Helsinki: A New Nordic Way

25 min


A perennial high achiever on global ‘Most Liveable Cities’ lists, Helsinki is revered worldwide for implementing smart solutions to meet challenging social demands. Taking a co-creation approach to meeting the eccentric and changing landscape of the city’s 630,000-strong population, global cities around the world can learn from the city planners, entrepreneurs, and innovative start-ups that have built Helsinki into what it is today

When Social Democrat prime minister Antti Rinne entered office in June this year, the newly-formed liberal motley coalition government wasted no time with setting out its key desideratum. Pledging to make the country carbon neutral by 2035 as part of a policy programme focused on major public spending on welfare, smart infrastructure, and sustainable innovation, Finland set itself one of the world’s earliest timelines to adopt a net zero carbon footprint, setting its Western neighbours a new bar to meet in the name of climate change.

Helsinki as a city is already spearheading the movement towards carbon reduction – the Finnish capital’s total emissions have already decreased by 40% per person since 1990 – and for good reason, too. Finland’s geographical environment, with an average temperature of below-freezing in winter months, means substantial internal heating is required: 56% of emissions in Helsinki are released through heating, with more than nine in 10 buildings in the capital connected to the district heating grid – and almost 90% of this heat is generated through fossil fuels.

“The other side of the equation is the amount of heat we need,” said Kaisa-Reeta Koskinen, director of the City of Helsinki’s Carbon Neutral Helsinki initiative. “We need to increase energy efficiency radically – to cut down our need of heat by 20%, and our use of the district heat by 30% comparing to the situation at the moment.

“This means we have to renovate a lot and with a high ambition level. The city is growing, and our newbuilds need to be very energy efficient – but the amount of new constructions is only 1-2% per year, so the biggest part of the challenge is the existing building stock in the city.”

In October, the city reached out to the local community and launched the €1m Helsinki Energy Challenge, seeking solutions from innovative residents to its heating usage dilemma: replacing fossil fuels with as much carbon-neutral fuels as possible, and as little biomass fuel as possible.

Leading with the national government’s message on cutting emissions, Kaisa-Reeta spoke of the importance for city governments and municipalities to ensure implementation of sustainable solutions are followed through. Helsinki belongs to the international Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance (CNCA) network, whose member-cities are working to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80-100% by 2050 or sooner. For the Carbon Neutral Initiative director, cooperation and collaboration are vital to speed up sustainability solutions in the city.

“Cooperation is very important,” Kaisa-Reeta reiterated. “We are running out of time with climate change, and therefore it is crucial to keep it very solution-oriented. From a climate change perspective, we are running out of time, and therefore we cannot focus on small actions anymore. We have to move fast on every front. We have technical solutions available; now we need the political courage to use them in the needed scale.”

Think Sustainably

Helsinki is also creating its own platforms to encourage user-led sustainability across the city. In August, the Think Sustainably online app was launched, encouraging both consumers and service providers to make more sustainable and consumer-conscious choices. Service providers such as restaurants, events companies, and accommodations are benchmarked against tailormade criteria developed by the City of Helsinki and independent think-tank Demos Helsinki.

We believe that every service provider is ready for improvement – and this is why we wish to offer tools and a platform for each individual and every company to function even more sustainably

From a mobility perspective, for example, Think Sustainably prioritises the lower-carbon forms of travel ranging from using the bus or the nearest Citybike stop, and only at the end would there be instructions on how to reach your destination by car. Included in the app is a route-planning feature that enables a choice of emission-free transportation options, as well as calculating CO2 emissions in grams per person per trip.

For the restaurant industry, on the other hand, Think Sustainably highlights criteria including locally sourced seafood and vegetables; organic, vegan, and fair-trade options; and the use of tap water, amongst other factors.

“When we started to design the service, we wanted to strengthen the commitment from the whole community in Helsinki,” Kaisa-Reeta explained. “We believe that every service provider is ready for improvement – and this is why we wish to offer tools and a platform for each individual and every company to function even more sustainably.”

City planners hope the app can act as a launchpad for service providers to become more proactive in their sustainability work, spearheading the “change movement” amongst their counterparts. “As they say, revolutions happen slowly, and then all at once, in a rush – and then they become inevitable,” Kaisa-Reeta commented.

Satu Lahteenoja, senior expert at Demos Helsinki, said simplicity and ease of access for eateries were two of the key tenets of launching the service. “There are two principles: first of all, we didn’t want to make it too complicated, because there are a lot of certificates with auditing and so on which are often too heavy for small service providers to fulfil. So that’s why there are a lot of voluntary parts,” she explained. “It’s a list of actions, so you have to do a certain amount of actions and then you get the tag. There’s no auditing, so it’s all based on trust, and it’s all transparent.”

This transparent, non-regulatory approach has attracted a positive response from the community. Satu continued: “It’s been helpful for the companies, and I think it has somehow enlarged the idea of what is relevant and what can be done – for example, in terms of energy, many companies didn’t think that they themselves could actually change the electricity contracts into green electricity,” Satu continued.

“The same happened with district heating: most of the city of Helsinki is district-heated, and now there are also renewable district heating options available. Many of the service providers did not know about these options. Of course, it’s not easy, because if they have common contracts with many companies in the same building, they then have to agree and discuss options – but on the other hand, it creates more of an impact.”

As a service, Think Sustainably is emblematic of the Finnish approach to sustainability: openness, transparency, and collaboration, all combined with data and smart application, can kickstart the conversation on combatting the climate crisis and ultimately make a positive impact on the country’s carbon footprint.

CASE STUDY: ResQ Club

Though not as wasteful as some of its European neighbours, Finland still throws away between 335 and 460 million kilograms of food each year. The discarded food from Finnish households is approximately equal to the annual carbon dioxide emissions of 100,000 cars, as well as translating to a yearly loss of €400-500m.

Seeking to curtail the wasteful tendencies of Finland’s food sector is Sauli Bohm, chief executive of the ResQ Club app. Similar to that of the Too Good To Go food waste app operating in the UK, ResQ Club collaborates with local restaurants, cafés, and eateries to promote food that is still perfectly safe to consume, but will be disposed of at the end of the day at a discount – ultimately taking potentially wasted stock off the hands of the culinary sector and giving residents the option of picking up high-quality food at a greatly deducted price.

“Coming back to the origins of the DNA of the company, starting from the top we’ve taken our planet for granted; we’ve over-consumed, and that has resulted in this global deadline we have in terms of the climate emergency,” Sauli said, reflecting on ResQ Club’s journey since its launch in 2016.

That’s something that we’re trying to resolve, and that forces us to reinvent ourselves on a continuous basis

“Food plays a massive role in that equation. The concept of the online marketplace as a surplus was already present when ResQ was born, so there is nothing new in that regard. We started from lunch buffets – Finland is the promised land of lunch buffet culture – and then we moved onto cafés and, last year, we brought in grocery stores as well.”

The app has been embraced by communities throughout the country, with ResQ now operating in more than 60 towns and cities nationwide. A cultural openness towards food sustainability in Nordic countries is evident, as Sauli notes: “If you think about food as a system, it’s the mother of all complex systems in terms of its challenges. That’s something that we’re trying to resolve, and that forces us to reinvent ourselves on a continuous basis.

“I think the Nordics are a good platform solution for us. It’s no surprise to us that apps like YourLocal and Karma are from Denmark and Sweden. I think that’s a good thing, but I’m seeing more and more solutions popping up across the world, especially in Europe – which in my opinion shows that there’s a product market fit.”

So, over three-and-a-half years of operation, ResQ Club carried out around two million transactions, became cash flow positive, and branched out to Sweden, Germany, and Poland. Its CEO feels that apps like his have encouraged people to generally demand more from the food industry on factors such as transparency, carbon footprint, origins, packaging, and ingredients – creating an active user base of those passionate about reducing food waste. But where to go from here?

“We get a bunch of inbounds on a continuous basis from local people across the world who want to bring the ResQ service to that given place,” Sauli stated proudly. “At the moment, I see how we’ve managed to build this as a win-win-win solution: both sides of the market win and, most importantly, the planet wins. We’ve focused on the very end of the supply chain – but how I see it is that the problem is a bit bigger than the last mile. Therefore, it’s actually really important to start extending this impact further upstream in the supply chain.

“If we actually want to reduce the bullwhip effect, then we need to be tackling food waste across the supply chain, so that the problem gets resolved proactively and not just for the last mile. In addition to the geographical expansion of the current product, it’s much in our focus that we want to extend this solution furthermore upstream by, for example, collaborating with other market players in the space.”

Jatkäsaari and Kalasatama: Mobility in the city

When it comes to getting around the 715km2 capital region, diversity is key. In 2017, almost 80% of people travelled sustainably – 35% of whom moved by foot, 34% on public transport, and 9% by bicycle. Helsinki has the world’s busiest passenger port, responsible for carrying around 13 million people every year; meanwhile, within the city, almost half of public travel is made on buses.

This variety of commuting options for residents opens up opportunities for mobility and city developers to test out new modes of transport across the city, made evident with the ‘smart’ Jatkäsaari and Kalasatama districts. Jatkäsaari, which stands for ‘Docker Island’ in Finnish, began construction 10 years ago – prior to which the area used to be home to a cargo port – and is expected to be completed by 2030. Primed to house 18,000 residents and have space for 6,000 business workers, Jatkäsaari’s challenges are unique in that a nearby port terminal in Länsisatama remains the main terminal for passenger ferries coming in from Estonia’s capital, Tallinn. For the Jatkäsaari quarter, this influx of traffic requires smart solutions to reduce congestion in the Finnish capital.

Coordinated by Forum Virium Helsinki, the City of Helsinki’s arms’-length innovation company which works to nurture public-private smart application relationships in the city, Jatkäsaari is a testbed for innovative transport ideas. “Forum Virium is non-profit, which I think is important because we are working with the city that we are a part of – so we can be a bit more agile because we are a separate company,” said Pekka Koponen, smart mobility director at Forum Virium Helsinki. “We don’t run any of the services, so we can be very hands-on and can run a pilot working on private solutions for three years.”

Earlier this year, as part of the city of Helsinki’s smart-mobility-centric Last Mile applications project, Jatkäsaari opened up calls for transport tenders, seeking innovative solutions that would facilitate local connectivity. Tenders were then awarded for different projects: a local cargo bike sharing scheme, for example, bringing cargo bikes to the yards of housing companies which residents can then use to go shopping or take their children to daycare.

This collaboration between public and private parties to come up with the best solutions for residents is evident through the Agile programme, offering opportunities to SMEs and start-ups in the city to meet Helsinki’s complex mobility demands. “Both at Kalasatama and Jatkäsaari, we are able to learn more when it’s in live trial. Companies no longer have to apply for EU project funding, and it’s a platform that we can bring to innovators, so it’s proved to have worked and been successful for us. Companies can try new innovations quickly and then we can learn how to deliver them in public services in Helsinki and further,” Pekka explained.

Elsewhere in Jatkäsaari are schemes including smart pedestrian crosswalks; an experiment to create a new scalable model for transporting children to their favourite hobbies and sports practice; a delivery service scheme based around electric cargo bikes; and co-creation workshops where residents and companies can voice their opinions on solutions for the area.

The big challenge now is how to tackle the issue and then scale it. If something is piloted and it works, I think everybody agrees that the tough part is to go through the real procurement and scaling in the city

Much like the Jatkäsaari quarter, just over a decade ago the Kalasatama we now know in Helsinki did not exist. But following an influx of investment and a shift of residents moving to the old fishing ports, the area is experiencing social and economic rejuvenation and has become home to one of the hottest zones of innovation in the city region.

Though primarily focused on smart energy and buildings, Kalasatama is prideful of what its cutting-edge mobility offers for residents. Well-connected by metro and bus and with a light rail line being constructed in the area, residents in Kalasatama are purported to be saving one hour a day due to the connected and smart capabilities in the district. One of the mobility changes currently on the way is the full deployment of self-driving autonomous buses in the district, with initial pilot testing still ongoing.  Residents are also intrinsically involved in planning for upcoming projects in Kalasatama, with almost a third of locals engaging with transport planners to give their insight.

“It’s nice to see how much learning and experience can be gained from such a small

pilot,” Pekka said. “The big challenge now is how to tackle the issue and then scale it. If something is piloted and it works, I think everybody agrees that the tough part is to go through the real procurement and scaling in the city. But we are already raising the skill and experience level of the residents in the city, so it’s much easier for them to think about the next steps, and that’s the really important thing.”

If everything goes to plan, by 2040 the two districts could house more than 40,000 residents altogether – all while collecting comprehensive datasets on traffic peaks and troughs, and utilising the views of the local community to provide more tailored solutions.

In the handful of years since Forum Virium has been operating in Kalasatama and Jatkäsaari, connected autonomous vehicles, shuttle buses, smart pedestrian schemes, ride-to-work schemes, and traditional transport methods – light and conventional rail, private car, and buses – have provided locals with the option to commute and travel sustainably, privately, cost-effectively, or leisurely, all at their choosing. A truly sophisticated transport system for a truly intricate demand base propelling Helsinki as a global leader in the field.

CASE STUDY: Whim (MaaS Global)

“It is something that you cannot let go of or not do. If I have a chance to leave a good mark on the world, then it’s too hard to pass up that opportunity. That’s the inspiration.”

For several years, Sampo Hietanen was the self-described “village idiot” trying to promote the idea Mobility as a Service (MaaS) in public forums and via lectures around Europe – until his breakthrough came.

On 8 December 2014, while delivering a lecture at the Finnish Science Centre Heureka, Sampo described the concept of MaaS: a single, integrated platform, bringing together every mode of transport and offering users the ability to compare, contrast, and decide on the right mode that suits them. Though originally coming up with the idea in 2006, the lecture of that December evening was received with great interest – with global organisations, 24 of them in total, eventually pledging €5,000 each to get the project off the ground.

Above all else, Sampo spoke of this long-term, user-focused approach having a completely transformative potential for the mobility sector. “For some strange reason, just making the user case visible, telling people that this is what the future really looks like for the end users, that hit the spot. That one slide made all the difference,” he told Cityscape.

The modern-day result of Sampo’s passion is the Helsinki-based MaaS Global Ltd. Launched in 2017, MaaS Global’s all-in-one Whim app allows users to travel on their own terms – whether that be sustainably, actively, quickly, or slowly – all under a single subscription plan. It’s a truly Finnish concept brought to the rest of Europe, recently launching in Antwerp, Birmingham, and Vienna – yet for Sampo, the concept of MaaS is universal.

“The need for people to have a guarantee of their freedom is exactly the same. People get the concept, they understand that it’s everything they need in a one-stop shop; that is understandable everywhere,” the mastermind behind the scheme explained.

People get the concept, they understand that it’s everything they need in a one-stop shop

“I like to use the analogy of cars; the idea of the car is the same whether you’re in Jakarta, London, or Rio – it’s a car. The kind of car sold is what makes the difference – in some places there’s going to be more SUVs, in other places more two-seaters, and so on. The same applies here. For example, in Antwerp, the use of public transport is quite different to what it is in Helsinki. The use of taxis is almost non-existent over there, whereas bikes and a car share system are more used. In Birmingham, the way of using commuter trains is different. But what we also realised is that if you don’t have a big and wide enough coverage of the area, then you’re not going to get anywhere.”

Transport challenges aside, other, more personal challenges can come about with technology platforms such as Whim. For example, a study last year from disability equality charity Scope found that a quarter of disabled people no longer use public transport due to negative attitudes from other passengers. Not only this, but there may be elderly, disabled, or rural residents who are unable to access and use the Whim app to its full potential due to personal reasons.

Sampo noted that the accessibility support for transport demands on Whim has not been established in the first ‘wave’ of services in Birmingham, but it will soon come. “In the beginning we had a lot of discussions with different organisations for disabled people,” he said. “In all honesty, in the first wave we will not be able to supply so much availability; but once the supply becomes easier and bigger, people with less opportunity will be able to be more mobile within their city because they’ll have all kinds of options available.

“That’s where demand and supply start to really meet. For example, for people who cannot use a smartphone, it’s much cheaper to assist by giving them a call service – and much cheaper than using a taxi ride every time. It makes sense to use the incentives in these kinds of services and give them much more power of choice, and then it’s not just the local authority saying, ‘This is the fixed transport service and we’ll organise it for you.’”

For Whim’s outreach into Birmingham, the UK’s historically addlepated transport system has meant that adoption of MaaS has had its challenges. Combining a typically paper-ticket-based system with the online platform has led to confusion from some locals about what a service like Whim can do for them. “People are having a hard time understanding why,” Sampo explained. “They want the convenience of everything in one, and that’s what they value. You have to really find some of them to give people what they need.

“What we’ve also learned is that one of the crucial parts – even though people wouldn’t use it – is the comfort of really knowing, for sure, that you have access to cars.”

For Sampo, two demands that he has to meet in his work are providing competition to the car industry and working with government. “Firstly, government has never really been the best seller for any kind of cool product,” the Whim CEO quipped. “Secondly, remember where the competition is. If you dared to set the competition towards cars, then you have to be honest with yourself: they’re a big competitor and they’re really good at what they do. The problem, not just in the UK but around the world as well, is that we understand that governments normally love the idea of MaaS and see it as something that, in the minds of people, could stand a chance at competing with car ownership.”

This healthy competition, and an accessible platform giving transport users a handful of choices for their daily commute, is pivotal to the MaaS movement. “Traditionally in government, the transport tools they’re given are that they make a plan, they issue a tender, they pick a winner, and then they start delivering that,” continued Sampo. “But in this world, that’s not how it goes – people want choices. They want to get everything from a one-stop shop for sure, but they also want to have a choice of where they get that access from, so Whim cannot be the only one.

“It’s not good for our business; there needs to be a better market, but we all need to tap into the same resources of transportation, and that’s tough. That means that the government cannot do it themselves, but it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be the puppeteers of this market. They need to be the ones making the rules so that companies like ours can function and so that the goals of the transport policies are met. And that’s a totally different ballgame.”

Since its launch, the company has received attention and investment from global players in the mobility sector. In September, Tokyo-based Mitsubishi Corporation joined Toyota Financial Services as an investor in the firm, following a funding call from investors of £21,500,000 earlier this year. Later in 2019, MaaS will look to launch the Whim app in the United States, seeking to take the Nordic concept of travel to the notoriously car-centric country.

A smart company for a smart city: Nuuka Solutions

Bringing a Nordic flavour to smart buildings is Helsinki-based Nuuka Solutions. Part of an industry expected to reach the market size of £520m by 2022, Nuuka software enables building planners and managers optimise their building using large sums of data, ranging anywhere from hotspot footfall areas to water usage from a specific kitchen on the third floor – thus creating a tailored, sustainable, and comfortable environment for users.

Now trusted by more than 2,500 buildings around the world, Nuuka has cloud software running in some of the most state-of-the-art properties in today’s smart cities. Amongst other examples, its portfolio includes Finnish insurance company LähiTapiola’s new headquarters for the Espoo Campus and Ainoa Shopping Centre, as well as Deloitte’s Amsterdam home, The Edge – which has received awards for its 98.36% sustainability score given that it generates more energy than it consumes.

Tuomas Pippola, product director at Nuuka, has only been in this role since June, but he has already noticed the ample opportunity available in the smart building industry to create substantial value for portfolio owners and an equally exciting experience for tenants.

“We are defining a new category of product, because it is relatively new to digitise the real estate and the building itself,” he commented. “Because digitisation is only just starting, the opportunity to innovate is huge. And because there isn’t a dominant design for smart buildings, there are many ways to add value for portfolio owners, and there are a multitude of products to try in order to digitise the building. We are actually defining the future, which is really exciting.”

Tuomas’ experience in the digital market helped highlight the changing landscape of what tenants in smart buildings are demanding from suppliers in 2019. “Many companies have traditionally been looking at the energy consumption and the cost. But one thing I have been recently noticing is the direction away from the energy cost or a similar specific issue, and instead turning towards a platform that would enable them to monitor and manage energy processes, indoor air temperature, and the office environment as a whole – looking all the way down to individual staff members and finding out what their needs are,” he explained.

Opening up your data to the public will enable you to grow your future business, but at the same time it will force you to raise your security levels

“Tenants are now looking for a platform that is able to collect and constantly examine the building’s data, throughout all of the building, so that they can first get a grasp of it and then slowly be able to optimise and make their working environment smarter, step by step.”

But how is Helsinki performing in its approach to smart buildings compared to other European smart cities? For Tuomas, the Nordic city is at the forefront of the sustainability fight, which in turn has had an impact of what tenants are looking for in their smart building blocks. “What I see happening is when cities have big estate portfolios and want to make their buildings smart, they are not doing it primarily to collect higher rents, but rather to make the buildings better for their users, citizens, and the environment. So they are not optimising revenue, but for the benefit as measured by their citizens’ happiness and greater sustainability in their buildings.”

This contrasts with the global real estate community, where revenues drive smart buildings ahead of benefits to tenants, even if Tuomas believes the Finnish client base is interested in sustainability too.

The large sums of data accrued by a smart building paved the way for innovation from outside Nuuka’s four walls as well. The software provider is able to open up datasets of building usage and common trends to application developers, allowing the talented SMEs and start-ups of Helsinki to provide solutions to any demand a tenant may have. In ensuring data is transferred safely, Tuomas notes that the building can be adequately secured to prevent the potential of a cyber-attack.

“Opening up your data to the public will enable you to grow your future business, but at the same time it will force you to raise your security levels. You need to ensure that your solution meets the highest cloud security and ISO standards,” he argued.

“But having a security perspective also means that you should strive to future-proof your buildings. Choosing a data-collecting platform that is open to all systems, brands, and sensors on the market and that connects to all building automation systems you have today and in the future – that’s the way to ensure that you and your buildings will meet the market’s demand for new and more sustainable services and solutions.”


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