A digital puzzle of the future

12 March 2021

“Everything corresponds to the current Covid-19 situation,” says Pia Pakarinen, Deputy Mayor of Helsinki. “Helsinki, like other big cities, has suffered a lot in the last year.”

Pia Pakarinen, Deputy Mayor of Helsinki

“Consider tourism,” muses Pakarinen, “soon people will start travelling again. We are thinking about the sustainability of the tourism sector. We have an opportunity with the recovery funds to think in different ways how it will have a positive impact in people’s everyday lives. It could also help us become carbon neutral by 2035 for example.”

The road to recovery is set to be a long, winding one. Finland will receive approximately €2.3 billion to fight the problems caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and for sustainable reconstruction. The planning for which is already well underway.

For some cities, like Helsinki, where discussions on the national recovery plans with the Finnish government are going well, the prospect of building a more resilient and sustainable urban future is tangible.

In part, this has been thanks to the strategy of designing proposals that fit in with the European flagship areas for investments and reforms, matching the way the national government must present its plans to the EU.

Six city cooperation

The six largest Finnish cities (Helsinki, Espoo, Oulu, Tampere, Turku, and Vantaa) have worked together to submit three joint packages for the national recovery plans, on economic recovery for businesses, tourism and digitalisation.

“For example, now we have an ambitious proposal to increase our data capability and interoperability, and to build 5G environments,” says Pakarinen.

Women looking robots in Helsinki Education Week

The six cities want to work with up to 250 businesses to create 2,000 new jobs by ensuring that their publicly held data can be easily shared between each other and with entrepreneurs. In this way, while keeping a sharp eye on data privacy, the cities hope to propel their digital transition forwards while supporting their goals of carbon neutrality. Inherent to this initiative will be establishing digital twin cities and promoting the use of 5G networks, by laying down new fibre connections, and introducing more sensors throughout the city to collect relevant data. Urban pilot programmes, essentially innovation clusters, will then help bring together different companies, academia, and others, to develop new apps and services, as well as to innovate in other fields, such as circular economy. Another idea, to create smart learning environments and teach students how to use artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics, will ensure tomorrow’s workforce can meet the tech challenges of the future.

Cooperation is something Helsinki takes very seriously. “We make sure to include all the local innovation stakeholders when we’re proposing our projects,” says Pakarinen. “One example is youth unemployment – which has increased by more than 100% since before the crisis. It’s not something that the city can focus on alone. As the city we cannot offer a job for everyone, but we can, for example, be a platform for companies to offer jobs.”

“In the Eurocities Economic Development Forum next week, of which I am chair, we are focussing on city-to-city actions within the recovery during the next two years. We want to use the good examples from any cities, as we seem to have similar challenges everywhere. Our 6-city cooperation is one such model.”

The Eurocities Economic Development Forum will focus on how cities are using their innovation ecosystems in the recovery. Local stakeholders are crucial in the recovery process, and for city cooperation with other cities and levels of government.


Helsinki’s mission is to serve as a platform for new and growing business, increasing the number of start-ups, and supporting their growth potential.

Helsinki’s central library offers a vision of the future with space for studios, workshops, a cinema and a 3D printer

“Digitalisation is going to be one of the answers to what we need to do,” says Pakarinen.” During the first lockdown, we had to make a leap towards more digitalised education. Now we would like to have the same leap forward in digital and healthcare,” she adds.

“To be proactive here we need to know the needs of all inhabitants, and that is somewhere digitalisation, especially AI, can help. We know, for instance, that 10% of the inhabitants count for 90% of the expenses in social and health care. If we could find this 10% of people early enough, we could offer them advice, medicine in good time and also all kinds of treatments as early as possible. To avoid both human suffering and to save expenses.”

By focussing its recovery on more digitalisation, one area that Helsinki hopes to improve is automatic and intelligent transport systems to further support new innovations and business. This will include a new system to collect a real-time traffic snapshot, and even an automated traffic management system. In addition, in the bid to create a healthier urban environment, the city wants to introduce a greater capacity for charging infrastructure for electric vehicles, and improve conditions for cyclists.


With an estimated decline of €6.5 billion in Helsinki’s tourism trade in 2020, affecting the livelihoods of some 140,000 people working in the sector, Helsinki as the capital city, together with the country’s other main tourist destination, Lapland, has been hard hit. Revitalising the tourism industry is therefore a big project. However, as Pakarinen points out, “what we have in mind is the sustainability of the tourism industry. We want to make it more balanced, and we have always considered our target to be more quality than quantity.”

Helsinki’s iconic Senate Square became an oasis of local food culture last summer when the area was transformed into a giant summer terrace

The move needs to be fast as the tourism market is already opening up, with many Europeans booking their summer holidays. At the same time, the crisis is accelerating the transition globally to value-based travel, where responsibility and safety are paramount starting points for the redefinition of the industry – and Finland would like to capitalise on this trend by becoming the world’s first carbon negative tourism experience. In turn, Helsinki and Rovaniemi (in Lapland) are keen to be pioneers in responsible tourism, and have proposed several measures to make this possible.

These include measuring, and making visible, a tourist’s carbon footprint, and recognising the transition from mass tourism to a more independent and tailored experience.

Energy competition

One final aspect of Helsinki’s recovery proposal, made in partnership with the Helsinki Metropolitan area, and energy company Helen, includes removing three million tonnes of carbon emissions through the energy transition.

Man picking up a city bike in Pasila

“We still haven’t solved Helsinki’s challenges in energy production,” explains Pakarinen. “These projects are designed to both help with current challenges and looking to the future. Our challenge,” she continues, “is that we want to be carbon neutral by 2035, but we are currently still very dependent on coal here in Helsinki. To be truly and long-term sustainable we need radical new heating solutions.”

To this end, the Helsinki Energy Challenge – a global €1 million competition funded by the Helsinki City Council – sought ideas to answer the questions: how can we decarbonise the heating of Helsinki, using as little biomass as possible?

“We got more than 250 ideas,” says Pakarinen of the competition which will announce a winner next week, such as using waste heat and seawater heat for city heating. “And because not all of these are suitable to Helsinki, we will publish them all, to share with other cities,” she adds.

The city’s recovery proposals are also focussed on improving the energy efficiency of buildings, by ensuring that existing buildings can reduce their overall district heating consumption by 30% and CO2 emissions by at least 80% by 2035.

Essentially, it’s all a puzzle, concludes Pakarinen: “If we get the final resources we need, we could launch significant projects in carbon neutrality faster and at a larger scale, which would speed up the economic activity as well.”

Helsinki expects a draft proposal back from the central government next week.

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Photo credits: Helsinki Marketing and City of Helsinki


Alex Godson Eurocities Writer