Meet the Faculty

Interview with Cecilie Hilmer

“As humans, we tend to forget the importance of listening deeply to one another, explore ideas without an agenda, and address fragile topics with compassion.”

Cecilie Hilmer first joined SSES in the spring of 2016 as part of the unit for bio entrepreneurship (UBE) at Karolinska. She was asked to join UBE in order to help bridge the gap between science and design and explore how entrepreneurship was viewed at KI. She is now the Course Director for “From Idea to Service Business”, and one of our most popular teachers at SSES.

Name: Cecilie Hilmer
Title: Course Director for Karolinska Institutet
SSES Course: Design Thinking
SSES Workshop: Introduction to Design Thinking

You are teaching Design at a medical university, how did that come about?
I studied Biochemistry at university and was considering doing a PhD. But after a while I started feeling isolated in the lab and disconnected from the human side of medicine that had originally attracted me to the field. Having always considered myself a creative person, I felt trapped in science. I wanted to tackle the big issues, think in systems and work with people from different disciplines and I just didn’t know how to achieve that in a lab setting, so I just stopped in my tracks and left.

I moved to Vienna not knowing what my next step should be, typed in a few keywords in Google and stumbled across the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design which was offering a one-year program in Design Thinking. I applied, got in and discovered a whole new world of possibilities. I realized I had a talent for integrating thoughts, crafting narratives and imagining new concepts, abilities I didn’t know I had before. Soon after, I founded a Design Thinking company in Berlin, Innoki, with 19 of my good friends from the program. One of my co-founders was Maria Stockhaus (who together with Pomme Van Hoof designed the Future of Life Bootcamp last year). Maria recommended me to Hanna Jansson at UBE who was looking to hire a designer. The rest is, well, history.

Why is design important in medicine?
Living a healthy life is a basic human right and the service offered to meet this need is healthcare, so of course the institutions involved have to be human-centered. Medicine cannot be understood from a merely scientific approach, since it also deals with the biggest issues in life; birth and death. Design as a discipline can help people stay in uncertainty, manage contradictory viewpoints and tackle issues without losing empathy. As humans, we tend to forget the importance of listening deeply to one another, explore ideas without an agenda, and address fragile topics with compassion. Design can hold that space, while including a variety of different voices in the conversation and reminding us of our basic humanity.

Talking about compassion, do you think ethics has a place in higher education?
Yes! I just started reading a book by Sheila Jasanoff called The Ethics of Invention: Technology and the Human Future. In it she talks about how politics and power will always be a factor when people are involved, how every design comes with an intention and why ethics must lay at very foundation of education. Within academia, we are in desperate need of more insight and awareness into the ethical challenges that our research, technology or products can lead us to. Researchers often think that doing science automatically means doing good, but hey, what are you actually going to do with your computer science degree? What are you doing right now? Is that “good”? And for whom?

We have to always be cautious. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking something is good without asking the in-between questions and looking at the big picture. Science is not neutral and does not equal good, that would mean separating it from ethics and notions of the moral good. We need tools for looking at things from different perspectives, something we in academia are really bad at. Many of my students want to do good in the world but they also want a “shiny life”. We have to realize that doing good comes with a price, and in order to live an enlightened life we have to think, read, question and listen to the world around us, and to the spaces in-between. Everything is a choice and as an academic institution we have a huge responsibility to empower students to become more aware.

Do you think ethics is more important now than before?
Yes, the world has changed so much through globalization. Cultures are moving together and mixing, capitalism has created a lot of negative ripple effects and we don’t even know what we’re criticizing anymore. What is capitalism? A machine? An ideology? It’s so much more complex than that because it’s a system with no clear cause and effect. There’s a tendency to ignore it because it’s so abstract. Before globalization, things were more local, whereas now you don’t know how your actions might affect people millions of miles away. Even something as positively compelling like the Live Aid concerts in 1985 which managed to raise over $100 million dollars for famine relief in Ethiopia, ended up making the situation worse by fueling the civil war there. What I want to say is that we can no longer control the system effects of our choices and that’s really intimidating. Should we slow down? Speed up? The only thing we can do is to train our own resilience, approach the uncomfortable conversations and be brave enough to look at the inconvenient truths that might arise.

Do you think interdisciplinarity is important in education?
Definitely. The problems that I wanted to solve in biochemistry couldn’t be solved through that discipline alone. There is rarely only one answer to the big questions in life and things are always in flux. If you want to work with these issues and really have an impact, you have to include as many different stakeholders as possible. Why? Because each discipline comes with its own culture and basic assumptions and we have to understand our own in order to move past the obvious solutions. I meet a lot of people within academia who disregard social science as fluffy and non-scientific. Personally, I think it stems from fear and a lack of understanding and what I’ve seen is that with small steps, these people can realize how social science actually compliments their own thinking, and then, magic happens.

Overall, I think diversity is important in education. We need solutions that have the big picture in mind and for that to happen we have to confront our differences, and to learn how to disagree in a constructive way. Our task as teachers is to create a safe space for students to disagree, to give them the tools they need to participate in meaningful discourse without getting stuck in perpetual polarization.

How would you describe the entrepreneurial mindset?
It’s about challenging the status quo and being brave enough to take action. There are always risks associated with exploring the unknown. For me, entrepreneurship is about experimentation through intention.