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Pekka Timonen

Design Democracy in Helsinki 0

Interviewed by Agnese Čivle,

Sitting at desks and chairs designed by Alvar Aalto, Finish school-children receive an early education in the principles of design, absorbing by osmosis the meaning of such paradigms as “form follows function” and “nature is an endless source of inspiration”. Design is an important part of Finish national identity; it is both their life-style and a self-evident part of daily life. Although Finland's largest city, Helsinki, is one of the world's smallest national capitals (in any case, it is the smallest city to have ever hosted the Olympics), its statistics on the field of design are impressive: in 2009, Helsinki had 789 graphic-, interior- and industrial design companies, with a total annual turn-over of 92 million euros. A quarter of the jobs in Helsinki are in the design industry, which employs 110,000 people.

In 2009, Helsinki was confirmed as the World Design Capital (WDC) for the year 2012. Improving the quality of life – which already is at the foundation of Finish design – was chosen as the project's main goal. In an interview with, Pekka Timonen – the Executive Director of WDC Helsinki 2012 and Director of the International Design Foundation, elaborated on how Finland, with its considerable experience, hopes to encourage the development of design in other countries.

How did you come up with the main guidelines of WDC Helsinki 2012 – openness, cooperation and the social dimension of design? And could you elaborate on each in more detail?

The term “openness” has already become something of a buzzword – a password – with which various positive things are identified: open cooperation, open communication, open code... Sometimes I'm asked if this word also has a negative connotation – of course it does, but that's for another time...

With openness, we wanted to present the idea of an active city, one that expects its inhabitants to take part in the development of the city. The way to accomplish this is by creating an open system in which creative ideas, business ideas, innovation – basically anything that the inhabitants come up with – have the chance to come to fruition. Since design is an activity oriented towards people, then the capital of design must also be oriented toward people.

The goal of cooperation relates to the network of open cooperation. When organizing WDC Helsinki 2012, we didn't want to use a top-down approach, which is how festivals and art events are usually organized and curated. Our vision was to weave a web that takes into account the city's design ecosystem. Therefore, if we were going to be open to ideas, we had to announce an open call for projects. And we stipulated that only fully-developed program projects could be submitted – no suggestions at just the idea-level. We were quite surprised when we received 1,400 submissions. We only expected about 45 – 100, so a kind of problem situation arose – we had to look through and judge them all. But as a result, 80% of the WDC Helsinki 2012 program is made up of these open-call projects.

The social aspect of design refers to the concept of a design-driven city. We believe that in the future, design will play a central role in the development of cities as a whole – starting with city planning and architecture to industrial- and service design. We want to anchor the role of design in society and in cities; we want to create an urban environment oriented towards people and their needs, which will be not only functional, but also inspiring. Currently, this is not only an urban strategy, but also a regional and national strategy.

Why is it that Finland has achieved such high marks in its understanding of the importance and role of design, while elsewhere in the world, design is spoken about only as an elite and expensive luxury?

First of all, design has been the most notable aspect of Finnish national identity for more than 150 years. It is a Finnish trait.

Second, unlike in many countries, where the roots of design can only be found in expensive luxury goods that came from the aristocracy and royal houses, Finnish design came from “the people”. In Finland, it was the regular people who began to think of high-quality solutions that would make daily life and work easier. And this tradition has been preserved – we have a “design democracy” in which good, functional and accessible things are created.