Jan Vapaavuori was the mayor of Helsinki 2017-2021, currently Member of the Global Future Council on Cities of Tomorrow at World Economic Forum and Board Member and Senior Advisor at Miltton, a consultancy.
Helsinki Energy Challenge
More than half of Helsinki’s heat is produced by coal. Yes, a Nordic city in 2021 is still running on a highly polluting fossil fuel. In this decade of climate action, we need decisive steps and we need them fast. Cities globally give 70% of CO2 emissions. Helsinki aims to become carbon neutral by 2030. Time is ticking. What would you do?
Helsinki didn’t know and asked around. Yes, that’s correct. The municipality of Helsinki launched a global one-million-euro challenge competition to answer the question: How can we decarbonise the heating of Helsinki, using as little biomass as possible?
How to replace coal in a decade?
The competition attracted 252 proposals from teams based in 35 countries. Four winners were chosen and work is underway to implement them. A colourful, if not to say fantastical example, is Helsinki’s Hot Heart is a system that uses seawater heat pumps to convert primarily carbon-free electrical energy into heat. It helps decarbonize the Helsinki district heating system while providing a beneficial balancing effect on the national grid of Finland—so that even more renewables can be used in the future. Four cylinders of Helsinki’s Hot Heart, covered with tropical forests and year-long hot pools under an inflatable structure, will create a new, global attraction for the city. Such an attraction would embody an ideal life familiar to Finnish culture: island, nature, and ‘Jokamiehen Oikeudet’ – albeit transposed into a tropical and sunny climate. Helsinki’s Hot Heart could become a model for cities around the world – cementing Helsinki as a city that always pushes the boundaries of innovation and ingenuity.
The result is Helsinki being on track to meet its climate neutrality goal by 2030.
How was this done?
With a mix of vision, a sense of urgency, boldness, a touch of Nordic modesty and classic Finnish straight-forwardness, a city government was able to ask an open question from the best brains on the planet. Asking an open question among individuals can perhaps be an issue of confidence (or lack thereof), but in the case of public sector organisations, it is a nitty-gritty issue of how to organise public procurements and use public funding in a legally sound way. In the quest for innovation, it is vital to get past such hurdles, no matter how kafkaesque or impossible they may seem. “Governments never learn. Only people learn” said Milton Friedman, an influential 20th century economist. Helsinki’s chosen solution can offer inspiration to many other cities, despite their size or location. Achieving such results begin with the process.
Jan will talk about how an innovative mindset helps to create revolutionary testbeds for sustainable cities.