“Your moon is on fire”: design and city-making in Helsinki

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting Helsinki, Finland as a guest of Pluto Finland and Forum Virium. It was a trip long in the making, as I had been extended an invitation by the mayor of Helsinki, Jussi Pajunen, almost two years previously in my role at the City of Chicago. I knew something good was afoot there, so it was time to figure out just what exactly.

Purely by coincidence I was in DC the days before departure and received a tour of Finland’s incredible embassy there. This is not your normal Embassy Row structure. Cantilevered over Rock Creek Park, the building is airy and expansive, feeling almost as much a part of the forest it backs up to as a portal to it. In fact, the grid of the floor plate is “extended” into the trees by way of light-topped poles that repeat the spatial divisions of the interior. It’s a natural-architectural harmony that, one would guess, also underpins the Finnish government’s successful attempt to build the first LEED-certified embassy in the US. Nature as design inspiration and constraint — a theme I’d see repeated many times over the next week.


Embassy of Finland, Washington DC

My exact point of departure was Dulles Airport, the masterful sloping tug-o-war-of-a-building designed by Finnish architect-hero Eero Saarinen. It’s gorgeous and evocative of flight — or at least ascent. Like his arch in St. Louis, which I frequented during my time in graduate school there, the design is a simple curve set against the sky. At Dulles the slope takes humans from ground to the clouds; in St. Louis the Gateway Arch plants the dreams of westward expansion back on earth.


Dulles International Airport, Washington DC

(I thought also of a third curve, not sloping up or down but across: the facade of Saarinen’s IBM building in Yorktown Heights, NY, where I spent much of my early career. The Yorktown building’s architectural conceit is not about bringing people to or from the sky but into contact with one another: no office has an exterior window; the only way to get anywhere or any sunlight is to engage with the hallway formed by the long, gently curving facade.)

All of this an unexpected prologue to the trip. Finnish design escorting me out the door.

Helsinki was named the World Design Capital in 2012. There are many reasons for this honor that have nothing to do with the built environment, but the city itself feels well-crafted, smoothed-out, intentional. New on the scene as a European capital, relatively speaking, Helsinki is a modern city that bears the imprint of what we’d only later call urban planning. That there are very few iconic elements in its cityscape — an Eiffel Tower, a Ponte Vecchio, a Big Ben — focuses attention on the entirety of the place as a designed object.

But there’s also an urgent pragmatism at work. Dan Hill, in his fantastic essay “Designing Finnishness“, describes it as such:

Necessity does not breed frippery, skittishness or carelessness. It breeds purpose, momentum, independence and a belief in technical strength—the art of know-how, nous, savoir-faire.

Necessity, this particular mother of invention, is the challenge of living in such a harsh winter climate, with a gargantuan landmass, minuscule population, and traditionally bellicose neighbors. To survive any of these means being smart and deliberate about how things work. At the urban scale this is about the beauty of efficiency.

Helsinki panorama from Hotel Torni (by Tor Lillqvist)

Helsinki was recently recognized as one of six exemplar “smart cities” in an EU Europe 2020 report which defines a smart city as “a city seeking to address public issues via ICT-based solutions on the basis of a multi-stakeholder, municipally based partnership.” If this is the litmus test for smart by European standards I saw plenty of examples of why Helsinki qualifies.

The municipal government — which provides nearly all public services short of police and military — has moved far beyond the policies and portals of open data of its Western European counterparts. Nearly everyone I talked to, including deputy mayors Hannu Penttilä and Pekka Sauri and the mayor himself, was keen to show me the applications that have been built upon the Open Ahjo API for accessing materials related to the deliberation of procedures and laws. Put another way, Helsinki has an open API for the process of democracy rather than simply a portal for the results of it. This is a huge deal: debate transcripts, legislative emendations, recorded minutes — all synchronized and designed for ease-of-access and cross-reference. It’s a real-time wiki for how city government is making decisions. This is what open data in the US needs to aspire to.

ahjo explorer2

Ahjo Explorer

How’d they get to this point of extreme transparency? I have no definitive answer, but it doesn’t hurt that Estonia and its capital Tallinn right across the Gulf of Finland is a champion of digital government. While there’s a history of affinity and commerce between these two cities, you get a whiff of competitiveness when Finns note that for Estonia, who long suffered the very opposite of open government under Soviet occupation, “it is easy when you start from nothing”.

Data, not just transcribed conversation, is the bedrock of a city that seeks to be a platform for innovation outside of government. And Helsinki leads in that arena as well. They actually have a department called Urban Facts, which would be funny if it weren’t so good at what it does. More important — certainly more worthy of emulation — is the Helsinki Region Infoshare portal. All cities exist as part of metropolitan regions; data does not stop at jurisdictional borders. While the Infoshare does not normalize data across cities, it does make it easily accessible — a first step to the real win of data standards between cities.

The key in the EU definition of smart city, above, is “multi-stakeholder”. The first wave of smart city rhetoric focused on government and infrastructure, almost as closed systems, enterprise and top-down. But what’s clear to nearly everyone actually involved in technology for cities is that it’s actually innovation outside (sometimes just on the periphery) of government that effects the real change. But that swirling mass of talent and activism outside government often needs a center of gravity. In Chicago that’s the Smart Chicago Collaborative; in Helsinki it is Forum Virium, specifically their Smart City project area.

Forum Virium serves an important role of organizing the various communities involved in digital city-making. Led by the polymath dynamo Jarmo Eskelinen, Forum Virium is part matchmaker, part grant-seeker, part center of knowledge for all things smart city.

One project of real note under Forum Virium’s purview is the Kalasatama smart district project. One of several brownfield waterfront in-fill projects in Helsinki (heavy shipping has mostly moved to other areas in the region), Kalasatama is the testing ground for new technologies in the urban fabric. Unlike first wave smart cities like Masdar and Songdo, however, this district is right in the middle of Helsinki. The project, called Fiksu Kalasatama, aims to improve energy consumption, transportation and social services through integrated systems and ease-of-access and, while, it is early in the planning phase, it is clear that the goal is to serve as a pilot for scaling into Helsinki proper.


Fiksu Kalasatama

Creative Finnish city-making sometimes has no digital component at all. Would you believe Helsinki is the epicenter of wooden skyscraper design? That’s right, wooden. And tall. The huge swath of forests north of Helsinki created a world-leading paper and pulp industry for decades in Finland, but the rise of online communication is forcing major timber companies to rethink the end-uses of their product. The paper company Stora Enso is currently developing Wood City, an entire district in the city built of timber.


Wood City

Chicago, you may know, has something of a history with crappy, flammable wooden structures — so the idea of Wood City at first gave me pause. But I was impressed by the engineering and science behind the plans for construction. Wood of course burns, but, as was demonstrated, when subjected to flame cross-laminated timber essentially chars a protective cocoon around the structure-bearing beam at the core.

There are many appealing architectural and sensory (olfactory!) implications of very large wooden structures, but perhaps the most important is that wooden structures are far more malleable over time than steel and brick. Stewart Brand’s notion of a building’s “shearing layers” — its site, structure, skin, and services — that all evolve at different rates has long been fundamental to smartly-designed buildings. There’s something very code-like and mutable about a building as open to modification as those Stora Enso is constructing. (It’s no wonder shearing layers has been adopted as a concept in software too.) Nature here not so much as design constraint as advantage.


Startup Sauna, Aalto University, Espoo

In Espoo, a large suburb of Helsinki best known as the home of Nokia, I had a chance to visit the UrbanMill (speaking of shearing and timber, ahem). UrbanMill is an incubator for startups focusing on civic innovation. It’s a sign of some maturity in the Finnish startup ecosystem that something as specialized as a city-focused startup space even exists. There are very few in the US, but the opportunity space is huge.

What’s exciting about UrbanMill is less its projects, which are excellent, but that the startup energy in Helsinki is off the charts, evident most proximately by its next-door neighbor Startup Sauna. Rovio’s Angry Birds and Supercell’s Clash of Clans are two of the most successful examples, but tech-savvy entrepreneurs are pouring out of Helsinki’s universities and into other application areas as well. If even a fraction of these folks choose to tackle the problems inherent in cities — mobility, social justice, public safety, the list is endless — Helsinki will have a leg up.


Nokia logotype replaced by Microsoft, April 25, 2014

The Microsoft acquisition of Nokia was finalized while I was in Helsinki. Time will tell how this merger turns out, but history suggests it won’t be easy for the Nokia brand to thrive under Microsoft’s stewardship. And this, ultimately, is a good thing. The effect of Nokia on Helsinki is tangible — I’ve never, for instance, seen so many people using Windows Phones — but it has also been an enormous magnet for technical talent in the region. That magnetism is weakening which means more opportunities for engineers and computer developers to join smaller firms or start their own. It’s time for new centers of gravity to form in Helsinki’s industrial galaxy. This can only be good.

Helsinki was a lot of fun too. I happened to be there the week of one of Finland’s biggest public holidays. Called Vappu, May Day elsewhere, it corresponds to the graduation of thousands of Finnish high school students. On the eve of Vappu the central plaza of Helsinki fills to capacity to watch the tradition of “crowning” the statue called Havis Amanda with a university cap (looking somewhat like a sailor’s hat). At that point everyone else is obliged to put their university caps on (including people who graduated decades ago) then basically spend the next 36 hours drinking, picnicking and making merry.


Crane-dangled students prepare to crown Havis Amanda

I was also honored to be invited to DJ “Chicago Night” at a local bar on Vappu eve eve. Coming the week after Frankie Knuckles died, you can imagine the playlist.

I cannot not comment on the beauty of the Finnish institution of saunas. The basement of the embassy in DC is a vast, gorgeous sauna (the only Finnish word in English parlance), where the ambassador holds official meetings. At the Kotiharjun sauna in Helsinki I had the privilege of meeting with the incredible Open Knowledge Finland group. Casual, public meeting places like this are, alas, on the decline in Finland, primarily because new residential development almost always allows for in-unit or shared-unit saunas. This is a shame as the sauna as a social institution is an incredible social equalizer. Everyone is the same when they are sweating, hardly breathing, and nude. A lesson for city-makers, indeed.

My visit to Finland came a few weeks after a similar trip to Italy. The contrast could not have been more stark. Fiery, mobilized, sometimes angry Italian civic innovators railed against a common cause — usually the government itself. I didn’t see that in Helsinki. Government seems to be running just fine. The leaders get open data and government and seem to fairly finely tuned into the urbanist needs of the city itself. And so I was left wondering: isn’t part of the appeal of a city the resistance in the material, a little bit of grit in the gears? Real creativity is born of friction — psychological, sociological, political. Beyond surviving the climate what is the passion that stirs Finns to design what they do?

I do not have an answer to this. I was there less than a week. But I would love insight. I do know that the primacy of design in urban matters as a counterbalance to tech-heavy “smart city” rhetoric is welcome. We won’t get to truly smart cities with engineering and computer science alone. It takes “the art of know-how, nous, savoir-faire” as Dan Hill put it, something designers excel at. Finland can be the vanguard of the second wave of smart cities.

A note on the title of this post. The week after I was in Helsinki this tweet came through, which pretty aptly summarizes the inscrutability of the Finnish language. I can fake my way through most of the Romance languages. But Finnish, forget it.

Helsinki’s moon, Nokia, is on fire. But the city’s skill at design, experience in open city government, and activated civic actors outside of city government form a bright sun. One hopes that the almost-perpetual summer sun in Helsinki is a metaphor for things to come.