How Steinar Valade-Amland creates space by challenging assumptions

Happyplaces Stories (video)

I met Steinar when I was in the board of the Association of Dutch Designers, known by its Dutch abbreviation BNO, representing designers and design agencies in the Netherlands. Steinar was heading a delegation of Danish Designers, a similar organisation as the BNO in Denmark. The goal was to share experiences and learn from each other. They brought a couple of publications and there was one that really caught my attention. It was titled ‘The increasingly vital role of design’. It just had all the rights words and definitions I thought we were lacking. It was daring, putting the designer in a place where he is a co-creator of change, and not and end-of-the-line beautifier. It was far ahead of our situation, and it made me an instant fan because it had the words I was missing to describe what I felt the role that I was fulfilling was as a designer. While writing this, I just recovered the PDF file of the document which was originally written in 2005 and updated in 2007. It doesn’t even feel dated, it perfectly describes today, the current situation. Fascinating.

The first time I was planning to visit Copenhagen and was looking for great places to eat and visit, I did not really know anybody else than Steinar, since we exchanged business cards. He sent me a list of great places where we experienced some amazing food. Now, a couple of years later, I visited him. We met at this amazing place just outside the famous freetown Christiania. A mash-up of a gallery, work place, meeting place and a store. Full of great design, just for the two of us. Splendid. We had some long talks, great food and coffee before we eventually started filming.

I’m convinced that we waste much time addressing and solving the wrong problems. We solve the easily recognisable symptoms of problems. Or we solve individual parts of complex problem systems. That is what drives me to engage in design thinking, in strategies, in moderating processes with companies, with NGO’s, the public sector. Trying to make them a little bit more aware and a little bit more concerned whether or not they are exploiting the situation to its fullest. That is what I’m trying to do no matter whom I work for or what the assignment is. It is first and foremost to understand that things are probably more complex or systemic than is thought of. We might find other sources for both innovation and inspiration by going elsewhere within the same overall framework by just opening some other drawers than what we usually open. Design to me is to make ideas materialised, or to make them understandable and to make them complete in the sense that they resonate with an entire complex of challenges. And not one little corner of it. And that is what I’m doing whether I spend my time writing, speaking, teaching or working directly with clients.

The female R&D director of this enormous company looked at me with her kind eyes and said: ‘My dear Steinar, you know one thing: assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups.’

Challenging assumptions

What I find often is that we all, I do it as well, base a lot of what we do on assumptions. We have predefined images of how we are as people, how we are as organisations, the context that we are working in. In everything, we already have predefined realities that we stick to. I think, where the value is added, is by challenging these assumptions. I learned this the hard way. Before I started working with design, I worked in business. With sales, marketing and export. At a certain point in my career, I was responsible for a technical product. We were in the process of introducing it in the US. I had a very constructive conversation with a large American company. They indicated that they were interested in our solution, that we could work together and I took that at home with me. I built this big castle or air back home in the company thinking that we broke the code of the American market. When I came back with all the documentation, all the proposals for how to work with them, they just looked at me. The female R&D director of this enormous company looked at me with her kind eyes and said: ‘My dear Steinar, you know one thing: assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups.’

All the signals that they had sent were a part of their process of understanding, trying to help me help them. I just misinterpreted it as signals that they wanted to work with us and that they wanted to invest. There is something about that specific incident that made me think: ‘How many assumptions do I build my life and career on?’ So then I slowly got accustomed to slowly to challenging myself. Putting an assumption at the core or a rationale or discussion and trying to remind me constantly questioning” ‘Is that assumption is correct? Am I assuming something because I want it to be like that? Or am I assuming it because I don’t have enough information? Or is it the truth I am building my rationale upon?’ Now I am trying to lead clients and students through this same kind of process when I meet with them to challenge the truths of the assumptions that they have built their studies or strategies upon. What I see very often is that the process opens up a whole range of new possibilities that they didn’t see before. It makes their lives much more complicated because some things are not that single-stranded as they thought it was. However, it also opens up new opportunities that in some cases have changed the competitiveness or the strength and survival of the company. I’m a sort of the devil’s advocate, but I’m doing it by challenging people’s assumptions and on which basis they build their strategies and their decisions.

The smoking break was a space of freedom, of free thoughts. We have taken away and haven’t replaced this space where new ideas and reflections shape.

Space for reflection

You also have to create a space where they can do it freely, without me or anyone else influencing it. That’s why I think that in any process where you want to facilitate change or innovation somehow, it is vital that time is allocated to think about things. When I wrote my book, I spent much time looking into what exists of research on reflection. How people reflect individually, but also as structured processes in companies and organisations. There is quite a lot of evidence that the more time people are given to reflect freely, the better quality decisions come out of it. There is one researcher that says that one of the worst things that happened in corporate life is that smoking went out of fashion. Because that smoking break, seven minutes or whatever it takes, people go somewhere to have a smoke and then come back. That was a space of freedom, of free thoughts. Which now does not exist any longer. So by taking that away in organisations across the world, we have taken away a space where new ideas and reflections shape, challenging what we just have discussed before we go out for a smoke. I’m concerned about if we’re going to reinstate that space for reflection. Then we not just hurry and go on to the next structured process, but also leave space to working individually and in groups to process what it is that we already know and what it is that we don’t know. Then we have a conversation. Conversation comes out of reflection. If we don’t have reflection, it is challenging to have something to talk about.

We need to create mental spaces where people can allow themselves to let their thoughts wander.

Create space for minds to wander

I think that what we need to address is the overall fundamental thinking what you find in most organisations, and that is: if you don’t look busy, you’re not productive. If you are not engaged in a visible activity with someone else, but you have a moment where you let your mind wander, that you are then not productive. We need to reframe the whole concept of ‘being productive’ that being productive consists of a lot of different elements. Silence is critical when you want to solve a problem. If you don’t have silence, you cannot create that space for yourself where you can challenge your thinking. Being allowed to go for a walk. Being allowed to leave the building, to so something else. To go out and to get inspiration. There is one car manufacturer that I know, which prohibited their employees in the field of development to go to trade fairs in their industry. They were recommended and encouraged go to trade fairs for anything else. But not for their industry. As this was a car manufacturer, they weren’t allowed to go to car shows. They are consumed by cars, every day, so they went to hunting or fashion or any other type of fair to get inspiration and to pick up some alternative thinking that they could bring back in, to discuss with their peers and their colleagues. We need to open up more. To create both physical spaces, but more than anything else, create mental spaces where people can allow themselves to let their thoughts wander. To work productively, but in a different way as we’re used to today.

Imposing demands on ourselves that is what is killing creativity, and it is also discouraging us from solving real problems.

Free space is required to go beyond symptoms

It already starts when we are kids. We follow a predefined track, both in time as in results. Everything is predefined for us. I think that is quite harmful when we look at innovation. Innovation requires a free space. That free space is not given to us. From kindergarten and onwards, everything is programmed. We live in a time, and I don’t know if it is a time or that we just imposed it upon ourselves, but not doing anything is considered something that losers do. You need to have work and to express that work is hard and that it takes a lot of your time. ‘I work 70 hours a week’ and all that crap. People don’t work 70 hours a week. Also, after work you have to go to fitness, to bring your kids to ballet and tennis and you have to be. You have to. Imposing demands on ourselves that is what is killing creativity, and it is also discouraging us from solving real problems. To please ourselves we try to find small issues or symptoms that we can deal with to show that we are concerned and engaged citizens. However, we don’t have time to dig one layer deeper and say: ‘Where does this come from? What is the reason for this?’ I think, for example, in Denmark, western Europe or the western world, and the increasing problem is that kids even at the age of five are diagnosed with stress symptoms. So what do we do? We build all kinds of consulting services in the public sector to help them so that they can cope with everything. Instead of saying: ‘How did we get to that point?’ It is sick. We have created a sick society. However, no one wants to address that. We treat symptoms.

We can see in all areas of politics when we look at what is concerning most of Europe right now, the whole refugee situation, no one is asking: ‘Why did this happen?’ We’re hitting each other on the head with firmer emigration policies, fences and all kinds of stuff that we think will help. We have come to a point where we just avert to asking what the real problem is. As that happens on a societal level, we can not expect that people do things on a corporate level or in their families, or even in kindergarten.

People are ideal as they are. I think that we have created a monster of a media-driven world where everything is measured against some ideal that someone else defined for us.

The expectation bias

Everything is assessed on a backdrop of what kind of expectations you have and what it is that you want in life and the type of world we want. Many people will probably disagree with me because they are very content with their own lives and their achievements. They would consider Denmark or Europe as the best possible kind of system. However, I disagree. I’m not trying to introduce a new type of system that is better. I don’t think there are necessarily other systems that are better, but we are extremely fast at diagnosing our system as the only way of building a society. Why is it that more than half of all marriages end up in divorce? More people than ever are unhappy with how they look and their self-perception. More people than ever go to therapy. All these symptoms of something that I feel are not necessarily the epitome of a happy society. I heard an interesting story from someone I know who spent some time in Cuba. I’m not considering Cuba an ideal society in any way at all. However, they have a system in which everyone has free healthcare just like we have here in Denmark but to the extreme. Anyone, without any reason without any diagnosis, can go to the public system and ask for plastic surgery if they want to have, something done. No one at all does it because they don’t understand why they should look different from what they do look like. The reason for that is that advertising is not allowed in Cuba. You don’t have all the ideal pictures of what ideal people look like. People are ideal as they are. I think that we have created a monster of a media-driven world where everything is measured against some ideal that someone else defined for us.

I also see it on a personal level. For many years, I’ve worked in the design industry as a ‘free agent’. When I was director of the designers trade organisation Denmark, I used to bring my board home for boards meetings once a year, to meet in a different kind of environment. We live in the countryside in an old forester’s house, up in the woods. And it doesn’t look at all as a designer’s kind of home. No white walls with designer furniture and fancy minimalistic Scandinavian stuff. It is an old house, from 1862, a mix of old and new. It is full of books and graphic art. And full of crap as well. But it is a home! It is a living home. And no one could understand that someone who works in design could live like that! Because it just didn’t correspond with the image they have of a designerly fashion of living. This tendency of finding ideals outside ourselves and trying to comply with them, instead of trying to look inwards and say: ‘What is it that I need in my life? What is it that I need to be happy?’ I’m not working 70 hours a week. I’m working as little as possible. I’m working as much as I need to sustain a decent living. I only do stuff that I find interesting. I only do stuff that I think is meaningful, for myself and someone else. That also means that there is stuff that I can’t do. That’s a choice. But at least it is a choice that I made. No one made it for me. I think that’s what misses, not to criticise individuals, but as a society, we have become so programmed that we not any longer have the guts to make choices for ourselves and our families. We do what people say we should do. And what we think that is expected from us. That is probably the most effective way of killing creativity, innovation, new ideas and the possibility to solve real problems instead of the symptoms of problems.

We tend to show success as people who have made a hell of much money, who has lived up to all the expectations of society and might be big scale assholes behind the scenes. However, what we see is this fantastic image of successful people.

Build in time

If you want to do something on a societal scale, you need some kind of structure for it. Even if it is very loose, it is still a structure. There is some legislation, and there is some sort of monitoring of how publicly funded decisions are being executed. One system that has been discussed and tried at many places is what they call a ‘civic salary’. Then every citizen gets a salary, just for being. Whether they produce something or not, or when they decide to grow their own potatoes. Whatever they do, they get a fixed salary from the state. Where it has been tried, it had some fantastic consequences like more local value creation than before. Simply because people suddenly had not only the time but also a different kind of motivation to do stuff together and to build something together, to build the local community. That also could be a model. I’m not sure if it can be enforced throughout, but it can be something. In academia, after a certain amount of years as a professor you get one year off, with full pay, where you can dedicate yourself to writing a book or whatever it is what you want to do, travel the world and do research. That could probably build into all kinds of organisations. That you not only have a vacation for what you save up some throughout the year and then have a couple of weeks where you can go on vacation with your family and become even more stressed than you were before. To build in time on a more continuous basis would allow you to do other stuff, and would encourage you to do other stuff that has nothing to do with your work.

I also think that we on a political level also could influence the discussion and the discourse in a way that it is not always about showing success as being one thing. We tend to show success as people who have made a hell of much money, who has lived up to all the expectations of society and might be big scale assholes behind the scenes. However, what we see is this fantastic image of successful people. I hate the word success. What is it? Success is very individualistic. We try to make it something collective. The media, as I said before, have a significant influence. This show where young start-ups come and fight for investments from a panel of ‘successful’ investors… The atmosphere in that show, and the attitudes, and the way that they discuss life, work and success to me is disgusting. I do not see myself in it, and I hope that the people I like and love don’t see themselves in it too because I don’t want to live in that kind of society.

For me, a happy space is not a physical space. It is a mental, a metaphysical thing. I think we lack having those.

Leave the world behind

The happy spaces that I remember from for example my childhood, which by the way was not a weird flower power kind of story, it was complicated, but when I remember happy spaces they were the spaces where I could be on my own and do my stuff. Listen inwardly what I felt and what it was what I wanted. It was in a summer house that my parents inherited from my grandparents. We went there in the summer, and there were no expectations what I had to do. I could just be. I could really be myself. Really doubt me and develop my thoughts and ideas. Finding a small corner for myself where I could read. When I take that experience and link that to today, my happy space is still — , and it sounds very asocial — but the happy space is still when I can indulge in my own company. When I’m working from home, whether I do something very demanding or just thinking, there is never music on. There is never tv on. There is nothing, only the space itself. For me, that is something that could be built into corporate cultures, that you have places where people could just be. Then you also need to make sure that these places have certain qualities. It does require a certain aesthetic. What is nice and what is not is individual taste, but you cannot make another cubicle and say: ‘Okay, that is where you can be yourself’. You have to create an environment that also invited people to relax, to let go and to start processing both their thoughts and what is going on around them.

For me, a happy space is not a physical space. It is a mental, a metaphysical thing. I think we lack having those. We don’t have that in the western world, because I cannot find it. The only place where I can find it today is in my own home. When I go to companies, when I go to meetings, when I lecture, I cannot find that space. There is always something going on. There is also always some kind of expectation of what has to come out of it. Expectations are not compatible with happy spaces. Happy spaces are places where you can leave the world behind and where you can nurture that energy that is within us all which requires a mental surplus space what does not seem to exist.

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