Kolja Kohlhoff: Born out of necessity, designed for the future
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What does philosophy have to do with decision-making? How can morality, ethics and economics coexist in a creative process? This idea has been driving Onika Simon for years. Onika was born in London, at 21 she moved to New York, and for three years now she has been living in Berlin. In 2014 she founded Spokehub, a disruptive design network that brings artists, designers and big companies together. We met Onika at her work space in Kreuzberg and talked about ethics amidst a flexible capitalism and what big companies can learn from designers and artists.
CCB Magazin: Hi Onika, nice to meet you. It’s an interesting place here. It was difficult to find the doorbell.
Onika: Oh yes, this is very difficult! I know that. Apologies.
CCB Magazin:Tell me about this space. Is it a co-working space or your office?
Onika: It’s a mixture. We are seven people, a collective of several different disciplines and businesses. My discipline is curation or strategy and Spokehub is my business.
CCB Magazin:What is Spokehub?
Onika: Spokehub is a network of 75 professionals in over 15 different cities all over the world. We collaborate on innovation projects – the network includes artists, designers, some architects and many other disciplines. I am the “hub” as I have worked with every single one of them and love their work!
CCB Magazin:What is Spokehub’s central aim?
Onika: I established the business and formalized the network three years ago in 2014. Our mission internally is to reinvent how creative work is made and valued. My personal aim though, is to build teams of people who would never usually work together.
We provide a bridge between a set of very creative people and a set of commercially-driven challenges
CCB Magazin:And how do you do that specifically?
Onika: Usually a client approaches us with a problem they are trying to solve. Spokehub is basically a bridge between a set of very creative people and a set of commercially-driven challenges. Our clients aren't interested in tweaking the status quo. They are businesses or brands that want world class talent, working flexibly, and with no hierarchies or hidden costs. My role as a strategist is usually to ensure relevance between the needs of the project and the skills on the team. Generally I work with designers who are more artistic, inventive, disruptive. They always want to rail against the system on a certain level.
CCB Magazin:Can you give an example of your work?
Onika: A good example of this approach was with Cisco, a technology company based in Silicon Valley. I worked with them for 18 months, facilitating collaboration with other huge global companies. Cisco is a networking company, so they build systems. One project was to imagine a network-based safety system, integrated with public architecture. Thinking less like engineers and more like artists building a social sculpture was really helpful to develop this concept. As a result, there is a security network concept being prototyped currently in France.
The main thing that can designers learn from artists is experimentation
CCB Magazin:What can designers learn from artists and artists learn from designers?
Onika: The main thing that designers can learn from artists is “experimentation.” Artists are always trying new things. They don’t have anything to lose. Most of them have no deadlines. It’s a completely free process and a completely divergent way of thinking. But what designers teach artists, is usually professional hygiene. Convergent thinking that results in a working solution. The exchange is wonderful to watch!
CCB Magazin:Do you have some criteria for your work?
Onika: Kind of. Everybody in the hub has at least ten years of experience in his or her discipline. Everybody works independently too, so can prioritize a Spokehub project if something comes along that they’re passionate about. If you are an artist, you should be open to working with brands. If you are a designer, you should be open to working with artists and their crazy ideas. Also every hub member can contact and exchange ideas with everyone else. There are no boundaries there and I encourage spontaneous collaborations as much as possible.
CCB Magazin:But how do you finance Spokehub?
Onika: We provide innovation consultancy to companies such as Adidas and Cisco, so everyone in the hub also has an opportunity to get paid work on these projects. Everyone including me has a day rate, which we keep a database of, and Spokehub earns money by adding 10% to total project fees, for defining the scope, building the team and overseeing the process to delivery. My job is to make things actually happen.
My job is to make things actually happen
CCB Magazin:You talk about companies like Adidas. Many artists in Germany have a problem with working for companies like that, because they fight for anti-commercial values. Do you think this is the beginning of a new flexible capitalism or the end of art?
Onika: Why would it be the end of art? For me it’s no problem. There is a huge spectrum of attitudes to the consumer world. The fine art world is valuable, but the fine art world for me is a consumer world too. Stuff is still made and sold. The industry that I’ve always been in and that I think is more interesting, is the exchange of ideas. And that is what a lot of creative agencies don’t seem to understand. That artistic practice is extremely valuable to problem solving in business. Currently there is a huge disconnect between the creative and commercial worlds, with two different value systems. But if you bring the two sides together it’s very disruptive and in the end, also very productive.
CCB Magazin:But in global capitalism a lot of smaller companies can’t compete with the big players. To talk stereotypically: Artists have the ideas but the commercial brands make money with them. Do you see this problem?
Onika: Sure, that’s one part of it, but this can be changed. And big players can do good things too, by learning from the smaller ones. Adidas and Parley for example are collaborating to make products from recycled plastic. They basically want to take all the waste out of the sea and do something with it. After experimenting a lot, they came up with a range of really stylish sneakers and even swimwear. Now they are trying to grow the proportion of recycled materials in their products. In order to do this, they are also changing a lot of other things in their company and its systems: factories, machinery and working conditions are all improving. This is only one example of a big corporate company learning from a social start up.
CCB Magazin:Tell me something about you: Who are you, how did you get to do this, and what are you doing right now?
Onika: I was born and grew up in London, but I became a professional in New York – I moved there when I was 21. Basically I worked for 15 years in different creative agencies, but always as a strategist. Before I started Spokehub I worked in advertising, packaging innovation, trends research, product and service development, business consulting, ethnography, change management, design semiotics and finally retail innovation. So three years ago, I finally felt confident enough to quit my day job, to test this new business model that I’d been dreaming about, and to move to Berlin.
CCB Magazin:What was your first impression from Berlin?
Onika: My first impression was the palace in Charlottenburg!
Onika: Yes, my first trip was in 2006, to attend a friend’s exhibition in the palace. Four years later in 2010, I went to East Berlin for the first time. My first thought then was: holy shit, Brooklyn is basically an imitation of Berlin!
What Berlin needs today is clear channels of communication between people with good ideas and people who want to fund good ideas
Onika: All the coffee shops and hipster outfits in Brooklyn looked just like here, only more stylized. New York at the time was not known for having a signature design aesthetic. But all of a sudden there were all these warehouse conversions with old sofas and candlelight. So I instantly saw where that had come from. In Berlin most of the creative people I know, have that balance between being truly inventive and extremely practical. But what Berlin needs today is clear channels of communication between people with good ideas and people who want to fund good ideas. That’s what the entire world needs, but Berlin more than any other city I’ve been to. I guess I always analyze what I see. But in my field it’s important to be abstract and to take a step back. This is the best way to spot opportunities - in the gaps between systems and groups of people.
CCB Magazin:It’s important to be abstract how?
Onika: To say, ok there’s good and there’s bad, but in the end it’s necessary to make a decision. If you are in experimentation mode then fine. Let it flow. Don’t kill any options! But if you need to make a decision, then clarity is key. For you and for others. That’s what I learned from studying philosophy.
CCB Magazin:You studied philosophy?
Onika: Yes I did, because I was interested in decision-making and how to debate between different ways of thinking. Whether I am talking to an artist or a CEO, I usually ask them “How do you want to live your life?” I don’t do it to upset people but sometimes it hits a nerve. From the answers, I can quickly interrogate and get at unspoken motivations. Why they buy things and how they search and choose. All these decisions create a footprint – a morality footprint and a commercial footprint. In the end, everything is really just a question of ethics and how you want to live your life.
CCB Magazin:Niklas Luhmann said: If you talk about the economy, you shouldn’t talk about ethics. For you is this ok? Is it easy to combine ethical aspects and commercial things?
Onika: For me it’s not a conflict, but for others it is. I often say out loud: I love shopping! And I like money! Haha. Honesty is everything. Do whatever feels good, but own it! When people say, “oh I’m a vegan but I really like cheese” I say then you’re not a vegan. That’s simply not true. You’re a fuckin cheese lover! Now more than ever, it’s extremely important to be clear about facts.
Now more than ever, it’s extremely important to be clear about facts
CCB Magazin:Do you have a vision?
Onika: Mmm… I don’t have a specific vision. The irony is my job is about thinking about the future, triggering ideas and building a vision, as this is the nugget for decision making. One of the things that I learned when I started my business, was that I had to be very decisive about where my personal principles become my businesses principles.
CCB Magazin:Which business principles do you have?
Onika: There are four principles that everyone in the hub agrees on: breaking the bad business habits that stifle progress, starting with knowledge rather than guess-work, talking to strangers to embrace new perspectives, and redressing imbalances in society. Easy to say but more difficult to remember and practice when there’s a project on the table. This is something else I learned from philosophy though: how differently people can define good and bad.
CCB Magazin:But what is good and bad?
Onika: That’s an interesting question. For me the blurry line between them is more toxic than recognizing one or the other. A big reason why the right wing populists are winning elections all over the world, is because they are clear. Despite being on the wrong side of history, they are unified, they are extremely vocal and they have a clear message. It’s dark but very clear. And this is why they have been so successful. Liberals, on the other hand, have too many messages and different factions fighting against each other to make their issues a priority. Their intentions are good but their ability to deliver a coherent message is terrible. I find this extremely frustrating.
CCB Magazin:Onika, what are your plans for the future?
Onika: After traveling for most of my career, I am excited to do as much work as possible in Germany – and to make Berlin famous for being somewhere artists are invited to the table when it comes to solving critical problems. For example, I recently started a series of workshops, using art practice and design strategy to support local activism. Berlin has creative ties with Reykjavik in Iceland, so I would love to develop these workshops into an active assembly there. Bringing everyone in the hub together, to tackle design challenges that affect us all as global citizens, and to make some amazing art in the process.
Category: New Player
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