Photography & video — Aleksi Poutanen
Text — Annaliina Niitamo

Design hides or highlights: Construction service provider Stara and energy company Helen



Construction work and energy distribution have a daily impact on the everyday life of citizens. Stara and Helen have realised that to win the residents over, responsibility becomes key. Sometimes it means staying visible, sometimes staying out of sight.


In the past, it was thought that construction sites should stay in the shadows and the work should be done as quickly as possible behind closed doors. Today the City of Helsinki's construction service provider Stara wants to be seen and heard by taking responsibility of its role in the urban environment. The idea is that residents could take a look inside the fences and see how the city is shaping, and that cyclists could get immediate newsflashes on, for instance, substituting bike routes on their way to work.

Stara builds and maintains the city streets, parks and buildings. With a City Designer in the core of the Tidy Construction Site project, the aim is to clean up the facades and functions of building sites. Service design methods bring interactive features to the sites, and give tools to the sites to act responsibly within their surroundings.

"The biggest revelation of using service design is that our work is not only about administration, but about many phases beyond that", tells project co-ordinator Ari Luoto.

"It is important to prepare the environment for the construction process to come."

Construction work is necessary for a city to enhance its shared surroundings. If a citizen does not know why something is being built or how long it takes, a well-intended construction site becomes a burden. Citizens have been surprising curious about the project: the project's pilot construction site held a guided tour and a big group of nearby residents came along, regardless of the lousy weather on that day. Some young participants had a fun idea to have peep holes in the construction site walls.

"Instead of bothering people's lives, the message could be that hey, something interesting is happening, have a look!", Luoto says.

"Proper order is also a sign of a safe and well-run construction site. A tidy site is better accepted in the urban landscape."

Design methods are worthwhile, as creative planning leads to less complaints and claims for compensation. Both money and time are saved when misunderstandings are cleared out early on.

New, interactive ways of working are not a given in a traditional producer-driven organisation. Service design is first and foremost a bridge-builder between different professionals and personalities. The task of the City Designer is to pinpoint the crucial points in organisational culture, and walk everyone through the process of change.

"An organisation has to find its own interpretation of service design. It can be a lengthy process", City Designer Mikko Kutvonen knows.

"It is great to now see how excited the employees are about, for example, giving a tour of the site."

Helen wants to be a good neighbour

"Good design can mean to make something invisible", says Kari Pilkkakangas, graphic designer and senior expert at Helen.

Helsinki is full of substations that do not look like substations. As electricity cannot travel far, it must be "hidden" inside the city. There are several substations in surprising locations: the statue of the Three Smiths outside the Stockmann department store has one inside it, for instance. And the Esplanadi park covers an underground artificial lake for district cooling, big enough to row a boat in.


Helen (formerly Helsingin Energia, 'Helsinki's Energy') has picked up that distributing energy can also be fun and participatory. A place in the cityscape can be earned by doing something surprising for the citizens. Helen's way is to offer spaces for urban art and to communicate on electricity usage. When electrical boxes are turned into street art, they are less prone to vandalism.

"We want to think about the user, and to also find better ways of working for us", Pilkkakangas says.

Electricity is a somewhat mystical matter that can be clarified through service design. Citizens are ok with electrical maintenance once they understand what it is about. Helen communicates about maintenance projects, makes electric bills understandable, and educates on wise energy use.

"We want to think about the user, and to also find better ways of working for us", Pilkkakangas says.

Helen has a long history of using service design models. They were not always called service design, but the idea is the same. Power stations have for long been designed by top architects: such as the Suvilahti power plant by Selim A. Lindqvist, and the Sähkötalo (lit. 'Electric Building') by Alvar Aalto in Helsinki's Kamppi district. The blue utility poles designed by Antti Nurmesniemi are a striking sight seen from the Hietalahti beach.

Good design today offers a platform for users to participate. Service design has brought a confidence to invite users on board. In the future, Helen's activities will most likely be even more actively opened to users. Every Helen user can become an energy provider by, for example, purchasing solar panels found on the rooftop of the Suvilahti power plant. The produced energy will then be deducted from their electric bill.

"If we want to stay in the swim of things, we have to include users in our processes and refresh ourselves as an organisation", says Pilkkakangas.

An organisation must find its own, natural way towards user participation. Design cannot be just a decoration.

"Something superimposed just doesn't stick for long."


Most important lesson:

Interact as much as possible. City structures cannot be developed in a vacuum of experts without asking for ideas and feedback from citizens.

Read on


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Smart Cities


User-centered design helps create services that citizens actually need, say Turkka Keinonen, Professor of Design at Aalto University and Päivi Sutinen, Service Development Director of Espoo.

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Helsinki is known around the world for its design thinking that reaches throughout the city, all the way to its leadership. According to Design Foundation Finland’s Jorma Lehtonen, it's thanks to education – but we still need a lot more.

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Participatory design is most productive when other groups in addition to the end users are also involved. Then it becomes co-design, say innovation adviser Tuula Jäppinen at The Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities, and Tuuli Mattelmäki, Professor of Design at Aalto University.

From participatory design to co-design


Using design to develop cities will offer plenty of work in the next few years. Different public actors would like to buy design expertise, but first it is necessary to know how to make a good call for tenders, says Tiina-Kaisa Laakso Liukkonen, former Project Director for Design Driven City.

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