Andrew Wisdom, Catalyst, Keynote, Project, Team, Individual


Strategic design asks “why” rather than “what” and is something that should happen before you put pen to paper. But it’s not that simple.

I have been involved in several projects over recent times that have been focussed on strategic de-sign: Knox Economic Futures Study, Knox Central Brand Strategy, Adelaide’s Tonsley Park, master planning for the Maribyrnong Defence site, and strategy development for three towns in central Victoria.

I love the idea of strategic design, the discipline of shaping the intangible components of a system in order to influence the tangible. The Helsinki Design Lab defines it like this:

Helsinki Design Lab helps government leaders see the “architecture of problems.” We assist deci-sion-makers to view challenges from a big-picture perspective, and provide guidance toward more complete solutions that consider all aspects of a problem. Our mission is to advance this way of working – we call it strategic design.

Dan Hill uses the metaphor of “Dark Matter” as a way of casting light on the idea of strategic design:

I have been using the concept of dark matter as a metaphor in strategic design to describe the of-ten imperceptible yet fundamental facets – the organisational cultures, the regulatory or policy envi-ronments, the business models, the ideologies – that surround, enable and shape the more tangible product, service, object, building, policy, institutions etc.

This process has always been with us, but it is increasingly being understood as one that can and should be controlled – or at least manipulated – consciously in order to influence physical out-comes. Borrowing from the fields of interaction design, where an understanding of users and audi-ences is crucial, strategic design addresses the ‘why?’ of a project, rather than the customary ques-tion of ‘what?’ (Thanks Michelle Tabet)

I have been involved in four projects over recent times that have been focussed on strategic de-sign. We first articulated the idea of strategic design as part of work on Knox Economic Futures Study and Knox Central Brand Strategy, with Ingo Kumic. Knox Central, in Melbourne’s middle suburbs, is home to a bunch of more or less productive uses – an ageing shopping centre in need of a refurb; a suburban university campus; an area of light industry established in the 1960s and now looking a little down at heel, open space threatened with infill residential development; a uni-versity-sponsored innovation lab. The question we tackled was not immediately related to where Council and its partners should invest and what they might modify or build, but instead focussed on new ways in which institutions and organisations and individuals that were already in Knox Central could interact and collaborate and build on what they already had to create new value. This led to a related set of questions about the kinds of governance and funding arrangements best suited to de-livering the kinds of outcomes that we imagined.

Similar motivations underpinned efforts to imagine what the derelict Mitsubishi manufacturing plant in Adelaide’s Tonsley Park might become. By thinking of the physical remains of the car manufac-turing plant as a set of assets, along with the surrounding hospital and technical college and com-munity in which the old plant was embedded, we tackled the question of what the place could be-come. This should have happened way ahead of anyone putting pen to paper, but of course we live in the real world, so the value of the strategic design process was starkly illustrated by the some-what generic drawings of the precinct that emerged from the conventional master planning process that happened at the same time.

More promising was the approach taken by Places Victoria to the early stages of master planning for the Maribyrnong Defence site, an area that for a hundred years had been devoted to defence research and training. Places Victoria embraced the idea of upfront strategic planning to inform the master planning process that was to follow. The team spent a lot of time mapping local interests and demographics, identifying gaps in the institutional and commercial profile of the area, develop-ing opportunities to build on what was already there. This promising start was ultimately compro-mised by changing priorities and organisational refocus for the client. Whether the master plan that emerged was materially affected by the strategic design process that preceded it is somewhat moot, but the lesson of attempting to imposing a different way of thinking about value creation onto a conventional development organisation is a strong one. I heard faint echoes of a strategic design exercise (although we didn’t call it that) I was involved with some years ago for General Motors’ headquarters in Warren, just outside of Detroit. An engaged team that straddled the divide between consultants and GM staff devoted considerable time and effort on how to help GM recapture its glory days and become an industrial driver for the region and North America, but once our wave of enthusiasm and grand ideas crashed against the breakwater formed by the GM accountants, our efforts came to nought. Or worse than nought, because the accountants were only interested in building a multi-storey car park.

Perhaps the best chance of success lies with efforts such as those for three towns in central Victo-ria – Clunes, Trentham and Creswick. This exercise was focussed on identifying the economic drivers for the three towns and how these could be leveraged to build value. These were not specif-ically framing a construction programme, but instead about building community and encouraging tourist visitation. Still, this effort was simply pasted onto conventional management processes and its success probably rested with one or two individuals charged with driving it forward.

This is the key point about strategic design, I think. If it is seen as one person’s pet project rather than something the organisation buys into and embraces, then it will most likely die a predictable death. However, if the organisation embraces the potential that can be created by this approach then it has a real possibility of success.

Of course, new ways of thinking about things demand new organisational models with new measures of success, so the strategic design effort probably needs to extend to include a parallel process of thinking about the organisational form best suited to delivering on the vision. This was the case in Knox, where Knox Council established a completely new and separate organisation charged with driving the transformation of Knox Central. That organisation has some chance of success, simply because its success is inextricably tied up with the successful implementation of the vision. The GM experience referred to above sits at the other end of the spectrum.

This simply invites the key question that needs to be asked before any effort gets underway: Will you be able to implement the outcome? If not, it’s probably better to save your money.