Johannes Nuutinen works at Demos Helsinki where he is in charge of Untitled. Previously, Johannes has led Demos Helsinki’s international portfolio, and he has been responsible for several large scale transformation projects together with both private companies and progressive governments. Johannes’ expertise lies in new economic thought and ways of building progressive economic policy.
Can you start by describing Untitled?
We are an alliance matched with an approach to collectively reimagine societies. We want to set the agenda for what are, for the alliance’s members, the most important interventions and experiments that would be needed to transform society, and then act together towards them.
We believe that we need a comprehensive transformation of ways that we organize our societies, interact with each other, and structure our institutions and our everyday lives. This transformation can’t be based on incremental shifts, nor on fixing the current model. That’s why we’ve been modeling our approach at the intersection of imagination and experimentation: imagination, to look at what the possibilities for comprehensive transformation are, at what the world would look like if we transformed it to the better; and experimentation as the practical tool through which imagination comes to life.
Practically speaking, the alliance is made up of about forty members worldwide, who act together via two main mechanisms: agenda groups and experimentations. Plus, the Festival, although we are rethinking it.
Who runs the project?
All of our alliance members are equally responsible, everyone has the similar amount of possibility to steer Untitled. Demos Helsinki has initiated Untitled with a couple of other alliance members, and that’s why we have a legacy stake in it. The coordinating team is made up of three Demos Helsinki employees working part-time for Untitled. But Demos Helsinki doesn’t have a leadership position.
What are these “Agenda groups” you mentioned earlier?
Agenda groups “critically examine current narratives of different realms of society and imagine new ones”. They are typically made up of five to twelve people, who gather for a limited amount of time to work on a shared thematic. We just finalized an agenda group on “Democracy and imagination”, spearheaded by the Democratic Society, which starts from the premise that “democracy now works in an entirely new context”, which calls for imagination to renew democratic ideas and practices.
Another agenda group, initiated and ran by the Y-Foundation, about “Housing as an asset”, gathers people and organizations who have some type of interest and expertise in rethinking housing as an institution, who wish to imagine radical alternatives for the current housing institutions, and use each other as a sounding board for their own radical thinking.
And the second pillar of your activities is experimentations?
We’ve had a very successful collaboration with Emergence Room in running what we call an Experiment Attractor, which is a program to support transformative ideas through movement building, experimentation and development of their narrative. Last spring, the Experiment Attractor focused on “community wealth”. We had an open call for projects within this thematic, and then several sessions wherein we supported the selected projects in design, testing, and experimenting on the ground, as well as trying to match them together or with different types of partners, allies rather than just funders. That’s what we call “building a movement”.
Let’s talk about this “comprehensive transformation” you call for. Is there a common sense within Untitled of what direction it should take?
No, definitely not. We see ourselves as an “unlikely alliance” of different types of actors, which means that we don’t have to have a consensus opinion on what the world after transformation should look like. I for one believe that we should, in a way, double down on our disagreements, not in order to solve the conflicts or the tensions, rather because in those tensions, there are often interesting insights to be found.
What we all agree on is the timeframe and the scale of the transformation. We think that this decade is critical, that much of the transformation needs to happen fairly rapidly, and that it needs to be comprehensive – meaning, it has to happen across different sectors and institutions. It’s not a technical fix.
And what role would Untitled like to play in this transformation?
We want to be an infrastructure for establishing alliances. We, as Untitled, don’t take a more active role in the transformations, our members do. I’d argue that any part of a real transformation requires some type of alliances and coordination among actors, and we want to be the infrastructure and space for that.
To play devil’s advocate, when you say that we need a “comprehensive transformation”, that it can’t be incremental, some people would tell you that we already know what should be done. So why do you think there is a need for imagination as opposed to just doing what needs to be done?
I’d answer that question in two parts.
First, we definitely know what the problems are. We might even know what the solutions to single-dimension problems are. As an example, we know that our use of oil is unsustainable and that we need to ride more bikes, use more buses, use electric vehicles, and so forth. What we don’t know is how that set of “solutions” relates to transformations in our democratic institutions, in our economies, etc. That comprehensive picture is something that would definitely motivate ourselves beyond just understanding the problems and coming up with issue-specific changes. This is where imagination is needed.
Secondly, we have started to focus more on how change comes to play, and that’s where the alliance is very beneficial. We try to understand how change happens to our current models and institutions, what are the different tactical interventions that each alliance member can perform.
“Imagination” and “narratives” feature everywhere on your website. How important are they in the whole Untitled process? And what is the difference between them?
Imagination is a core part of our approach. We believe that adding components and possibilities for reimagining things is crucial for us to be able to understand what a comprehensive transformation would look like. New types of narratives would be basically an outcome of the work. So one is an approach, one is an output.
Focusing on imagination, how important is it for you and how do you work on activating it?
In all of our work, we want to make sure that there’s enough space for imaginative thinking. I know that many similar initiatives have fairly specific methodologies that they use for imagination. We haven’t taken that route. We rely more on partnerships. In our early festivals, for instance, we worked together with Life Itself, who has wonderful methodologies for imagination.
I would say we provide the critical parameters that enable imagination. One of these parameters is what I called our “unlikely alliances”. The people and organizations involved in our work are not only like-minded peers. That diversity encourages imagination and new types of thinking.
Do you work with art, and artists?
We do use artistic expression as a tool to open up the space for imagination. On the simplest level, in shorter sessions we use physical expression like dance or choreographies, to open people up. We also believe that imagination happens best if people are uprooted from their everyday project cycle. I would say that’s more of a craft rather than a methodology, however. Artistic expression is not a focus but a tool that we use to encourage imagination.
The German artistic duo VestAndPage is a member, as well as two Finnish artists. Why? My guess is that they are interested in combining their own work into more activist, society-prone thinking. However, although I find it very important that we work with people who identify as artists, imagination is not limited to artists.
For me - and I know this is hugely reductive - one of the benefits of having artists engaged is that, compared to social activist or transformational leaders, they are less focused on the end result. They get lost in the process, which is very important when engaging in imaginative work. They look at something interesting and see where that path takes them.
How do you know that you’ve succeeded in the project? Do you have criteria, indicators?
There are two parts to the answer. Practically speaking, we’re very serious about our alliance members’ experience on the work, and the main indicator for that is participation. We also have more qualitative, reflective discussions with all of our membership base on what’s valuable and what isn’t. We gather feedback from the different programs that we run, as well as the festivals: that’s very beneficial to us.
What I don’t believe in is having strict KPIs (Key Indicator Performance) or metrics for our work. They make sense for stability, and certainty-focused organizations. It’s a very industrial way of thinking about success that doesn’t work very well in these types of highly complex, fluid projects. We could have more outcome-oriented KPIs, but I’d say that it goes counter our theory of transformation.
What are the most difficult issues that you face or have faced, and how have you dealt with them?
One of the very challenging issues that we’ve dealt with is the tension between an alliance approach and a transformation-oriented approach with specific organizational premises. All of our members agree that we need to transcend our organizations, our everyday projects, because that, on an abstract level, is the right approach for achieving comprehensive transformation. Then again, all, or most of us, work in organizations and have our organizational priorities which don’t fit perfectly with the notion of working as an alliance. It’s not atypical to hear one of our members say something like, “This is very inspiring and very useful for my transformation objectives, but I’m unable to prioritize this work because I have so many organizational fires and priorities that I need to deal with.”
It also translates into our relationship with funders, who have a very atomized and singular view on how change can happen and can be measured.
What are the next steps for Untitled?
Untitled was founded in 2019, and I’d say that we’re coming to the end of our first exploratory phase. We’ve stayed true to our mission of establishing alliances based on imagination and experimentation, but we’ve tested out tens of different ways of doing that. Some of them have worked, others not so well.
Now, our challenge is narrowing down our focus and concentrating on the activities that really work, that really can build the infrastructure for alliances of transformation.