The Future Smart City, Interview with Anne Stenros
– by Laura Quinton, 05.02.18
Anne Stenros is Helsinki City’s Chief Design Officer. In this pioneering, world-first role, it is Anne’s challenge to make design-thinking, user understanding and experimentation culture integral components of city development. Anne gave an inspiring talk at our recent Smart City India Meet Up, in which she drilled in to the deep-rooted requirements and social mechanisms that shouldn’t be forgotten in the development of Smart Cities. What does Smart City even mean?! Here’s our post Meet Up interview…
‘ In the future, cities will evolve from being ‘smart’ to being ‘responsive’, meaning that the citizens will move from the centre of attention to the centre of action.’ – Anne Stenros
You hold the pioneering position of Helsinki City’s Chief Design Officer. What are your objectives in this role? Please describe your Innovation Universe! And should more cities appoint CDOs?
In general, design-thinking and strategic design give the user perspective to problems and their solutions because of the human-centric approach. However, in the scale of the city, one cannot talk about user experience as such, but citizen experience; which means that when planning and solving problems we should design with citizens – rather than to citizens – and we should also design for the Greater Good and with future generations in mind.
My innovation universe has a very small starting point: a human being. This has been my mantra since studying architecture at university. Alvar Aalto, the famous Finnish architect, poignantly stated: “We should work for simple, good, undecorated things… but things which are in harmony with the human being and organically suited to the little man in the street.”
If you put the human being in the centre, everything else will follow. To do so, you should also use your imagination: consider what people should or could do in the future… what kind of built environment will they need to enable them to live life to the fullest?
The idea of the Chief Design Officer is good, but to make it grand we really need more cities that are aware and brave enough to give freedom for creative problem-solving and experimentation. Today, in my opinion, cities are still far too closed, as organizations, to collaborate and co-create with their fast-moving surroundings and with open-minded creatives.
How do you think that design can enhance public sector service planning? How can design-thinking better citizen experience?
As an architect, I am used to thinking about systems in a very holistic way. And this approach gives me the advantage, to not only focus on a single customer journey, but to also see the interdependencies and the systemic whole.
Since the ‘city’ is the ultimate complex system, it should be treated as such. Problems and solutions pertaining to the city should not and can not be simplified. One should also remember, that service design and service planning are always political acts: that will directly impact people’s lives. Therefore, the idea of designing for the greater good should be always present in policy design.
One of my all-time favourite quotes is by one of the greatest 20th century architects, Louis Kahn: “A city is a place where a small boy, as he walks through it, may see something that will tell him what he wants to do his whole life.” This idea of being inspired for one’s whole life by one’s urban environment is ‘Citizen Experience’ at its best. The City could and should proliferate an abundance of ideas, inspiration and creativity for all kinds of people.
You’ve stated that Helsinki City planning is about opening the space, encouraging citizen democracy, maximizing citizen participation and improving citizen experience for all. Where do these principles inherently come from? Why is Helsinki, above many other cities, so successful at implementing change without compromising on egalitarian principles?
There is a strong tradition of inclusiveness in Nordic countries: people should have equal opportunities to contribute to society. The idea of citizen involvement and participation is an extension of that principle: the city should serve its citizens rather than vice versa.
In many cases, local grassroot activities are flourishing because the local people know best what works there and what not.
On the other hand, we need also the bigger picture: the guiding principles and the vision that are set by the democratic institutions. Working side by side, the institutions and citizens can achieve something which works for all.
I’ll cut to the point, the Smart Cities Mission in India has garnered some criticism for exacerbating existing inequalities in Indian cities – because only selected portions of cities are being improved with high financial investment. So, expensive, localized development… the beneficiaries of which are about 4 percent of a city’s population on average (ref: Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi). What are your thoughts on this, and how would you tackle such a situation?
Long ago, I learned that the step-by-step approach can lead to a revolution, not only to evolution. When setting a single target too high, we tend to forget that every journey starts from a single step. We should focus on a single neighbourhood at a time and try to understand and respect its unique cultural patterns and then build the development upon on that.
What is the identity and heritage of a local area? Who are the residents and what are their particular needs and desires? The Smart City consists of two parts: technology and people.
We have, for too long, put too much emphasis on the technological focus without considering the human side in equal measure. The step-by-step approach also provides the opportunity to experiment and test on a small scale and to make the corrections without greater damage. Every neighbourhood is someone’s home, therefore we should treat that with respect and empathy and put the people first.
Please describe Anne Stenros’ perfect Smart City…
In the future, cities will evolve from being ‘smart’ to being ‘responsive’, meaning that the citizens will move from the center of attention to the center of action.
In the future, responsive citizens will use smart technology to contribute to planning, design and management of their cities. I call this The Emotionally Smart City with a human-centric focus.
Alvar Aalto said: “The ultimate goal of the architect…is to create a paradise. Every house, every product of architecture… should be a fruit of our endeavour to build an earthly paradise for people.”
The Emotionally Smart City could be our future paradise if, and only if, we can find the right balance between people and technology – between humans and machines.
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