Mikko Rusama

Digitalization builds better Helsinki

Helsinki has a bold vision of being a global city leader in digitalization. Helsinki is earnestly pursuing this vision and driving change, affirms Mikko Rusama, Chief Digital Officer for the City of Helsinki, who leads the digital transformation. “Digitalization will permeate all functions of the city,” he asserts.

“Digitalization is a megatrend that changes the world in front of our eyes,” Rusama declares. “Digitalization sneaks into our everyday routines, often invisibly.”

He explains what digitalization means for Helsinki and its citizens: “We don’t digitalize city functions for the sake of digitalization. Our purpose with digitalization is to build a better, increasingly functional city.”

What digitalization isn’t and is

“Although many manual tasks certainly can be automated, digitalization in Helsinki doesn’t mean robots replacing people. Neither is it our goal to have everybody use some particular app or website. We’ll still need and will have doctors, teachers and human contact,” Rusama asserts.

“Digitalization in the city is about making people’s everyday lives easier and increasing wellbeing. It means that services are available when people need them. Digitalization means personalized services and more choice.

“Digitalization should be human-centered, and digital solutions should be so user-friendly that services become invisible to their users. Take media services, retail sales or public transport: digitalization, artificial intelligence and automation are dramatically changing these sectors.

“Digitalization should make Helsinki a more egalitarian city. People should see what data exists about them and how it’s used.”

Rusama elaborates on the immense importance of digitalization for cities – why Helsinki and cities in general should go digital: “Cities in Finland have 500 different duties defined by the law and vastly more touchpoints to citizens than the State has. In order to manage those duties well and to improve, cities need the best partners and resources including digital tools. Helsinki’s digitalization process is also a big step for the rest of Finland.”

Anticipating needs

Digitalization enables Helsinki to shift from being reactive to proactive – to anticipate people’s needs.

Rusama explains, “For example, if there’s some routine task that everybody has to complete, why should people apply for it? Shouldn’t society be able to do it for them, such as a preschool application for a child? For the majority of people, a prefilled application with proposed preschool placement would be perfectly acceptable and save a great deal of time and effort.”

“Health and social services are another sector in which the change of paradigm from reactive to proactive would make a major impact for both individuals and society. If we can anticipate care and service needs, we can make huge advances,” Rusama continues.

“The need for improvement through proactive approaches is well illustrated by the fact that 10 percent of health and social service customers represent 80 percent of the total expenditure. Digitalization offers solutions,” he says.

Digitalization and e-services coordinator Anne Lindén at the City of Helsinki Social Services and Health Care Division gives an example of digitalization and proactive health care: “Half a million Finns suffer from pre-diabetes without knowing it. But with a new digital health benefit analysis being developed for Helsinki, the health system could catch those people and direct them to proper care before they develop diabetes.”

Digital health and social services with no digital divide

Digital health solutions in Helsinki include chatbots (artificial intelligence that converses with human users especially over the Internet). For example, mother and child clinics use the NeRo chatbot for questions related to mother and child health and wellbeing. If necessary, a chatbot can be followed up by a chat with a real person.

Digital technologies help provide virtual care in Helsinki. For example, home care customers are contacted and even provided physical therapy via tablets. Remote medical tests and virtual visits to a doctor are being tested.

Helsinki develops digital health and social service solutions with the help of customer input: feedback from customers guides development, to ensure that digital solutions truly meet people’s needs and capabilities.

Digital health solutions are widely accepted in Helsinki: 61 percent of public health care customers have agreed to the terms of e-services.

Nevertheless, Lindén raises the problem of digital exclusion – of people unable to use digital solutions or without access to information and communication technology. According to authoritative estimates, close to one million people in Finland are somehow challenged in the use of digital solutions. “Digital health will by no means leave them behind; in fact, digitalization can improve care for these customers,” she says.

“Digital solutions are available to those who want to and can use them,” Lindén emphasizes. “Digitalization frees staff to provide more care for those who need face-to-face contact and personal care.”

The city that makes the world’s best use of digitalization

The Helsinki City Strategy announces an ambitious goal for Helsinki: to become the city that makes the best use of digitalization in the world.

Rusama is not overwhelmed by the challenge. He’s convinced that Helsinki possesses the fundamentals to achieve the goal with the help of good collaboration with both public and private sector partners: “Helsinki is a well-functioning city, which has released a great deal of data as open data. Helsinki is an excellent test-bed for innovations. Helsinki is a leader in many digital services, such as the Whim mobility app, which is the world’s first application of the Mobility-as-a-Service concept. Robot buses and drones are being tested here.”

As further proof of Helsinki’s leadership, Helsinki was invited as the only European city to present at the Super City Smart City Forum held in connection with the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan in June 2019. Rusama presented Helsinki’s digitalization strategy.

“Helsinki is a highly respected city internationally,” Rusama affirms, bolstered by his findings from Osaka.

Caption: Helsinki’s Chief Digital Officer Mikko Rusama defines himself as a change leader. Rusama steers Helsinki towards its digital vision.

Text by Johanna Lemola 
Photo by Pertti Nisonen