Marco Steinberg, strategic designer & professor of practice


May 2024

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Helsinki Design Lab

"I trained as an architect and I love buildings. However, early on I realised I was less interested in buildings per se and more so in the decisions that shape them. This made me realise that we can apply our design skills not just to products and services, but to the systems that shape them.

Though my career path has been somewhat serendipitous, it has led me to work with governments on large-scale challenges that afflict us from healthcare to decarbonising cities.

I graduated with a masters’ degree in architecture in 1996 and after a few years of professional and research work, I joined the faculty of architecture at Harvard University’s Design School. It was there that I began to realise how design could have an important role outside of its traditions in products, buildings, or services.

In 2004, as an associate professor at Harvard, I had the opportunity to lead a healthcare redesign initiative called the Stroke Pathways Project. It was built on the realisation that healthcare is not a medical, business, organisational, or financial challenge – it’s a complex systems problem. As such strategic improvements within it will require a systems approach.

I led a team across our medical and business schools, looking at the care cycle of stroke, caused by a disruption of blood flow to the brain. Following this single disease from cradle to grave was like cutting a section through the healthcare system as a whole. We were able to understand how patients and caretakers experience care at various points and how the dynamics that governed the system from organisations and clinical trials to reimbursements behaved.

This gave us a holistic perspective of what drove outcomes, from prevention through acute care to long-term management, rehabilitation, or cure – all of which was politically relevant too.

Sometimes decision-makers only see the parts rather than the whole of a problem and may be surprised by the unintended consequences of their choices. Without a full-cycle perspective, so-called solutions may only shift costs and problems from one part of the cycle to another.

Helsinki Design Lab Ageing Studio

This work generated a strategic design roadmap for delivering better stroke outcomes at lower costs. It gave me the hands-on experience of what systems work means and demands in practice. It also helped me to develop a methodology for looking at – and operating within – complex development challenges. I saw that you can’t solve a problem without looking at the entire issue, which is the core of strategic design.

I came back to Finland in 2008, as director of strategic design at Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund. I was keen to ensure that we didn’t inadvertently apply design to help make flawed solutions more pleasant or user-friendly. Delivering better products or services meant that design also had to ask the right questions.

After leaving Sitra in 2013, I founded Snowcone & Haystack, a strategic design practice helping governments, development agencies, and leaders innovate. When asked, I frequently refer to strategic design as a leadership model, a way to operate in context of uncertainty and complexity.

More recently, as of August 2023, I’ve taken on a role back in academia. This time as a professor of practice in strategic and industrial design at Aalto University.

I’m most interested in the issues that vex our public institutions and the common good. These are complex challenges such as climate change, rising social discontent, and food security.

Around the world governments and cities are facing unprecedented pressure to do radically more with radically less. Fiscal austerity, social inequality, and changing demographics are just some of the forces putting extraordinary pressures on the public sector to transform itself.  The ‘more for less’ solutions that are being sought won’t happen by improving existing solutions, but by reimagining them.

While I appreciate the idea of minimalism, in my world I see governments trying to spread increasingly diminishing resources across increasingly many efforts. What ends up happening is that a lot of things are done poorly, leading to little perceptible overall improvement. Here I would advocate for doing less. Focusing on a few things and doing them properly has a greater probability of leading to better solutions, delivering greater impact. In that sense doing less can lead to achieving more.

I’ve never been a friend of the term ‘creative industries’ because it I don’t think it helps us. Is this an industry for creatives only? What about mathematicians or physicists, are we suggesting that they are not creative? And what underpins this industry, everything from designers to artists to musicians? Yes, there are some commonalities, but the differences are great, too.

Plywood CAD

Most designers are motivated to do good. That is clearly positive and important. We need people to have a clear moral compass as they apply their craft to help address social challenges. There is, however, a flip side to this. Viewing the world through a moral lens can cloud our ability to see key dynamics, and it can become an impediment to seeing other possibilities.

Plastic pollution, for example, is a globally prevalent problem. We see plastics polluting waters, landscapes, and communities. In some of the poorest places its impact is most dire. Upon seeing informal settlements inundated with single-use plastics our moral imperative might be to help those in the community to recycle, to better manage the problem. In wanting to do good, we help mobilise communities and deliver training programmes to help them help improve their communities. That may seem an intuitive reaction at first, but on second inspection may raise questions. Is it reasonable to burden the most vulnerable with the added responsibility to have to address a problem that at its core stems from an economic logic for which they bear no responsibility? We should, I think, work on the addressing the underlying problem of the plastics economy, of poverty, and the issues that connect them. We should put the burden of change on those who can shoulder it, on those who have influence.

As for the future, we are at a critical crossroads. Big challenges such as curbing climate change, providing high-quality health care, and serving the needs of aging populations are impacting the foundation upon which our societies were built.

We have an acute need for strategic improvement in how our societies, governments, and businesses are organised and behave. There are no off-the-shelf solutions as to how to do that.

We are also on the cusp of transforming many things and we have extraordinary agency in what happens next. Strategic design plays a key role in all of this.”

Marco Steinberg / photo: Johannes Romppanen

Marco Steinberg is Professor of Practice at Aalto University and Founder of Snowcone & Haystack.

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