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Finnish city takes €10bn leap into digitisation

Tampere is encouraging its people, businesses and government organisations to come together to make digital transformation work for everyone

Finnish city Tampere is investing up to €10bn until 2030 to put digital technology at the core of everything it does.

The money, which is made up of public and private contributions, will go towards creating the right environment for the city, government and private businesses to take advantage of digital technology.

“Instead of individual pilot cases, we are trying to systematically drive digitisation in the city and target our economic investment to encourage companies to use the opportunities of digitisation in their own businesses,” Kari Kankaala, director of city development at Tampere, told Computer Weekly.

The smart city’s plans form the core of Tampere’s five-year economic policy, Smart Tampere. The aim is to tap into digitisation to secure economic growth, build an attractive environment for business and enhance the quality of life for its inhabitants.

Tampere plans to implement digital technology in all its future development projects, from public transportation to local infrastructure.

Furthermore, Tampere has launched a programme to move the municipality – the third largest in Finland with 228,000 inhabitants – to digital-only services by 2025.

“Whether the development project is in education, health or fitness services, or city communications, ‘smartness’ will be involved in one way or another,” said Kankaala. “This makes it a project that involves the whole city.”

Collaborative city development

Key to Tampere’s smart city vision is building an open ecosystem where business, academia, citizens and the government can collaborate to develop new services.

How this will be achieved is still at the planning phase, but headway is already being made by involving businesses more deeply in city development. This includes opening up the city’s procurement process, facilitating partnerships between companies of different sizes and using the city to test their products and services. 

“For example, we are currently renewing all of Tampere’s 33,000 street lights. They can act as a perfect test platform that can be equipped with wireless networks, 5G base stations, different surveillance and security. They can be used to create a connectivity backbone for the whole city,” said Kankaala. “When renewal needs to be done in any case, adding smart features is not a huge additional cost.”

The same applies to the building of a new light rail network in Tampere, which was approved in late 2016. As the network is built, it will also be opened up as a test ground for new mobile, building and infrastructure solutions.

“We want to digitise services, and these projects could act as a catalyst for businesses to come and help us do these things,” said Kankaala. “We want to create company-driven solutions, not just city-driven ones.”

Tampere’s approach is not without precedent. It echoes the consensus at the 2016 Smart Cities Summit in Boston, which argued that working together with various parties is crucial for smart city success.

A digital leap in knowledge

Tampere’s smart city ambitions are also a major change for the city internally. Kankaala said digitisation will inevitably happen, but a key challenge is to ensure the city’s operating models are transformed alongside it.

“We are introducing digi teachers, digi nurses and digi gardeners. We take people from the different sectors of the city who are interested in digitisation, understand what it is about, and can act as champions for it in their own areas.”

But it is not just the less digitally oriented city employees who will need to adapt to new ways of working. Tampere’s IT department plays a crucial role in digitising the city’s services, both for citizens and employees.

“We have done plenty of key projects and pilots related to digitisation, but now we aim to make a digital leap in the knowledge and competence of all personnel,” said Eero Kaappa, the city’s digital transformation and ICT manager.

Part of this is a new experimental approach to the traditionally strict public procurement process. The aim is for Tampere to open up its procurement plans early on and experiment with different products before launching a tender. For example, when acquiring a new payment system for public transportation, Kaappa explains the IT team could trial different alternatives instead of relying only on presentations and tender documents.

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“The key word here is ‘experiments’. Traditionally in IT, we talk about pilots, but the difference there is that the goal is always production,” said Kaappa. “With experiments, we can try three, five or 10 alternatives and decide not to acquire any of them.”

The aim is to save costs and find the best possible alternative for the city. If €20,000 is spent on experiments, it is still saving money if it prevents a €10m mistake.

Tampere is also adopting the fail fast approach familiar to technology companies, where fast trialling and even failing are encouraged. This means if a city employee has a promising idea, they are able to take a few months to develop it.

“If it doesn’t lead to anything, it is killed. If it does lead to something, we have a trial. If that works, we make a pilot and put it into production,” said Kankaala. “It is a big cultural change to a rigid city organisation, but this is how we try to drive it forward.”

Building a digital city

While smart city initiatives are abundant globally, many still need to tackle questions of connectivity, standardisation and data governance to move towards maturity.

For Kaappa, new challenges arise from open data that moves from general level, such as traffic, location and procurement information, to more demanding usage cases. “At some point, we need to weigh questions on how data and APIs [application programming interfaces] need to be managed if, for example, we want to monetise them,” he said.

Both Kaappa and Kankaala recognise that such questions cannot be solved overnight, but said Tampere is on the right path.

Kaappa compared the upcoming changes to the digital revolution in the banking sector. “I don’t remember visiting a bank in the past few years except to sign some mortgage papers. Everything else has been done digitally,” he said.

“Similarly, I might in future visit the municipality once every five years. The interface to the municipality has to be so seamless that people would rather use digital than physical service channels.”

An example of these new digital channels is the opportunity for parents to have video meetings with their child’s nursery, which Tampere will introduce in early 2017. These video appointments will also be expanded to employment services.

These are just the first steps for smart Tampere. Kankaala envisions a city with global digital service companies where automation will free time from routine tasks to enable better customer and patient work. “If you think about where we were 10 years ago, it is almost scary to imagine where we will be in 10 years’ time,” concluded Kankaala.

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