The Step of Imagination

Interview with Bettina Schwalm and Fernanda Torre

“We’re all unique and we’re all messy, it’s about what you choose to do with that mess that matters.”

Fernanda Torre is a Visiting Teacher affiliated to the House of Innovation at the Stockholm School of Economics (SSE), where she lectures in Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the MBA program, and is Design Industry Leader in Hyper Island in the Content Developer program. Torre is founding member of the Speculative Futures Chapter in Stockholm and researches in a Vinnova funded project, aiming to support corporate boards in governing AI towards innovation and sustainability. With a background in Graphic Design (Red Dot Design award 2014 with Gabor Palotai) and Experience Design (Beam me up, Scotty! award in Helsinki design fair 2013), Torre has made her way into innovation management (Stora Enso Innovation Award for Intelligent Packaging 2016).

Bettina Schwalm is an experience designer deeply rooted in an interdisciplinary approach. She is a researcher, lecturer and strategic consultant in various universities and contexts in industry. She lectures on experience design, design strategy and future thinking as well as writing strategies in universities including Konstfack, KTH (SE), KI(SE), SSE(SE), CEMUS(SE), KHIO (NO), Academy of the Arts Munich (GER), amongst others. She has been affiliated with her research to ArkDes (SE) and KTH School of Architecture (SE) in the department of critical studies and gender theory. Since 2013 she has worked with partner Daniel Daam Rossi in the collaborative research and design practice Present-Futures. With future artefacts, design probes and immersive experiences they challenge current developments and their potential future implication on society, governments and a very personal level.

How did you come in contact with SSES from the beginning? What’s your SSES story?

Bettina: I got introduced to SSES in 2012 by Professor Ronald Jones, the former Centre Director of Konstfack. For an interdisciplinary program like Experience Design, which I attended, access to different disciplines and scopes of thinking was crucial and SSES provided an excellent springboard for it. Then I met some of my best friends and collaborators in various Bootcamps and the White Label program.

Fernanda: I was a student in the SSES Future Thinking course in 2011 when I was attending Konstfack and it’s extremely rewarding to be able to bring that experience as a teacher. I’ve been thinking a lot about how it was being a student in the course and I have tried to implement things that I myself would have liked to see.

Do you think that SSES has evolved over time?

Fernanda: I think that it has evolved a lot since I was a student in Future Thinking. It feels like the things that happened in the early 2000’s were a lot about experimenting. Things somehow feel a bit more grounded and solid now.

Bettina: This might be just a personal observation, but I feel the process has become more important than the outcome. The skill set and ability of an entrepreneur, their resilience and passion for rethinking systems and services are more at the core than the potential result or success of the company. This mindset and collaborative power have been relevant beyond disciplinary borders which SSES has always facilitated. With their students from different backgrounds and cultural settings, SSES itself has evolved beyond it’s entrepreneurial plan to an academic body with interest and agency in research to develop the field beyond just teaching business-related courses staying relevant and interesting for everybody – not just entrepreneurs.

Fernanda: It’s more about being doers than just being a business founder.

Bettina: Exactly, what happens if I simply roll up my sleeves and dive into it? Explore, try and fail, and dust yourself off and go again. That’s the spirit needed beyond entrepreneurship.

Interdisciplinarity then? Is that important in entrepreneurship?

Fernanda: Something we talked a lot about when we were at Konstfack, under the guidance of professor Ronald Jones, was the need to address wicked problems. Complexity in society is increasing and one ought to address these problems not just by one discipline, but to have an interdisciplinary perspective in order to understand how a specific problem has consequences in all different areas. When we were hearing about this 10 years ago it wasn’t clear to people what kind of importance interdisciplinarity had. During that time, a lot of things have happened in society to make this case very strong. Sustainability is one example. I don’t think that anyone today can say that we can solve the challenge of climate change just with one discipline. You really need a systems perspective. This way of working with different disciplines, bringing different people together and facilitating the process of knowledge sharing, is becoming more acknowledged as the right way of doing things. And of course, it affects entrepreneurship. Back in the days the ‘silicon valley way’ was that you needed a “hustler” – representing business, and a “hacker”- representing technology. Now you need the hustler, hacker and the “hipster”, which represents a design perspective. Adding the design perspective brings in customer centricity and human centered processes. I think it’s a pretty good example of entrepreneurship opening up to other disciplines, including social and artistic disciplines.

Bettina: What I consider essential is that you can be an entrepreneur in any context. Using the abilities of an entrepreneur, expanding your toolbox continuously to be able to respond to this ever-changing demands that are coming our way. Even in your everyday life decisions, as complex as this world is on an individual and collective level, we find new ways to explore our options. Learning and exploring new processes and ways of thinking, the ability of resilience, painting outside the box and challenging the existing structures is an essential exercise for all of us. If we want to survive as a human race with these wicked problems at hand, we have to get into this mindset.

What kind of role does education play in this? Should everyone be a generalist?

Bettina: Expertise is critical, as is in-depth knowledge. I don’t think that everyone can be a generalist or should be, and it is not even interesting as a prospect. Collaboration and the connection to other people beyond our disciplinary boundaries will allow the exploration of potential, allowing us to critically reflect on our own limitations and the limitations of our education its disciplinary thinking.When you become someone who can navigate these complexities, can fail openly and ask for support, you will grow beyond your own capabilities.

Fernanda: I must say I’m very provoked with the current of thought within some of the entrepreneurial scene, negating education to ‘keep their free spirit’. Saying; ‘Steve Jobs didn’t have a formal education’. I understand that people can be afraid of education molding them into a completely homogeneous group. But what I think is so important with having an education is to learn how to think. Education is about learning how to be critical and learn to challenge the status quo of the current way of conducting things. You have to get the knowledge of how to criticise, otherwise you’re just basing opinions on conspiracy theories, which are extremely dangerous. It’s important to have a certain expertise. As a T-shaped individual, your education gives you your roots, your standing ground. Then you can shift between different perspectives and disciplines but with a firm base. The risk we face is that if we address knowledge as something very superficial, we will lack this sort of criticality that you get when you have a specific education.

Bettina: Especially in these days when the source of information and the way forward is very unclear. When the structure isn’t reliable, and you have all these uncertainties, it becomes really crucial to have a source that you can hold accountable and learn to go into opposition to. Unless you have the depth, you will always linger in this very shallow pond.

Could you tell me a bit about your courses? Design Thinking and Future Thinking.

Fernanda: We actually got some amazing feedback from a student at the end of the Future Thinking course. This student said that he had never done anything like it before and none of the courses he had taken before had provoked him to think so critically, explore and question things. Hearing that is very rewarding as educators.

Bettina: As educators, we put something out there, hoping it will land in a good way, especially with Future Thinking in this case. It can be very abstract and maybe at times, very unsettling. Going deep into subjects and being confronted with complex problems, learning to allow yourself to be more uncertain, accepting it and starting to act within it is extremely difficult during the process and equally rewarding in the end. Moving from feeling unsafe to feeling free. It’s one of those things that is so liberating with working with something that has so few boundaries. It all depends on the person and the position you take within that problem and the people you involve in the process to help you to figure it out.

Fernanda: In the Design Thinking course we want to ground the subject a bit more. Design Thinking has become such a buzzword and has been thrown around everywhere. We want to focus both on the origins and the structure, but also bring a critical layer to it. Teach the students to look at Design Thinking and how they can make it their own. It’s very important no matter what you learn, that you make it your own and understand how you can bring it into your own practice. We want the students to feel empowered by it, not dominated by it.

Bettina: Design Thinking was created and then further developed and became a one-size-fits-all problem-solving strategy accepted by the “business-minded”. Our mission is to bring awareness of the possibilities of a process and the adaptation of it to an intricate level, so the methods and tools the individual student considers interesting become part of their personal toolbox without needing to be literate. It’s essential to take away the assumption that you have to be a designer to do Design Thinking. Design Thinking is one of many processes in need for adaptation to the complexity of your own context. You deconstruct and reconstruct it in a way that becomes most valuable for yourself.

What are your hopes for the future of SSES?

Fernanda: I hope that SSES in the future becomes “nothing special”, meaning that conducting education from an interdisciplinary perspective is how you do things always. Understanding that entrepreneurship is not just about creating a business but about how you become a doer. That you can do a project and feel empowered to do it. It doesn’t have to be a startup, it can be feeling confident addressing problems within your community. It would be so cool if we could live in a context where all this is obvious, both interdisciplinary thinking and entrepreneurship. So my wish is that SSES is nothing special!

Bettina: I think that imagination and responsibility really belong together. I hope SSES really invests in spreading the possibility for people to imagine what is beyond the given structure. Empowering people to be risk-taking, having a leap of faith, being able to respond to the situation we have right now and to the world that requires a new type of thinking. Really challenging education and going beyond what is considered being educated today, to be ready for a tomorrow we don’t know yet. That is what I hope to foresee for SSES, the step of imagination.