Out of the tank

Roope Mokka is co-founder of the Finnish think tank Demos Helsinki and the urban environmental association Dodo. We met to talk about what think tanks like Demos Helsinki do, how Demos is structured, and how its form of practice and inquiry might inspire design activists and others interested in the profession of creating social change. 

KM: Let’s start with a short introduction: you co-founded the think tank Demos Helsinki – could you tell us a little about your professional background and how it all came along? 

RM: I had worked at really what was the forefront of digital media in the 90’s: as a design researcher  at the Media Lab of the University of Art and Design (now Aalto University) and as a internet technologies and markets analyst in London City. Even if it was great to able to try out both for academic and commercial frontiers of digitalization it was far from satisfying. I’m sure it happens to everyone working in a traditional setting eventually. You get this feeling of “well, I know how this should be done!”.  

I had studied philosophy with a friend, Aleksi, before and we were accustomed to complain to our professors that “there is no work for philosophers”. We’d both considered PhDs. That, however, often ends up being quite a lonely road disconnected from society, we decided not to. That’s when one of our professors in philosophy infected us with the idea of think tanks as philosophers practices – we started researching them and were really impressed with the work of Demos UK, so we just founded Demos Helsinki based on the same ideas of taking democratic action to the next level.

How is Demos Helsinki structured and where do you get the funding from?

There is eight of us and we’re all equal partners. We wanted to create this partnership- structure to keep the organization flat. We think Demos should work like an independent university with public and private research funding. We were the first think tank in Finland and remain very unique. Therefore finding work was very difficult in the first 5 years. However now we have established a practice that works well – we have to turn down a lot of work. We’re basically always project-funded. To remain independent, we aim to work across sectors: all industries, governments, cities, NGOs and research programs are all our clients. As another way of creating independence we’ve established brands that we own ourselves, such as ‘Peloton’. We own Peloton and companies can participate in it, but not change its premises – these brands and metaphors are important tools for independence. In Peloton all the research is funneled towards sustainable lifestyles and energy efficiency services. ‘Democracy and co-creation’ will be the next new brand!

 Sounds promising… How do you organize yourselves in your work, what does a typical work day look like at Demos?

I can’t remember when I last worked alone for a day, maybe emails in the morning, but most of the time it’s with someone. So we’re very, very good at collaborations and meetings in general. Working always together with someone can of course be a bit of a pain sometimes, but the fact is that two people always beat one in creativity, intelligence and productivity. So the basic structure is to always have three people on a project and all projects involve everyone at some point. In this way we learn. For our success it is critical to share new understanding, knowledge and learning. Otherwise we wouldn’t be very efficient.

Because we’re just eight, it’s very easy to have a shared understanding. When you’re small enough, it’s possible. We’re almost too many already, as work requires a lot of empathic energy.

 Could you tell me a little more about the people Demos Helsinki is composed of?

We are people from various backgrounds. Most of us come from social and political sciences. We have one who has done business studies, an economist, a geographer, a few philosophers… One thing we have managed to do is to spread environmental studies amongst social scientists. A basic understanding of environmental sciencesis crucial for solving today’s problems. In general we are reluctant on specialization, which is more often a way to say “I don’t want to learn that” rather than a driver for learning. If there is one specialization we all share that is future studies. Future studies is our understanding of trans-disciplinary thinking and inquiry.

Do you have new people and ‘outsiders’ coming in as well?

Oh, yes. In total there’s always around fifteen of us at the office; freelancers, specialists and trainees. We have trainees that we often continue to employ for some time, which has been a good way of extending our expertise. At one point we had a lot of ethnographers, which has expanded our knowledge of methods a lot. Now, we have many designers. Next we’re looking for interns in organizational development.

What are the socio-political agendas Demos Helsinki is working on? Do you have a certain focus? What do you see as the biggest challenge of our society and of the world?

It’s the combination of individual and climate change – free people meeting the limits of natural resources. Nobody likes to be told what to do and we all like to express ourselves; but at the same time there are limits to the resources of our world. There is no reversing in free will and self-expression, we are all liberalists and don’t like to be told what to do. We value choice and self-expression. The more educated they are, the more people tend to value choice.

So we have roughly fifteen years time to create a mass movement, a major shift. We need to renew or redesign most of the current industries and jobs alongside. That’s a massive task. Creating new industries that people and politicians can look at, enabling them to have a vision of where to work alternatively. If they don’t see a desirable alternative, they won’t give up their established behaviors. This I see as the most inspiring challenge: people are meant to be free, but right now, it’s exactly this freedom that’s breaking the material boundaries of our globe! Where can we channel it?

What about attitudes and value-change? Doesn’t that induce new behaviors?

From a social scientist view, frankly not. New attitudes follow actions – so people need to experience activities in order to change their attitudes towards them, not the other way around. Value change is a generational process i.e. it takes generations to prevail – we don’t have that much time from the climate challenge view. We have about 15 years, and the outputs are just growing and growing. We have to look at quicker ways of changing than just technologies and value change. Value change is slow and “sustainable technologies” often lead into the rebound-effect of using even more resources.

The alternative route is of how to look at how for example hobbies and diets have spread very quickly trough the globe and changed behaviors. A hobby does not need to have values behind it. You just do it. This is happening now in energy efficient housing, people taking it up because they can, because it’s becoming the new normal.

Are there other ways of achieving attitudinal change?

When people experience big changes in their lives they start doing things differently. Forming a family for example has a huge impact to our lives. There are a lot of studies on how people turn from non-drivers to frequent drivers when they have children and suddenly think they need a car for special occasions, but then quickly start driving everywhere.

 Another thing that changes our attitudes is a change of perspective. This however happens only a couple of times in your lifetime. Sometimes, they become very spiritual moments, but they don’t actually happen that often. If you want to create a new routine, you should support yourself to have fun around it instead of pushing yourself make the decision about it. I did that with jogging after I learned about the science behind it – I became a runner!

Designers can use this to think about experiences for people. If you learn new attitudes only by doing, how can you ‘trick’ people into doing or trying something differently? Often people want to do something even if to start doing it and keep doing it are difficult. This is where the designer’s role is huge. Understanding different experiences people go through when trying new, for example ecological lifestyles.

You have mentioned the term ‘gatekeepers’ in one of our previous conversations – could you elucidate in more detail what it means? 

A gatekeeper is someone who can impact peoples’ lifestyles. In most of our projects, we use the gatekeeper modeling to create system change now. Its very easy and efficient. You just start drawing – what behavior you want to re-design? Whom are the people present when the decision regarding this behavior is done?  Whom are the people who motivate others, who design and decide about their surroundings? For example, when we worked with youth and increasing their exercising, we started mapping out the groups of people whom can impact youth’s decisions to exercise or not – so we ended up innovating with supermarket owners, city-planners, game-makers and so forth. In the traditional way you would have worked just with schools, parents and politicians.

We’ve done massive projects by mapping out the gatekeepers of ecological life. And learned a few lessons also: Firstly, actions create values, so we create opportunities to do things. Living an ecological life is not more difficult than living a non-ecological one. Secondly, mass communication rarely changes behavior because people get in touch with it at the wrong time – when you make choices about buying a house, you don’t think about the stuff that you saw on TV the other day. Therefore, the estate agent would be the gatekeeper to talk to.

On top of estate agents we also work with supermarkets, grocery-stores etc., everyone who defines or could define ecological lifestyles. Before there is a movement towards ecological lifestyles, there won’t be any structural changes. One creates movements by working with gatekeepers. So don’t wait for the changes in law or “the economy”, but create the action in order to change laws and businesses. If you speak to business leaders and politicians, even they don’t feel like they can do anything that does not have a mass-demand for. They don’t want to risk jobs, including their own. That’s why the key to shaping societies is creating movements with gatekeepers.

How do you work with governments and business leaders?

We usually work with the leaders on top level. We used to go around a lot networking and meeting powerful people. It hasn’t always been like this though. Some four years ago we met the mayor’s office of the second largest city in Finland to talk about our ideas, but they didn’t buy it back then. Even though we were wearing suits! However, they did come back with an almost identical brief a few years later. This happens very often with new practices. Now we work with these people because they understood that it is important and they’ve heard it from us first.

Another thing is when people come to us and ask. Since we don’t really sell any products, it’s always very difficult to make a work plan. People are sometimes even shy because they don’t know who we work with. We are also very open and public with our projects, and not everybody feels comfortable with that. We always have this concept of ‘the other client’, which is society at large. It might be a publication that people can read, but it is always important to look at what society gets out of it, not only our and the client’s benefit.

Do people read those publications? 

Yes, we usually print some thousand copies that fly out of hand. We distribute these also very carefully – to gatekeepers of the gatekeepers – the city and business boards and other decision makers. With a publication, we make a statement about the importance of things by communicating: “This is so important that we make books about it!”

You have worked with Aalto University’s School of ARTS (former Taik) since some time doing the Intro-sessions with MA design students and have mentioned other involvements with designers before – why? 

The ideas of digitalization and user-centric-design blew my mind in the late 1990s at Taik’s MediaLab. Now when Toni Kauppila asked me to give a lecture about systems thinking for all the new design MA masters I loved the idea. He thought it would be a good way of introducing designers to start reflecting about the bigger context and what kind of studies would still be needed to expand their skills and knowledge. We ask questions like where is design needed? Where can I use my skills? – which are very important questions. It is good to understand and encourage from the beginning of one’s studies that alternatives need to be established. The students are usually quite caught up in the designer’s box, and when they graduate they just work for the industry. 

How do you see the role of design in society? What do you think design does well and how could it improve its positive impacts (from your perspective)? 

I think designers are essentially good at empathy – looking at how people might experience the world. That’s something designers can do very well, and there is a social and commercial need for that everywhere in the world. There is this new idea that designers can understand not only desires and emotions, but also the concepts of systems and design thinking: designers connecting existing systems with the human experience. Unless you understand what society’s problem are all about, we can only design in a bubble. Unfortunately, this is what is often missing from the design curricula. 

Think-tanks are an interesting form of practice and inquiry, possibly also for designers interested in societal change. How would you envision your ideal think tank and would designers have a place in it? 

Hmm, that would be a think tank that comes up with new economic models, business designs that are sustainable in the economic sense. Social psychology and education would need to be part of it, because they understand behavior in the deepest sense. I would make sure that everybody would learn about environmental science so that they would understand systems. Quantitative research methods of social scientists are also really useful. And then there would be the designers that make sure that something happens. A think tank composed only of designers looking at what design is doing is not going to solve anything – we need the combined knowledge and skills of future-oriented fields to be able to make real impacts.

Thank you, Roope for this insightful interview and your time!

 Kiitos to you! 

This interview took place on 2.11.2012 on a rainy morning in café Sis Deli, Helsinki.

Links of interest:

RM, KM & AFL, 7.12.2012

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