A Shining City in the North

With a few tiny tweaks Helsinki has all the ingredients to be the living lab for the future of cities.

“Each resident of Helsinki has the right to feel they are a true Helsinki citizen and to do something significant for their community. In Helsinki, it is easy to be of help to others.”
Quote from Helsinki´s strategy adopted by the City Council 27 September 2017

This week Bloomberg Philantropies gathered 500 mayors and city innovators to Paris to share practices on the future of cities. After the discussions over the three days I summed up what seemed to be interesting in Helsinki.

  1. Helsinki is about people.
    1. We don´t have kings and queens, castles, world-changing events nor  nature´s landmarks. We speak an utterly incomprehensible language. We´re very few. So the only way we make it in the world is by making sure that every person lives up to their potential.
    2. Being a teacher is one of the most respected jobs in Finland.
    3. There´s a myth  that a strong welfare state would lead to passive citizens. Unfortunately there is very little evidence to back it up. As we feel safe, we feel free to do stuff. As an example, citizens organize over 5000 events a year in our 36 libraries.
    4. In Finland both citizens and local governments believe in universal solutions. Most Finns would be willing to pay more taxes if that ensures that we keep a welfare state. Still, in this day and age, our fundamental philosophy is that taking care of everyone is both morally the right thing to do as well as in our own self-interest.
      In 5 years Helsinki went from a zero tolerance policy on street art to building neighborhood street art walls and commissioning murals.
  2. In Helsinki knowledge sets you free.
    1. If you want to understand Finland, go to a public library. Our public libraries had 6 279 521 visits and 12 779 238 online visits in 2016 (in a city of 650 000 people). Libraries are unique places as you do not need to justify your presence to anyone but you are always welcome. Finland has the highest literacy in the world. As an evidence of the kind of future we believe in, we are building a 100-million euro Central Library right smack in the center. Helsinkians love their libraries. This Central Library project has the support of more than 80 percent of the city´s population.
      Helsinki´s New Central Library Oodi will be opened in December 2018.
  3. It´s amazing to be a kid in Helsinki.
    1. Finland´s basic education gets amazing results with very little testing and very little homework. And we´re only getting started. The new curriculum emphasizes phenomenon-based learning, meaning that several teachers work together for instance to build a project course on climate change.
    2. We provide a free school lunch that is regulated to meet health standards. When schools´s out, in our parks we provide a free soup for children and their parents at noon during the summer.
    3. In Helsinki´s kindergartens parents, children and staff decide on the virtues they wish to promote in their kindergarten. Favorites are courage and kindness.
    4. To celebrate Finland´s independence day, the mayor of Helsinki invites all 4th graders (appr. 10-year-olds) to a reception. 91 percent of our 4th-graders have a weekly hobby. All teenagers vote on the leisure activities of their neighborhood through a participatory budgeting project. When our 15-year-olds finish their compulsory education, they all get a voucher, which allows them to find a city-subsidized summer job.
    5. Although our work starts from a humanistic standpoint, we don´t shy away from numbers. We publish annually a young people´s wellbeing report and have created a database, which allows everyone to use the data we have on children and youth.
      We teach all kids how to swim.
  4. We are very pragmatic.
    1. In the Finnish culture doing what you promise is one of the highest valued characteristics.
    2. We have one of the most accurate population statistics in the world.
    3. Helsinki is amazing in hosting international events.  We are safe, clean, pragmatic and punctual. Things work.
    4. Systematically from the World Design Capital in 2012, service design has been introduced as the city´s way to turn empathy from a attitude into a process. Here´s an examples how we rethought the audiences of Helsinki Art Museum.
    5. In order to understand citizen engagement, we developed with design agency Hellon a board game, which makes engagement concrete for the team. The 2-hour game is being played by teams in museums, health care stations, schools and even by executive teams.
      City employees playing the participation board game.
  5. We trust what people and institutions say and we have nothing to hide.
    1. We trust the police and the education system. We trust each other. The city has opened 618 government data sets, including all procurement data of the City of Helsinki.

      On of the datasets opened is the city bike mobility data, which led to three great apps which allow people to see if their are bikes at the bike stop. Helsinki has currently one of the world´s highest usages of city bikes with every bike used approximately 8 times every day.
  6. Helsinki is an ideal testbed for tomorrow´s mobility.
    1. We have four seasons. To make it more concrete, we have triple-glass windows.
    2. The city is small enough for testing and big enough for scaling. You can do very focused trials due to our location and our incomprehensible language.
    3. In Helsinki public transport in not a poor person´s choice.
    4. Helsinki has one of the highest city bike usages in the world (appr. 8 times per bike per day), which means people are open to experimentation.
  7. We still have one foot in the woods.
    1. We are opening former military islands for public use. There´s forest in the middle of the city.
      We have around 60 kilometres of skiing slopes within city limits.
      “So during the winter, do you guys say inside? Like do you close the schools?”. Uhm, no. This image is from a children´s cross-country skiing event.

It´s not like everything is perfect. Our systems need to be adjusted to a diverse world. We´ve been excellent in creating our small little haven here but the next stage is turning our local successes into global case examples. We need to increase global awareness. We have tons to do in using our open data. We need a more vibrant nightlife. We could do much more collaboration between government and companies. Even if 80-90% are happy with their lives, we have no moral justification for leaving the rest behind. We need a better structure for citizen engagement, which we are hopefully launching next year with participatory budgeting and neighborhood liaisons.

But there´s no city that is perfect. Based on Bloomberg´s CityLab, Helsinki can learn from Manchester on crisis preparedness, from Barcelona on social relations of the elderly, from Athens on online co-creation, from Paris on visionary climate change leadership and from Addis Ababa on traffic safety. The biggest issues cities across the world are working with are the future of truth, living together, inequality and mobility. We have learned a lot on these. Welcome to Helsinki. Let´s make the world better.


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