Exploring the Vertical Ecosystem

This blog entry reports on work-in-progress within the DfG course. It is produced by group 1C and revolves around our work with the Prime Minister’s Office and Ministry of Environment’s brief on ‘Mainstreaming Biodiversity’. The group consists of Dinah Coops and Anna Kristine Halvorsen from the Creative Sustainability program, Sari Kukkasniemi from the Collaborative and Industrial Design program, and Thao Nguyen from the International Design Business Management program.

The working title of our project is “Exploring the Vertical Ecosystem”. Just like an ecosystem, we see the different agencies and research institutes affiliated to The Ministry of Environment as entagled and interconnected, feeding off of and into each other. At this point in our project we have concluded our research phase, taking a keen interest in the human perspective of the system.

This blog entry is written by Anna Kristine Halvorsen.

Seeing the forest for more than its trees

Since you heard from us last, we have had the pleasure of getting to know the system through some of the people it consists of. Forgive us for pointing it out, but one might say that civil servants have somewhat of a negative reputation, painting them as dry professionals, always on their way from meeting to meeting wearing grey suits, carrying suitcases. So, who are they really? In our experience, at least regarding the people working within/for biodiversity, there seems to be a way in through ones personal values. We found that a strong personal relationship to nature increases the understanding of the importance of ensuring biodiversity.

Among the people we talked to, we found that they shared just that, an inner motivation to protect nature. One that makes you go the extra mile in your work, rather than just tick the boxes. Given that biodiversity is still seen as quite a narrow topic, it seems that working within this field is not something you stumble into. In our experience, these people are highly motivated and engaged individuals that are drawn to the same field of work, for similar reasons. They are not dry, they care, and that care is expressed through their work and they ways in which they talk about it. They are in this line of work because it is important. Both personally important, as well as important for the common good. At this point you may wonder, why is this of any importance? In our opinion, in order to understand systems you need to understand people. What are systems except the ways in which we organize ourselves and each other, to reach our common goals?

Social structures and collaboration

«Collaboration is always dependent on people»
– Coordinator, ELY

In order to achieve policy coherence for biodiversity, we see possibilities in the ways in which people collaborate. So, how do people tend to organize, or rather, how should we organize? Recently, the service design discourse has been increasingly centered around how social structures are embedded in our service systems (Vink et al., 2021). What does this mean? We can explain social structures as widely-accepted and repetitive social behaviors (Greenwood et al., 2008). Basically, the ways in which we relate to each other, wether we are conscious about them or not. Often enough, these are unconscious or “hidden” in our systems. Some argue that these “hidden” social structures are the basis for, and are continuously reproduced, through the relationships and interactions that we have within our service systems (Vink, 2019).

So, how might we move from the status quo of reproducing existing social structures, to intentionally transforming our modes of collaboration? Basically, we need to empower people. They need reflexivity (Cambridge Dictionary, 2024), being able to examine their own emotions, reactions and motives, and how these influence what they do or think in a situation. This helps them become aware of the social structures that are in place. Which in turn better helps them take advantage of their position, and engage in actions that can move the system closer to enabling people to go that extra mile (Vink et al., 2021).

Emotional intelligence

We now see that emotions are information about how we react to our surroundings. How people express their experience, tells us something about how the system is working. We also found that the way in which the people situated in a (hierarchically speaking) “higher” position in the system perceive it, differs from quite a bit from the perception of those situated further down the chain. While the Ministry sees the agencies, institutes, and service providers as vital parts of the policy cycle, some of the civil servants feel that the policy-cycle is a one-way road. Slowly, this leads into feelings of low agency within the processes they are part of. At some point they stop feeling useful. As one researcher from ELY told us; “I have been involved in several policy planning cycles, but am not sure my comments are being taken into consideration”. Even though these people are highly motivated and emotionally engaged in the subject matter of their work, butting heads with a system in which they don’t feel seen or heard, poses a risk of straining that vital motivation. How can we best avoid this? In many ways, this question marks the point where our project has left us, as of now. We are quite excited for the continuation and feel quite humble by the opportunity this project has given us. Onwards!


Dictionary.camebridge.org. (2024). Reflexivity.

Greenwood, R., Oliver, C., Sahlin, K., and Suddaby, R. (2008), “Introduction”. In Greenwood, R., Oliver, C., Sahlin, K., and Suddaby, R., Eds., SAGE Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism (p.1-46). London: SAGE.

Vink, J. (2019). In/visible—Conceptualizing Service Ecosystem Design [PhD Thesis]. Karlstads universitet.

Vink, J., & Koskela-Huotari, K. (2021). Social Structures as Service Design Materials. International Journal of Design, 15(3), 29–43.

The DfG course runs for 14 weeks each spring – the 2024 course has now started and runs from 26 Feb to 29 May. It’s an advanced studio course in which students work in multidisciplinary teams to address project briefs commissioned by governmental ministries in Finland. The course proceeds through the spring as a series of teaching modules in which various research and design methods are applied to address the project briefs. Blog posts are written by student groups, in which they share news, experiences and insights from within the course activities and their project development. More information here about the DfG 2024 project briefs. Hold the date for the public finale on Wednesday 29 May!

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