HELSINKI/DESIGNING THE FUTURE. When the international magazine Monocle, a barometer of coolness, names Helsinki as one of the top five cities in the world the live in it’s a sign of the dramatic changes the Finnish capital has gone through.
Go back to the early 90’s and the image of the city was people lining up at soup kitchens for a free meal as Finland suffered through a deep economic crisis with a whopping 20 percent unemployment rate.
That’s when things began to change. City authorities forged a strategy where the strong Finnish traditions in design would be used as a lever to raise the city from the economic ruins.
Now Helsinki is getting ready to be World Design Capital (WDC) in 2012 and the international media is already focusing attention on this Finnish miracle (Monocle was said to be in town when I visited Helsinki last week).
“In 1994 the city decided on a strategy where creativity and culture would be worked into the city brand. Something new came into our thinking. And it has simply continued since then”, says Pekka Timonen, the City’s Director of Culture who now heads preparations for WDC 2012.
“Branding can sometimes be seen as controversial. But we have quite openly said that we aim to be one of the leading design cities of the world, and not only when we are World Design Capital but also after that year”, says Timonen.
Being World Design Capital is not an award, but a designation for a city chosen by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design biennially. Helsinki will be the third WDC, after Turin (2008) and Seoul (2010).
Pekka Timonen already has a busy schedule, not only with Helsinki’s own preparations but also with visiting delegations from cities that want to learn from the Finnish capital. Beijing and Kobe are just two of those, with their own ambitions to be chosen design capitals.
Visitors to Helsinki enjoy classic design products from companies like Iittala (glass), Arabia (china) and Marimekko (textiles), mobile phones from Nokia or architecture by giants like Alvar Aalto.
A part of the capital with plenty of small, independent shops now calls itself Design District Helsinki.
“The Design District is a grass roots movement”, says Timonen, and mentions it as one example of how the WDC-designatiion “didn’t come out of nowhere”.
Many leading Finnish companies, like Nokia, depend on good design for their success. And design is very much part of daily life in Finland. The theme for Helsinki’s bid for the WDC was “embedding design in life”.
“One reason why we were chosen was that we have a long background and tradition as a design city. Another was that design is so much a part of our identity. We have a way of finding sustainable, aesthetic, enjoyable and high quality solutions from often scarce and poor sources”, says Pekka Timonen (left).
“And this is not so easy to copy.”
But Finnish design is not only about a beautiful vase or a slick mobile phone. Helsinki has what Timonen calls a “holistic approach” towards design. Everything from a major urban development project to the little doorknob can be improved through design.
“Design is about creating a better city for the end user. There are design challenges everywhere. Traffic solutions, energy solutions and many other functions can be improved by design”, says Timonen.
In my following reports from Helsinki we will see how design has played an important role in Helsinki’s urban development.
This city with some 600,000 inhabitants is small by international standards. The extended metropolitan region has a population of about 1.3 million. Neighbouring cities Espoo, Vantaa, Kauniainen and Lahti share the WDC-designation with Helsinki.
The region has experienced a dramatic geopolitical change that came when the Soviet empire crumbled in the early 90’s. All of a sudden Finland wasn’t an isolated island between east and west, carefully watched by the rulers in the Kremlin.
New markets opened up in the independent Baltic States, with Estonian capital Tallinn just a two hour ferry ride from Helsinki. And the Finnish capital became a gateway to the east. The national airline Finnair’s excellent connections to the booming urban giants of the Far East have become a success.
And these developments are far from over. By the end of this year, Helsinki will get a new high speed train connection with St. Petersburg in Russia. Travel time will be cut to three and a half hours, down from nearly six hours today, and formalities will be eased.
This is set to become another boost for Helsinki’s economy. St. Petersburg is the often forgotten sleeping giant of Europe, with nearly 5 million inhabitants the fourth largest city on the continent.
Pekka Timonen underlines that being World Design Capital 2012 will not be seen as a celebration of what Helsinki has achieved, but rather as a beginning of a new era.
“This designation is not only about what you are, but what you are capable of becoming. This is an operation for the future.”
This is the first in a series of reports from Helsinki. In the following stories we will look at ongoing and planned urban development on a massive scale.