Lessons from the city of Helsinki: three paradigm shifts in smart cities


Finland is now the happiest country in the world for seven years in a row, according to the United Nations’ World Happiness Report 2024. Finland also ranks #1 in the Digital Economy Society Index (DESI). And the country’s free world-class education system has earned the #1 rank in education by the 2020 World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report.

From 2018 to 2023, I had the privilege of serving as the Chief Digital Officer for the City of Helsinki. During my tenure, we embarked on an ambitious journey to transform Helsinki to the forefront of smart and sustainable urban development. Our guiding strategy was to make Helsinki “the most functional city in the world“, leveraging digitalisation to achieve our vision.

There are three mutually interdependent paradigm shifts all cities and municipalities need to master to build a thriving smart city. The first essential change is transitioning from a reactive to a proactive service delivery model. The second is shifting from outright exploitation of data to a human-centric use of data. Third, the city needs to evolve from an organisation-centric to a human-centric service organisation. Together, these paradigm shifts also build trust which is one of the foundations of a happy nation and a trust-based society.

Flipping the Service Delivery Model: Anticipating the Needs of Citizens

During my time at Sanoma, the leading Finnish multi-channel media company, and Yle, Finland’s national broadcasting company, we were experiencing the challenges of digital transformation and a declining youth audience for traditional news broadcasts. During that time, practically all media companies shifted from relying on viewers to tune in at specific times and instead focused on delivering personalised news directly to users via their favourite news app.

Essentially, the service (=news) delivery model was flipped. By leveraging user data and sending personalised notifications, we aimed to create a more engaging and relevant news experience. This user-centric and proactive approach inspired me to advocate for a similar model in the public sector. I was wondering if we can proactively or even automatically deliver services to citizens based on their needs and eligibility, potentially saving time, money and improving accessibility.

In 2021, we launched a program to offer pre-school placement for families with 6-year old children in Helsinki. We sent over 5,500 SMS messages to parents and simply asked them to type “A” to accept the offer or “B” to decline. The results were staggering. We received a 93% response rate and an acceptance rate of 89%. Prior to this program, families would need to wait two months for a response after completing various paper and online forms. The new approach took one minute to complete. We repeated it in 2022 with a 95% response rate and an 89% acceptance rate. Families provided a satisfaction rating of 4.32 out of 5.0, and comments like, “can it be this easy?”

This service was awarded the prize for the best user-centric service in Europe in 2022 by UserCentriCities.

Proactive city services become possible when several key conditions are met.

  • The city has all necessary (personal) data and information concerning the citizen’s likely service need.
  • The city has permission to use the data, e.g. consent given by a citizen.
  • There is a statutory obligation upon the city to provide a particular service.
  • A citizen qualifies for the service in question.
  • Lastly, proactive service provision should benefit both the citizen, such as time savings or health advantages, and the city, such as reduced operational costs.

First, the city needs access to relevant personal data that allows them to anticipate citizen needs. Citizens must have granted permission for their data to be used or there is another valid legal basis for data use, e.g. contract or public task. Additionally, the service being offered must fall under the city’s existing legal obligations. Providing services proactively should lead to mutual benefits for both residents (more convenient daily life through time savings or improved well-being) and the city itself (through potential cost reductions).

Human-centric Data Use: Empowering Individuals With Their Data

Europe already has the strongest privacy and security law in the world through General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that went into effect in 2018. But do people trust the city to use their data for their benefit and not for some nefarious purpose?

Numerous instances highlight how large social media platforms have misused our data. Additionally, the algorithms they employ to personalise content and services for us remain opaque, often described as “black boxes” due to their lack of transparency.

City of Helsinki operates under a democratic mandate that includes transparency and accountability. Respecting citizen’s rights and safety are the absolute keys to building trust, and this also applies to a city’s digital services and data use.

MyData is a human-centric approach to personal data management. We adopted these core principles in Helsinki. The core idea of MyData is to empower individuals with their personal data. Freely given consent for data use is a cornerstone of MyData principles.

You should have the right to grant or revoke access to your personal data. Additionally, you should be able to access your personal data in a portable format and reuse it for different purposes with your consent. This promotes data ownership and flexibility. Organisations collecting and using personal data should be transparent about their practices.

These principles aim to create a fair and balanced data ecosystem where individuals have more control over their personal information and organisations are held accountable for responsible data practices. The paradigm shift towards human-centered data use is essential in building trust.

A Human-Centered Service Organisation

Traditionally, city governments have operated with a top-down approach that favours an organisation-centric and siloed service delivery approach. Cities have often had limited resources and budgets and standardising services allowed cities to deliver essential services efficiently. Bureaucratic structures streamline processes and ensure consistent service delivery across different areas.

Historically, cities have not had access or capability to harness the vast amount of data and communication tools we have today. This made it difficult to understand and cater to the specific needs of diverse populations within a city, and citizens were often left to their own devices to find the services they need.

The city landscape has changed and diversity has increased in most cities. Citizens are becoming more vocal and demanding in their expectations from their local governments. The best digital services are only one click away and citizens also expect city services to be responsive, efficient, and personalised to their needs.

Advancements in technology and data analytics allow cities to collect and analyse data on citizen needs and preferences. This enables a more targeted and data-driven approach to service delivery.

Today, there is a greater focus on equity and inclusion. There is a growing emphasis on ensuring services are accessible and meet the needs of all residents, regardless of background or ability. This necessitates a more flexible and adaptable service design and delivery model.

The benefits as we experienced in Helsinki are clear. In addition to improved citizen satisfaction and loyalty, a human-centric service design boosts efficiency. By understanding the resident pains and gains, organisations can streamline their processes and eliminate unnecessary steps. Deeper and more meaningful connections between the city and its residents allow for more innovation and the ability to adapt and develop solutions that resonate with citizens. Organisations that fail to adopt a human-centered approach risk falling behind competitors who understand the value of prioritising their users and their varying needs.

Conclusion: Building Happiness And Trust Through Human-Centered Smart Cities

Helsinki’s journey to becoming the most functional city in the world wasn’t just about efficiency or technological prowess. It has been about shaping a city that prioritises the well-being of its residents, using data and digital technologies as tools to achieve this goal. This human-centric approach is a key factor contributing to trust and Finland’s consistent ranking as the happiest country in the world.

When cities prioritise and proactively address citizen needs embracing human-centric principles, they can create environments that not only function well but also nurture the happiness and well-being of their citizens. In essence, building smart cities that prioritise people is the key to unlocking a future where urban living fosters trust, innovation, and a sense of community.

Imagine your ideal smart city. What aspects of Helsinki’s approach resonate most with you? Would you prioritise a proactive service delivery model in your community? Why or why not? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments beneath this article’s original publication on LinkedIn (see link below)!

In my next article, I will unpack what it means to create an “anti-fragile” city and a trust-based society.

Mikko Rusama is a Digital Futurist and Managing Partner at Nexus Transform

Mikko originally published this article on LinkedIn on 8th April 2024

Feature Image: Sofiankatu street overlooking Cathedral © Jussi Hellsten/Helsinki Partners

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