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Finland: a case study in creating smart cities

With the ongoing chaos around the Smart Cities Mission in India, it is time to look at Finland, a country that has set the bar in creating smart cities.

by Apurva Bose DuttaPublished on : Jun 24, 2019

Finland, the third most innovative country globally as per the Bloomberg Innovation Index 2019, has been acclaimed for leading the way in Europe for smart city development with the 2014 launch of its six-city strategy for urban development. I had an opportunity to visit two of these model cities - Helsinki and Espoo. While on a larger scale, ambitious projects aiming to make these cities smart are being worked on, the strive towards making it feasible is also well-reflected in the minor routine systems devised that work towards enhancing the quality of living.

Interactions with a few organisations and their heads who are working on the smart cities concept, made two things clear. First, the citizens are the fundamental priority, and the need to engage with them as well as convince them for what is correct for the city, is paramount. Second, the concept of co-creation, open innovation, open data (making data from experiments, research, pilot projects for the strategy publicly available) is the background for the smart city strategy.

Helsinki, the capital of Finland, wants to see itself as a platform of ideas and has been recurrently been ranked among the top global cites for its functionality and smart city visualisations. Speeding and enhancing its Smart City image is Forum Virium Helsinki, an innovation unit owned by the city for creating digital city services and urban innovations, including smart mobility, robotics, artificial intelligence, data and the Internet of Things. Spearheading experimental development projects, it collaborates with companies, start-ups, residents and other units of the City of Helsinki.

City information model of Espoo Image Credit: Jussi Partanen

One of their projects is the conceptualisation of Smart Kalasatama (a former brownfield district near Helsinki inner city) as a world-class model district of smart urban development that serves as a testing ground for experiments. The roadmap includes providing smart energy, smart living, smart mobility, a pipe-line based waste collection system, and services that can build a 25/7 city – an interesting concept that enables the saving of an hour per user per day. This is a project where experiments are being tested in the real environment and regular citizen participation is encouraged. The organisation has completed 21 agile piloting programmes between 2015–2018 where open calls were made to start-ups to offer solutions that could be tested in real-life environments.

Kalasatama is being developed as a a world-class model district of smart urban development Image Credit: Apurva Bose Dutta

Sami Sahala, project manager of Forum Virium Helsinki, states, “We want to make Helsinki the most functional smart city in the world by design, digitality and dialogue. The aim of doing pilot projects is to show possible futures; it’s interesting to do them here as the city and its people are very responsive and pragmatic. We focus on enabling; the city wants to enable third-party users to do everything. We believe in open data; the public sector doesn’t want to own all the data, tools, back office systems or end user applications.” On Helsinki Smart Mobility, he adds, “We have very good public transport in Helsinki and the smart city concept is heavily relying on smart infrastructure.”

The theme of the Helsinki Design Week 2018 was trust – the trust that is so visible between the city and its residents Image Credit: Apurva Bose Dutta

Espoo, the second largest city in Finland, and a city of pure nature (58 kms coastline, 165 islands), was named the 2018 Intelligent Community of the Year by the Intelligent Community Forum at its global summit in London. Leading the ranking twice for sustainable cities in Europe, it is one of the first five model cities nominated by United Nations to become a pioneer of sustainable development in their agenda of appointing 25 cities for the same. The city is home to some well-known universities, companies and research institutions.

City services include digital applications encouraging residents to switch to greener modes of transport, use of artificial intelligence in customer service, and placing public and commercial services under one roof and linking them to public transport.

With many sub-centres rather than a city centre, the challenge has been to retain Espoo as an independent city, rather than a suburb. Jussi Partanen, architect at the City Planning department, City of Espoo, points out the growth challenges of Espoo as, “having focused centres with unique identity, functional traffic that feeds the good of the whole city, conserving and developing landscape and recreation, and retaining the city’s social sustainability.” This is being tackled through a very focused and intensive data-driven design and decision-making. With City Information Modelling (CIM), the survey department, planners, clients, consultants and urban planning centre are working in conjunction. Partanen adds, “Building a 3D model instead of a 2D definitely leads to better communication. We are trying to get it into the WFS (Web Feature Service) interface so that we can tap from any computer and look into it.”

The Espoo Innovation Garden is working towards transforming the Aalto University Campus into a unique collaboration hub Image Credit: Apurva Bose Dutta

Espoo Innovation Garden, a collaborative platform of start-ups, students, innovators, corporates, residents, R&D centres and Aalto University is the biggest innovation hub in Northern Europe. Their vision for 2030 is to make Espoo the most attractive, sustainable and happiest environment of growth and innovation in Europe. Harri Paananen, manager of Economic and Business Development, City of Espoo, shares, “As per a national survey, Espoo is the happiest city in Finland where people lead stress-free lives because of the services and safety they get. Their top two requirements are of clean nature and education; probably in the future, most of the investment will go into education. The Espoo Innovation Garden facilitated by the city encourages innovative, common ways of working and a culture of collaboration and co-creation.” Working closely with the City of Helsinki, the projects of the organisation also include transforming the Aalto University Campus into a unique collaboration hub.”

The building of the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland in Espoo, designed by Ar. Alvar Aalto Image Credit: Apurva Bose Dutta

Amongst other organisations that are working towards creating a smart city, is VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland in Espoo - a 76-year old leading research, development and innovative privately-owned company with around 2,000 researchers working on applied research. Antti Ruuska, co-creation manager at VTT, says, “We forget that societies are for people. When we improve people’s lives, there will be business. If we are doing the city planning for 2030 then we involve those who will be at a working age at that time and would have a direct influence on the society and city. We are sensing the environment; we need to use technologies for inspiring environments.” Smart Otaniemi, a project by VTT is an innovation ecosystem that connects minds and solutions through experts, organisations, technologists and pilot projects focusing on smart energy. Some of its current pilot projects include developing flexible new services for electrical vehicles, focusing on ways to store and use underground thermal energy, and building a common platform for data collection and management in Otaniemi.

Collaborations, innovative strategies, integration of work forces and skills, a systematic and focused approach to building a roadmap taking the existing situation in account, and building every single day, is what Finland is doing in its smart city strategy. A country that so deeply connects with its citizens on what they expect in terms of living and focuses on the concept of inclusion and public transparency, can seldom go wrong when it comes to nation building. This is what even augurs their residents towards assuming individual responsibilities and contributing their bit towards building a smart and a healthy nation. That is a lot of learning to be imbibed!

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