Photography & video — Vilja Pursiainen
Text — Kristiina Markkanen

Immigrant youth are designing services for themselves together with the city: Migrant Youth Helsinki



One fourth of Helsinki’s youth with immigrant backgrounds are outside education and employment. In the Migrant Youth Helsinki project, the young people get to have their say in designing solutions to the problem, together with the adults and designers working with them.


“Unfortunately our company has a policy that forbids headscarves at work,” a recruiter says, squirming in their chair, to a dark-skinned woman dressed in a hijab.

Company policy is company policy and it cannot be changed, the recruiter continues. After an awkward exchange the young woman gets up and quietly leaves the room.

The video has been filmed for the Migrant Youth Helsinki project. Although the situation is staged, an unfortunate number of people at least identify the underlying problem. Whereas four percent of Finland’s native youth fall outside education and employment after comprehensive school, the respective number for youth with immigrant backgrounds is about 25 percent. The five-year Migrant Youth Helsinki project, funded by the We Foundation and implemented by the City of Helsinki, aims to bridge this gap and improve the position of immigrant youth in the capital.

The project began in early 2016. During the first year, the City of Helsinki’s Youth Department and the service design agency Palmu worked in close cooperation both with each other and a co-design team composed of the city’s employees. They investigated what the difference between immigrant and native youth is ultimately about. In addition, an integral part of the project was a design team composed of immigrant youth who took part in defining the problem, thinking of solutions, as well as developing and testing pilots.

The thirty-person co-design team was composed of, among others, teachers, police, social workers and organisation representatives. Each of them brought with them practical experience and understanding of working with young people. The team members walked in the shoes of immigrant youth for the spring of 2016, interviewed young people and got together once a month with project manager Irma Sippola and service designer Iikka Lovio to refine the accumulated information into concrete solutions.


After an intensive spring, there were five pilots ready with which to improve the opportunities of immigrant youth getting into education and employment. The range of tools includes a Buddy School designed for young people’s peer learning, a Peer Jury for first-time offenders and a Micro Labour Market that helps people get their first work experiences. Additional pilots include an immigrant youth Speaker Forum and a model that helps the parents of immigrant youth better support them with school and work challenges, and in situations where the youth have substance abuse or mental health problems. The goal is to create permanent models from the pilots for the daily lives of immigrant youth in Helsinki and the people working with them.

The wisdom of co-design

In the spring of 2016 the atmosphere eight floors above ground, high above Kamppi’s hustle and bustle, was almost more hectic than the traffic on the street-level. The co-design team members gathered around a large white table in one of many design workshops in the Palmu design agency’s glass-walled conference room. It was once again time for the team to get their hands dirty.


“The co-design model is incredibly ingenious. The wisdom arose from the designers getting really close to the service users and their needs. Team members tested potential solutions on their own user bases,” Sippola says.

Teachers, for example, had noticed shortcomings in their students’ Finnish language skills. One teacher remarked that she did not want to give a third-grade grammar book to a ninth grader. What if the older schoolchildren could teach the younger ones? The idea was jotted down on a sticky note, after which a quick concept drawing was made. Everyone who saw the drawing got excited about the idea, and so the first steps towards the Buddy Cafe pilot were taken.

“The better we understand why some things work and others don’t, the better solutions we come up with. We constantly modified our work during the design stage through experimentation and development,” Sippola says. 

Iikka Lovio sees collaboration as a work method, not a goal. The planning did not begin by asking what could be achieved through collaboration between the school and youth work, for example. The project team first identified young people’s needs, then the implementation method. Each time they realised that in order for a viable solution to be implemented, it needs more than the investment of one city division. The same applies to Sippola and Lovio’s work. The two worked closely together as a pair during the first year of the project. According to Sippola, the experimental and agile work method that was applied from the start of the project will continue to be used until its end.

“Neither of us was leading the other, instead we really worked together. The city’s role in the design teams has been adequately strong and I believe that the results are more effective because of that, too. It’s great that our office got so strongly involved in this workshop,” says Sippola.

Young people’s needs are answered by the voice of the young

Immigrant youth have had to listen to native adults talk about their issues and needs for long enough. In the Migrant Youth Helsinki project, young people of different ages and different cultures formed a design team that articulated young people’s views on the understanding between two cultures. Young people’s needs – not the general need to create some kind of solution – serve as the starting point of the project’s solutions. In turn, the needs of young people had to be answered with a voice they recognise as their own.


“It was clear from the very beginning that we were not going to create a single more well-meaning service into a fragmented service system, which does not actually meet a need,” Lovio sums up. 

Light trials gave quick and easy insight into what interests young people. For example, a student guidance counsellor who was on the co-design team went and asked young people on their school lunch break whether they would like to book times for recruiters from different fields the following week. More than 20 hands were raised immediately. Some ideas, on the other hand, seemed good on paper but went badly wrong in practice.

“Young people don’t get inspired by a social worker calling once every six months to ask if they’d like to come and coach football,” Lovio says.
Instead, you have to be able to listen, ask and read between the lines. Many young people involved in the planning wanted support for making their future dreams come true and to strengthen their sense of belonging, but nobody said it directly.

One invaluable asset in identifying such needs was a student with a Somali background who was involved in the design team. The man, respected in his community, interviewed the parents of Somali youth in their own language and that way introduced a new perspective into the model being developed in the project for supporting parents. Sippola, in turn, sought a different perspective by listening to young people’s discussions. They expanded her understanding of the everyday lives and experiences of the youth.

“The starting points of the youth are so different. For example, there was a teenage Afghan boy on the design team who said he had seen people being killed. On the other side of the table you have Lasse who has lived in East Helsinki all his life. We cannot expect all the young people to learn and cope in the same way. When you go this deep, there’s a lot of work to be done,” Sippola says.


Key lesson: It is good to include the service users right from the start of the design process. What problem do they think solutions are most needed for? What kind of solutions would they desire and how would it be most sensible to implement them? To find the best possible solution, you have to start from the client’s needs and define the form and method of the design community on their basis.

Read on


Design thinking isn’t just about creating better products and services; it can be used to make entire cities better. Design enables cities to make changes that both save money and hit their target, say strategic designer Marco Steinberg and Tiina-Kaisa Laakso-Liukkonen, Secretary General of the International Design Foundation.

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