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A lucky delegate at the Helsinki Design Lab Global 2010 event, I started the year in everyone's favourite design city. Marco Steinberg assembled and uncommonly heterogenous group of a hundred or so for this conference subtitled Government Meets Design: distinguished bureaucrats and plucky entrepreneurs with a nose for the future from all over the world, a mechanical engineer from Bangalore, a senior director in the World Health Organisation, an ex-US Ambassador to Berlin, several academics.

A lucky delegate at the Helsinki Design Lab Global 2010 event, I started the year in everyone's favourite design city. Marco Steinberg assembled and uncommonly heterogenous group of a hundred or so for this conference subtitled Government Meets Design: distinguished bureaucrats and plucky entrepreneurs with a nose for the future from all over the world, a mechanical engineer from Bangalore, a senior director in the World Health Organisation, an ex-US Ambassador to Berlin, several academics.

Steinberg, our confident and congenial master of ceremonies, was unflagging in his pursuit of a shared understanding of strategic design, or "the architecture of large problems" of the kind that governments own. Among the things I've not heard said in quite the same way, Steinberg drew a distinction between traditional design that shapes objects, and strategic design that shapes decision-making. Foremost among his examples were the marvelous Elemental 'half-houses' in Chile, interpreted in Steinberg's account as not about creating better housing, but about creating social mobility. A traditional approach to design might have got residents a better house; strategic design got them a better future.

Stainberg also defined design as "pattern-recognition" linking nicely back to his account of its 18th century origins in the contrivance of patterns for textile production and so on; and he claimed we are "stuck on symbolism" - particularly the ubiquitous pyramid in which we configure everything from nutritional value to management hierarchy to human needs. "What is the new symbol that can hold the whole?" he asked, "It's not a pyramid."

I joined an Education panel for a discussion that responded rather moderately to HDL's radical call to re-think what and how we teach, but for a memorable interjection from Ramchandra Kulkarni about empathy. We teach 18th century competencies, he said; we teach people to be competetive rather than to collaborate, to plunder rather than nurture. In the face of shared issues - globalisation, ageing, environmental deterioration - we need to teach empathy.

I was grateful for an introduction to Stewart Brand's theory of pace-layering from Eric Rodenbeck, the brililant founder of interaction design studio Stamen in San Francisco, and data-virtuoso. In Rodenbeck's digest, fashion, commerce, infrastructure, governance and nature/culture are in a pace-spectrum from fast to slow in that order. "The power is in the slow parts, but the fast parts get the attention". Design happens in the fast fashion & commerce parts, and have a "whiplash effect" on government and infrastructure.

Other highlights included Roseanne Hegarty of homeless charity Common Ground in New York's unshrinking and concise analysis of how 5 percent of families with all the problems at the extreme end of the curve gradually lose support of communities and become dependent upon the government. Later, when Alan Webber asked the Changing World panel where they go to look for the future, someone said "The immigrant communities in the US; the places where the world is coming in".

Steinberg chaired the final session on redesigning leadership. An advisor on health to the US government proferred the alluring idea that leadership is "command of collegiality". Hmm. I wrote down "leadership = showing other people how you do what you do well"; then, a bit better I think, "leadership = starting what others can finish".

Back in London and the first stirrings of the London Design Festival, I went to the the opening of the Hel Yes! pop-up restaurant in Wenlock Road, featuring Helsinki food and drink for one month only. The environment is deeply artful; nature and technology combined in fibre-optic owls and birch-sapling gazebos, many hints of autumnal forest, fairies and fungus.  We know from Aalto's way with wood and Wirkalaa's way with glass that the Finns can really make nature modern. Not only that, but as Marco Steinberg put it to the assembly: maybe there's a new competetitveness to being small and nimble like Finland.

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