From cholera to digital economy – making Helsinki Europe’s hottest startup hub

I attended the panel discussion in the GovTech Summit at the Paris City Hall on 12.11.2018. I held the following “firestarter” in the panel discussion ”The road to scale” focusing on the following questions: Are leading innovations from smaller companies the critical catalyst for making the Smart City vision a reality? How do we successfully scale such innovations?”

170 years ago Helsinki was quite a different  city than today. Under the Russian empire, Helsinki with only 20 000 residents was facing a serious problem. Cholera epidemic struck to the city and Helsinki was forced to build its first hospital year 1866.

1870’s Helsinki started to grow rapidly thanks to industrial revolution and new railway track from St. Petersburg to Helsinki. A bigger hospital, named Maria, started its operations year 1886 and operated until the recent years.


Maria hospital in the early 1900’s. Source: HS Arkisto

Today this hospital is still in use, as a startup hub. The Maria 01 startup hub was founded 2 years ago and it is now home to over 130 operators, employing 800 people.

Digitalization is too often seen as a threat – like a cholera epidemic  back in the days. There are fears of losing jobs, global players taking all business, AI taking over control etc.

Helsinki’s  aim is to be the best city in the world in the use of digitalization. We believe Helsinki is big enough city to develop and test innovations, and small enough for it to be feasible in practice.

With the success of Maria01, the plan is to build a new growth campus next to the old Maria01. By 2021 it will be one of Europe’s biggest innovation hubs.  The aim is to attract about 650 new operators and at least 4,000 new jobs  to the area.

I started my job as the first Chief Digital Officer at the City of Helsinki  100 days ago. City is an innovation platform, and there are at least 4 things to scale innovations:

  • Education – Provide excellent education to ensure people understand and utilise the possibilities of digitalisation. Finnish education system is providing equal opportunities to high-quality education. To start, take a free course on AI 
  • Infrastructure –  We need to provide excellent infrastructure like mobile networks and affordable spaces to bring the ecosystem players physically together like Maria01 is doing.
  • Data –  We need to provide data for the ecosystem. Helsinki is one of the leading cities in opening up the data, check  Helsinki Region Info Share or MyHelsinki APIs.
  • Trust – Lastly we need to foster the culture of innovation that is based on trust. Trust is the key ingredient in creating environment for innovation. Trust is created by being open and transparent, and engaging citizens in the decision making.

Welcome to Helsinki to check Maria01 and other interesting success stories from the startup scene. Let’s meet at Slush on December 4-5!


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