“Why Silicon Valley when you can be like Moominvalley” – We must bring people to the heart of smart city thinking

Over the last decade, people have become fascinated by smart cities and how technology can help make cities better places to live. The world’s leading smart city models, the so-called Chinese and Silicon Valley models, have been criticised for increasing public surveillance and the power of global tech companies. In collaboration with the four largest cities of Finland – Espoo, Helsinki, Tampere, and Vantaa – the independent think tank Demos Helsinki created a report about the smart-city model that puts People First. 

Digital technology is associated with Finnish cities, their services, and residents in many ways: whether it is about public transport, studying, health care, or citizen participation, digitalisation is involved in everything. Recently, there has also been a lot of media discussion around an application for tracking coronavirus contacts in cities.

While numerous smartphone applications have made people’s daily lives easier, the disadvantages of technology have been emphasised.

– In China, citizens are monitored through applications, and the major tech companies in Silicon Valley control an enormous amount of data of the city residents. Why could people not have more power over their data and better opportunities to influence through it?” asks Demos Helsinki’s Roope Mokka, one of the authors of the report.

The central idea of the report, created in collaboration with Demos Helsinki and the cities, is “radical people centricity”. In this view, people are not seen only as users of digital services and applications, but as active citizens whose opportunities for participation and respect for privacy can be increased.

– High trust, transparency in decision-making, citizen participation, and respect for privacy are important Nordic values that must be brought to the heart of smart city development,” says Maria Malho from Demos Helsinki.

– My Japanese colleague once asked a relevant question”, tells Roope Mokka: “Why choose the smart city model of Silicon Valley when you can be like Moominvalley?”

Cities need to be developed People First, not tech first.

The People First smart city development has been an important direction for Finland’s largest cities, for example, in improving the interaction in the urban community, developing public services, and increasing citizens’ data rights and ownership. Technology is also expected to play a major role in tackling key challenges for cities, such as climate change.

– The number of cities with over a million citizens will grow globally, and the degree of urbanisation will increase. Cities have more and more power to solve global challenges, such as climate change. But people need to be empowered to act. Cities need to be developed People First, not tech first”, says Maria Malho. 

During this spring, the covid-19 has brought new perspectives to the urban debate. The debate has sparked, among other things, the question if people no longer want to live in cities after the pandemic. On the other hand, it has also changed the use of urban space as, for example, going for walks in parks has increased significantly. 

– The demand for comprehensive approaches is now more critical than ever. For both physical and digital urban infrastructure design, it is essential to ask if people are sovereign to define the purposes infrastructures serve and what kind of outcomes they deliver”, Maria Malho says. 


People First: A Vision for the Global Urban Age – Lessons from Nordic Smart Cities publication is the result of a collaboration process of the think tank Demos Helsinki and the four biggest cities of Finland: Espoo, Helsinki, Tampere, and Vantaa. Demos Helsinki is responsible for the content and views that the publication represents.

More info: maria.malho@demoshelsinki.fi

📷 Alex Alvarez / Unsplash