In the far northern nations of the world, people tend to cluster southward. Espoo, Finland's second largest city, lies on the border of its biggest city and national capital, Helsinki. Both stand on Finland’s southern coast, directly across the Gulf of Finland from Tallinn, a frequent Top7 Intelligent Community and the capital of Estonia.
In 1950, Espoo was a regional municipality of 22,000, which drew its name from the Swedish words for the aspen tree and for river. Today, Espoo is still a place on a river bordered by aspen, and about 8 percent of its population still speaks Swedish as its first language.
Sixty-five years later, however, it is an industrial city of 270,000. It retains its dispersed, regional nature, however, being made of up of seven population hubs arrayed along the border with Helsinki, where many of its citizens work.
In 2010, Finland’s Parliament made history by declaring that access to 1 Mbps broadband is a legal right. Today, Finland ranks second in the world for mobile broadband adoption, according to the OECD. It is also one of the leading countries in Europe for ultra-broadband adoption, with more than 50% of households having access to a fixed connection of 100 Mbps.
In such an advanced broadband economy, it is natural that the Intelligent Community of Espoo would take a next-generation approach to improving broadband access and adoption. With the explosive growth of mobile data, driven largely by video, the city sees a serious risk of capacity bottlenecks threatening city digital services and throttling the future online experience of residents. Its answer is LuxTurrim 5G, a three-year pilot project that engages Espoo companies and research institutions in evaluating smart light poles as transmitters for 5G, the emerging mobile standard that promises hundreds of megabits per second of service. The light poles will include miniaturized 5G antennas and base stations, sensors for smart city systems and digitally controlled LED lighting. Launched in the spring of 2017, the project aims to create a proof-of-concept for the technology integration and then to start building an export business for the city’s partner companies.
Finland also has an educational performance that is the envy of the world. For most of the 21st Century, its 15-year olds have been among the very top performers in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an ongoing study administered every three years that tests the reading, math and science literacy. Eighty-four percent of Finnish 25-64 year olds have at least an upper secondary education, compared with 75% for the OECD, and 39% hold a higher education degree, compared with 32% for the OECD.
As with broadband, so with education. For students at secondary school level, Espoo is working with a local university and private-sector companies on a completely new model for education called School as a Service (SaaS). A school is traditionally defined as a building. The emerging SaaS model redefines school as a network of resources to support learning. In a process designed by school staff and students, teachers change their focus from imparting knowledge to helping students identify the best way for themselves to learn. They have access not only to their own facilities but to university instructors, classrooms, laboratories and science showcases.
In the first year, students have actively grasped the opportunity to attend university courses. The high school has attracted 150% more applicants than in the previous year, and the new model is reducing costs by 25% through better use of space. A second high school is adopting the SaaS model in 2018, and it will be applied in Shanghai, China as well through a partnership with Tongji University.
To help job-seekers with little education, the Employment Concert Sello project trains the unemployed in job-specific skills in partnership with large shopping centers in Espoo and the companies located there. Employers agree to offer trial places to unemployed residents. Trainers in the program find job seekers who are best suited to each company, train them in applying for jobs and the requirements of work. Since the program’s start in 2015, more than 100 companies have agreed to offer trial positions to job seekers, and over 130 job seekers have gained employment and found access to education.
Educational Innovation for Profit
In Espoo, education is not just a means of equipping the next generation with inquiring minds and employable skills. It is also an economic development program. In 2016, Espoo launched a collaborative project called KYKY Accelerated Co-Creation. It turns schools into living labs that support students’ learning and growth while giving educational technology companies a platform to develop products and services for learning. It recognizes that today’s edtech companies lack real understanding of today’s school life, pedagogy and curriculum, and is creating a new operating model to overcome the challenge.
There are risks in letting profit-minded businesses set the terms of education. The KYKY operating model sets clear steps for schools and companies to co-create new products and services that support learning and digital skills. Co-creation activities are user-driven, participatory and empowering, with school and company deciding together on structure, methods and goals. So far, schools participating in the program have seen an increase in the digital skills of students and teachers, as well as their understanding of entrepreneurship as they rub shoulders with edtech company employees. A total of 40 schools with 33,000 participants took part in the program by the end of the spring term in 2017, and the program claims credit for guiding five education startups to international markets – all of them using the “Co-Created with the City of Espoo” brand in their marketing.
Sustainable at the Core
The term “industrial city” usually describes a place where the needs of industry outweighs the needs of citizens for air they can breathe, water they can drink and a safe place to raise their children. Not so in Espoo. An international benchmark has named Espoo the most sustainable city in Europe. The city gives credit to an ongoing partnership among city government, residents, businesses, universities and other stakeholders. From 2013 to 2016, more than 100,000 people participated in sustainability events and city government launched 17 new sustainability projects in collaboration with partners and citizens.
One of the most remarkable things about Espoo is its recognition that, despite being Finland’s second largest city, it is a small player in a global economy. Espoo is a partner in the Six City Strategy, a cooperative policy uniting the six largest cities in Finland to tackle urban challenges. It focuses on open innovation, open data and open participation. The aim is to facilitate the development of smart city solutions by companies and to create an open market among the cities and companies that provides a nationally significant platform for innovation. Cities offer data while identifying their needs to better serve constitutions. Companies bring their tech expertise, market knowledge and corporate objectives to the partnership. Together, they make the opening up of data a natural part of city operation, while driving the creation of commercially viable applications and businesses. From 2014 to 2017, the municipal and corporate partners have launched 26 projects with a budget of 45 million euros, with an additional 55 million euros forecast through 2020.
The cycles of the year are strong in Espoo. In mid-winter, daylight lasts only seven hours, while in midsummer, the sun is a presence in the sky for all but three hours out of twenty-four. Perhaps it is this which gives the city such an appreciation of the forces beyond its control – in particular the technology changes rippling the world’s economy and challenging every community to adapt. With 275,000 people, Espoo may be Finland’s second biggest city but its adaptability to the future is second to none.