Comment Blog 9 July, 2019

Do as the Finns do: Making ‘co-creation’ the norm

Last month other fellow think tankers and I had the privilege of going on a study visit organised by the Finnish Embassy. The trip was meant to showcase how the Finnish Government is harnessing technology to develop ‘smart cities’ for the future and realise its aim of achieving carbon neutrality by 2035. It was a content-packed three days with visits to three ‘smart cities’ and meetings with innovators, technology accelerators, energy providers and city leaders.

Finland remains true to its tradition of technological innovation. From Nokia Bell Labs combining 5G with cutting-edge sensor technology to reinvent the transport system, to Helsinki’s Smart Kalasatama implementing a smart waste management system; there are many examples of technology being implemented to improve cities. I was struck to learn that the Finns do not attribute their success to their ability to master and scale-up new technologies, but on creating an ‘innovation ecosystem’ that is underpinned by co-creation. Citizens are considered equal partners in designing services and integral to the success of Finland’s transformation strategy.

When it comes to co-creation, Finland is putting its money where its mouth is. There is a shared understanding that cities are responsible for creating a better future for everyone and that an open approach to co-creation is the only way to achieve this. In recent years, cities across Finland have been investing in testing a variety of methods for delivering value through co-creation. These efforts are now bearing fruit, with the City of Espoo becoming the first in the world to develop a co-created city strategy.

Over a decade ago, the city extended an open invitation to residents, business professionals and innovators to develop ‘The Espoo Story’, a strategic vision for an economically, ecologically and socially sustainable city. The purpose was not only creating a common vision but building a programme of work that could be owned and carried forward by multiple stakeholders. The Espoo Innovation Garden was set up to help start-ups and community groups bring their ideas to life by connecting them with research institutions, accelerators and investors.

The programme is built on the philosophy of experimentation and agile development to ensure that only the most promising and viable innovations move through to implementation. Finally, learnings and knowledge are systematically gathered and used to create practical tools and guidelines for delivering co-creation in practice. For instance, the “Make it with Espoo” project has developed a “toolkit” of methods and models to help government institutions, such as schools, re-design products and services with the private sector.

Work is now underway to develop a ‘co-creation stamp’ that certifies that a product or service has been designed in collaboration with all the relevant stakeholders. In the words of the programme’s Director, Paivi Sutinen, “this is not about procurement” but about ensuring that future services align with people’s needs and expectations.

A ‘co-creation by design’ model can only be achieved by removing ‘frictions’ to participation. When asked the question of “what happens if citizens don’t want to engage?” the unanimous response was: “it means that we are not working hard enough”. There is a recognition that meaningful and ongoing citizen participation hinges on creating multiple engagement strategies, but also on “making it easy” for local communities to engage with services. The Iso Omena Service Centre is a good example of how this can work in practice.

Set up on the top floor of a shopping mall, the centre provides social care, health and housing services as well as outlets for people to voice their concerns and give feedback. The centre is equipped with the latest technologies and digital services. Yet, the main reason behind its success is that services and support is delivered in places that people already visit.

Finland is starting to grapple with the challenges of engaging a diverse community. Responding to these changes will need investing time and money to ensure that co-creation strategies are updated and refreshed. This is not unattainable. The more difficult task is that of uniting industry, government and citizens around the need to co-create. It seems that in Finland part of this battle has already been won, with strong cross-sector and government support for people-driven services.

As highlighted by representatives from Helsinki’s innovation company, Forum Virium, getting to a point where you “tell people what you are doing, rather than what you have done” requires a shift in culture and ways of working. This shouldn’t be perceived as a burden, but as an essential step towards delivering high quality and future-proof services to all.