In Marvel’s Doctor Strange, the good doctor can manipulate space however he wants to—shift things around, create multiple versions of the city, and conjure alternative universes. This fantasy-like scenario is not as detached from reality as it seems.

Instead of using spells, we can use technology like AI and digital twins to achieve these feats in a virtual world. Amongst its many innovations, the Helsinki Smart Region has a ‘virtual twin’ that can simulate everything happening in the city.

The Helsinki Smart Region is an innovation hub in Finland that focuses on three areas: Building a citizen-centric city, exploring climate-neutral solutions, and driving industrial technologies. Ossi Savolainen, the Regional Mayor of the Helsinki-Uusimaa region, shares five ways to drive citizen-centric and sustainable innovations.

1. Digital inclusion

The Helsinki Smart Region empowers citizens to shape the cities they live in by providing open access to the city’s data. “The cities in our region are all very much interested in using data to improve citizen services,” Savolainen says.

Citizens can access all sorts of data, ranging from health statistics to 3D models of buildings, via an open data website. Cities can then use this data to create more inclusive citizen services.

For example, developers in Helsinki created a GPS application that helps the blind and visually impaired navigate the streets. They did so using a map of Helsinki’s facilities, public transport routes, and a journey planner that suggests travel routes.

While Helsinki embraces digital innovation, some are excluded as “not everyone has the access to digital tools and skills”, Savolainen highlights. The Helsinki Smart Region ensures that these new technologies are not privileges only accessible to urban residents by bringing tech to the doorsteps of rural communities.

For instance, the Helsinki-Uusimaa region is piloting carbon-neutral drone services that can transport resources to remote areas quickly. This can help rural communities by providing emergency medical supplies during times of need.

Rural areas can also benefit from sustainable practices developed in the cities. Lapinjärvi, a municipality in Finland, is applying green construction methods to build a sustainable residential town in the countryside. They used renewable and locally available materials like wood to reduce the carbon emitted by transporting and producing the materials.

2. Smart mobility 

The Mobility Lab Helsinki is on a mission to improve traffic flow and lower vehicle emissions through smart mobility solutions.

First, it created a digital twin of Helsinki using traffic data like the travel time and flow of traffic. This twin can simulate traffic conditions to help in city planning. For instance, it can be used to explore how traffic control at construction sites can minimise disruptions to pedestrians.

Second, startups and companies can test their smart mobility solutions via the Mobility Lab. An example is Trombia Free, an automated street sweeper that consumes only 15 per cent of the energy used by typical fuel-powered street sweepers.

Developers can test how well Trombia Free works in an urban environment through the Mobility Lab by measuring its noise level and sweeping efficiency. This information is crucial in helping companies improve their products, so they can address the city’s needs more effectively.

3. Promoting AI 

The Helsinki Smart Region is working to nurture AI innovation and talent. Their expertise in AI technology is due to their “long history of research” and “innovative mindset”, Savolainen shares. Three out of four Finnish firms that develop or use AI-powered solutions are located in the Helsinki region too, its website wrote.

A recent example is the AI Head Analysis project, which created an AI that can detect brain disorders. It is currently used at the Helsinki University Hospital to help doctors make diagnoses faster.

Another AI innovation born out of Helsinki is able to identify high-risk patients requiring urgent medical attention in Helsinki University Central Hospital’s intensive care unit. It can also detect patients who can be released to standard hospital care, opening up space for more critical patients.

Beyond healthcare, AI can help to promote residents’ wellbeing by improving the air quality indoors. The Quasimodo project uses AI to monitor and forecast the quality of air in real time. It warns users to take precautionary measures, such as closing their windows, when air quality is predicted to fall.

4. Climate-neutrality

In line with its goal to be carbon neutral by 2030, the Helsinki Smart Region is investing in clean technology. “A transition to a low carbon society requires significant changes to our infrastructure, mobility, and built environment,” Savolainen notes.

3D modelling, for instance, is helping Helsinki incorporate greenery into its city. Kalasatama, Helsinki’s smart city district, uses 3D modelling to visualise how plants or trees are affected by urban conditions like temperature and density.

There are also many startups in Helsinki pushing the boundaries for sustainable practices in the food industry. One innovation includes an animal-free egg white, reducing the need for animal farming – a practice that uses copious amounts of resources including land and water.

Scientists have also invented an edible protein produced from electricity and air. This has the potential to create new plant-based meats, and can even become a food source in deserts and outer space since it does not need land to grow.

5. Collaboration is key

But one actor alone cannot create all of these changes. To achieve the Region’s goal of driving innovation, collaboration is key. “We are constantly working on strengthening those ecosystems…and bring[ing] together projects that build on and complement each other,” Savolainen shares.

Helsinki is working with top universities, research institutions, and companies to develop cutting-edge tech like quantum. In fact, Finland’s first quantum computer is now up and running. This unlocks a world of possibilities for the faster analysis of data and more accurate AI predictions.

A digital city, a climate-resilient city, an innovative city—the Helsinki Smart Region is all of them in one. It might seem like Doctor Strange’s sci-fi reality only exists in our imagination, but the Region is already taking steps to make our imaginations a reality.