Photography & video — Aleksi Poutanen
Text — Enni Sahlman

Espoo moves multiple public services under one roof: Iso Omena service centre



The City of Espoo's Matinkylä area will soon host a new kind of service square, enabling people to visit various public services and offices at the same time. You can return your library books and take your child to the doctor in the same place. A shared space forces the service providers to empathize with their customers.


6000 square metres of space, 140 employees with different specialities, and a huge wave of customers. When the whole extension work is finished, the total amount of visitors is estimated at 14.5 million people annually. The shopping centre will be neighboured by a citizen service centre with centralised municipal services. The centre is an immense undertaking, and pushes service providers to step into the shoes of every visitor. The upcoming citizen service centre will include library, child health, mental health and substance abuse, health clinic, laboratory and medical imaging, social insurance, and youth services, all under one roof. In addition, there will be a City Service Unit, offering a collection of services by different city offices. Some examples of services include public transport travel cards and information on services offered by the city.

The customer of the new service centre might just as well be a young immigrant who wants to read the newspaper at the library, or a single mother dealing with substance abuse. Both cases require the same amount of attention.

The project team turned to designers for help. The first phase was to identify customer profiles from interview data. These profiles showed that the wide array of services are also sought after by a diverse group of users. One extreme is made up of the service centre's heavy users. This group is capable of independent visits and likes to give feedback. On the other extreme, there are the newbies who do not share a common language with the customer attendants, and do not yet know how to use the provided services.

A good designer is able to find out what the user needs, even if the user does not know how to explain it themselves.


"The Iso Omena project was first based on a service model of imaginary characters, which does not work. True understanding comes from real people and their needs", designer Sara Ikävalko learned.

Many offices, same customers

The designers were invited to join the project at a point when the plans for the physical surroundings were already set. The design work focused on ensuring that the service centre would keep in mind all the different users and their viewpoints. To keep the project running, all employees must commit to change.

The new citizen service centre is more than a physical space.

The design experts have stayed alert to remind that the people arriving at the booths are the most important part of the service process. When employees get along with each other, this also transmits into better customer service.

The designers from the Design Driven City network hosted workshops for service centre employees to kickstart a honest and open culture of discussion among the employees. A working group comprised of employees compiled a manual for the entire service centre staff. The laid-back meetings made sure that everyone could get their voice heard. These meetings served to create a sense of community among the employees already in the planning stage, making it more natural to interact also when the centre is running. When someone finds a good way of doing something, it is easier to tip this off to others.

"We probably wouldn't have realised to put together a manual without the designers. It comes in handy to all employees. The booklet is a constant reminder to always think of the visitor, and it provides hands-on tips on how to, for instance, deal with an unhappy customer", says Anne Kanerva, project manager at the City of Espoo.

Designers jump on a moving train

The customer is always at the centre of service design, but designing pleasant physical spaces is very different from designing fluent public services.


The designer's task in Espoo was to state clearly even seemingly obvious things. The details tend to hold great truths. If an engineer designs a door handle that works well, the designer adds to this line of thought the feeling in the hand and the underlying problem that the handle is solving. Do we even need a door in the first place?

One of the most valuable lessons in the project was that both successes and miscalculations should be clearly noted. It is also worthwhile to compile a final report, so that good practices can be repeated elsewhere.

In an ideal situation, the designer is a part of the project team from the very beginning. This is, however, often not a reality. The Iso Omena citizen service centre project work was started two years before the designers jumped on board, meaning that all the spatial planning had already been done.

"The designer must learn to live with constant change. And still to always keep the user in mind", Ikävalko sums up.


Key lesson: Whether you are creating something totally new or developing something old, have a designer join the project as early as possible. It is more cost-efficient to get something on the right tracks from the start.

Read on


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The next big change in design


Using public services in a smart city is simple and even pleasant, say 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.

Smart Cities


User-centered design helps create services that citizens actually need, say Turkka Keinonen, Professor of Design at Aalto University and Päivi Sutinen, Service Development Director of Espoo.

User-centered design


Helsinki is known around the world for its design thinking that reaches throughout the city, all the way to its leadership. According to Design Foundation Finland’s Jorma Lehtonen, it's thanks to education – but we still need a lot more.

Helsinki and design thinking


Participatory design is most productive when other groups in addition to the end users are also involved. Then it becomes co-design, say innovation adviser Tuula Jäppinen at The Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities, and Tuuli Mattelmäki, Professor of Design at Aalto University.

From participatory design to co-design


Using design to develop cities will offer plenty of work in the next few years. Different public actors would like to buy design expertise, but first it is necessary to know how to make a good call for tenders, says Tiina-Kaisa Laakso Liukkonen, former Project Director for Design Driven City.

Tendering for design