9 Jan Vapaavuori

City of Helsinki

It might be a surprise, that Helsinki (the capital of Finland) ranks amongst the safest, happiest places on earth. Just around 650k people shape “the world’s most functional city”, emphasising the quality of life and the intent to do things a little bit better every time.

Jan Vapaavuori, Mayor of Helsinki, has a broad experience as a national politician and even was Minister for Economic Affairs before assuming office in 2017. We talk about the advantages of the Nordic model, how Helsinki is going to attract international tech-talents and if there’s a difference between running a company and running a city.

Simon: So, in an ideal picture; what would a well functioning country look like? What would be the main ingredients? I’d think about universal healthcare? How about students that get paid to study? And mothers and fathers that can split paternal leave almost equally. Finland has made all of this reality – and it shows: #1 World’s happiest country, #1 Environmentally healthy country in the world, #1 Best education system in the world … I could go on. Helsinki, as Finland’s capital, is the country’s economic and cultural backbone. Around 650k people shape “the world’s most functional city” – which is also the title of Helsinki’s city strategy. Emphasising quality of life and the intent to do things a little bit better every time it ranks among the safest, most future-minded and startup-friendly cities in the world – despite its size. In a recent marketing campaign, Helsinki claims to be the first “City as a Service” on a mission to motivate, guide and help international tech talents feel at home in Helsinki. Slush, the yearly startup-event where investors and founders gather is a testament to the city’s ambitions.

I’m Simon – Welcome to The Idealists, where Silja and I talk to inspiring leaders about their way towards a better future.

Silja: This time, we went way up north to meet the Mayor of Helsinki, Jan Vapaavuori. The former Minister of Economic Affairs assumed office in 2017. He thinks that a good life is a combination of tangible – like housing, transportation, jobs and infrastructure – and intangible things like – a sense of trust and community, equality and closeness to nature. But facing challenges like an ageing population, geopolitical shifts and the climate crisis, we asked: How much of an Idealist must one be to build and run the world’s most functional city?

Jan: A lot. My favourite quote comes from 2300 years ago. It was the Greek philosopher Aristotle who said that people are moving to the cities in order to earn their living and get a job, but they stay there in order to live a good life. And I think that is still valid. That's what a successful city has to be dynamic in order to create a good environment for business and then to make it possible to get a job and earn a living but ultimately the cities are for good life. And I think that is a very idealistic point of view which actually is becoming more and more important in today's world. So we do have a very comprehensive approach, very holistic view, and actually, I think that is the biggest secret behind the Nordic model. It's not only Helsinki but also Stockholm Oslo Copenhagen who are gaining a lot in today's world. And it is not because of equality itself that is a part of it, but they are a holistic view. And I used to say that we and I love to do some marketing for Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo as well that our biggest strength is that we have a lot of strengths and not that many weaknesses.

Silja: And what do you say the Finnish values of trust and equality and individualism is the foundation for this ambitious vision?

Jan: When we were writing our strategy and planning it two years ago, and we were … actually, I was wondering which would be a good topic for that one? Of course, we want to be a sustainable city. We want to be a green city, and we are that. But then somehow we understood that Copenhagen already took that …

Simon: Claimed that!

Jan:  … claimed that. They had branded it already. And then, of course, I would like to love to be a smart city as well. And then I understood that maybe it's already reserved for Singapore or some other cities in Asia. And then we thought, and then I said: "Okay, let's be the most functional city in the world." I fully understand that it's maybe not the most media sexy in today's world, but I think it's really relevant. In today's world — unstable world if you have a place, a city, which is reliable, predictable, functional, where people do not have to use that much time and energy in different kinds of queues, and with red-tape, it's actually luxury. And that it's a good basis for the equality of life combined with that or actually linked to that. I do think that the Nordic cities, Nordic societies have always had those kinds of strengths which you mentioned: built on trust, equality, functionality, a clean safe and so on but they had maybe not been valued that high so far. But the crazier the world gets, the more unstable it gets, the more attention is paid to this kind of values where we always have been strong. And now our mission is to build on that because functionality, I think, is a great basis for any place or any city. But that's not good enough. And I think that you need to be fine and functional at the same time. And there's maybe the most difficult part of the story.

Simon: You talk about the good life in the city and also formulated as the city has to kind of better itself over time to always striving to become a better and more livable place for the people. And if we dive into one of these topics which is the real quality of living here … What would you say is the main or one of the main points why people come to Helsinki and why they stay?

Jan: The problem is that they are not coming here. The advantage is that if they come, then they stay.

Silja: You have to make them come here in the first place.

Jan: Yes. So it's partly a marketing issue. My headache has been for a long time that I do think that we have more or less all the strengths which Stockholm and Copenhagen have. But we are not that well known. And that's why we're a little bit lagging behind those cities when we are playing to attract talent, and so on but then, on the other hand, we also have, I mean even studies, that if they come and if foreigners come and when they come they stay here. So we have the fifth biggest EU chemical agency in town, and they have the lowest turnover in their personnel. So all the Europeans who came to Helsinki ten years ago they have stayed here. That's better than in any other agency in the whole of Europe. So I mean for us you could say that when people give us a chance we do quite well. But in today's world, it's also a marketing issue, and there we haven't been that good. Also, maybe due to a shorter history compared to our Nordic peers.

Simon: In my personal opinion, my personal views, you are actually very good on that marketing side because …

Jan: We had been good during the maybe last two, three years but it is a short story.

Simon: Right. Because one thing I can remember and one thing which led to that interview actually is this "City as a Service" kind of campaign which is also with a wink towards the tech industry and towards the pitchs towards tech entrepreneurial people coming to Helsinki. Is this something you see that you have to do more of and being approachable in that sense?

Jan: Absolutely. When I took office as a Mayor, a little bit more than two years ago, I started a tradition: more or less every month I host one dinner for some group of people coming from some sector, and the very first one was for the startup society. And I started asking them what the city could do to help them? And after that we discussed three hours how they could help the city which is actually highlighting one of the strengths that we are a family, we are a society, we are like small enough. And we have that kind of mentality that we understand that only cooperating together is a way to do success. And even this "City as a Service" exercise is a good example of that kind of cooperation. It was actually an initiative by the Finnish Helsinki Startup Society. I mean everywhere in the world today, maybe excluding Silicon Valley, that we have problems in attracting coders and that kind of talented people started that "City as a Service" as a marketing campaign actually together with the City of Helsinki which was a huge success. We reached more than 1 million people. We got 7000 applications where the first prize was only three days in Helsinki. Of course, it was during Slush, which is a quite interesting event. But anyhow so yeah it's true that it's a highly competitive world and even if we think that everyone knows how good we are. That's not that's true.

Silja: And would you say … I mean Helsinki is a historic city, but you have a startup mind?

Jan: Yeah, you could say that. I'd like to come back to that. But want to go back to the "City as a Service" exercise. I don't think it could happen anywhere else in the world that the startup society themself markets Helsinki for the city with the best work-life balance in the world. So I mean like very soft values if you could say.

Simon: It's kind of a controversial view almost.

Jan: It's a little bit controversial in the startup society. And I think that's proof of how high we value the quality of life. I mean the world is full of all kind of rankings, but as I used to say I'm most proud of the ranking not to be the most honest city in the world or being the most functional one but being the best place to raise a family. And that kind of issues and I think that they are absolutely getting more important in the future. And now I already forgot your question.

Silja: It seems like you are a historic city, …

Jan: Yeah.

Silja: … but have a startup mind!

Jan: Yes, but to be honest, that's quite new. I used to be the Minister of Economy years ago, and I know quite well that the industrial structure of Finland was very much based on big, big companies. So the 10 or 20 biggest companies stood for a bigger share of everything in Finland compared to more or less any country in the world. We had our big forest companies. We had some in the metal industry, and then, of course, we had Nokia. But the collapse of Nokia or actually of the mobile devices division was a wake-up call for the whole society. I mean every backlash has also given birth for a new start and then all of a sudden we had thousands of experienced, internationally oriented, former Nokia employees without a job. And that is actually the basis for our very vibrant startup society. And then all the sudden it became the more or less most lucrative career path for university students across most of the biggest cities in Finland not only in Helsinki. So we are very proud of it. But to be honest, it's a very young phenom.

Silja: But you have to start somewhere.

Jan: Absolutely. And then you could also say that they don't have the pain of a long-lasting history which some other sectors have.

Simon: If you talk about this as a new phenomenon in the city and you said the collapse of Nokia contributed to that but also I again my personal view is that there is a lot of things going on within the education sector within the university towards collaborations with businesses or bringing the students to starting their own businesses. I suspect this is also something new, but I think that the kind of incubation time from investing into education and then getting the profit in, you know, people starting businesses is longer than just a few years. Is it?

Jan: From the very beginning, it was two years ago when we celebrated our 100th anniversary. From the very beginning, we understood in Finland that the only natural resource we have is the human resource. And from the very beginning, we were like forced to build on people, on education. So you could say that in today's world we are very proud of being among the equal countries in the world, having the best school system in the world, covering the whole population. But from the very beginning, it had a more selfish motivation where we understood that our only chance is to educate our people. As a small country, we have to educate everyone — the whole population. So yes, you could say that we have been working on a good school system for the 100 years. It was not something like innovated two years or five years or even 20 years ago but a very long time ago. Coming to that and combining that with the story of startups and remember then when we discussed if their startup society asked them: "Is there something, we could help you with? What would it be? And they said that even if we have the best education in the world, our problem is that we do not have enough English schools in the city. They asked us: "How about having a little bit more English primary schools as well as kindergartens? And then we decided on our strategy to double it. So I mean even there, the first point was to make our strength an even bigger strength and pay attention to education. Then, of course, yes, one of the biggest reasons behind the success of Nokia was especially good cooperation between the City University and the business society. So even there we have a tradition of being maybe the country with the lowest barrier between the business society and the public sector. And we have been building on that during ages. And of course, we are still doing it in a little bit different kind of world, of course.

Simon: Turning that view a little bit around and to your daily job. If you talk about strategy, it's mostly about how you as a city can allocate resources to do something to grow, right? And that's pretty much it's the same in a business, right? It's the same kind of mindset and the same approach. How would you say does your job differ from like as a kind of manager of the city or the CEO of a city versus a Mayor of a city? Is there a differentiation? And if yes, how?

Jan: I've been a minister for seven years. I've been a CEO of a small company and have to say that as a Mayor, my job is much much closer to the job of a CEO of a private company than a minister. The city is a very complex, big institution which is by nature very operative. And there's a huge difference between being a minister who is more or less moving on the strategy level all the time than being a Mayor yet where you are responsible for the everyday life and then the working public services. So as I used to say every day we teach kids. It's every day we take care of the elderly; every day we take care of the streets and problems linked to those. Actually, you could say that 80% of my job is something which is totally unpolitical. One of my favourite quotes comes from Fiorello LaGuardia, a former New York Mayor, who said that there's not a Republican or Democratic way to clean the streets. And then, of course, you have also the political layer, but that is actually not dominating at all in my job. Then, of course, when I talk to the press and when they quote me, the angle is maybe a little bit different. But still, I think I'm most proud of the fact that the strategy of the city was unanimously approved by the City Council.

Silja: And how much would you say is strategy making and how much is execution — putting ideas into action?

Jan: I believe in the American quote saying that culture eats strategy for breakfast. We have even highlighted in our strategy that the organizational culture is actually more important than the strategy itself. And when I talk to my people — we are the biggest employer in the whole country with 37000 employees. If each and every one of you were a little bit more service-oriented, a little bit more international, a little bit more agile, we would not need a strategy at all. So, I believe that of course, you need a vision. You need a mission. You need the big picture. But then it's mostly about clever, brave, agile execution.

Simon: If you think about that in a way that you are the CEO of the city and there are other CEOs of the cities in the Nordics. CEO means also your in competition with other CEOs in that sense or with other companies. How would you see that? Is this really… Are you feeling that competitive approach to comparing yourselves and trying to find advantages in the Nordics versus in the world? Is this really how it works? Or are you more or less on your own trying to look for yourself? How can you improve on your own?

Jan: Both

Simon: Both.

Jan: I think that some of the most catastrophic and most irritating events in the short term history the election of the current American president or the Brexit vote in the UK have both put the Nordic model on the table. The crazier the world gets, the more clever, reasonable people are actually starting to value those kinds of issues where we have always been good. So you could say that we have a common interest with all the Nordic countries, including maybe the Netherlands maybe also some other countries but especially the Nordic countries. So you could say that if and when the world is becoming even crazier they the other side of the coin is that the Nordic capitals are gaining a lot. But then at the same time, of course, it's true that if for example, a huge multinational company is putting up a regional headquarter, they could only put it in one Scandinavian city. So we are competing with each other. At the same time when still the big picture is that the better cooperation we do, the more all of us gain. That's why I have actually a quite close relation to the mayors of all those cities. Stockholm, Oslo, and Copenhagen.

Simon: Does this also has to do with your bilingual upbringing? And with that connection of Finland as a bilingual country in that sense as well?

Jan: I am even more because my mother was Swedish. So I learned Swedish before Finish.

Simon: Yeah that's an interesting view again on that kind of competitiveness between the cities because it's that drawing attention to your city as a competitive edge is something that you've been maybe missing out on and trying to gain traction on that.

Jan: But actually I think that Copenhagen and Stockholm they are both twice as big as Helsinki and they have a much longer history. And they are better known, but then, of course, we also have some strengths they do not have. First of all, of course, we are closer to Russia. We are closer to Asia. We have a geographical advantage as far as Asia and China is concerned. And then I dare to say that we are more functional and in that sense, we are even better than our neighbours. I am just giving one example. One of my pitch, when I travel abroad, is Helsinki is a city which is big enough to enable pilots and demonstrations on a systemic level. But at the same time small enough and functional enough to make that really happen and make it feasible. And one example of that which took place here some months ago was that I was actually the very first person in the world who received a lunch delivery by a drone in a city. And the reason was that an Alphabet company after piloting the drone deliveries in the Australian countryside. They wanted to come to a city and test how it works there. And they decided to do it in Helsinki, and there I think that we have a big advantage that Helsinki is of optimal size and also being that functional. So you can actually test, and I think that in the future we will be a test base for many big innovations where you have to test somewhere before you can go to London or Paris or Moscow.

Simon: That taps again in that spectrum of the tech funnel or tech bridge between the U.S. and Helsinki and talking about advantages or strengths is you mentioned Slush before, Slush is the startup event. I think in my view, it is the first time where people are not getting on a plane to gain inspiration from Silicon Valley but the other way round. There are people boarding planes to fly to Finland to Helsinki in November and getting inspiration there. So is this kind of a beacon in that whole startup world where you can see okay this is where we put our cards on the table and allocate our resources there?

Jan: The secret behind Slush is not that it would be the biggest startup event in the world. It's among the biggest, but that is not the secret. We have put it in our strategy that what we are and what we think we are and what we like to be is that we are a perfect combination of rational functionality and original roughness. And there I dare to say that if you want to go to Berlin without going to Berlin, you should come to Helsinki. We have a little bit of that kind of like crazy mentality, not taking things that seriously, being brave enough to do it differently. We are not trying to do events like they do it in New York or Barcelona or Stockholm. We do it in our own way, and there Slush has managed to do it in a very interesting, lucrative way.

Silja: Has this helped as well to the city strategy? The conference itself?

Jan: Of course, you could say that the main role of the city then still is to provide people with good services and that is the basis for everything we do. We take care of the schools, health care centres, streets and so on, and they are actually quite far from the Slush world. But then at the same time, we need to understand that we are living in a world where new technology is disrupting more or less everything. And we have that history of being a tech-oriented place. We have the mentality of early adopters, and then we have the Slush society reminding us more or less every day that the world tomorrow will be different than today. It makes it most probably easier for us to adapt to a future which we, of course, do not know yet.

Silja: And you also have because of Slush many pioneers from different industries coming to Helsinki and kind of yeah experience all the qualities you offer within public transportation, security … And I think that also puts Helsinki on the global map.

Jan: Yeah, I mean, definitely. And here we come once again to the fact that we are not that well known as Stockholm or Copenhagen. I mean most American business leaders or investors have been in Stockholm or Copenhagen, but they haven't been in Helsinki, and they may have some prejudices concerning the city, but after visiting more or less, every one of them has a better picture of the city than before. So, of course, you could say that due to Slush we can get influential people to the country and the city which otherwise would not come.

Simon: We talked a lot about the features to stay in the "City as a Service" lingo. And of course there also bugs and we talked about one bug which is the missing outreach or the missing knowledge of the city. What are other sectors where you see this is something we have to put a lot of work in?

Jan: I think that our biggest weakness is still that we are not international enough. I mean even if Slush is a success story and even if we have some startups which are success stories and they have been good enough to attract international talent. Still, our challenge and problem is that we are much less international than Stockholm and Copenhagen. I mean just some few good success stories are not good enough. And then we have a lot to do in order to make the city more international because I believe that a country like Finland and a city like Helsinki we can only be good in sectors and businesses of like really high-quality labour and high value-added. We can never be good in mass-production. It needs to be something really, really special. And the biggest innovations in today's world are always taking place where people from different kind of cultures meet each other. You just need to be able to create a dynamic society where young, hungry talented people from all around the world meet, and we have been good in that but not good enough. And that is still the biggest challenge. Another one is that we have maybe not been good enough in order to utilize the geographical advantage we have vis-à-vis Asia. So just to give you an example, the very first commercial flight between China and Europe took place between Helsinki and Beijing. We have more direct flights to China and Japan than any other air company in Europe except I think Lufthansa and British Airways despite our small size. And taking into account that if there's something which is growing in the world is China and we have some Chinese investments. We have a lot of Chinese tourists in Helsinki, but still, we should be better in utilising our unique position.

Silja: We talked about competing against other maybe Nordic cities, but if we look at the world as a whole then it's also about realising we have to collaborate to get to solutions that actually solve the most pressing global problems — which seem a challenge itself. How do you see collaborations with other cities regarding global problems that we are facing?

Jan: I actually spend a lot of time abroad. Even that much that some people are paying attention to that. I strongly believe that we are witnessing an area in the world history of growing importance and growth of cities due to several reasons. And what we see today is actually that cities are partnering and networking with each other in a little bit the same way that nation-states did maybe 400 years ago. And in that field, City of Helsinki is very, very active. So only during my term in the last two years, we have been able to make new connections and starting new collaborations with cities like London, New York, Barcelona and Paris. I mean, of course, with Stockholm, Copenhagen, Beijing we have done that already for a long time. But I strongly believe that the global pressing problems they are that complex. No one is able to solve them alone. You need a very wide collaboration, and there a starting point for us is to do it together with some other cities. Just to give you an example. We all know that modern technology is especially artificial intelligence will provide us with a totally new landscape concerning data and there, of course, one of the first problems which we face is the ethics of that, the privacy issues and so on. And what we did was not that we contacted the authorities after the Finnish government, but we started a collaboration between the City of London, Barcelona, Amsterdam and New York where our Chief Digital Officers actually created a network where they are like thinking about this issue and trying to, maybe not solve it, that would be too much but to take some steps forward.

Simon: That also means because from your perspective as a minister and now as a city leader … it's almost like the city is running ahead in front of the nation because they have to solve their own problems before they occur.

Jan: In some issues. And then you could also say that due to urbanisation it's not only that more people are moving into cities, but you could say that more of everything has an urban context. I mean by far the most pressing problems the mankind has is climate change. You can say the cities are the main cause of the problem, but you also need to be the solution, and it is more probable that the cities will solve them and they have in many cases even a more relevant toolkit than the nation-states have. Of course, the effect of a city is always more limited than a fact of a nation-state. But still, I believe more in the story that it is 700 global cities which will solve the climate issue than 200 nation-states. And there we do a lot of collaboration. So, I mean in the business society, you always need to create something which is better than anything else ever done. But in the city collaboration, you don't have to reinvent the wheel all the time. So I strongly believe that AI and big data will help cities around the world hugely in like adapting and scaling up good things which have been done somewhere.

Simon: And one point I would like to come back to and maybe also end on is we've talked about that bigger umbrella term of trust and togetherness as a kind of value and the strength of the Nordics and especially in Helsinki or in Finland as well. Is this something which has to be in every initiative? Kind of interwoven? Or are there initiatives where you actually say: Okay, this thing we launch, or we trigger to build trust between our citizens and the city or between new people coming to the city and the economy? Or is this something which is just as a value involved in everything? Is this something you can actually make an example of?

Jan: I think it's involved in everything. I mean if you take, for example, our Open Data Policy: Helsinki has opened more data than any other city in the whole world except the city of New York. And we did it already ten years ago. We did it not to make a basis for good business which it is. We did it to increase transparency and to increase trust. I very strongly believe that only societies built on trust can be successful in the future. And that is an issue which becomes more and more complicated all the time, especially during the technological revolution and globalisation in today's world where it's not only ordinary workers who are losing their jobs. But also the middle class, which is actually a big base for what's happening in the world. And 10-20 years ago, we already had a study by the Nordic Council of Ministers that the Nordic countries have a big social safety net as well as our society is built on trust. They are less afraid of globalisation than countries which are not built on trust and because we can't stop globalisation. It is something which will take place in any case. I think we should create mechanisms where people are less afraid of that. And like motivated to navigate their way forward and they're the basis of an equal, transparent society built on trust is something maybe the most crucial element of everything. Because if you don't have the bases in order, then you can't build anything on that.

Simon: Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, rate the show on Apple Podcasts, follow us on Spotify or maybe tell someone about it. You can find all episodes on www.theidealists.co — As always: Here’s our last question: Who should we talk to next?

Jan: I think that you should interview the CDO or is it CTO. Chief Digital Officer or Chief Technology Officer of the City of London: Theo Blackwell. Because the modern chief digital officers they really can make a change because they are somehow a link between engineers and politicians.

"From the very beginning, we understood in Finland that the only natural resource we have is the human resource."

— Jan Vapaavuori [00:13:03]

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