Helsinki wants to be a global model to tackle climate change

By Vanessa Gu

Interview with Tiina Kaho, Executive Director of Helsinki Metropolitan Smart and Clean Foundation.

The planet is heating up. The mercury hit 45 degrees celsius in southern France last month, and 2019 is set to be the hottest year on record globally. World leaders agree warming has to be kept to 1.5 degrees by the end of this century, or risk an uninhabitable Earth.

“I think we are late, and there will be catastrophic implications,” says Tiina Kaho, Executive Director of Helsinki Metropolitan Smart and Clean Foundation. The time for collective action is now, she believes: “We need to just put all the efforts that we have for the next ten years, working out how we can speed up these solutions.”

The Smart and Clean Foundation wants to be the world’s window for global climate solutions by 2021. Kaho shares with GovInsider how it is partnering with Hensinki’s government and businesses to create “permanent models” that can be used worldwide.

Model for public-private partnership

Tackling climate change will require building ecosystems that involve both governments and the private sector, Kaho says. “Solutions are there already,” she explains, but government support is needed so they “can be scaled up citywide and even countrywide.”

In Helsinki, the Foundation worked with local transport authorities and start-up, MaaS Global, to cut car use. It created and tested a “Netflix of transport” application, where residents can subscribe to transport options, like bicycles, buses, trams, metro and taxis.

It is also working with Fortum, a Finnish energy company to reuse heat generated from data centres, residential and commercial buildings for district heating in Espoo, a part of the Greater Helsinki region. Today, about 16 percent of heating in Espoo comes from reused heat, but the company wants to increase this to over 30 percent by 2022.

The Foundation has set itself a deadline of five years to carry out its projects. The timeline helps to keep priorities in check, says Kaho. “It’s kind of very short, but it's long enough to make a big difference,” she remarks. Kaho believes this is a model that can be copied to other large scale problems, like unemployment and housing, as well.

Changing rules of data governance

Open data from the government has been pivotal in enabling startups to develop and pilot mobility and circular economy solutions in Helsinki, Kaho remarks. More can be done if companies too start sharing their data, she adds. “Companies are also providing and producing data and it will be very beneficial,” but it will require a mindset change from businesses and some ground rules.

Unlike Finland’s government agencies, businesses are not required and are wary to share data, Kaho notes. There is a sense that others are “going to steal it and I'm going to lose my business”. But Kaho wants to develop a new mindset where, “if I share, then we both get more”.

The foundation wants to foster greater trust in the private sector, and hopes that bringing multiple players with different expertise into a single project will help. Helsinki's weather agency, for example, is working with multiple organisations for the world's densest air quality monitoring and predicting. The model combines weather data, topological maps, building data and pollution source information.

Using cities as a test-bed

Cities are natural test beds for ideas to slow down climate change: they are compact, have the most resources, and their impact can be seen quickly. This is why, Kaho explains, the foundation’s work is focused on Helsinki. The “city is a platform: they share the data; they share the infrastructure; and then the businesses can use it,” she says.

Helsinki’s mayor, Jan Vapaavuori, says: “One of the biggest strengths of Helsinki is that we are big enough in order to enable pilot and demonstrations on a systemic level. But at the same time, we are small enough to make that really happen.”

The Foundation hopes it can come up with “off-the-shelf” solutions that can be easily ported over to other cities in the world. Its work on mobility as a service and air quality monitoring have already gained interests from cities in China and in Singapore.

While record temperatures are being set around the world, Kaho remains hopeful about the future. “I think human beings are amazing,” Kaho says. “For most of humanity, it's quite typical that things are getting quite bad before we start to act, and now is really time to act.”