The first self-driving shuttle bus of its kind, © Summit Media Oy

Digital dynamo

“I was very excited about getting to hack real city systems. It was a real life situation, not a boring ‘capture the flag’ competition – we had to discover vulnerabilities without clues.” Niklas Halonen’s enthusiasm is clear as he describes an unexpected opportunity he was offered at high school.

For the budding computer programmer, the novel IT course being trialled by the city was a dream come true. “I learnt a lot about the rules and practices and ethical ways of hacking, which is all very valuable in software development when you have to ensure systems aren’t vulnerable to attack.”

High school students learn about ethical hacking, © Summit Media Oy

“Hacking tends to be seen as a bad, mystic thing and we wanted to show society that it can be done in many ways and for different reasons,” explains Matti Parviainen, chief information security officer and the man behind the Hack with Espoo course.

“We partnered with some big IT companies and cyber security experts to help young people understand what is right and what is wrong in this environment and to familiarise them with the field and its employment opportunities. It’s a win win for everyone because the city also learns if its systems have security gaps.”

It's a win win for everyone because the city also learns if its systems have security gaps.
— Matti Parviainen, chief information security officer and the man behind the Hack with Espoo course

‘Hack with Espoo’ is not just a course. It’s also a shining example of the city’s unique and often unconventional approach to the use of technology in building a future that is economically, ecologically, socially and culturally sustainable.

Daring to be different

“For Espoo to achieve its ambition to be the most sustainable city in Europe and to enable citizens to have good, healthy, smooth-running everyday lives, we see that digital transformation is one of the tools we need to use to find new solutions,” explains Niina Nousjärvi, project manager for sustainable development.

The city’s technological heritage has given it something of a head start. Its innovative roots are connected to the Aalto University and the presence of the headquarters of large brands – Nokia in particular. When Nokia’s situation became tough, Espoo found itself with a surplus of highly-skilled unemployed technology experts.

Empowered by the opportunities presented by this situation and by a city strategy – the Espoo Story – uniting citizens, businesses and officials around common goals, Espoo unleashed a burst of digital activity.

Just like Hack with Espoo, whose crowdsourcing of city information security testing represented a ‘first’, these activities tend to be original and pioneering, pushing at doors to new digital opportunities when others might not dare.

“This is all down to how the Espoo Story is implemented” says strategy director Jorma Valve. “We are addressing forces of change through cross-administration development programmes that serve the city as platforms for experimentation and piloting. They bring out new ideas and developments, lead to new kinds of cooperation and breathe fresh air into our thinking and attitudes.”

High performance public services

This model for cooperative development where the whole community, from residents to employees, businesses and researchers work together for the common good, serves as the perfect basis for artificial intelligence (AI) experiments.

Typically, though, Espoo was not content with seeing AI’s potential limited to business. It determined to use public data in a way that had never been done before to explore how AI could help improve public services, starting with services for vulnerable children.

The aim of the experiment was to combine data in the city’s healthcare, social services and early childhood education registers to find out whether AI can be used to identify new proactive means of targeting services to citizens.

The data gathered covered 300,000 households over a period of 10 years, with the healthcare database alone containing more than 37 million contact points, 3 million diagnoses and 24 million laboratory results. This was processed by the city and software company Tieto using high performance AI.

Preventing social exclusion with AI

Calculating results in a matter of hours or even minutes, compared to months if carried out manually, the experiment achieved the hoped-for result. AI can indeed pick up service paths out of this enormous mass of data by identifying and grouping together risk factors that trigger the need for expensive services if found in the same person.

For Espoo’s director for city as a service development Päivi Sutinen, these results are exciting and hold great promise for the future of public services. “A better understanding of people’s service needs will help the city provide more individualised services, thereby preventing problems such as social exclusion more cost-effectively,” she says. “This is just one part in a series of experiments where we are providing tools for service development that cover the entire city and transcend departmental boundaries.”

A bus, but not as we know it!

In a city keen to expand every idea into the most impactful solution, a brand new bus initiative was always going to be radical. And Espoo’s is, in many ways.

First there’s the bus itself, developed by Sensible 4 and piloted in the city last year. Gacha, as it’s known, is the world’s first self-driving, all-weather robot shuttle bus. And it’s due to go into permanent commercial service in the city by 2021.

Harri Santamala, CEO of Sensible 4 highlights the significance of the shuttle. “The fact that Espoo wants to implement self-driving vehicles, and offer first and last-mile solutions to residents, shows the level of innovative thinking from the city. It also brings home the dedication to developing Espoo into a smart city with sustainable solutions – which makes companies like ours thrive in this environment.”

The city’s crown jewel

But this story is about much more than the cute MUJI-designed shuttle. Autonomous vehicles like Gacha require fast mobile network connections because of the huge data volumes involved in their operation. And, as ever, Espoo is thinking big.

The shuttle pilot is part of a 5G ecosystem project driven by Nokia Bell Labs at the Nokia campus in Kera. Here smart light poles equipped with 5G radios, video cameras, information displays and a variety of sensors are being installed. And this 5G network is just the start.

The plan is to transform the Kera campus into what Espoo describes as a ‘crown jewel of sustainable urban development and an international reference site’ where the city and organisations of all kinds will work together to create new, clean and smart solutions that make day-to-day life easier for residents.

Template, talent and transformation

This level of ambition, collaboration and experimentation has become the norm in Espoo. It has done exactly what the EU’s Digital Cities Strategy suggests by addressing, ‘issues related to smart innovation and the creation of the right framework and space to experiment with more innovation and digital transformation’. But this is not the whole story in Espoo, which has managed to create a distinctive digital city template that harnesses its own unique character, confidence and can-do approach.

One person who has every reason to appreciate this approach – particularly in terms of skills development – is Niklas, the school boy hacker – who has now embarked on a career as a software developer.

“The person who interviewed me was very interested that I had taken part in the Hack with Espoo course,” he says. “I’m now doing the job I always wanted as a programmer – and I always think about information security first!”

Tiphanie Mellor