Episode 6 – Anne Stenros

A conversation about being pioneers and catalysts, strong design, eudaimonia, and about reconnecting with nature. Marco and Carola speak with Dr. Anne Stenros about transformation, design and society.

🚀 “Dear Future, I’m Ready” says Anne, “because the Earth is.” 🌏

A thought provoking episode, that unpacks the metaphor of transformation as sailing and the quote by Alan Watts: “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”

Listen to the episode below 👇 🎧

About Anne Stenros

Dr. Anne Stenros is thought leader and an architect with a doctorate in technology. She has over 25 years’ experience in creative leadership and strategic design. Between 2005-2015, she acted as the first Design Director at KONE Corporation, a world leading elevator and escalator company. In 2016- 2018, she was appointed as the first ever chief design officer CDO of a city, namely the city of Helsinki. She has also had a professorship in Creative Leadership at the Aalto University. She has participated as an expert role in many different EU forums, and she was the Member of the World Design Capital WDC 2022 Selection Committee by World Design Organization WDO. Currently she is speaking, lecturing, writing, mentoring and catalysing change. She is curious about the future of cities, architecture, and urbanism. She believes in collaboration, co-creation, and creative collective.

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Episode transcript

Marco van Hout    0:04

Dr. Ann Stenros is a thought leader and an architect with a doctorate in technology. She has over 25 years of experience in Creative Leadership and Strategic Design. Between 2005-2015, she acted as the first Design Director at KONE Corporation, a world-leading elevator and escalator company. In 2016-2018 she was appointed as the first-ever chief design officer (CDO) of the city of Helsinki. She has also had a professorship in Creative Leadership at the Aalto University, and she has participated as an expert in many different EU forums. She was a member of The World Design Capital 2022 selection committee by the World Design Organization. Currently, she is speaking, lecturing, writing, mentoring and catalyzing change, and a lot of things. She’s curious about the future of cities, architecture, and urbanism and she believes in collaboration, co-creation, and creative collectives. Welcome to the show, Anne.

Ann Stenros  1:56

Thank you very much, Marco and Carola, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Carola Verschoor    2:00

It’s lovely to have you on. So as you know, this podcast is called #21for21 and it’s a podcast about transformation and all of this messiness that is happening right now around, for some it becomes an excruciating painful situation, and for others it is an inspiration to transform and design, reinvent, reconsider, and imagine a wonderful future. So today, we’re going to talk with you about design, society and transformation and we are so curious about what you have to say.

Marco van Hout    2:36

Yeah definitely, we noticed in your biography, that you have been the first in many things: really a pioneer in many roles and you now refer to yourself as Creative Catalyst. And that’s exactly how we see you. So you have been working with artifacts, services systems, and now also with broader societal domains. So we actually hope that you have an answer to almost everything that is happening right now. At least that’s what we hope, and especially because we think that design might be able to help us, as the old ways fail to deliver currently. As challenges arise on so many fronts and we are so curious to hear: what you make up all of this?

Ann Stenros  3:20

Well, all of that was a huge question. If I start from the point that I used to sail. My father, he used to sail, and also, he was doing offshore racing. So I have spent 60% of my life on the sea during the summertime here in Finland. But basically, the thing why I’m talking about this is that it is about navigating. How you navigate uncharted waters and transformation or change is exactly this kind of point where you have to create your own map, and that is challenging. It’s inspirational, and it’s quite tough sometimes but if we think about it from the point of view, let’s say, of trying to research and future foresight.

So, there is a kind of a tool how to navigate. I learned this recently from a very nice researcher from Sweden, and he was talking about that first, you set the Now. You have to understand what is going on Now. Then you have to read the transformation, the change that is happening. You have to somehow grasp it, or take the essentials out of it, and then comes the After. What is going to happen after this huge transformation and some people can go even beyond that point. They can see the next emerging thing. I think this is a kind of very simple way to see it. Now, transformation after that, and then what could come next but to define then what is the now and what is the real transformation going on and what comes after that, and then going even beyond that, that is always interesting, or also quite difficult.

Carola Verschoor    5:44

Yeah, that’s why we need people like you, and we need designers. I wrote a book in 2015 called Change Ahead, very prophetic title. If I had known what was coming at us, I would have probably had a different title but in Changed Ahead, I actually use the analogy of sailing, and the model that I present uses the acronym sail, sensing, analyzing, inventing, and learning.

And this last bit is quite interesting because once we start imagining that future, what we start creating is one possible solution. And that solution has to live in the new now to follow the model that you were talking about. So how do you look at that? How do you look at the act of design in the context of transformation? So understanding what’s happening, proposing an alternative, but then also tracking, what is this doing? How have things changed? And how have things moved because of the interventions of design in a moving context? How do you look at that?

Ann Stenros  6:45

Well, I think that first and foremost, again, I have to say that you have to follow many things of what’s going on in the world, not just design or architecture, but anything that is happening, because you must have a complete understanding or close to complete understanding of the big picture. Otherwise, you might navigate wrong. So you can’t just focus on what’s going on in design, for example, or what’s going on in urban development. You have to understand what the change in people’s lifestyle is, how the work is going to change and what are the new materials that are emerging, etc. But one tool that we have sort of forgotten in our times is something that we as designers are very good at Namie, Utopias. We can create Utopias. We can visualize Utopias.

I’m now referring, let’s say that there is a lot of discussion about the post-COVID city and the next urban environment, what’s going on there but in a very practical level in a very modest level one can say, but if we compare that to Archie Graham, that was a group of rebel architects after the Second World War in London, and who created these fancy ideas about the futures we can foresee and how accurate they were actually because now we are living in the walking city, etc., that they created during their time. They were just visualization. They have several exhibitions around them, but they were so powerful, because of their visual appearance that people partly started to follow. And on the other hand, it gave a kind of intuitional guiding lines, sort of. So what I’m looking for now is that all the designers and architects that they somehow take these unique tools that they can use and create hope for the future.

Marco van Hout    9:23

This is super inspiring because I also see design as this kind of revolutionary tool. And just like you mentioned yourself, you refer to yourself as catalysts for change but I  sometimes afraid of it when I hear designers say all this is that we kind of get this new colonization of design again for a future that we want to achieve and that we want to see. So what is your vision on this kind of threat of design being a colonizing force instead of this revolutionary force?

Ann Stenros  10:00

Oh, that’s interesting also, because I just listened last week, Don Norman, and he was talking about this very much, and the ethics of design and designers, and how we should really take seriously that we design with people, not only for people but with people. And yet at the same time, I can see that this design thinking, it has sort of democratized the design in many ways, and democratized co-creation, process solutions, etc. But at the same time at the beginning of this year, I wrote about the– How should I title it, I think it was from Non-design to Strong design, meaning that when we do go create things, and we have all these posters on the wall, and everybody feels happy, so who is going to take responsibility of that solution that comes out of that? Nobody, because it’s a common ground.

So I started to think about that maybe in the future, we will see the comeback of a designer, but in a different way, not just a grand creative persona, but more like a responsible individual who is guiding things in the right direction in the best way we can do it. But somehow I’m not that sure that all this is nice, let’s do this together. We will actually end up with real, innovative, new solutions that we desperately need if we think about the several crises that we are living through because we all know that we have the pandemic crisis, we had the biodiversity crisis, we have a climate crisis, and we have social sustainability crisis at the same time.

Carola Verschoor    12:12

Yeah, but I think that as much as that we have different crises also, Strong Design love that, Strong Design takes all kinds, takes complementarity, takes harmony, takes people who are more extreme in the ideas and people who are less extreme in the ideas, not because we seek consensus, but because the context is so turbulent that we have to try different alternatives all at the same time, seeing what’s going to work best. And perhaps one of the biggest blessings of this time as a designer is that you can’t remove context from the equation anymore. Where we would be able to design outside of the context are contextually doing that is just an illusion, of course. It can lead to wonderful artistic expression, but it becomes literally removed from reality. And it can be wonderful to inspire and to spark the imagination but in the end, Strong Design survives in real life, in real context with real people. And that will demand solutions as diverse as the peoples themselves, as well as and that’s something that we learn from your work in Helsinki, of course, spaces where people come together to ask new questions and seek new forms of design. So tell us about your experience in Helsinki, and perhaps to introduce a bit of a curiosity to the question, what might the role of libraries be in all of this?

Ann Stenros  13:53

Well, I think that in my mind, the whole city could be a library or a learning space. Since there is a beautiful story about the architect Louis Kahn, who stated that

“A city is the place of availabilities. It is the 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.”

So cities should be inspirational in this way so that it’s empowering and inspiring and keeping people opportunities in many ways, and also an opportunity for learning. And in my mind, let’s say that in our climate when we have gone over half year long, mostly. So open welcoming libraries are like parks or streets during the summertime, so they are the same in my mind.

I think that what should I say maybe I entered the city organization at the wrong time. Sorry to say that, but there were so many changes going on that trying to make yet another change for design thinking and strategic design was almost mission impossible, unfortunately. But it was a good learning experience because I know that this kind of very big systems, they are very hard to change. I was a little bit too over-optimistic when I joined the city organization but on the other hand, during my time there, I know that there are individuals who desperately want to change something that they are dealing with. And somehow there are too many obstacles all the time. And because a city is also a political institution, it’s not that easy, like in the corporate world so if the CEO wants to change something, everything goes on that way, or this way.

So one designer can’t change anything in a big system. If CEO, he doesn’t get support from the very top, and also the freedom to navigate along with his or her vision, because I read at my early years from a book that creatives are never ever loyal for organizations.

Carola Verschoor    17:14

I identify with that, yes.

Ann Stenros  17:17

They are only loyal to their innovation. And if they don’t get the freedom to follow that, they leave and go to another organization where they try again and again. I can see that when I have changed to my role, or job or whatever, the reason has been exactly this thing that I couldn’t follow my vision anymore for some reason or another.

Carola Verschoor    17:47

Yeah, I recognize that very much in myself as well but to be honest, the reference you made to corporations, and I fully appreciate that and that might be your experience. My experience of more than 25 years in large corporates is that seemingly, there is a hierarchical structure and a hierarchical order of thing but there is a lot of theater as well. There is a lot of dancing to the tune that is set by the C-suite or by the CEO. And that doesn’t always lead to actual real innovation, real change, real traction on the floor. So every context has its own challenges.

Freedom being the key absolute keyword, because freedom is about being able to bring something to the broader group that might inspire someone else, just like that little kid walking through the city. So that person thinks, wow, I’d like to do that too. I’d like to try some of that and then that is that movement and this inspiration starts leading to change actually taking place instead of just being something that we talk about. It’s a pendulum, isn’t it? because you can’t design in isolation but the minute you try and design within a group and change things for the better. Sometimes you feel as they say in [Dutch] like you’re screaming in the desert.

Marco van Hout    19:21

This also reminds me of something I read a long time ago that at one point they mentioned, cities are new nations and I love the way you just mentioned being true to your inner voice. And in a way, I’ve seen cities as having this inner voice themselves as a system as an entity as well. And what would your observation be of cities as having an inner voice being a catalyst for change as an entity themselves and how can they be more connected in order to actually thrive and drive transformation on a best global scale? I don’t know.

Ann Stenros  20:04

Well, I already mentioned that during the past 18 months or so, there has been much more discussion about urban development and the city concepts and city ideas done during the past 18 years or 10 years. So, the time is right now to discuss the post-COVID city and its embodiment. A friend of mine actually said that cities are like trees. They are slow and they are fast at the same time, the leaves come every year, they renew themselves every year, but at the same time, they take a long time to grow to the heights. So I think that cities try to understand at this point of transformation is their identity more and more, and then they try to make it greener, safer, happier, healthier, more human, and more equal than before.

So there is now a good combination of ingredients, including human nature connection, also how we revitalize that human lost human-nature connection in our urban environment and cities. There is a discussion about 15-minutes cities, even 1-minute cities, 10-minutes cities, biophilic cities, forests, towns, eco-villages, anything you can describe in terms of combining the urban environment with some green and blue spaces. By the way, do you know what are blue spaces?

Carola Verschoor    22:10

Yeah, living in the country with waterfront areas.

Ann Stenros  22:18

And only recently they have done studies that these waterfront areas so called Blue spaces that they really activate people and it’s very important for our health, well-being, and mental health.

Carola Verschoor    22:38

How important this is, and to this point of you being a pioneer, this only confirms that, because it’s interesting that in the words that you mentioned, you didn’t mention technology just once. You didn’t mention data just once. You focused on the real muse of cities and of society, and that is citizens, that is people and what we design, what we develop together has to be in service of that whole and not just applying technology and applying efficiency and looking for budgetary maximization of every taxpayer euro that is invested into a city which we know that in the end, if we look at it in a such a myopic way, in such a narrow metric, it’s not going to lead to the type of thriving that we want within cities to the well being that we want within cities because as you say, how do you measure the impact of blue and green spaces on people’s hearts and people’s minds. It becomes about so many more things than just applying top quality engineering, developing best in class infrastructure, use of materials use of technology, and it really becomes a matter of designing for thriving cities for a better future for us all.

Ann Stenros  24:10

One thing that I learned in the beginning. As an architect, I love white whiteboards or empty white paper, and the first of this year, it happened to be Sunday or Saturday, I took a big white paper and started to draw a chart or map for myself to navigate towards the future, and the kind of inspirational things that I put together here and there are some highlights. And suddenly, I realized that well, now I have my map for the next 20 years to come, and into the heart of that in the middle, I put the word eudaimonia. I don’t know where it came to me, but this is all Aristotle’s idea of happiness, not as a kind of thing that you are waiting for something will happen to you, happiness is coming to you. No, but doing and living well, and I add doing and living well with nature meaning that you are actively trying to rebound yourself to build this connection towards nature, this inherent connection that we have. And also, like Aristotle said that when you are doing and living based on the virtues, you might end up with eudaimonia happiness.

So it’s an active work based on virtues, how you can maybe achieve this idea of eudaimonia. I started to read all kinds of things related to nature and the best thing I found was Edward Wilson’s book titled Biophilia. It’s an old book from the 1980s and Edward Wilson is an American biologist and he’s considered the names in ecology. But this idea of biophilia as the human bond between other species is lovely. He’s not just describing our DNA, and our connection to nature and animals, and insects, and birds and everything but he’s also opening up an avenue, that part of this understanding is our cultural heritage is arts and sciences. So he’s drawing a big, beautiful chart in front of us. So that if we do this in respect of all the things on the planet, we all become happy.

So it was very eye-opening for me to start to see the urban environment and the city from that perspective. And lately, I have especially read about architect Kengo Kuma, for example, because he has done his first sketches or plans for biophilic buildings. So that is bringing nature in and it’s breathing out sort of. The building itself is a continuum of nature. And if we think, for example, the early architects of modernism, like Frank Lloyd Wright, his falling water, and many of his buildings, they were very biofield by approach because they respected nature. They gave space for nature. They didn’t occupy nature. So, I think that what we will see in the future is more respect for green and blue spaces in terms of an urban environment, but also, of course, more understanding of sustainability and climate change, and biodiversity.

Marco van Hout    28:48

It is interesting. Is this also your new definition of smart cities in that sense?

Ann Stenros  28:55

What I titled my next book is The Nature Smart Cities. Why I did that? because Hobart Gardner he created the theory of multiple intelligences so that people have seven different kinds of intelligence. It could be literacy could be bodily-kinesthetic, or could be musical, etc. But he added later, the eighth one, the naturalistic intelligence or nature smart, and that intelligence involves how sensitive an individual is to nature and the world. Now if I consider myself as a Scandinavian person, we tend to have this very strong connection and understanding towards nature here. So I started to think about well, this nature smart. This is something it goes beyond everything else like technology,  data, digitalization, and even it goes beyond the human-centric smart cities that they tend to speak nowadays because this is that we have to consider nature first in order to survive seriously.

Carola Verschoor    30:18

Of course, it’s so hopeful and so inspiring listening to you. I think, Oh gosh, we as a society as humankind, we got a bit sidetracked, or a bit distracted by what we thought was so smart and intelligent and quirky and special. We got disconnected from that which you call nature of something being beyond. It’s beyond at a 360-degree level. It’s beyond towards the outside, towards the inside in every possible thinkable direction. It’s been there all along and we just need to reconnect with it which is why we always like to close our podcast by asking our guests to complete the sentence, “Dear Future, I’m Ready! ” and share with us what kind of future they are ready for. So with that you help also inspire others, you become an imaginative source so that others can think oh, I’d like to do that too. Could you please complete the sentence for us on there saying, Dear Future, I’m Ready…?

 Ann Stenros   31:21

Oh my goodness. How can I say it with one sentence? Let’s put it this way. Dear future, I’m ready because Earth is. Now, this sounds a little bit tricky, but Louis Kahn is my icon when it comes to architecture in many ways because he was mostly a philosopher of architecture. He said that you can describe architecture, but the definition is escaping all the time because architecture is and in the same way if we respect that life is, future is, Earth is. I think that’s the only answer and I will quote Alan Watts, who has said that

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”.

Carola Verschoor    32:46

Yes, I love this quote. It’s true. We are part of everything, and everything is part of us. It’s beautiful and thank you.

Marco van Hout    33:00

Life is, and then we can say Anne Stenros is…

Carola Verschoor    33:10

I’m only a visitor on this earth but when you start to understand that it’s not about you, it’s all about this gorgeous life.

Marco van Hout    33:25

Wow. Thank you so much, Anne.

Ann Stenros  33:30

Thank you so much. It’s been super inspiring, such a privilege to speak to you.

Carola Verschoor    33:35

It’s a pleasure to discuss it with you as I said that we need this kind of “adult” discussion!