Compete together, not against one another – was a takeaway for cities from the SOW 2016 in Helsinki

By Rebecca Leigh Rutt
Stephanie Loveless

On Friday, WWIE was invited for our second stop in the Nordic event series to share the SOW2016 at the House of the Estates in Helsinki. The event was hosted in partnership with the Nordic Council of Ministers and the Ministry of the Environment Finland.

Santtu Hulkkonen, the Executive Vice President of Solved, a cleantech advisory service and collaboration platform based in Finland, gave all the participants a warm welcome and served as moderator during the event. Alongside several Finnish experts, we heard once more from Stephanie Loveless of WorldWatch Institute Europe, who introduced the audience to the key themes and a few examples from the SOW 2016 report.

Liisa Perjo, a newcomer to the event from Nordregio, brought to the audience a message of social inclusion, drawing from Nordregio’s work on the perspectives of city planners in several Nordic urban areas (see highlights from the Stockholm event for more on this). Liisa spoke on the ongoing transition in Nordic countries, from a tradition of the “municipal planning monopoly” toward greater inclusion of private and public stakeholders and asked how to plan for and cope with unintended outcomes of urban development such as gentrification.

Helsinki – The Silicon Valley of Clean Technology?

Several speakers discussed the role of technology and digitalization in planning for sustainable cities, something that is particularly important, said Tiina Kaho of Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund, when it comes to creating ‘smart and clean cities’. Sitra’s new ‘Smart & Clean Initiative’, announced May 24, will be rolled out over a five-year period and includes the development of 20 -30 large-scale pilot projects as showcase examples for how cities around the world, armed with an arsenal of digital technology, can join in the fight against climate change. The Initiative will operate under the belief that continued economic growth alongside reduced resource consumption is possible and crucial for achieving urban carbon neutrality. One such way to achieve this is to employ the principles of circular economy as well as digital technology “as a key enabler for seizing the opportunities!” To this end, Tiina notes that Finland seems to be particularly well-suited as a “global bed for clean technology”.

However, Tiina noted that it is one thing to create Smart and Clean cities, but we also need to think about how to measure success. Some indicators could be the number of green jobs created, meeting emissions or energy use targets and how cities fare in international indexes (e.g. ‘liveability’). She also reminded the audience that decision-makers must remember that cities are made for residents. As such, we must focus on “living conditions instead of commodities”, and keep in mind that (even green) energy companies are “not selling kilowatts, [they are] selling light and warmth” to people.

Espoo, Helsinki - Most Sustainable City

Tuula Antola of the Espoo Innovation Garden also praised the use of technology for sustainability-centered development in her city of Espoo, Finland. Espoo was recently voted the most sustainable city in Europe according to an international benchmark study by Telos, an independent European research center and is the second largest and fastest growing city in Finland- with a population that has increased ten-fold in the last 50 years. Essentially, the city has had the resources to enable sustainable growth alongside population growth, rather than having to backtrack and rework existing infrastructures. This makes the city an exceptional testing ground for innovative solutions to reach low-carbon targets. Despite this, Tuula acknowledges, that although “the city has a commitment to sustainable development and that even though it’s on the right track, Espoo is at the beginning of a long journey.”

A participant of the seminar pointed out that urbanism and rapid urbanization are relatively new phenomena in Finland. As Tuula put it, “Finns started moving to cities after the world wars and before that were living circularly.” Given that Espoo is well-endowed with high-tech industries, human resources and an expectation for a high quality of life, the city is already well-positioned for developing low-carbon, low-impact and/or circular cities and it will an interesting watch the unfolding of sustainable development there over the coming years.

Designing for Disassembly - Creating the Circular District

Speaking more in-depth on the topic of circular cities was Anne Raudaskoski of Ethica, a Finnish circular economy consultancy. Anne has been working with a team to develop the Hiedanranta area in the city of Tampere from the ground up using the principles of circular economy. This area was a former industrial center, which the city opened up for development as a way to create jobs. Anne described her team’s process of developing the district plan as inclusive, hosting workshops with businesses, citizens and artists as a means for gathering input for the circular strategy. She believes that urban planning should be user-driven, involving not just the city government and businesses but the residents themselves, insisting “If you don’t get people on board with living in a circular way then you haven’t succeeded”. Anne offered the following guidelines for getting on the path to circularity: first – clarify what circular economy means for your city, government and constituents; second - know the local culture; third – remember that imposing changes from the top down and without understanding culture, could result in local resistance; and fourth - developments built upon the principles of circularity should be presented in a way that makes sense all residents, to facilitate them in making sustainable choices that also make their lives easier, not more complicated.

Anne acknowledged that the focus on energy efficiency isn’t anything new, and in seeking to answer how circularity sets itself apart from standard sustainability practices, gave the example of how circular buildings are being designed for disassembly and reuse. What else must be present to create circular cities? Utilizing the wealth of digital data available today is key and making data understandable or, in essence turning this into usable knowledge. Lastly, she suggested that branding campaigns are essential for setting a city apart in order to attract new residents – in this case, appealing to those interested in taking part in circular lifestyles and communities.

This second SOW2016 event in Helsinki furthered our understanding of the way in which Nordic cities are addressing urban sustainability and mobilizing resources toward reaching low carbon urban centers. One thing is a clear – there is ongoing emphasis on market-based solutions for creating sustainable cities, as Tiina illustrated by boldly stating that, “climate change is the biggest business opportunity ever!”.

Yet, on a final note, we feel it’s important to point out that there seems to be little evidence to date that supports the belief that continued economic growth actually allows for reduced resource consumption and decreased environmental impacts. Are there other models that can help us reduce resource consumption such as degrowth? To that end, we also wonder, if there is a role for ‘sharing communities’ rather than ‘sharing economies’? Moreover, we know that market-based models have been linked to such things as inequitable distribution of resources, and e.g. increased segregation. This matters, as a lack of social sustainability can pose great threats to both environmental and economic sustainability. In closing, we leave you with the following: Is social sustainability the great environmental challenge or is the use of technological solutions for achieving low-carbon cities the way forward? Is there room for both?

Please stay tuned for insights into Nordic urban planning for sustainable cities from our final Nordic SOW2016 event in Reykjavík!