14 weeks ago I started a project-based course entitled Design for Government. The course aims to teach students how to apply design thinking to complex challenges in the government and public sector.
At the beginning of term we were divided into multidisciplinary teams and given the task by the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and Metsähallitus (a state managed enterprise that takes care of all state-owned land and water in Finland) to come up with ‘new uses, users and identity’ for Finland’s National Hiking Areas. Our team was made up Andreas Sode from New Media, Ming Unn Andersen and Mengxiao Li from Collaborative and Industrial Design, Riina Ruus-Prato from Product and Spacial Design and myself from Creative Sustainability.
Over the past 14 weeks we have worked closely with our commissioners: The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and Metsähallitus and local stakeholders, to find a solution which addresses the unique potential of each Hiking area, alongside wider concerns regarding our current relationship to nature and biodiversity loss.
Last week we presented our final concept to an audience including members from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, design consultants, civil servants and Aalto alumni at the House of Estates in Helsinki.
Framing the problem
There are currently five Hiking Areas in Finland that specialise in activity-based tourism. They are distinct from both National Parks and commercially owned forests, but incorporate elements of both commerce and conservation in their activities. The areas are used for a wide range of activities including nature-based events, local business services and forestry. However, the breadth of the activities on offer in Hiking Areas make them difficult to define and in recent years visitor numbers have not increased. We used Evo Hiking Area, located in the South of Finland as a base for our research.
The Ecosystem Perspective
One aspect which we felt was missing from the brief was the ecosystem perspective. All activities within Hiking Areas rely on the health and diversity of the ecosystem, yet their needs are not always taken into consideration. Visitors are rarely informed about the importance of respecting the natural environment and some activities are planned at times of the year which conflict with the natural breeding cycles of native animals.
According to Johan Rockström, we have entered the sixth period of mass extinction (2015). The earth has suffered a 60 percent ecosystem decline and both common and rare animal and plant species have been lost as a result of human overpopulation, overconsumption and pollution. In addition, a recent study by Cambridge University reveals our knowledge and experience of nature is also in decline (Macfarlane, 2017).
Today children are better at identifying Pokémon characters than real animals and plants (Macfarlane, 2017).
The development of our project was largely informed by insights gained through interviews and two workshops with Hiking Area stakeholders. We found many engaged individuals working towards improvements in our test site, Evo and their input has been the driving force behind this project. In total, we interviewed over 30 people, conducted one ideation workshop in collaboration with the other two student groups and one evaluation workshop at Lammi biological station.
Introducing Exploration Areas
Our concept, Exploration Areas provides a new identity for National Hiking Areas with a unique educational focal point. The concept addresses rising concerns regarding children’s declining knowledge and experience of nature and aims to attract new and mindful visitors through a rich educational programme.
Exploration Areas would provide informal learning experiences for visitors ranging from 1 hour activities to 1 week study camps. The curriculum will focus on sustainable Use, Experience and Knowledge of nature and would be provided by engaged local stakeholders. Self directed learning opportunities in the form of themed walks and interactive information brochures would be available alongside group learning activities at Exploration Hubs.
The Exploration Hub is the physical extension of the Exploration Area’s curriculum. Not only does it offer food, accommodation and information about the area, the Hub also offers additional tools for the visitor to further explore the curriculum of the area. This is done by hosting workshops and conferences as well as by offering learning materials like activity booklets and renting out equipment for learning activities – for instance simple biological research tools like a butterfly net or soil testing equipment. The Exploration Hub also provides a calendar that gathers together all the activities that take place in the area.
In contrast with National Parks, we see the flexibility of use in Hiking Areas perfectly suited for an activity based learning programme. In the short-term we aim to create a voluntary working group, compile ‘self-study’ learning material and create a calendar of events. Our long-term goal is to acquire a currently disused premises in Evo to launch the first Exploration Hub where a wide range of learning activities would take place.