Human relationships, ecosystems, climate change and global economy — all systems of complex interdependencies are effectively incomprehensible. Even for experts, such as Douglas Adam’s character Dirk Gently and his Holistic Detective Agency, latent connections aren’t always obvious at first glance. To understand systems, it’s paramount to be aware of the unknown. The Dunning-Kruger effect lurks in every corner and pursuing only the most obvious course of action may produce unintended and adverse consequences.

Systems can be highly sensitive to change. Removing or adding a species from or into an ecosystem may have devastating consequences for flora, fauna, and consequently humans. But it’s not only nature that is complex and vulnerable. Also our very own man-made ecosystems are fragile. Scientists, engineers, politicians, and designers tinker with the complicated gears of society, sometimes producing life-altering results.

Consider cities, our most common living environment. The United Nations predicts that by 2050 about 64% of the developing world and 86% of the developed world will be urbanized. The dynamics of urbanization pose enormous challenges. Cities require careful planning at all levels: societal (social exclusion, age structure, etc.), environmental (flood, heat, carbon sinks, etc.), educational, infrastructural, cultural, and so forth. Doesn’t it seem obvious that all those categories are connected?

Informed decision making instead of gut feeling

We want green cities, affordable homes, reliable infrastructure and prosperous business. How do we achieve that in the face of threats as daunting as climate change and traffic collapse and do so under a tight budget? As it stands, urban planning relies on a wealth of experience and highly trained experts in engineering and social science in order to steer us toward a desirable and sustainable urban future.

Is all that enough to deal with the challenges? Systemic dependencies are so overwhelming individual experts can’t always develop a holistic understanding. The number of variables in a single system can be staggering. Furthermore, municipal decision makers are often too disconnected from information sources and from the experts that deal with problems first-hand. Organizational and data silos worsen information flow, which leads to an absurd phenomenon: strategic decisions made in corner offices are often guided by gut feeling rather than evidence.

Intelligent Forecast Map

Conceptual illustration

Complexity, fragmentation and a lack of data skills cause challenges

VTT, Finland’s state-run research, development, and innovation hub, asked DK&A to help with the structuring and productization of VTT CityTune®, a set of tools and services designed to aid urban planning. Through co-creation workshops and interviews, we helped VTT to define repeatable service modules, which are a combination of digital service capabilities and deep expert consulting.

VTT is located in the middle of Aalto University Campus in Espoo, Finland. The first meeting takes place in the war room, a place for all people and artefacts relevant to the CityTune project. The attendants are VTT Head of Design Niall Shakeshaft, Senior Designer Anna Viljakainen and DK&A Head of Service Design Kaj Mäkelä. All four walls are prepared with hand drawn model and data.

“VTT Design’s mission is to bring service design and other human-centric ‘pull innovation ’ methods into VTT research projects” proclaims Shakeshaft. “We were very lucky to have such a great partner as DK&A giving use a helping hand in this project. The quality of their work is exceptional.” Peter Ylén, Principal Scientist, Business Ecosystems Renewal concludes that “[…] this service design approach accomplished so much within just a few weeks. We are now moving forward based on real customer insights and I feel in a really user-centric manner. I really appreciated the rigor and high standards set by DK&A”

DK&A applied storytelling to communicate the unique selling proposition for VTT’s potential customers. The story is rather simple: CityTune overcomes organizational silos and dispersed data to provide urban planners and decision makers holistic data analysis for informed decision making. Using the service, cities can forecast the likely effects of major decisions, such as planning choices in new areas, prioritization of public services, and maximizing the impact of smart city investments. The benefits are better managed risk and more efficiently allocated funds. In the end, it’s all about making sense of data and turning it into useful, actionable information.

“We were very lucky to have such a great partner as DK&A giving use a helping hand in this project. The quality of their work is exceptional. […] this service design approach accomplished so much within just a few weeks. We are now moving forward based on real customer insights and I feel in a really user-centric manner. I really appreciated the rigor and high standards set by DK&A"

- Peter Ylén, Principal Scientist, Business Ecosystems Renewal

How does it work?

Since everything is connected, having data just isn’t enough. All available data sources need to be assembled in one place in order to construct meaningful models. Then data and models can be combined and used to enable various stakeholders to make fact based decisions.

Next, expert-led impact assessments are conducted in order to isolate the biggest influencing factors leading to the desired future. The process is comprised of System Dynamic Modelling, which enables simulation and forecasting various scenarios. This so called “Management Flight Simulator” lets you fine-tune city parameters and observe the predicted impact on the city’s ecosystem.

CO2 Emission Simulator

Conceptual illustration

CityTune is a comforting example of tools and processes for overcoming the complex challenges that humankind is facing and with innumerable signs of an environmental crisis, it comes not a day too soon. The time for gut-feeling decision-making is over.

It is a rare mind indeed that can render the hitherto non-existent blindingly obvious. The cry 'I could have thought of that' is a very popular and misleading one, for the fact is that they didn't, and a very significant and revealing fact it is too.

- Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency