Article: Smart Cities


Smart power grids, car sharing and sustainable businesses. Jaakko Salavuo, Director of Information Technology and Communications and Santtu von Bruun, Head of the Competitiveness and international relations unit at the City of Helsinki talk about how digital technology makes Helsinki a smart and clean city.



What does smart thinking mean for cities?

JS Different cities around the world have define themselves to be smart in different ways. Often this means improving the city’s infrastructure with technology. For instance, sensors measuring certain things may be installed around the city to analyse its functioning. Waste bins in parks can have sensors that send out a message to a maintenance unit when they need emptying. Helsinki has embraced a comprehensive form of smart city thinking, where different functions of the city are intelligent in different ways. These include the environment, economy, transportation, administration, urban citizens and living in general. Data gathered from these areas can be used to make better decisions when planning and developing the city. Collecting information is not only useful for the city administration: making city data available to everyone improves the quality of living and the everyday life of residents and local businesses. For example, we can get large amounts of accurate data from traffic to help us design better routes for public transportation, pedestrians and cyclists. In the administration, intelligence means finding technological solutions to further administrative transparency. This enables people to see what decisions have been made, and what is being planned in their neighbourhood.

SB The City of Helsinki defines itself as Smart and Clean. These two are intertwined concepts, with digitalization that runs through the entire city, its people and business life on one side; and environmentally sustainable technology on the other. These things together enable new ways of doing things as well as a new quality of life.

Do smart cities always mean digital technology?

SB Part of smart thinking is entirely ICT and digitalization – take open data for example. Part of it is pure technology, like solar panels. But the two are becoming more and more integrated. Examples include smart power grids that enable decentralized electricity generation, smart distribution and tracking your consumption. Just like smart traffic systems enable car and ride sharing. It's extremely important to draw attention to cleantech and sustainable businessess besides digitalization.

JS Technology is often crucial, but smart cities are far more than just playing around with sensors and data. Think about Restaurant Day, a one-day popup restaurant carnival that brings hundreds of amateur restaurants to the city streets: you won’t see technology around town during it, but it wouldn’t exist without social media.

What are the basic prerequisites for a city to become smarter?

JS Everywhere in the organization, you need a bold spirit and people who aren’t afraid of trying something new. You should be curious, see what has been done elsewhere and apply it to your own city. An open-minded leadership who understand the benefits of smart city thinking is also necessary. Good trials cannot be conducted if the IT infrastructure – meaning communication channels – is not up to par. Everyone in Helsinki has held a phone to their ear almost since the 1980s: this kind of ability to adopt new technologies provides a solid foundation that not all places have. Institutions of higher education and businesses in Helsinki also strengthen the ground to build on. Cities are complex organizations, and organizations often leave the individual in their wake. This is what we are trying to undo, but it requires the city’s own practices to become user-driven.

What has Helsinki done right in terms of smart city thinking?

JS The most important thing has been making all the city administration’s data available to anyone. It has been a conscious and fearless decision by the city’s leadership that must have been fiercely debated. The decision enables people to create various applications from the data, and so develop the city themselves, perhaps even creating successful businesses in the process.

Are people prepared for the possibility of having their information collected for public use?

JS When dealing with private information, you must always ask for consent. You have to tell people in detailed and understandable language what they are providing information for, what is being done and why, and what use will it have. Data can also be handled anonymously in larger chunks, so that an individual’s information doesn’t stand out. Every time new data is made available, there is a tug of war about how open we should be. What is the ultimate advantage of complete transparency?

How does a smart city look like through the eyes of its normal citizens?

JS As an urban resident, it is enough for me that the city works and that I can use good and easy services and solutions that are based on well-analysed information. One major thing is streamlining and improving the city’s digital services. Currently, a basic service can include several different steps, with a different department behind each one, and different officials within each department. Citizens shouldn’t have to ponder where to go next with their issue. In the future we will have one common portal for the city’s e-services, which can be a combined smartphone application, for example. The city’s digital services will become noticeably more simple, and even pleasant to use.

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