“Houses and computers have been my two main interests since childhood”, Vanamo explains. His education has fused architecture, business process network studies and computer sciences. He graduated as an architect with a diploma work entitled Rethinking computer-aided urban planning in 2008 after which he took his first post in Tekla Corporation, a building information modelling company well-known in the construction industry. In 2012, he teamed up with a designer colleague, and in 2013, he established his own business Steep in Helsinki.
Vanamo recognises an oddly persistent antagonism towards computer aided design among Finnish architects: “I recall the dogma of architectural education being that one should not use computers if you do not have a clear idea what you are doing, especially at the early stages of sketching”. As Vanamo was a skilful programmer already as a student, he found that many design problems were easier to grasp when studied in 3D and with the aid of programmed data. “For me, the computer is just another tool”, he defines, “but a rather powerful one”.
Vanamo found the reception of his algorithmic design thinking to be the warmest in the field of urban design. Recently, he has joined a research team and started his doctoral studies on agent-based modelling at the Land Use Planning and Urban Studies Group YTK at Aalto University. “The traditional approach is to plan first and calculate the consequences second. In the digital mode, you plan and calculate simultaneously”, he describes the perspective.
Computers have insurmountable power to visualise the complex interrelations of parameters and variables present in contemporary urban design and planning. This capacity is severely underused in contemporary architectural design and especially in Finland, however. Vanamo strips off the mystique: “A computer does not ‘know’ anything. It only processes data that people enter into it.”
He clarifies that, for example, the distribution of functions and services in a master plan can be studied in respect of data about the amount of traffic per hour, consumer habits affecting property values or demographic trends. “The point is not to leave it to time to tell whether the architects were right or wrong in their estimations, but to harness computation to provide architects with reliable information and credible alternatives to be discussed with clients and on which to base the actual design.” He enjoys his position as the go-between: “In urban planning, there are two languages: the language of 2D plans and renderings used by architects and the language of vague wish lists used by lay persons. Visualisation of interconnected data connect the two”.
Among architects, tech-savvy Vanamo has felt as an outsider, but in work and research, he epitomises an updated image of an architect doing cross-disciplinary teamwork: “Being a bilingual with both architecture and computers, I work at the core. My role is to be a translator or mediator between all parties involved, from architects to the doctorates in computer science. I work in a similar manner as architects have traditionally worked with engineers and other specialists.” He and his likeminded architect friends regard IT as a liberator. ‘We feel like minks released from a fur farm”, Vanamo laughs.
Mapping the whereabouts
According to Vanamo, software development in Finland is usually advanced technology first and application second. At Steep, the business idea is to serve as a link between architecture, IT and people. “Usually, our clients are confident with only one of these elements”, Vanamo specifies. “We work, for instance, with software companies that are developing something related to the built environment, or design projects that need IT for modelling.”
Vanamo gives an example of a recent project with Helsinki City Youth Department: “They host a variety of locations, events, services and activities, but the information is dispersed around 30 separate databases and web sites”. Vanamo’s Avain [‘key’ in Finnish] application, which was awarded at the Apps4Finland contest in December 2013, combines all the available data in one, simple map solution.
The same mapping code has also been applied in the world-famous Restaurant Day event. What once was just a day to enjoy and share good home cooking in Helsinki, is today an international food carnival celebrated in 55 countries. In the developer team of four, Vanamo is the mastermind behind the interactive, dynamic map that displays where all the restaurants are located.
From possessive design to open data
Vanamo’s work addresses the topical debate about intellectual property rights in the digital world. Pertaining to the question of increasing commercial pressures, he draws the line between open and restricted: “The contemporary logic is usually that the more openness you have the more profits you gain. Sharing enables dialogue, which enables swifter development”.
Vanamo has noticed that, compared to many other professionals, architects seem to be exceptionally protective about their ideas. “Things are changing, though”, Vanamo adds and continues that the younger generation is less fussy about ownership and increasingly more at ease with sharing. “Architects have always copied one another. We did it all the time at school. The business logic in the digital world is to be so productive, to have so many ideas that it does not matter if one or two get swindled out.”
In addition, Vanamo distinguishes originality from innovativeness: “The outperformance stems from the competence of your team to implement”, he defines and refers to the vast potential of open-source services and solutions. “If an architect has an idea about improving her IT management, it is likely that her idea is already in use somewhere. It is better to do some googling first than invest in futile IT development, to build something from scratch just for originality’s sake.” Such an approach demands, in other words, a radically different mode of thinking in respect of architects’ peculiar fondness for ownership and their tendency to prefer customised solutions to ready-mades.
To make things happen
Vanamo’s eyes sparkle with enthusiasm when he speaks about the remarkable practicality of IT to concretise the effects of design decisions in an understandable manner. He does not dismiss the critical question about neutrality of data, however. “The impartiality and reliability of data is essential, especially if we think of next-level solutions such as automated design”.
As to the role of Finland in the global arena, Vanamo is convinced of the prospects of Finland as the Silicon Valley of the north: “In respect of the amount of start-ups, general buzz in the field is overwhelming. In addition, there have been several ground-breaking changes in the general atmosphere towards grass-root activism, one example being the Restaurant Day. Here, I recognise the role of IT as an enabler, an everyday tool to communicate.” Vanamo foresees success if Finland can combine the two aspects: technical skills and active participation. “We need not rely solely on the game industry or selling high-tech gadgets. I cannot put my finger on it, but I sense things are evolving rapidly around the question of the quality of urban life.”
This is clearly visible in the versatility of Vanamo’s business idea. In addition to managing Steep, he tests his ideas in popular web essays entitled Insights; he rents half of his studio for people who need a temporary gallery space or a project room; he collaborates actively in his global network; he participates in all kinds of urban events just to explore the opportunities of digital technology. “I have come to accept the idea that one think globally, to widen your perspective outside the small boundaries of Finland’, Vanamo explains. “In addition, Steep could act as any modern advertising agency, to just sell services from branding to website design. We want to go behind the surface, however: to understand people, to facilitate, to make things happen.”