On the occasion of Anne Stenros attending ‘The Future of the Creative Industries: BREXIT and its consequences in Europe’ in Dortmund in February, The Business of Brand Management met the former Chief Design Officer of Helsinki to talk about design, brands and cities.


The Difficulty of Managing Design for Cities.

Anne Stenros learned it the hard way. After ten years as design director at KONE, one of the world’s biggest elevator companies, Stenros was appointed Chief Design Officer for the Finnish capital Helsinki in 2016. She left the position a-year-and-a-half later, frustrated about the difficulties of integrating strategic design thinking with the shifting agendas of politics. At the time, her appointment in Helsinki attracted international attention. And given the eminent history of design in Finland, it was perhaps natural that the city was amongst the first worldwide to establish a role for directing design on a civic level.

However, around the time of Stenros being appointed, the city underwent major restructuring on an organisational level. “It was a power struggle everywhere with constant change,” Stenros recalls, “and on top of that came a new political regime and a new mayor. There was too much turbulence! I was talking about transformation and change through design thinking. But they had had enough of change!”

Helsinki was nominated as the European Capital of Culture in 2000 and the World Design Capital in 2012. Missing in particular the momentum of the latter, the role of the Chief Design Officer followed only four years later. “It was too late,” says Stenros.

Having missed the opportunity to surf on the success of its 2012 status and bogged down by administrative and organisational unrest, Helsinki did not easily relate to Stenros’ supplementing traditional strategic planning with scenario planning, micro-learning and trend research. “There are so few people who can think strategically about design,” she says.

Upon her leaving the position as Chief Design Officer, Helsinki did not fill the vacancy but created a new job for a Chief Digital Officer. Regardless of Stenros’ accomplishments while in office, the cancellation of her position and replacing this with a Chief Digital Officer may be symptomatic for our times: the crude and perverse idea that if one just gets the numbers right - from clicks to capital - the world is better. Yet, whether Helsinki or Google, your favourite gym or Internet shop, numbers only reflect one part of the story and little or none of your personal experience.

Meanwhile, Stenros believes that cities should be less solely service oriented and focus more on the spirit of city life. “The human aspect goes beyond the functional,” she argues. Yet, despite her personal professional experience with Helsinki, she sees many good things currently happening in the city. There are new, free DIY spaces and cultural offerings, start-ups, social programmes, and more. Helsinki is an inclusive city with a focus on education and climate change.

However, notwithstanding a design history that includes Saarinen and Aalto, Nokia and Marimekko, Helsinki’s hope to use design as a vehicle to further develop its urban culture and promote itself ran short of success. To brand a city or a town using design is difficult (see, for instance, the voice of Jürgen Häusler HERE).

In this context, the ultimate battle is not the one between directors like Stenros and political administrators; the ultimate battle is far more subtle and serious. Whether concerning cities, services or products, the battle will be waged between the value of numbers and the value of everything else. This “everything else” does not exclude numbers but revolves around values and lives as an extension of individual and collective existences. Eventually, this “everything else” delivers good numbers. In our world it is called brands, and design is the principal force that engenders it.