Photography & video — Aleksi Poutanen
Text — Annaliina Niitamo

Group dreaming in action: Helsinki's New Central Library



Already dubbed the new cradle of citizen engagement, the Central Library will rise in the centre of Helsinki in 2017 with the power of its citizens’ ideas. The new public space demanded the participation of customers.


”It’s astonishing how much people love the library”, says Virve Miettinen, participation planner at Helsinki City Library.

People from pretty much all walks of life can be found in a library. That is why the Central Library, to be completed in the end of 2018, will have among other things a movie theatre, music studio, restaurant, open workspaces, and a “citizen balcony” – not to forget the traditional library space of course.

According to Miettinen, this can be seen in how much desire library customers have to voluntarily participate in planning.

“The participators are ready to sweat in workshops, and endlessly draw on their imagination and expertise so that the Central Library can become a truly user-centred and appealing public space.”

For the Central Library, service design means designing the premises and services together with library users. The library has utilized user-centred methods for a long time already, longer than other city departments. However, in recent years there has been a shift in thinking. User-centeredness used to mean examining users as focus groups and targets of design, but nowadays library users themselves participate in planning by brainstorming.

“We noticed that visitors feel stronger ownership of the library and visit it more when they have been included in the planning,” library director of Helsinki City Library Tuula Haavisto notes.

The participation of urban citizens in generating ideas for the Central Library will not be a one-time thing, but instead the doctrine is to be applied to the whole of Helsinki’s library network.

A teenage skater and a professor in the same workshop

The participatory planning of the Central Library began with a “megaphone invitation” to urban citizens: opinion leaders and celebrities encouraged citizens to come up with ideas for the role that the library in the centre of town could adopt. Once the open and participatory planning had got off to an impressive start, it was continued in different ways, such as with participatory budgeting, an architecture competition, and with policymaker networking activities and workshops directed at partners.


In autumn 2014, a developer community called the Central Library’s Friends was founded, which sought out a variety of citizens from different parts of Helsinki. Applications flooded in. Together with the chosen “CeLi Friends”, the library was envisioned among other things as a place for experimenting, learning, 21st century civics and peer learning, the enrichment of ideas and thoughts, and service provider for immigrants and tourists.

One of greatest challenges in participatory design is finding the right balance in the plurality of participants’ voices.

“You cannot lose the spectrum of voices. Even though participation is open, it mustn’t lead to uniformity,” Miettinen says.

The idea is not to filter thoughts into one most popular idea, but to include the different needs of different people.

One participant for example wants a quiet, traditional library, while the other wants plenty of open space for activities and the newest technology. Thanks to design, it is possible to get everything, the full picture.

The library is making fast progress in adopting user-centredness. The goal is for instance to bring more and more employees into direct interaction with the customers.

“For too long, organizations have been looking inwards at their own functions”, says Marja-Liisa Komulainen, head of development at Helsinki City Library.

“The users come to an organization from the outside, and see things which the organization does not. The organization would do well to listen to these fresh new thoughts.”


Key lesson: Involve people well. It is essential to find a capable group who are able to bring real value into planning. Motivate, commit, and support. Let people know how valuable their input is. Plan the methods, means, and channels of participation carefully, but be attentive in listening to the participators.

Read on


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