fringes are really where innovation and disruption emerges. There’s always interesting and unpredictable things at the seams.

The intent may vary, as well. With a huge body of data, our intent and interest may as well be very different from the service providers or the authorities. And as product and service designers we have to understand the people will use our things differently than we intended.

So… The city is what we make of it, really. At best, the physical and digital layers we make for the city enable new meanings to abandoned spaces, make new places and act as a beacon for others wishing to do so.

What is happening here really is new and old world colliding. Art and digital culture moves so much faster than the underlying structures. The old and new world are permanently out of sync but it doesn’t matter really for they can coexist in harmony.

Back to Finland — a country of rules and regulations. The scenery in the picture here might be nearly everyday here in Berlin, but in Finland it is most definitely not. Setting up an establishment serving fresh food and alcohol can involve quite a bit of bureaucracy along with a myriad of dos and don’ts . There is a point to this — but too much is too much.

Such was the premise of Ravintolapäivä — restaurant day initiated bit over a year ago. it’s a grassroots movement ran through the web and Facebook where anyone can set up a restaurant wherever they want to, no permissions required or asked from anyone.

At the first day, there were over 300 private popup restaurants all over the city so the officials realized fairly quickly to give in. It’s been a great success and was recently organized for the fourth time. Even the city officials are now giving in and changing the rules for the better. This is a great example on how a movement started by a couple of people can change the whole city, and maybe even culture for the better.

Here again mobile technology was the glue to it all: you could easily download an app where to pin down your favorite places to visit on a map on a certain time. The apps were developed in hackdays over a weekend, for free.

Apart from being an example of bottom-up change, Restaurant day makes a great story.

Stories or narratives have been shared in every culture as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation and to instill moral values. As of now, stories are a way to rise above the noise. Be honest, share your roots and help people understand and empathize with your story.

In a same way, cities are full of data. Data made visual equals meaning. Only by telling compelling stories that evoke emotional reactions we can make change happen.

The most of human sensorial bandwidth is visual so seeing is believing — Stuff like this is quite useful, and becomes enjoyable over the time when it keeps providing value to me.

This applies to a lot of other things, only by being transparent storytellers we are able to motivate change around the things we do. Be it fitter middle aged men, more recycling or less trash on the streets.

So, to wrap up… our cities are and will be full of noise.

To stand out in the noise, we have to make things and build services that are meaningful. Things that earn their place in people’s lives. technology is the enabler here, the glue that connects ideas with reality.

With layers of society as leverage points, the slower the layer, the greater the leverage. I encourage you to aim for the big, hairy problems and solve the smaller ones along the way.

For designers and makers, best thing to do figure this out by making stuff. Don’t waste your time thinking about the future too much —make it tangible through props, prototypes or real products. After all, making bits is fairly cheap and easy. If they fail, you know what doesn’t work. Then rinse and repeat.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Steve Jobs — because the things we make shape the city, for better and worse. it’s up for the people, us, to make cities how we want them to be. Change comes from passion deep within, and that passion can be harnessed to build great products that will change the world for the better.


To complete image credits and links, please see the embeddable presentations below:

Links and Image credits
Main photo:
zeigor on instagram
New bikepath Baana in Helsinki
Chapel vs kebab
Countryside photo: Jussi Pasanen / @jopas
Urbanflow Helsinki
Pace layers image from Howard Silverman, People & Places 2009:
Alvar Aalto’s work from, and Wikipedia.
Xylobands Facebook
Shadow Cities: Teppo Kotirinta / Nordkapp
Google Project Glass
If this then that:
Belkin WEMO
Brickstarter by Sitra SDL
Helsinki Transport Travel Time Map
Nike Fuel
Tesco QR Code subway ad:
William Gibson on the art of fiction at the Paris Review

Ravintolapäivä / Restaurant Day
Helsinki City Public Transport Visualised
Candy Chang; it’s Good to be here
Steve Jobs quoted on

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