Dark Matter and Trojan Horses:
a Strategic Design Vocabulary

Dan Hill

We live in an age of sticky problems, whether it’s climate change or the decline of the welfare state. With conventional solutions failing, a new culture of decision-making is called for.

Strategic design is about applying the principles of traditional design to "big picture" systemic challenges such as healthcare, education and the environment. It redefines how problems are approached and aims to deliver more resilient solutions. In this short book, Dan Hill outlines a new vocabulary of design, one that needs to be smuggled into the upper echelons of power. He asserts that, increasingly, effective design means engaging with the messy politics – the “dark matter” – taking place above the designer’s head. And that may mean redesigning the organisation that hires you.


Dan Hill is a designer and urbanist. He works for Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund, in their Strategic Design Unit in Helsinki, exploring how design might enable positive systemic change throughout society. Prior to Sitra, Dan was an associate at Arup, web & broadcast director for Monocle, and head of interactive technology & design for the BBC. He writes the well-known blog cityofsound.com

Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary

When I started writing this essay, Athens was burning again. Muammar Gaddafi had been killed the day before. Occupy Wall Street was in its sixth week of protest in downtown Manhattan, its participants growing in number every day such that it has effectively become a curious melange of a functioning shanty town with celebrity endorsement and global media presence, in what is a private space, Zuccotti Park.

The Occupy movement had spread worldwide, from small, almost timid protests in my hometown of Helsinki, to violent running battles with police on the streets of Rome. More than 950 cities took part in a coordinated global protest on 15 October 2011 across 82 countries, five months after the first Occupy protest in Spain. Some 500,000 people took part in the 15 October protest in Madrid alone (in Spain, almost half of all youth are unemployed). Unified by the #occupy hashtag and the slogan "We are the 99%", the movement continues to grow.

A few months earlier, from 6 to 10 August 2011, many towns and cities in the UK – mainly in London, Birmingham and Manchester – suffered violent riots of a scale and ferocity that had not been seen for a generation, if ever. While the UK was briefly close to breakdown in the early 1980s, and had witnessed mass protests and unrest many times before, the nature of the rioting, looting and arson attacks in August was essentially unprecedented as their cause was not clear.
Whereas the earlier poll tax riots and miners’ strikes, for example, had a clear ideological disagreement at their heart, these riots seemed to be about something else. But what, exactly? After the recriminations and finger pointing, we are no closer to an answer. Explanations offered veer between feckless nihilism, moral breakdown and consumer culture, through to the belief that an entire generation has been systematically disenfranchised and discarded by 30 years of neoliberal social and economic policy. Either way, the cause was so deeply embedded, so fundamental, as to appear beyond the core capacity of government itself.

This last year has also seen the Arab Spring unfolding across north Africa, with Tunisia and Egypt undergoing revolutions, Libya in civil war, civil uprisings in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen, and numerous other countries and states witnessing major protests – Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco and Oman among them.