Helsinki Impact Conference, Mayor Jan Vapaavuori’s opening speech

Helsinki Impact Conference, Mayor Jan Vapaavuori’s opening speech

Dear Helsinki Impact Conference speakers and participants,

Dear Colleagues,

Dear Friends,

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

These words by Charles Dickens have rarely seemed so topical. Never before in history have we been so divided in our views of the best course for the world. Our ambition is matched by someone else’s ignorance. Our determination is matched by someone else’s denial. Our knowledge is matched by someone else’s foolishness. Never before in history have been faced with so much knowledge, data and understanding. And we seem to be able to do so little with it.

We have gathered here today to reaffirm that the European cities need to come together in our quest and ability to champion concrete solutions to globally critical challenges. The European Union has a chance and an ability to lead the world towards a more holistic and long-termed path. Cities are well positioned to champion this change.

A few times in history has seen cities this powerful. As communities of people we are better equipped to match today’s global challenges. Nation states are not made for this time of quick pace, determined action, human-centered focus and pragmatic leadership. Cities are the new powerhouses of the world that will either solve the global challenges – together or without the nation states – or fail.

This presents an opportunity for the European cities. We are the glue that holds the European Community together. We are the creators and implementors of the solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges. Our voice should be stronger and heard louder where European policies are being planned and decided. We need a stronger partnership and systematic dialogue with the EU policy makers. We need financial tools that forward our ability to implement policies. We especially need a shared long-term vision with determination to act.

Cities are not alone in their quest for pragmatic, action-oriented new approach to the global problems. Corporations, NGO’s and movements of people stand with us demanding a world where solutions are more than political talk or a strategy by a government office. Two weeks ago I spoke at the United Nations during the General Assembly week. In his own speech the UN Secretary General António Guterres stated strongly that local action will be a key to the success of Agenda 2030. He called for the creation of an enabling environment that maximizes the potential of cities and local authorities, protects human rights and civic space, fosters private sector development and attracts foreign direct investment. Helsinki aims to be one of the leading cities in this development.

Last year we became the second city in the world and the first city in Europe to commit to the Voluntary Local Review of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Two weeks ago in New York we signed a declaration of the VLR’s together with 15 other cities. The movement had taken less than a year to be born and included cities from all corners of the world. It is clear evidence, that cities will need to be included at the tables where global agendas are set and strategies carved. We drive the change of the world.  I want to encourage all European cities to join the VLR movement and consistently develop the local implementation of Agenda 2030.


Dear friends,

We are on the verge of loosing our right to say that every new day is a new possibility. We have lost sight of the horizon. We live in a world that is formulated around projects. Projects and programs seem to be the answer to any new challenge. Most of our projects and programs are based on the timetable of our own generations’ existence. What I want to know is what will happen after 2029? Or 2050? Setting middle targets is only natural for people who are used to deadlines and tasks, but our ultimate vision must be a holistically well-being world that is sustainable beyond our own lifespans or the generations of our children. I want to see plans made for the legacy of the planet. The world is not a project.

I am still an optimist. I believe, that many of today’s most pressing challenges will be solved by new technological and digital innovations. I am also a pragmatists. I believe that these life-saving innovations cannot be born if we don‘t foster the community of educators, start-ups, researchers and innovators. Cities as communities of people are the first and foremost actors in ensuring that these critical masses of innovation and resources are born. We need to move away from political talk and empty strategies to pragmatic change-making.

Helsinki is fully committed to this vision. Like any metropolis in the world we still struggle with climate change, transportation, energy and housing. Since 1990 we have already cut carbon dioxide emissions by 45% per capita. We have created a Carbon Neutral Helsinki 2035 program which is one of the most ambitious operational programs in the whole world. In September 2017, Helsinki reset the city’s target year for carbon neutrality to 2035, speeding up the goal by 15 years from the earlier target year 2050. An interim goal is to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60% from 1990 to 2030. Helsinki is about making an impact. We aim to do so by small but meaningful practical everyday steps.

One of our most crucial questions relates to the future of energy. The State of Finland has decided to ban the energy use of coal as of 2029. As much of Helsinki’s energy is still produced by coal this will have revolutionary impact on our city. In our case one of the obvious solutions would be to resort to biomass to replace the part of coal based energy that we are not able to bridge with sustainable energy sources. I am not taking this path. Biomass is not a sustainable solution on the long term and the investments required to make it a feasible energy option for Helsinki are not sustainable either. In order to find answers for truly sustainable, long-term and holistic energy solution for Helsinki I have launched a global 1 million euro Helsinki Energy Challenge. The question of the challenge is simple – how can coal be replaced in the heating of Helsinki with as much carbon-neutrality as possible and as little biomass as possible? The end result might be a new outlook on how cities should approach at their energy production, consumption and storage. Even if we fail in finding an overall solution for Helsinki we will still succeed in making this question world-wide and evoke other cities to question their current energy choices and -solutions. We have partnered with World Economic Forum and C40 City Solutions Platform to make this challenge an opportunity for the world.

The Helsinki Energy Challenge is one example of how the European cities can act as forerunners in a world where many other cities don’t have the luxury of educated people, early adaptation to technology or safe environment. Our job is to lead the way where we can and create scalable solutions for the rest of the world. The Helsinki Energy Challenge is open for all, and we challenge other cities to partner with us. We encourage for interdisciplinary discussions, to challenge the most obvious solutions. The actual competition will be about one year long and it will run mainly in 2020.

Helsinki Impact Conference is organized by the City of Helsinki and it is part of our official program for the Finland’s EU presidency. It is co-hosted with Eurocities, Metrex, Urban Academy and the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment of Finland. With this conference we call for cities to take leadership in creating cohesive future for urban Europe. We also wanted to bridge the gap between urban policy and practical urban planning. I wish, that as a result of this conference, we are able to make a statement together underlining the increasing global role of cities and city networks, and the need for more focused and solution-oriented cooperation between all stakeholders in the urban area.

Politics is not the answer to saving the world. Government programs don’t provide the urgency or the comprehensiveness needed to change the world. Words are not going to save the world. The power to act is. And even if we are living in “the season of darkness” light will become – if we choose to make it together.

Photo: Riku Pihlanto, City of Helsinki