Inside Finland’s recipe for citizen engagement and climate action

By Yun Xuan Poon Justin Tan

Interview with Irma Ylikangas, Senior Business Advisor, Helsinki Business Hub, Finland.

If carbon neutrality were a fine dish, what would go into its recipe? The usual ingredients would be firm policies and data modelling, perhaps with a dash of international discussions.

But Finland has thrown in a secret spice: citizen engagement. It has brought citizens on board to brainstorm for a more sustainable future.

GovInsider spoke to Irma Ylikangas, Senior Business Advisor to Helsinki Business Hub to find out more about how the Finnish government is encouraging innovation with inclusivity.

Cooking up a storm

Fail fast or succeed fast, believes Ylikangas. The city of Helsinki has encouraged residents in the Kalasatama neighbourhood to come up with initiatives to help improve the local community. These include watering vertical gardens in schools with used water and promoting electric vehicles with solar-powered vehicle charging points.

This is possible because the government shares data openly with application developers. They can easily access public data on public transport or water consumption.

The Whim app has used public data to simplify transport. Citizens can use a single app to plan and pay for their journey across public transport, bikes, taxis and car rentals. This makes it easier for citizens to choose shared transport over owning a car.

Forum Virium - the City of Helsinki's innovation company, has released a “cookbook” for aspiring innovators. The document contains useful resources to understand Kalasatama’s history as a Smart City district and outlines the step-by-step process to starting their own initiatives.

Waste not

Helsinki has adopted a circular economy approach to reach carbon neutrality by 2035. It aims to eliminate wastage and encourage recycling.

One of the innovations that have emerged in the Kalasatama neighbourhood is a vacuum waste sorting system. These are stations where you can drop a bag of sorted waste, and it will be delivered via vacuum suction to a central collection point around a kilometre away.

It’s as simple as “going to your cabinet, opening the door and just dropping your bag”, Ylikangas says. From the collection point, vehicles will pick up the sorted waste and deliver it to the processing facility for recycling. This programme has even been used in local schools, to inculcate proper recycling habits from young.

In the less densely populated countryside, Finland has switched to investing in waste sorting stations that make use of robots. Like with the vacuum suction system, these tools help to separate waste and get it to the right place, reducing the need for heavily-polluting landfills.

Apart from waste sorting stations, the country is also looking at ways to eliminate food wastage. For instance, it will sell food that are nearing their expiry dates at a discounted price, she says.

Supporting startups

Governments have a big role to play in supporting startups who can bring new ideas and solutions, Ylikangas says.

Singapore’s StartUpSG platform, for instance, has been integral in promoting climate innovation with funding and industry mentorship. Finland is also moving forward with their Climate Fund, which promotes new climate innovations with an emphasis on digitalisation.

The Finnish government has announced the Sustainable Growth Programme recently. This will focus on supporting the economy’s digitalisation and green transition to raise the employment rate and access to social services.

Finland is looking to decommission its coal power plants and shift to alternative power sources soon. There is room for collaboration in this aspect, Ylikangas says, noting Singapore’s developments on solar power. Finland is currently also exploring options for hydroelectric power.

There are many recipes for a carbon neutral future. Finland has turned to citizen engagement, a focus on the circular economy and supporting startups to give its flavour a twist.