Follow the Data Podcast Episode 15: The Innovative Mayor, Jan Vapaavuori
The 15th episode of Follow the Data presents a conversation with Helsinki Mayor Jan Vapaavuori and James Anderson, who leads Government Innovation at Bloomberg Philanthropies. Mayor Vapaavuori is a former member of the Helsinki City Council and served in Finland’s Parliament for more than a decade.
The Mayor took office last June during Bloomberg Philanthropies’ work with Helsinki as part of an effort to help cities better determine the future of autonomous vehicles and harness the technology to address urban challenges. He is the first person to lead the city in the wake of a significant set of reforms to Helsinki’s organizational structure. Additionally, he has an ambitious goal: to make Helsinki the world’s “most functional city.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, the Mayor discusses how he works to encourage citizen-driven innovation; how Helsinki has embraced the idea of the city as a “test bed” – ensuring that companies and entrepreneurs can test their products with citizens; and his dedication to encouraging risk-taking in a city known for long-term planning.
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KATHERINE OLIVER: Welcome to Follow the Data, I’m your host, Katherine Oliver.
The episode features a conversation between the Mayor of Helsinki, Jan Vapaavuori and James Anderson who leads the Government Innovation program at Bloomberg Philanthropies, working with mayors in more than 270 cities around the world.
The Mayor took office last June during Bloomberg Philanthropies’ work with Helsinki as part of our effort to help cities better determine the future of autonomous vehicles and harness the technology to address urban challenges. Two things became clear as our partnership deepened: First, Helsinki’s desire to learn from other cities; and second, the wealth of knowledge that Helsinki also has to share.
The Mayor led a delegation to the United States, and we were thrilled to have him visit the foundation and share a little bit about what he and his team in city hall are working on.
In a wide-ranging conversation, the Mayor discusses how he works to encourage citizen-driven innovation; how Helsinki has embraced the idea of the city as a “test bed” – ensuring that companies and entrepreneurs can test their products with citizens; and his vision to make Helsinki the “world’s most functional city”.
So without further ado, Follow the Data presents: The Innovative Mayor with James Anderson.
JAMES ANDERSON: Jan Vapaavuori is the new mayor of one of the world’s most interesting cities , Helsinki. Having assumed office in June 2017, he is actually the first person to lead the city in the wake of a really significant set of reforms to Helsinki’s organizational structure. These changes were designed to put citizens at the center of local governments decision-making, and allow Helsinki to become the worlds “most functional city”. Mayor Vapaavuori is a former member of the Helsinki city council and served in Finland’s parliament for more than a decade. Since he took over the reins in city hall he has been aggressively working to connect Helsinki to the world of cities and urban ideas, to learn from other cities and also share Helsinki’s unique knowledge and insights – I am so excited to have him as my guest – Mayor, welcome to the Innovative Mayor.
We are absolutely delighted to have you here at Bloomberg Philanthropies today.
MAYOR JAN VAPAAVUORI: My pleasure. Thank you.
ANDERSON: Great to chat with you a little bit about all of the new things that you are rolling out in Helsinki. Last Spring, Helsinki released a new strategy, and the goal is an ambitious one; to become the world’s most functional government, which sounds incredible. Can you tell us a little bit more about that vision, and what do you think it will mean for citizens and your city?
MAYOR VAPAAVUORI: Our mission is to become the most functional city, and of course, in order to make that happen, we need to have quite functional government as well. But the ultimate goal is to be a functional, good city. According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, cities actually exist for the sake of good life. And I happen to know that Michael Bloomberg has also used this quote. Then, the role of the city is to make the lives of the people as easy and pleasant as possible.
For me, being a functional city means that, if a tram is planned to come at 2:02, it comes at 2:02. It means that if you need to see a doctor, you get a time. It means that your way to the school is safe and everything like this. We actually have a new neighborhood, which we are building, called Fish Port in English, where one of our aims is to save an hour of each individual’s time each and every day.
I think if you have a functional city, it’s pleasant, and it releases the energy for the individuals from practical issues to enjoy their life. Then, I also think about—it’s actually a good business and economic policy. I even dare to say that being a functional, reliable, predictable city in today’s unstable world may even become luxury.
ANDERSON: Terrific. You’ve been in the role of mayor now for a little more than?
MAYOR VAPAAVUORI: Seven months.
ANDERSON: Seven months; where do you think are the greatest opportunities for growth in your journey towards being the most functional city?
MAYOR VAPAAVUORI: We were suffering from having too many independent silos, and that is something which we tried to break. We in Helsinki are very good in long-term planning and taking our time and doing our homework properly and planning and then doing it. And then in five or ten or fifteen years’ time, we see good results.
But we are not that good in addressing risk, in taking quick actions, in being agile, and that is something which I think that we need in today’s world, especially as far as technology is concerned. The speed is just that rapid in today’s world, that if we spend months and years in planning how we adopt some new technologies, we may be even old fashioned when we are ready there.
ANDERSON: So, two issues that you’ve zeroed in on; the first is working across agencies, across departments, across silos to produce better results for citizens; and secondly, becoming more agile and responsive. What do you see as your role in facilitating those transformations? What levers are you pushing, and what’s your job in moving your city forward?
MAYOR VAPAAVUORI: I think my role is to show example; my role is to encourage the people. My role is to empower our own staff. I think my role is also to take care that not only the leading civil servants, but the whole staff is very educated and trained, and that they, for example, have a good understanding of the technological revolution which is going on. I also think that Finland and Helsinki is not that well-known of addressing risk, and I try to encourage them to take more risks, and I promise to defend them then if something goes wrong.
Then I think that my role is also to execute of course. As a strong leader, you need also to execute, my task is to force different agencies to cooperate if that does not take place otherwise.
ANDERSON: So, one of the things you observe when you go to Helsinki is, there’s a real prominence placed on the notion of citizen-driven innovation, and there seems to be a real respect for citizen-driven innovation, and government has an interesting relationship to citizen-driven innovation.
In American cities, sometimes government responds with a regulatory response, and I’m thinking a little bit about Restaurant Day in Helsinki. Slush, which I had the benefit of participating in this year. Can you talk a little bit about how you promote citizen-driven innovation, and how you balance the desire of citizens to act with the regulatory response of government?
MAYOR VAPAAVUORI: I think that the final success of a city consists of all measures taken, all innovations made by anyone in the city. We have 40,000 employees, but we have 640,000 inhabitants; a lot of good companies, a lot of good NGOs, a lot of domestic and foreign companies, and so on. And in order to maximize the success of a city, we should try whatever we can to release all the energy and creativeness, which you have in the city, wherever it’s located. And that’s why you should make it as easy as possible for anyone to come with good ideas.
The Restaurant Day is actually a quite good example, because it was born from the frustration of quite strict regulation concerning restaurants. And then the founders decided that if they go out and have a Pop-Up Restaurant Day for only one day, the authorities do not have time to react, and it became a big success. And then what I think is strength of our government and our authorities is that they actually found out that this was just great.
And now we are encouraging those kinds of new initiatives. We also have a Cleaning Day; we have a Sauna Day. I think that we have actually four Restaurant Days a year, and so on. But I think the main philosophy is that we should avoid thinking that all the wisdom lies in bureaucracy itself, because that’s definitely not true.
ANDERSON: Perhaps better than any other city, Helsinki has also embraced this idea of the city as a test-bed. The city is a platform. And your new strategy speaks to this a lot. That’s whether you’re testing new ways to teach students, or determine the future of AVs. Can you tell me a little bit more about how you’re thinking of the city as a platform and enabling entrepreneurs and industry to test new products oftentimes in partnership with citizens?
MAYOR VAPAAVUORI: To give one example, the air quality in Helsinki is actually excellent, but despite of that fact, we have started a project where we put up a network of sensors which monitor the air quality in the city, covering the whole city. And then we invite any public sector, any private sector, domestic or foreign company to take use of this information we can provide. Beijing, the capital of China, is a close sister city for us.
They are really suffering from the air quality issue, and we think that system we are operating in Helsinki could help even them. But creating a platform and inviting anyone to take use of that—it’s maybe the idea behind that. Then, we also think that we should use the entire city as a platform, for example: schools. I think that we get better equipped kids if they are not sitting in the classroom for the whole day, but they are walking around with their teachers to different places in the city, experiencing what real life is, and then through real-world examples trying to learn what’s going on and what kind of world we are living in.
Helsinki Mayor Jan Vapaavuori greeting guests at the city’s Independence Day party for fourth graders.
ANDERSON: So that the testing and the product development work that’s happening is incorporated into the learning and a part of the student’s experience, and you see that as an asset within education?
MAYOR VAPAAVUORI: Definitely, definitely. I mean, people learn better through concrete examples, by experiencing some themselves.
ANDERSON: Great. At the Bloomberg Foundation, we talk about a set of core capabilities that we think are really important for any city that wants to be increasingly innovative and perform at a higher level. We talk about boldness in terms of vision—always raising the expectations and the sights of civil servants and of citizens around what to expect from public services; the creative use of data, the capacity to test, to learn, and to adapt; the ability to partner and to work across sectors, and the capacity to engage citizens and to involve citizens in the development of new solutions, policies, and programs. Where do you think Helsinki is strong against those five capacities, and where do you think Helsinki has room for growth?
MAYOR VAPAAVUORI: We have definitely room for growth concerning boldness. We may take even radical actions every now and then, but after, a long planning phase, after studying the case for maybe months or years, we are a little bit risk-averse. And there, I think we have a lot of room for improvement, that we need to be more bold; we need to be more courageous. And there — I actually see the role of the mayor, myself, as especially strong, that if you don’t see the mayor as a bold guy, you don’t encourage the other ones to be bold either, so you need to show example.
Otherwise, I think that we are quite strong in all the other aspects. Collaboration is like part of our DNA. We’re a small nation; we have from the very beginning understood that low hierarchies, low barriers between the private sector, public sector, NGOs, research institutions are for the benefit of the city. It’s very easy to cooperate across these kinds of borders, and I think also that citizen engagement is something where we are way ahead of at least most parts of the world.
Also, due to quite pragmatic reasons originally, we think that we need the help of all of our citizens in order to build a good city together, and then we also found out that, that is the best way to build trust. First of all, to be transparent as possible, but also giving everyone a chance to influence their own neighborhood. And not only their own neighborhood, but also the whole city—brings that kind of trust, which is, I think, basis for very many good things in today’s world.
ANDERSON: So, speaking of boldness, I learned a lot in my last trip to Helsinki about the very significant organizational shift that you all facilitated over the past period of time, where, if I understand correctly, you went from 38 functional units and departments to four sort of major divisions. And the idea is that this is sort of central to your becoming the most functional city and putting citizens at the center.
MAYOR VAPAAVUORI: Absolutely.
ANDERSON: Can you talk a little bit more about the organizational change, and what you see are the great opportunities and challenges in optimizing that new organizational structure to benefit your citizens?
MAYOR VAPAAVUORI: I think one of our strengths is that we have a comprehensive systemic approach to most things; that we understand that the world is a complicated place, and whatsoever project you have, it has several dimensions. And we are quite good in taking all these dimensions into account, but in an organization where you have too independent and too many independent silos, that coordination process takes ages.
I think that instead of sending letters and emails and getting comments on the drafts put up from another agency, we need an organization where the coordination process is smoother and cleaner; leaner and more streamlined. But it’s of course also a cultural issue. It takes some time. We are not expecting a revolution to take place overnight; it’s a gradual process. But then at the same time, you have to be quite strict, that you have to follow the process and the everyday work, and if it doesn’t work, then you have to take actions in order to also smoothly force people to talk to each other and understanding that all the wisdom is not lying in my agency.
ANDERSON: One of the things you said today is that you feel a lot of urgency around facilitating change, and you talked specifically about climate, and that we are running out of time to solve the climate crisis. And I know that Helsinki has been a leader, and has continued to raise the bar of expectations within the city. Can you talk a little bit about where you’re going next in terms of carbon and climate and continuing to push?
MAYOR VAPAAVUORI: I used to say that it’s so easy to put some goals and targets to 2050 or 2060 or something like that. None of us responsible of today’s actions will be responsible at that time anymore, so you need to have more concrete goals which are not that far in the future. And our new goal is that we want to cut emissions by 60% by 2030 and be carbon-neutral, which in actual terms means that we cut them by 80% until 2035. And we are at the moment working on a concrete action program to make that happen. I think sometimes in Helsinki, we are not that good in making that ambitious plans than some other cities, but at the same time, it’s like part of our DNA that, if we set up a plan, then we’re also going to fulfill it. If we give a promise, you can count on us. I think it’s important that cities like Helsinki show the example, but I’m also convinced that the forerunner cities create huge opportunities for the business sector, because sooner or later all the world will follow, and then those who have made the first steps have a competitive edge.
ANDERSON: One of the things that I think has really marked your time in office is the interest that you have shown in reaching out to international city organizations to learn about best practices, to network with your peers in other places. Can you talk a little bit about where that comes from and why you have felt that that’s important for yourself, for your mayoralty, and for Helsinki?
MAYOR VAPAAVUORI: We are witnessing a rise of cities, which I know that Michael Bloomberg has talked a lot about. And the reality is that we see big differences in countries between cities and the countryside. In today’s world, I think that the city of Helsinki has much more to learn from the city of Stockholm or Copenhagen or New York or Beijing than smaller cities, actually, in Finland.
Mayor Vapaavuori at a meeting of internationally focused start-up companies in Beijing
The problems and challenges are just that huge, so whatever your size is, whatever your resources is, no one can solve the problems alone. And then in most cases, there are always some city who has already invented something that you’re working on. In the history, nation states used to find and create platforms for their cooperation.
It’s just natural that cities are doing the same today, where the role of the cities is that they actually, gradually are – – taking over the responsibilities the nation states used to stand for. And of course, I think that we have to contribute. We have something to contribute to the rest of the world, and we have a lot to learn from the cities in the world, and that’s why I think it’s just my responsibility to do that.
ANDERSON: So Mayor, you’ve just spent a week in the United States; a couple days out in Silicon Valley, a couple days here in New York. Are there any ideas that sort of stand apart, and that you plan to bring back with you to Helsinki?
MAYOR VAPAAVUORI: Several, actually; a huge number of them. But just to mention one, I think that one of our biggest strengths in Helsinki is our comprehensive long-term planning, which means that in the medium or long-term, we are quite capable in achieving good results.
But then your strengths in U.S. to understand the short-term gains—you need to get and also to convince your public that you’re doing the right things. And actually, I think we have something to learn from each other, because I think the right way to go forward is some kind of mix of short-term gains combined with then some long-term systemic changes, which then really benefit the nation and the city.
ANDERSON: That’s terrific, and now you sound like Mike Bloomberg.
MAYOR VAPAAVUORI: Even better.
ANDERSON: That’s a terrific note to end on. Thank you so much for joining us.
MAYOR VAPAAVUORI: Thank you. My pleasure.
OLIVER: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Follow the Data.
Many thanks to the Mayor for joining us.
If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to Follow the Data podcast. This episode was produced by Electra Colevas, Christian Nwachukwu Jr., Ivy Li, music by Mark Piro, special thanks to David Sucherman.
As our founder Mike Bloomberg says, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. So until next time, keep following the data.
I’m Katherine Oliver, thanks for listening.