The Kalasatama district of Helsinki is gaining a reputation as an forward-looking  residential area in which conventions have been replaced with experiments. However, at the centre of the test laboratory of the future are the residents.

The sky is difficult to tell apart from the sea, as the scenery opening from the indoor garden of the Kotisatama senior house is obstructed by the typically grey Helsinki winter. Marjut Helminen is watering flowers and gesturing towards the shore.

“We residents have asked the City for a flag tower so that we could see how hard the wind is blowing and from what direction. We could place Kalasatama’s own banner at the top,” Helminen says enthusiastically.  

Helminen’s sentence encapsulates the emerging spirit of this new community. When work began to build one of Helsinki’s largest residential areas in the old harbour and industrial area in the early 2010s, it soon became  clear that the implementation of the project would have to support the City’s later-defined ambitious plan to become carbon-neutral by 2035 – around the same time that the overall construction of Kalasatama has been calculated to reach completion. At the same time, Kalasatama began to be referred to as a smart city district and an innovation platform for urban innovations and new housing solutions. 

In practice, this meant that the City welcomed companies, start-ups and other innovators to Kalasatama to try out and implement different new technological solutions. The streets have served as testing grounds for self-driving buses, while the shopping centre has housed an experiment for a robot that delivered food orders to the residents of an adjacent apartment building, just to mention some of the pilots and experiments. Expert groups from all over the world have come to see the smart grid, the energy-efficient building  automation and the underground pipe system for collecting waste. Professionals brought the media and smart city tourists in their wake. 

How visible is all this in the cityscape of Kalasatama today? Not very, as the smartness of Kalasatama is still hiding behind the scenes.

Residents contribute to  housing quality

The concept of a smart city is quite obscure to many. In simple terms, the concept has to do with using various – often digital – inventions in an attempt to collect and share information and data that can be used for creating new services, increasing people’s opportunities for participation, decreasing unnecessary consumption and thus securing a better and more environmentally friendly everyday life. As such, a smart city can be built in an incredibly large number of ways. Marjut Helminen did it by immersing herself in a four-year-long intensive co-building process that brought together people ready to put themselves on the line in order to ensure that they would receive the kind of housing that they wanted.  

The senior house was among the first residential buildings completed in Kalasatama. Helminen was already closely acquainted with all residents of the building when they were bringing in their moving boxes. 

“It was strange but wonderful. We left the boxes where they were, went to the rooftop terrace and opened a bottle of bubbly. We were excited about the opportunity to have better housing,” Helminen recounts.

Once a month, the future residents gathered in various working groups to take care of matters such as planning the common facilities and the details of their own apartments with an architect.

Although the Kotisatama building has more technical features than conventional senior homes, the housing quality was guaranteed by the residents themselves. For example, the budget for the furnishings, information technology and audio equipment of the common facilities was €200,000. When it was time to choose chairs for the dining hall, the residents got together to browse through options from 80 manufacturers. Only one model was liked unanimously. 

“Of course, we chose that chair. We’re still very pleased with it.”

“Although this is a Hitas building, there are few differences to more expensive apartments in the area because the people were given the responsibility. We deliberately built an organisation in which we strive to avoid a two-tier system. There was no small core group to drag everyone else along and then get criticised afterwards,” Helminen concludes.

The Kalasatama smart city district in Helsinki looks very much like an ordinary urban residential area. The smartness lies in a communal construction method, innovative housing services and participatory experiments organised in the area. 

Kalasatama grows through experiments

Since the very beginning, Kalasatama has served as a real-life testbed and living lab for smart and functional everyday life, involving a large number of businesses, researchers and residents. This has generated global interest. In an article by New York Times, former US Ambassador to Finland Bruce Oreck commented that something unique is happening in Helsinki: “Helsinki is a city full of people waiting for the revolution. They really want to make the world a better place, and they’re trying to lead by example. Which is a paradox, because Finns are decidedly not showy people.”  

Programme Director of the Smart Kalasatama project Kerkko Vanhanen from the City of Helsinki’s innovation company Forum Virium recognises the interest bubbling around the subject.  

“Finland has been on a strong rising trajectory for years now, and the construction of Kalasatama has been part of this narrative. The positive tone is valuable.”

“All this would not have been possible without the decision-makers of Helsinki having the exceptional courage to select an ordinary extension of the inner city as an oasis for experiments. Usually, such exploratory  projects  are organised in less central locations,” comments Vanhanen, adding that the success of the urban image of Kalasatama is partly due to visitors and the media. That is why visitors are currently served by trained, multilingual smart city guides.

A non-profit organisation, Forum Virium has organised various co-creation activities and pilots to test and develop new services in the Kalasatama area over the last six years in the Smart Kalasatama project. Agile pilots provide immediate feedback on services still in development to both customers using them and businesses providing them. 

“However, there must be enough demand in order for advanced services to create actual service business activities. The population of Kalasatama must continue to increase and operators must be able to scale their solutions to other city districts as well in order for businesses to have the courage to make bigger investments,” Vanhanen clarifies.

But this is the very essence of smart city development. Visions must be complemented with a healthy dose of realism. It must be accepted that development takes a long time. And when an innovation is being adapted to an actual operating environment, everything can suddenly become complicated. A promising invention can serve a large portion of the population flawlessly, yet not be suitable for people such as those with reduced mobility. However, the goal of public operations is always for innovations to serve the entire population as they develop.

“When building a new, better world, we have to accept that things can’t be reformed just like that in a jiffy. In addition to quickness, innovation operations also require critical weighing of things, a long-term approach and persistence. We must keep in mind who it is that we’re doing this development work for: ordinary residents,” Vanhanen points out.

Research opened eyes to possibilities in the local environment

More than one thousand of the roughly 7,000 current residents of Kalasatama have participated in pilots organised by Forum Virium. One such person is Tiina Haajanen, who found out about the pilots on Facebook. She signed up immediately.

“I’ve always been curious to test new things, so the decision to get involved in developing my own living environment felt natural. I want my voice to be heard in matters that affect me so closely,” Haajanen says.

Haajanen had participated in various pilots before, so it was easy for her to take part in a resident survey and slightly under two-month long deep dive research. 

“A couple of months can feel like a long time, especially when there were weekly meetings with all kinds of assignments in between. But the whole thing was implemented so well that it didn’t interfere with my daily routines in any way,” Haajanen says.

Haajanen’s home in Kalasatama is very much suited to its technologically inclined owner. The readings of the apartment-specific water gauge can be monitored via a screen that displays water consumption in the selected period. Haajanen also monitors her electricity consumption socket-specifically on her phone. She uses a mobile app to activate or deactivate sockets and group them. 

“If I’m away for a long time, I switch my home to a travel setting. If a socket were to come on during that time, I would receive a notification. I can also heat up my sauna with a tap of the app.”

There is a switch by Haajanen’s front door that she can use to simultaneously turn off all sockets except the one into which her refrigerator is plugged.

“I no longer have to worry whether I left the coffee machine on,” she says with a chuckle.

The monitoring period challenged Haajanen to look at her local environment from new perspectives. 

 “When you think about your attitude towards different things more consciously, their significance increases. For example, I might have not even noticed the street art in the area before, but now I appreciate it greatly. Without taking part in the survey, I wouldn’t have also known that there are allotment gardens available for leasing.”

“I tried the robot bus and I came across the food robot as it was making its way through the corridors of the shopping centre. They are such great services that I could see myself moving here just for them. Too bad they’re not yet part of Kalasatama’s basic utilities,” Haajanen bemoans.

The survey period also inspired other residents of the area to think about how the neighbourhood could benefit from various coordinated services.

“We’ve joined forces to think about acquiring a shared-use car and things such as ordering food for the entire building at once, but we always stumble into some responsibility questions right at the start. We’d like to have information about how other housing companies have done these things, but who is in charge of collecting and distributing information at city level, for example? It could be that no one is in charge yet, as this whole operating mode is so new,” Haajanen ponders.

To Hanna Kinnunen, who has moved to Kalasatama from Turku, the best thing about the area is its location.

“I live in the inner city, but not in the city centre, so I can also have some peace and quiet. However, there are perfect traffic connections for attending activities in the inner city,” Kinnunen lists.

Her and her husband’s workplaces in Kallio and Herttoniemi are only a short distance away from Kalasatama. The sea is right there, and housing luxury is provided by aspects such as being able to go to the garage from the apartment with dry feet, being able to use the lift even when holding grocery bags in both hands and every kind of household waste having its own sorting bin. 

However, the area is still a work in progress and looking for its own identity. A certain kind of roughness and distinctiveness would increase living comfort, but those things are established over time, Haajanen and Kinnunen conclude.

A bolder approach to co-creation by municipalities

Chair of the Austrian Research Promotion Agency FFG’s innovation programme board Margit Noll is working at the core of European smart city development.

“A decade ago, the focus was almost exclusively on technology and traffic, but the concept of a smart city has since deepened. Today, it covers almost everything that can be used to improve people’s quality of life. In some countries, the effects of climate change on people’s everyday life have been internalised well, which steers the planning of smart environments starting from grassroots level. Finland has expertise on this,” Noll says. 

However, Noll calls for cities and municipalities to make bolder openings in development work. When cities assume an active role in improving their own environment, the focus is kept on the right things. Noll says that there is extensive understanding regarding the subject, but the challenge lies in activation – not knowing where or how to start.

“Information distribution is important. We must make room for new innovations, approach them fearlessly and let everyone participate with a low threshold. The best results are often achieved through flexibility and participation,” Noll says and mentions the Six City Strategy shared by six Finnish cities as a good example. The strategy is an extensive programme  consisting of dozens of sustainable urban development projects and in which the six participating cities, Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa, Tampere, Turku and Oulu, are solving development challenges in co-operation with each other and residents, businesses and research institutions. The spearhead projects have promoted the development of the Finnish smart city model, such as the opening and utilisation of data and the development of services in a genuine urban environment. 

In fact, the Kalasatama smart city district was created as part of the 6Aika collaboration between the six cities, and, for example, the method of carrying out agile pilots developed in the area is now being used extensively in Finland. 

 “It would be good to see such co-operation models become more common across Europe. Perhaps co-creation should be taught already at comprehensive schools,” Noll muses.

In a smart city, intelligence becomes wisdom

We are getting closer to an everyday life in which robot buses respond to our transport requests on a mobile app and we can see drones transporting doctors and medical supplies above our rooftops. However, in the future, such high-flying ideas will need more and more communal work in order to be realised.

Because of this, the best practices of the Kalasatama smart city district are being exported to other residential areas in Helsinki as well. Helsinki Innovation Districts, a new project launched in January, will involve starting various development projects in Malmi, Pasila, Malminkartano-Kannelmäki and Mellunkylä. 

The city’s old districts hold great potential in terms of achieving climate impacts. Co-creation also makes it easier for businesses to identify the business potential of development areas, whereby the business activities of different areas can be developed faster. At the same time, the project improves the living comfort, safety and vitality of the areas.

 Kerkko Vanhanen applauds the co-operation spirit that has taken form in Helsinki. In fact, he has coined the term ‘Kalasatama attitude’.

“With the different phases of the Kalasatama project, we have noticed that the red-tape-bound Finland we know is becoming a thing of the past. Finns have adopted a new, highly resource-wise way of thinking and doing things. We are among the best in the world in terms of utilising available data. We can visualise relations and meanings and draw conclusions based on those visualisations. First and foremost, data forms the basis for future information. Intelligence means understanding, but wisdom means intelligence brought to the humane level,” Vanhanen muses.

In this light, a smart city can be defined as a place in which individuals make wise choices. Director of the Kalasatama project Hannu Asikainen from the City Executive Office concurs with Vanhanen.

“When this smart construction model clause was introduced into the City’s strategy programme at the beginning of the previous decade, even I didn’t really know what it actually entailed. Along the way, we’ve begun to understand that it’s about a lot more than just engineering know-how.” 

The most intense construction phase of the Kalasatama project involved holding clinics that were attended in a good co-operation spirit by the construction industry, the public sector, residents and representatives of all sorts of other fields. 

“These encounters have left an impression on me as some of the best results of our work thus far,” Asikainen comments and concludes by looking fifteen years into the future, by which time Kalasatama is estimated to be home to more than 30,000 people.

 “I hope that the district will be populated by happy people who have it so good here that they don’t necessarily ever have to travel too far from here.”

Text: Cilla Mattheizen
Photo: City of Helsinki

Further information

Maija Bergström

Project Manager


#fiksukalasatama #virtuaalivehreä
Mobile: +358 40 766 1415
maija.bergstrom(at)forumvirium.fi

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