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Reimagining the cities of the future in Finland

New ideas around new space: Helsinki not only imagines, but can see, the cities of the future

Helsinki’s approach to the future of urban spaces was set to be a standard for others to follow when shared at this month’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. 

Around the world, there is something of a innovation race in this space. The ability to not only make siloed aspects of a city more digitally driven, but to then connect those facets, is the overriding aim. The results are an improved way of life for citizens, reduced impacts on the environment and more sustainable prospects for the world’s most populous areas. 

For Helsinki, a city currently among the leaders in this future city race, the driving force is data – not only in its attempts to upgrade and future-proof its own city, but also to inform international business transformations and to trial global prototypes. 

Marja-Leena Rinkineva, director of economic development for the City of Helsinki, explained: “Helsinki was one of the first cities in the world to open its data, which means that statistics collected by the city are publicly released for anyone to use. This has created many new services and business opportunities.  

“Helsinki has established itself as a platform for piloting and testing and is the perfect size to test the waters and try something that wouldn’t be possible elsewhere.” 

One of Helsinki’s particular strengths is in the area of “new space”, off the back of a uniquely designed digital twin that benefits both the city and the wider world through the resultant gathered information.  

A host of companies have emerged in the area of new space in recent years, revolving around the idea of monitoring the Earth through satellites and remote sensing technologies to assess the best way forward for specific areas of the planet. 

Finish company ICEYE is one of those leading innovators – a microsatellite manufacturer that has brought Rinkineva’s claim about differentiation through data to life since 2014. 

Originating from a Finnish university nanosatellite group, the company has developed a unique, miniaturised synthetic aperture radar (SAR) technology that enables radically more complete, accurate and timely monitoring and measurement of changes on the Earth’s surface. This tech is coupled with advanced data analytics to provide powerful solutions to a range of industries. 

“Earth observation and remote sensing companies such as ICEYE can layer near-real-time geophysical insights to enable autonomous visual intelligence and better decision-making,” said the company’s CEO, Rafal Modrzewski “The advance of such capabilities will progress global efforts to ensure a sustainable world for future generations.”

Governments and international agencies can also use the insights to monitor economic and planetary sustainability – once again an example of Finnish innovation not only elevating their own society, but being shared as a tool for global upliftment. 

Modrzewski added: “The city of the future will depend on happy residents with equal opportunities and education, as well as a flourishing business scene and open-minded city governments. The role of data is becoming ever more important to this end, and Helsinki has created a digital twin of sorts, where all buildings and infrastructure components are available in digital form in real time. When we combine data sources to that digital twin, we can test new solutions in the digital environment before taking action.” 

Read more about Finnish knowledge-sharing at Davos

But such progress isn’t just a virtue signal, an aimless innovation or tick-box exercise for Helsinki’s innovators. It is also a business venture – and a successful one at that. As well as growing its satellite constellation to 16 satellites in January, ICEYE announced a Series D funding total of $136m a month later, and was named one of Forbes’ most innovative companies in March. 

Modrzewski said Finland and the country’s institutions have helped shape this success story. Yes, it could be argued that many other countries have the scope and potential to make such rapid headway in this “future city” space. And yet they haven’t. 

“It’s the perfect combination of support here in this country and region,” he said. “Finland has great technical universities and invests in early-stage companies with great ideas, and ones that advance science and education. Meanwhile, our very first investment came from a $2.8m grant from the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme in 2015. The European Space Agency has been supportive as well.” 

ICEYE’s approach to evolving cities in Finland is the same as it is to building satellites, said Modrzewski: “Both are focused on new, smart, technological innovations that improve the way we are currently doing things.” 

Of course, much of the conversation at this year’s World Economic Forum will revolve around climate change, and through its data-driven approach to new space, Helsinki is perfectly poised to share its examples of best practice and enhanced monitoring to inform response. 

“We can observe changes on the Earth that either indicate change that is happening, such as polar ice caps melting, or that might contribute to change in the future, such as reduced areas of rainforest,” said Modrzewski. “In the more immediate term, however, we also monitor weather forecasting and use our own models to determine where flood events have the potential to occur, and then monitor and report on their development over time.” 

The detailed data being gathered and deployed is a weapon against the most severe events, but also – as a more continuous upshot – against unsustainable city development. If industry and corporations can plot better what challenges those cities will face in the future – environmental, societal and economic – they can plan, respond and build accordingly. 

Most importantly, this needs to be an internationally collaborative effort – not just an “everyone for themselves” approach. 

“Helsinkians have an extraordinary ability to contribute to a better world through expertise, design-thinking, clean technology and teamwork,” said Rinkineva.  

“A hundred years ago, we were one of the poorest counties in the world. Now we are one of the wealthiest and happiest. This success was created through education, equal opportunities, and Finnish ‘sisu’ – a unique concept of determination and perseverance. But also, the success of small nations like ours is dependent on innovation.  

“Helsinki, along with all major cities in Finland, prioritises active innovation policy and organisations, which helps companies and research organisations to use the entire city as a testbed.” 

The results of many of those tests and success stories are being brought to Davos and the World Economic Forum this month.

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