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Finnish AI Region drives digital growth in small businesses

Helsinki-based SMEs are being offered support and resources to help them get the best out of artificial intelligence technology to improve their operations and create services to sell

The Finnish AI Region (FAIR) will launch an ambitious initiative in October to help small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to deploy artificial intelligence (AI) and other digital technology to boost their competitiveness and international growth.

Run through FAIR’s Helsinki-based Innovation Hub, the initiative is intended to help SMEs in the greater Helsinki area to develop and convert AI-based innovations into marketable products while streamlining their in-house processes.

FAIR’s project is mainly focused on SMEs with fewer than 100 employees that are at the early stages of utilising AI on a daily basis. The SMEs currently being targeted by FAIR are mainly engaged in delivering digital services to support the development of smart cities and healthcare delivery, said Erja Turunen, executive vice-president of digital technologies at state-funded national technical research centre VTT, which is one of 11 founding organisations behind FAIR.

“The objective is for FAIR to help SMEs develop AI-based innovations and translate them into marketable products,” said Turunen. “FAIR will help SMEs to streamline their in-house processes with AI while identifying the business opportunities created by AI that can  support their use by companies. SMEs will have access to an extensive international network of experts which we will strengthen on a continuing basis.”

In terms of the predominantly cost-free support services offered to SMEs, the four main pillars of FAIR’s Innovation Hub are: test platforms, financial support, competence development, and building innovation ecosystems and enhanced networking.

Running parallel to the Innovation Hub initiative, FAIR’s support programme includes a €3m fund that companies can draw from to accelerate the pace of digitisation in their businesses.

FAIR provides an important resource platform to support Finland’s national innovation environment and promote both AI expertise and the utilisation of AI, said Sasu Tarkoma, dean and professor at the University of Helsinki’s department of computer science.

“The aim is that the Innovation Hub will foster a higher level of collaboration between private companies and universities, leading to the greater flow of ideas and basic to more advanced research across the AI spectrum,” said Tarkoma.

Along with VTT and the University of Helsinki, FAIR’s founding members are: Aalto University, Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences, the Metropolia University of Applied Sciences,  the state-run CSC – IT Center for Science, KIRA-Hub, digital innovation transformation firm EIT Digital, and the city councils of Helsinki, Espoo and Vantaa.

The FAIR Innovation Hub is prioritising mature SMEs that are already established in their service area but lack the capacity and means to develop a product or service utilising AI. The Hub’s operating model means it will work with individual SMEs to help them validate, implement, maintain and further develop products and services.  

FAIR is looking to cooperate with more than 100 SMEs in the next three years, said Marja-Leena Rinkineva, director of economic development at the City of Helsinki.

“We want to develop the core operations of the FAIR Innovation Hub to strengthen our position as one of the best innovation environments in Europe,” she said. “Our goal is to achieve this by systematically promoting the development of existing business and creating more and more attractive jobs. FAIR also builds on Helsinki’s attractiveness as a city and region with an expert workforce.”

FAIR’s Innovation Hub will also bolster the overall competitiveness of companies operating in Helsinki’s metropolitan area that are hoping to launch or expand in global markets, said Harri Paananen, director of economic development at the City of Espoo.

“Helsinki’s metropolitan area is already one of the world’s leading centres of AI expertise,” he said. “Through cooperation, we can increase the opportunities for companies in the region to benefit from this expertise and testing opportunities.”

Prominent users of AI

Software and construction companies have emerged as prominent users of AI within Helsinki’s metropolitan area, and VTT estimates that more than 50% of healthcare sector startups are currently using AI. The FAIR Innovation Hub’s service offerings will enable companies in these and other sectors to move more quickly from the application to the implementation of AI.

“Pioneering construction firms are keen to start applying AI in automated design to create a real-time situational site picture and optimise the energy efficiency of buildings,” said Teemu Lehtinen, CEO of KIRA-Hub, a non-profit agency that promotes sustainable digitisation in Finland’s built environment. “In order to reach true efficiency, we need to achieve a larger mass and convince more SMEs to take advantage of the opportunities offered by AI.”

The FAIR Innovation Hub is the latest initiative by public authorities in Helsinki to encourage greater take-up of digital knowledge and AI technologies to develop a broader pool of skills that enhance employment opportunities.

In February, the City of Helsinki rolled out the Digital Working Life project to provide cost-free digital skills courses to residents. Significantly, the initiative is also targeting Helsinki’s growing immigrant community, with courses offered in Finnish, English, Somali, French and Arabic. 

“Employment is connected to personal wellbeing,” said Annukka Sorjonen, service manager for immigration and employment affairs at the City of Helsinki. “Helsinki needs to have a skilled workforce. The companies based here have an increasing need for workers with digital skills. Having access to digital skills is a key factor in the growth of our companies.”

Helsinki’s initiatives in digital and AI uptake are also being used to attract a higher level of foreign investment from global players in the IT domain. Finland has logged a number of recent high-profile successes, with Google and Microsoft engaged in separate investments to expand their operations in the country.   

Google has bought a 50-acre site from the City of Hamina that can be used to expand its datacentre activities in the area. The €4.3m deal is part of Google’s long-term plan to scale up production and take advantage of Finland’s cold-climate operating environment and access to renewable energy.  

The land procurement gives Google the means to expand in Finland, although the company has not yet decided when it might develop the site, said Lauri Ikonen, head of operations at Google Hamina.

“Having ownership of the landbank means we now have the flexibility to move quickly if we decide to expand in Hamina,” said Ikonen.

About 400 people are employed in Google’s Hamina datacentre and operations connected to the facility. The company opened its sixth datacentre in Hamina in 2020. The facility’s cooling system, which uses seawater from the Gulf of Finland, is powered by electricity from three newly constructed wind farms.

Microsoft announced a plan in March 2022 to build an emission-free, energy-efficient, heat-producing datacentre in Finland. It said the investment could create up to 11,000 jobs in Finland.

The facility is Microsoft’s largest initiative to recycle waste heat from datacentres. The plant, which is being built in partnership with Finnish energy group Fortum, will have the capacity to supply district heating to the municipalities of Espoo, Kauniainen and Kirkkonummi.

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