Skip to content

Helsinki Design Week explores social design, sustainability

Helsinki Design Week, which runs through Sunday, is a celebration of cool new consumer products. But the event also shows how designers are tackling global problems like refugee living conditions, homelessness and climate change.

Helsinki Design Week 2015

When you hear the word design, you may think of a product like a lamp or a chair. The ongoing Helsinki Design Week certainly features plenty of them. But there is also an undercurrent of more serious work known as social design, which tries to help solve the problems facing humanity.

On the local level, this could be a Helsinki design project on display this week, which is aimed at helping city-dwellers and officials to improve traffic safety as the urban population becomes denser. On a global level, it means tackling problems like refugee living conditions, resource depletion and climate change.

Korkman Image: Jeppe Tuomainen

Concern for such issues is hard-wired into the thinking of most designers today, says festival director Kari Korkman, who founded Helsinki Design Week in 2005.

"I don't think you can even start a product development process without taking issues like sustainability into account. So they are pretty much already built into the product process. Meanwhile as the world becomes more and more digital, there are perhaps fewer physical objects or need for another chair. So now it's the time for designers to look into services and the whole digital world," he says.

Helsinki Design Week kicked off with last weekend's Design Market at the former Nokia Cable Factory. Image: Helsinki Design Week

Recycle, re-use, re-purpose

Among the festival's 200-odd events and exhibitions, there are recurring themes of recycling, re-using and re-purposing - whether that involves plans for the former military island of Vallisaari, which re-opens to the public next year, or re-opening abandoned buildings like a 1920s shipping warehouse that serves as the festival’s headquarters.

Located near the docks of Jätkäsaari and designed by renowned architect Lars Sonck, it opens to the public on Friday with exhibits, discussions, films and a café featuring local wild foods.

The festival includes many free events including one on Thursday evening about sustainable clothing. This weekend there is the Lumi Bicycle Ride (Saturday at noon), a discussion about the circular economy on Saturday at 4pm at the Arkadia Bookshop (Nervanderinkatu 11) and family workshops in Suvilahti’s Kattilahalli – naturally involving recycled materials (Sat-Sun, 10-4).

Smart cities, eco-friendly materials

"Designers today are really interested in what they can do for society, and that means they are working all the way from consumer products as well," says HDW Programme Director Hanna Harris.

"That's of course still very important. They have a huge responsibility there, with the materials they choose. Aalto University here in Helsinki has started a new initiative on that, globally pushing the agenda about material design."

Vallisaari Image: Jarmo Nieminen

Material design is reflected in an installation in the garden of the National Museum which focuses on PEFC sustainable forestry. PEFC refers to the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, an international NGO dedicated to promoting sustainable forest management. Meanwhile artist Tikke Tuure's Trash Raft, docked by Katajanokka, draws attention to marine pollution.

Harris also stresses that design means far more than just objects. She notes that the city of Helsinki – now designated as a UNESCO City of Design – is relying heavily on designers' help on issues from youth homelessness to library services.

"Areas such as services or how to develop entire cities are becoming increasingly important," she says. "And designers, the generation coming up now, are really interested in what impact they might have on society."

Housing - and dignity - for refugees

One of these speaking at the festival is Dutch designer Richard van der Laken, who leads the What Design Can Do foundation, which organises social-design events in São Paulo and Amsterdam. He points to designers working to help improve conditions for refugees.

"Of course one of the most pressing issues at the moment is the refugee crisis," he says.

"Designers have already been doing a lot on that for the past few years. I think a good example is Cameron Sinclair, an architect and founder of Architecture for Humanity. I think the title of his company says it all. At the moment he is working on housing for refugees in camps in Lebanon. For this kind of housing he uses a very simple structure and the refugees themselves can build the houses with the material at hand -- rocks and sand -- an extremely simple concept for making your own house and getting back a little of your dignity."