Turning mindsets – A summer afternoon in Kääntöpöytä, Dodo’s Urban Farming Centre in Keski-Pasila

By: Elisa Andretti

July is sacred in Finland: streets are silent while everybody is enjoying their summer cottages, and it is not polite to make phone calls. In Itä-Pasila, high Muslim percentage district in Helsinki, it is also Ramadan, which makes streets even more deserted than usual. I am working there on a sunny afternoon with Sonja, a textile artist with great plans for her neighborhood. We decide to have a break, and walk towards the old trains turning station. Once arrived there, the place is unsuspectedly alive: radio is playing old tango and melodic tunes, and air smells like freshly baked cookies. We came with no money- expecting not to find anything open- and Sonja borrows coins from some customers, to buy mint tea and homegrown hemp biscuits. While approaching the raw-but-cool outdoor furniture, a child warns us: “beware of the chippings!” Too late, I already hurt my fingers. Light is beautifully warm, and I have the feeling to be sitting in a giant sundial. Everything is still, and we do not feel like going back to work.

Fig. 1, Kääntöpöytä, source: www.kaantopoyta.fi

The giant sundial has a name, Kääntöpöytä, and it is Dodo’s Urban Farming Centre in Keski-Pasila. It opened in March 2012, after being assembled in a snowy night. The project is result of cooperation of many different professionals: architect Joseph Mulcahy, artist Päivi Raivio, Kirmo Kivelä who is in charge of the shop and events and Jaakko Lehtonen, taking care of crops and crop products. The whole operation happened beneath Dodo’s umbrella and HWDC 2012; it was sponsored by Biolan Ltd., Fiskars, El Naturalista, Naps Systems and BACSAC.

Kääntöpöytä has been transformed in a greenhouse to grow aubergines, rocket, herbs and other vegetables. A timber deck was built to host the open-air bistro, chairs and tables reinvented from dismissed pallets. Most importantly, every step in the design and implementation of the project was documented and promoted on the Internet, while building a community around it.

What is behind Dodo’s success, what is it all about? Urban farming is used by its activists as a living manifesto in the name of Degrowth, and as a tool for setting a slower pace in urban life. Dodo’s community sits between new trends (such as Do It Yourself, guerrilla gardening) and Finnish history (e.g. post-war tradition of growing own food) and flourishes within the young network of activists, well connected to the Finnish entrepreneurial class and Institutions.

Fig. 2, Systems Thinking Course, Helsinki 2012: Dodo’s community model.

Detractors on Dodo’s website wonder why not supporting local farmers, instead of operating almost individually at an amateur level. What is the impact people want to achieve by planting herbs on their window sills, and hoping they will grow in the dark and long Finnish winter?

It could be argued that what Dodo is really growing is not only vegetables- it is mindsets. Dodo is operating on well accepted behaviors – supported by new trends on one side and established tradition on the other- to expand a sustainability-oriented mindset and to change consumption patterns. Building upon available resources can be a “soft” and effective innovation strategy, because it reduces resistance (main obstacle to innovation through new technologies, for instance). Mindset is a very accessible resource when no costs are involved, and it can therefore reach a wider part of the population, with greater impact.

Fig. 3, Urban Cells Workshop, Shanghai 2012: Sustainable behaviors related to population and costs: acceptance zone and impact expansion areas.

While in Shanghai at Urban Cells Design Workshop, the team I was working with attempted a survey about behaviors and technologies. The aim was to identify most effective strategies for sustainability in Urban Design. Chinese students from Tongji University grouped some of the listed behaviors in an “acceptance zone”- identifying those actions already well accepted by the local community. Our survey began to look like a model, as we were able to identify some operations as enabling expansion of this established impact zone. Once relating actions to costs, it could be noticed that those actions affecting larger part of the population were based mostly on mindset rather than technology, whose higher costs would confine the impact only to the part of population able to afford it. Being the gap between rich and poor yet quite large compared to the population, this model, applied to China, stressed the importance of working on mindsets to achieve broader results in urban sustainability strategies.

Dodo’s community could very much fall in this family of soft-achievers: people quietly turning mindsets while expanding on society inner wishes and resources.