Helsinki started its journey towards becoming the most functional city in the world in 2017 in a turbulent economic and social climate. The city had just undergone the biggest administrative and managerial reform in its history, and the organisation was still in a flux in many ways when the strategy was drafted. Our external environment was also under pressure from a number of global forces ranging from climate change to urbanisation and digitalisation.
Cities have an increasingly important role to play in the global arena, not least because more and more of the decisions and actions to solve the biggest problems of humanity are now taken locally. The United States pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement and the rapid quadrupling of the number of American mayors pledging to uphold ambitious climate goals in their cities that ensued are stark examples of the redistribution of power between nation states and cities. Cities are in a position to offer relevant and practical answers to the toughest questions of our time and, most importantly, they have the agility and drive to tackle them. Cities around the world are racing each other to find the best solutions to challenges such as segregation, climate-friendly heating and sustainable transport. Cities have the most to gain or lose by the success or failure of these solutions.
The subtitle and ultimate goal of our strategy – The Most Functional City in the World – refers, above all, to a new attitude and way of thinking that were born out of these circumstances, in the midst of a world in turmoil and increasingly fierce competition between cities. The more resistance there was to the city’s transformation, the better we felt about our chosen strategy. We deliberately refrained from including strict orders or instructions in the strategy but were more focused on giving inspiration and direction. Choosing the most functional city in the world as our goal was also in part a response to the trend where, rather than size and location, the success of cities is increasingly determined by their ability to provide the basics of a good life: functionality, safety, progress and experiences – urban everyday living. The emphasis that we put on customer-centricity, service-mindedness, modern operating models, agility and internationality in everything the city does made it possible for Helsinki to improve things every day despite the constant and rapid changes in the external environment.
Our strategy gave no straight answers but rather encouraged every employee of the city to think about ways to do their work in a more modern, agile and service-minded way. No one person could have implemented this strategy alone; the whole team had to be behind it. An organisational culture is about individual actions and choices that pave the way towards a desirable end result. These actions and choices gradually evolve into new ways of working – and ultimately set the standards for what the city expects from itself and how the local community sees it. A transformation of this scale requires both systemic change and rapid organisational reform.
Four years is, after all, a very short time for a large organisation such as the City of Helsinki. The latest analyses of our management system nevertheless show that our efforts have borne fruit and that we have improved on just about every indicator. Our organisational culture is changing, things are moving in the right direction, and we now have efficient tools and indicators for measuring success. Every manager in the city organisation deserves praise for this achievement. Our chosen approach – a controlled change of rhythm – works.
A more agile organisational culture is naturally not an end in itself but more of a leadership tool that has allowed us to demonstrate what we mean by being the most functional city in the world to the local community as well. As much as I wish to emphasise that being the most functional city in the world is less about showmanship and more about doing things a little better day after day, it is only right to look at a few tangible examples of our successes now that the strategic planning period draws to a close. Recognising areas where we fell short is also important. Our analysis of the highs and lows of the strategic planning period is mostly based on assessments that have been carried out as well as our chosen performance indicators. These indicators are not necessarily representative of the big picture, however. My personal focus has always been on the success of the city as a whole – the big picture. For me, a successful city is one that has many strengths and few weaknesses.
I am especially proud of the work that we have done in the past four years to build the foundations of the most functional city in the world. Our aim was for Helsinki to be the city that makes the world’s best use of digitalisation. It is still too early to claim victory in this respect, but we are now, for the first time, in a position where the goal is achievable as long as we stay firmly on our chosen path. Digitalisation has permeated every one of the city’s core processes, and we have created conditions for the city organisation to become a proactive provider of services with minimal bureaucracy. An excellent example of how digitalisation makes our residents’ lives easier is our new system of offering an early childhood education place to every pre-school-age child in Helsinki by text message and thereby eliminating the need for parents to fill in myriad forms and applications. The system is due to launch next autumn.
Our success in laying the groundwork for Helsinki as the most functional city in the world is also thanks to our administrative reform. Four years ago, the city did not have a proper communications department, international affairs staff or modern HR management – let alone the ability to anticipate drivers of change in our residents’ lives. There was no city-level management team and our management system was fragmented in general.
It is difficult to get excited about administrative reforms, but restructuring and our new leadership principles have actually been crucial in allowing us to achieve our strategic goals – and improve things every day. Our more modern organisational structure has also given us an opportunity to look at staff wellbeing in a whole new way and put human resources development on the city-wide agenda. There is nothing more critical to a functional city than competent and motivated staff and the ability to attract new skilled professionals to the organisation’s ranks.
Our new organisation and leadership model have enabled us to find innovative, modern approaches to solving the trickiest problems of all. The way in which every part of the organisation came together to tackle the issue of physical inactivity is just one example of the power of our new interdepartmental operating model. Our efforts in promoting physical activity won us an award at the Finnish Sports Gala two years in a row. We took small but effective actions to encourage our staff to move more, partnered with Harvard University and Bloomberg Philanthropies to brainstorm systemic solutions to tackling the issue of physical inactivity in older people, and championed social debate on the importance of physical fitness. These are concrete examples of the impact that cities can have: we quickly established ourselves not just as a voice but as a relentless driving force for change in all layers of society.
There were also areas of the strategy that we did not make as much progress in as we initially hoped.
We took clear and systematic steps towards making Helsinki carbon neutral, but we should have done more and acted faster. The climate crisis must be factored into every single decision that the city makes and into every construction project and every debate. The Helsinki Energy Challenge – an international competition hosted by the city in order to find a way to decarbonise the heating of Helsinki – made it clear that there are still many policies that we need to take control of ourselves to truly rise to the climate challenge. Although this revelation only came to us towards the end of the strategic planning period, we did just have time to start a shift towards strengthening the city’s competence and vision in relation to energy issues and comprehensive energy planning as well. The competition itself was a huge international success and a great example of an open-minded approach to a gigantic challenge.
Our efforts to eliminate poverty and inequality were not as effective as we would have liked. Young people in particular are increasingly disaffected, and the coronavirus pandemic has certainly not helped the situation. Growing inequality and intergenerational poverty are among Helsinki’s most persistent problems and too complex to overcome in just four short years. Every city in the world is battling the same issues and trying to stop the escalation of this diabolical global crisis. We have, thankfully, been able to start a systemic change towards a new way of taking on the mammoth challenge. All parts of the city organisation need to work together to promote wellbeing proactively before problems arise.
The spirit of our strategy gave us an obligation to modernise the city and make our services more customer-orientated. I feel that the city organisation should have done better in this respect. We should have focused more on the core of what makes a functional city, such as roadworks, the cost-effectiveness of the city’s property portfolio, the health and safety of buildings, and professionalism and effectiveness in general. Important milestones were reached in respect of both roads and housing, but we failed to meet our targets.
The most functional city in the world must be able to improve – in respect of both the fundamentals of urban living and new strategic initiatives – every day.
Among our greatest achievements during this strategic planning period is the way in which we have raised Helsinki’s international profile and injected an international ethos into the city. I strongly believe that what has made cities successful throughout history is the ability to understand and respect different cultures, seek out partnerships, share knowledge and experiences with the world’s other leading cities, and make people from a multitude of backgrounds feel at home. Helsinki’s internationalisation has progressed in enormous strides in a short space of time.
We now have a voice in the world’s leading networks and decision-making arenas. Organisations such as the World Economic Forum, the UN and Bloomberg Philanthropies, and cities such as New York, London and Beijing, want to partner with Helsinki. We have assumed the role of a pioneer and, for example, joined forces with New York to encourage other cities to implement Voluntary Local Review of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Raising Helsinki’s profile and increasing our international clout were among our top priorities for the strategic planning period. International cooperation has given us new competence and know-how, financial support for our development initiatives, and help with overcoming our most troublesome issues. The Helsinki Energy Challenge or our vision of an innovative transport system for Helsinki would not have materialised without our international partners. Our efforts to give the city a more international ethos are ultimately about making Helsinki a better place to live and having more of a say in the big questions facing our planet.
Another area in which the city has made clear progress during this strategic planning period is the promotion of Helsinki’s and its residents’ interests. Finland’s biggest cities have come under such an attack that we ultimately had no choice but to get organised and fight for our rights. On the other hand, the growing power and importance of cities have created new expectations for the capital’s role in national politics. Helsinki has grown more confident, which has translated to residents’ having a new sense of pride about their home city and becoming more invested in the local community. Helsinki is our home and the nation’s capital. We have made our voice heard in debates about the reform of Finland’s health and social services system, major transport infrastructure projects and the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic alike. The C21 network of Finland’s largest towns and cities has played a key role in putting local politics on the national agenda and claiming for city-level decision-making the prestige that city-specific questions have rightfully enjoyed elsewhere in Europe and around the world for years.
Ultimately, however, the city’s most important job is to provide a comfortable living environment and efficient services for its residents. The past four years have seen us adopt a more sustainable approach to managing the city’s building stock, double the capacity of English-speaking day care centres and schools, build a long-awaited new hospital school, start the transformation of the South Harbour into an atmospheric urban seaside environment, add more bins, public toilets and benches around the city, improve health and safety in the city’s early childhood education facilities, create more than 4,400 new day care centre places, modernise the look of the City Hall, and give Helsinki’s residents more opportunities to enjoy our location by the sea. Some of our achievements may not have been breaking news, but each and every one has taken us closer to our strategic goals.
When we began to implement our strategy four years ago, the Government in power at that time swore to relieve city organisations of all responsibility for social services and health care before the end of the strategic planning period. Thankfully, the Government did not deliver. Despite the reform of Finland’s health and social services system having dragged on for years, the City of Helsinki has never stopped pursuing the high standard of services that our residents expect.
Digitalisation has now also spread to social welfare and health care services. New features added during the current strategic planning period include a range of electronic services and chat functions, which have enabled the city to serve the local community in whole new ways. The digitalisation of social welfare and health care services has been significantly advanced by the introduction of the Maisa client portal in connection with the deployment of the Apotti electronic patient record system. The best thing about the new system is its ability to make services accessible to different kinds of users.
Helsinki has also been active in paving the way for the establishment of innovative, multifunctional service centres. The Government Programme also identifies this as the objective of the health and social services reform, but Helsinki has been successfully promoting this kind of development on the basis of current legislation well before the adoption of the Government Programme. During the current strategic planning period, for example, the city has amalgamated social and health care services into multifunctional health and wellbeing centres, family social services centres and centres of services for the elderly. The new multifunctional centres operate longer opening hours and are all served by good public transport links. People in Helsinki no longer have to think about which service provider to turn to, as they now have a ‘one-stop shop’ – like the most functional city in the world should. This kind of integration is especially beneficial to customers who need a variety of services and who can now be provided with a seamless transition from one service to another.
The City of Helsinki’s Social Services and Health Care Division has demonstrated that developing services on a continuous basis is possible without an administrative reform. Other notable achievements during the strategic planning period include the introduction of low-threshold mental health services (Mieppi) and the adoption of the multi-provider model across more and more of the city’s social and health care services. Health centres now accept service vouchers, and two health centres are due to be outsourced altogether. I hope that these measures will also give us ideas of ways to clear the backlog of non-COVID-19 care and increase the accessibility of non-urgent care through new kinds of partnerships.
The coronavirus outbreak caught the whole world off guard, and we were no exception. The pandemic presented us with an unprecedented challenge and forced us to rethink our priorities, but it also gave us an opportunity to test the resilience of our newly restructured organisation. COVID-19 turned the last third of the strategic planning period upside down and transformed the way in which we now plan for the future. Even though the pandemic was, and continues to be, a tragedy, we can be proud of our response to it on every level. The city organisation reacted quickly by restructuring the provision of services and taking steps to minimise social and economic impacts. Our crisis management model worked exactly as intended. We communicated effectively, which helped to reassure residents. There is always room for improvement, but I have been genuinely impressed by our city organisation every single day throughout the crisis.
Cities were particularly hard hit by the pandemic. We have invested in services, events and tourism in order to boost Helsinki’s vitality and appeal but also to guarantee a good standard of living for the local community. This entire ecosystem is now under threat, and it is increasingly uncertain how Helsinki’s creative economy and cultural scene will come out of the crisis. Although we did everything that we could to protect events, culture, the arts and sport, Helsinki fared no better than any other city in the world in this respect. Our long-term development plans nevertheless give us hope. The relocation of Helsinki Art Museum to the old gasometers in Suvilahti and the transformation of Suvilahti in general into an event complex, the construction of a new museum of architecture and design in Makasiiniranta as part of the development of the South Harbour, the opening of Dance House Helsinki, the first ever Helsinki Biennale on Vallisaari Island, and Helsinki’s maritime action plan, which introduces a whole new concept of experiences and services based on Helsinki’s location by the sea, are examples of how Helsinki can create a diverse platform for art and culture and give the ecosystem a chance to also thrive in the post-coronavirus world.
I firmly believe that our teamwork-based approach and our new, more agile organisational culture also helped Helsinki to deal with the crisis. In addition to actively seeking a common understanding of the situation and exchanging views and perspectives within the city organisation, we also engaged in ever closer cooperation with our most important partners. The City Executive Office’s newly established Digitalisation Unit, Human Resources Division and Communications Division played critical roles in the crisis management process. The holistic approach benefited not just every aspect of the city organisation but, above all, Helsinki’s residents. The foundations that we have already laid for the most functional city in the world made us stronger in the face of the crisis.
It should be pointed out that none of the above would have been possible without responsible and forward-thinking management of the city’s finances. The present City Council inherited a financially strong organisation. This allowed us to spend the last four years setting a new direction for the city, pursuing our vision, investing heavily in sustainable growth, and innovating in terms of both services and organisational structures. Despite all this, Helsinki’s municipal tax rate is lower than it was four years ago and per-capita indebtedness has decreased.
The key question, however, remains, How has Helsinki changed in these past four years from the residents’ perspective and how can we make Helsinki even better?
I have done everything in my power as Mayor to defend Helsinki and our chosen strategy. In a few months’ time, this important mission, which is integral to a mayor’s job description, will pass to my successor. And eventually to their successor. I have tried to run the city in a way that ensures that the organisation that I hand over is more insightful and even healthier than it was when I became Mayor.
I believe that we have laid down a solid foundation on which my successors can build with confidence. Many of our strategic objectives have become routine for the city organisation, and the direction in which Helsinki is now being steered is unlikely to change in the future. Our new organisational culture and the way in which it has shaped our view of the world and how the world is changing will continue to bear fruit in the years to come.
A solid strategy is critical, but no strategy can succeed without strong leadership. The mandate for leadership comes from Helsinki’s residents, the green light for new strategies from the City Council, and the prerequisites for success from the city organisation; for a true assessment of success, we have to wait for future generations. What we need to do now is to keep believing in Helsinki and Helsinki’s people, not lose sight of our goals, and always look forward.
Photo: Jussi Hellsten