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A Finnished Product

When it comes to problem-solving, Finland's got it going on. Marco Steinberg, an architect who runs a unique Helsinki workshop using "strategic design" to tackle complex issues, says the Scandinavian nation's size (pop. 5.25 million) makes it a model laboratory for dealing with problems that can seem overwhelming in America, such as health care and climate change.

"Interests are so big in the United States, it's hard to get all the stakeholders around the same table," Steinberg said last week during a stop in Washington on his way to a conference in San Francisco. "In Finland, you can do that. It's the right scale to deal with some of these things. Size in the U.S. is actually a hindrance."


Another problem in most democracies is that government, academia and industry are "siloed," or isolated from each other, making collaboration more difficult, he said. The idea behind strategic design is to break down those barriers, bring together a wide range of experts to look at problems from all sides, and try to construct holistic solutions.

The Helsinki Design Lab that Steinberg has led for two years conducts intensive, one-week brainstorming sessions with diverse groups of experts to devise solutions for problems like education reform, welfare delivery and medical care.

It is also financing an $80 million, mixed-use development in the heart of Helsinki with competing teams given grants to design residences, offices, stores and a new headquarters for the lab's parent organization, the Finnish Innovation Fund, that are carbon-neutral.


"You need to fundamentally redesign the system," including building codes and city regulations, Steinberg said. "You start with a city block, then get the entire city involved. ... I like the idea of creep."

Steinberg, 42, was born in Finland but spent about two-thirds of every year as a boy in Italy, where his father did a dissertation and his mother was a musician. He earned his degree in architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, then after some time back in Finland, he continued his education at Harvard University and ended up as a professor there in the Graduate School of Design.

At Harvard, Steinberg developed the strategic design approach and applied it to a project examining treatment of strokes in the healthcare system. One of the participants was the former prime minister of Finland, Esko Aho, who recruited Steinberg in 2008 to take over the design lab at the Finnish Innovation Fund, known in Finland as Sitra.

This article appears in the June 26, 2010 edition of NJ Daily.

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