Raise your hand if you have ever caught yourself thinking “Even I could have designed this better” when for example exploring a new shopping mall, traveling on a new bus route, or using a new mobile app, for example. We might even think that the design team has forgotten the user perspective entirely and haven’t even tested the outcome before publishing it. On its road to being the most functional city in the world, Helsinki has successfully embraced participatory design and quick experiments in its urban development projects. Could there be something for example the construction sector could learn from these experiences?
Changing the mindset to accelerate innovation
In 2016 the Finnish government set out to boost the digitalisation of the built environment. The Ministry of Environment launched a project called Kira-Digi and during its three-year existence, it funded all together 139 projects in the real estate and construction industries. The project helped to bring testing and piloting culture to the otherwise quite slowly changing industries.
“The real estate and construction sector is the biggest industrial sector in the world. And it’s been slow to implement new technologies and benefit from those. Kira-Digi was a wake-up project to make the industry realise there are different technologies and digital opportunities around us, and we should start embracing them. So, one of the biggest objectives was to get as many organisations and companies in the field experimenting with new digital opportunities,” tells Teemu Lehtinen, CEO of KIRAHub, the successor of the Kira-Digi project.
So how to change the mindset of the construction industry to embrace experiments? Teemu Lehtinen shares his key learnings.
1. Openness leads to success
Finnish society is based on openness. Everyone, private people and businesses, has access to a vast amount of data about almost anything you can imagine from consumer habits to weather data and everything in between. Not forgetting the strict privacy aspects, though.
Open data has long been the key innovating enabler in the Greater Helsinki region. Datasets are publicly available at opendata.fi for anyone to use and build new solutions on. In addition to the openness of the data itself the results and learnings from projects are often shared as well.
Openness was also the key experimental mechanism for the Kira-Digi. Everything that was produced during the project had to be open for everyone so the whole ecosystem, not just single companies, could learn and benefit. Also outside the Finnish borders.
“We were able to create this experimental sandbox where everyone was collaborating and openly learning from each other. And that was one of the key things why the project was so successful. Later we got feedback from abroad that people have been downloading some of the project reports and results even in Finnish language and using Google Translate to convert them into English,” laughs Lehtinen.
2. Plan, but not too tightly
Developing through piloting and testing is at the core of developing a smart city. Although you are innovating through experimenting it doesn’t mean you do not need a plan. The method gives you more opportunities to easily adjust the way your development project is going. Experimental development is a great method when you are creating something so new that you don’t yet know what the best solution is or how users will experience the service.
“You shouldn’t plan for long projects with specific steps. Of course, you need to have an objective, but you don’t have to know how to get there. Just start experimenting and you learn to guide your way forward,” Teemu Lehtinen explains.
Two of the major urban development areas in Helsinki, the Kalasatama and Jätkäsaari neighbourhoods in the vicinity of Helsinki city centre, have been developed extensively by using agile piloting methods. True to the open mindset of the region and agile piloting, the key learnings and best practises have been published in a Pocket Book for Agile Piloting for everyone to use.
3. Keep making noise with a positive attitude
Taking new ways of doing things into practice usually means that you have to give up on old ways. An open mindset and the willingness to change are key. And if people do not know about the new services, what was the point in creating them in the first place?
Experimental culture is something that is in the DNA of the Finnish people, perhaps that is why agile piloting works so well here. The pragmatic and functional nature of the people and the ideal size of the market has created a positive experimental atmosphere in the region. Greater Helsinki is small enough to pilot and big enough to scale up a solution. If it works here it will work anywhere. The ‘fail fast, succeed fast’ mindset feeds creativity, and paves the way for innovations.
“Keep making noise and run with it. Doing things with a positive and enthusiastic vibe is a key thing in life to get anything done,” concludes Lehtinen.