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Helsinki: The trailblazing smart city

Helsinki has transitioned from modelling the best of smart city innovation to becoming a fully-fledged smart city

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A collection of startup incubators, sustainable initiatives, supporting testbeds and novel innovations confirm Finland’s capital as a global innovation and environmental, social and governance trailblazer. 

It is a journey that began in the early 2000s, demonstrated by the establishment of the City of Helsinki’s Innovation Fund in 2002. The ideas within were targeted towards protecting the environment, citizens and the wider planet.  

“Helsinki’s strategies are prepared and revisited every four years, and the importance of innovation through this lens of sustainability and solving globally significant challenges has grown each time,” confirmed Marja-Leena Rinkineva, director of economic development and a member of the Executive Board of the City of Helsinki.  

Two regions of the city were then targeted to drive Helsinki’s smart city goals. Kalasatama and Jätkäsaari are both former brownfield areas, which were already transforming from their industrial pasts, making them ideal models for a new, more agile approach to construction and city management.  

Rinkineva explained: “Choosing these specific areas to really channel our ambitious smart city goals happened in the 2013-2016 innovation strategy, but by 2017, for the next four-year cycle, we had already scaled those plans. 

“Then it was announced that the entire city should be developed as a platform for modelling and experimenting new innovations and new solutions. We confirmed that we wanted to make Helsinki a trendsetter in the circular economy, to promote testing of sustainability-driven innovations, and – together with end users, city personnel and businesses – be an example of how to solve global challenges.” 

A solution for every city cluster

Fast forward to 2023, and this strategy has evolved further still, displaying a strong business incubator network specifically focused on smart city development; supported by dedicated testbeds to replicate environments and trial new solutions; and underpinned by public data access to citizens to encourage wider ideation and potential startup involvement. 

But what does being ‘smart’ mean to the city of Helsinki? 

Rinkineva answered: “It means being a technologically advanced, entrepreneurial, innovative, sustainable and socially inclusive city. We strive for those goals and aim to be the smartest city in the world, based on those indicators. 

“For business and business creation, it means that Helsinki has adopted an active role in boosting early-stage entrepreneurship together with universities, businesses and society more broadly.” 

This has paved the way for numerous key partners to drive the city’s goals forward. Business Helsinki’s Testbed Helsinki service model, for example, encourages domestic startups and young businesses to not just put forward their ideas, but trial and hone them in a supportive incubator environment. 

“New products and services are modelled in real-world conditions together with companies, city staff, end-users, and research and development and innovation [RDI] organisations,” Rinkineva added. “The city’s resources, such as buildings or data, as well as service units such as schools and health centres, are used as these model environments, leading to breakthroughs such as the MeducubeX eHealth station, which offers autonomous self-measurement of vital signs and cardiovascular issues for customers. 

“When it comes to transport, we have developed solutions for smart mobility in an urban environment. Mobility Lab Helsinki assists companies and researchers in testing and developing smart and digital mobility solutions on the streets of Helsinki with real users.” 

There are cluster programmes targeted also at education, utilities and waste, and the wider circular economy; all geared towards nurturing innovation, encouraging blue-sky thinking, and removing risk for budding smart city game changers. 

A collaborative environment 

The city’s development and testing platforms – known as urban testbeds – are physical or virtual environments where new solutions, products and services have been developed, tested, piloted and scaled together with companies, city staff, end users, universities and research institutes.  

The 2005 introduction of city-owned innovation company Forum Virium Helsinki helped to ignite this approach by addressing four key aspects of developing a smart city technology: overcoming technical challenges, piloting wider projects, being agile with procurement, and housing research and development. 

Minna Torppa, programme director of Smart Mobility at Forum Virium Helsinki, said: “Mobility Lab, as a living lab and testbed activity, has the key objective of facilitating the experimentation of emerging technologies and smart mobility services in the streets of Helsinki providing companies with an opportunity to develop new solutions in a real urban environment. We also work closely with the local startup ecosystem. The mobility lab’s office is located in the Maria 01 startup campus, the biggest of its kind in the Nordics.” 

Maria 01 epitomises Helsinki’s global standing when it comes to tech startup support, but also how united the city is in pushing towards sustainable outcomes.  

Torppa continued: “We focus a lot on collaboration with incubators and accelerators, local funders, and with the city’s entrepreneurial services. Forum Virium is not a funding organisation, but the core function is to provide testing opportunities for companies and developers who are looking to achieve something sustainable. Something good. Something smart.  

“We actively facilitate the dialogue between the different actors, with the aim to provide companies with everything they need to develop and commercialise innovations that will make a difference.”  

A strategy with societal sign-off 

Torppa points to an ultimate twofold ambition: to provide better services for citizens, while also providing companies with opportunities to pilot and experiment with new innovations and to commercialise them, which then creates new businesses, jobs and incomes. 

However, as Rinkineva reiterates, these businesses, employment opportunities and creators of wealth, must also be a force for good. 

She said: “In our view, Helsinki has so far been successful in growing an innovation environment that facilitates the solving of global challenges that are also globally scalable. This makes the city attractive specifically to companies or entrepreneurs who have that same philosophy and ambition.  

“For example, Helsinki has a goal to be carbon neutral by 2030, to have zero emissions by 2040, and to be carbon negative from then on. Startups with those shared goals then know they have a city ready to help them test, develop, pilot and scale their innovations so we can, together, make our city and the world a better place.” 

Helsinki is already a frontrunner and a benchmark when it comes to smart city development. From two regional hubs, to a default city-wide strategy, the city has laid the foundations. Innovators and entrepreneurs have risen to the challenge, and society has responded in kind. 

“This latter part may actually be the most important component of a smart city plan – the input from citizens,” Torppa concluded. “Helsinki is a tech-minded city, but it’s also a democratic and open society. We have trust in public institutions and this creates accountability for those making decisions.  

“Together, we have put ourselves in a perfect position to lead the way towards more open and transparent smart city development, which truly improves the quality of life of residents, but that also takes into account privacy and democratic aspects of technological development.” 

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