A 9-actor alliance was formed in Finland to provide a tangible way forward for a carbon-neutral urban environment. The alliance, called Humble Timber, presented an opportunity to build a long-lasting and sustainable cross-sector collaboration that will speed up the adoption of timber in Finnish construction.
- successfully identified the bottlenecks of timber transition in Finland,
- determined possible solutions,
- and delegated responsibilities in following through.
Background: What is Humble Timber and why did it come together?
As with most transitions, uncertainty leads to inactivity. In construction, there is a tension between growing demand for housing and the need to cut down on emissions. This tension constituted the project’s beginning in Finland. Finnish developers and city planners have to meet increasing demand. At the same time, construction carbon emissions can amount to 7% in the country (globally, the buildings and construction sector accounted for 36% of final energy use and 39% of energy- and process-related emissions in 2018). Construction should therefore be a primary target for emissions mitigation efforts. So far, markets have naturally defaulted to increasing housing supply marked by competitive and urgent investments.
Timber is the most promising material to cut down carbon emissions. City planners, policymakers and industry leaders recognise the need for clean construction. Moreover, demand for timber will likely rise as climate mitigation efforts are ramping up. Therefore, future market pressures can create distortions in the market or force all stakeholders to react fast. We brought together relevant stakeholders so that they could be proactive instead of reactive.
As of now, a typical chicken-or-the-egg problem (which you can read more about here) causes demand for the material to grow more slowly than it should if we were to meet carbon-neutrality targets. This is a classic example of a market failure requiring industry and policymakers to promote timber proactively.
Why haven’t they done so yet? The alliance collaborated excellently in identifying the current challenges. We divided those into four categories:
- Demand, i.e., concerns about costs and risks of construction and operation, slow change in consumer preferences, concerns about market distortions, etc.
- Supply, i.e., compatibility problems throughout the supply chain, change in value distribution, “closed systems” slowing down development, etc.
- Policy and regulation, i.e., current planning favouring traditional building methods, poor coverage of building materials in the EU taxonomy, inefficient or insufficient zoning practices, etc.
- Skills and attitudes, i.e., few architects, engineers and builders familiar with timber construction, diffusion of know-how is difficult, there are not enough strong partnerships between builders and industry, etc.
With bottlenecks in these areas, the transition becomes a complex problem, spreading over several parallel timelines, involving many contributing factors and seemingly conflicting interests. Yet, the co-created solutions showed that collaboration is possible, realistic, and desired.
Co-created solutions to accelerate the timber transition
The promise of this alliance was to go beyond the problems and figure out solutions. Because it was a collaboration that invited all relevant stakeholders, the solutions leveraged multiple perspectives and expertise. Consensus was thus a natural part of the process — and so was the delegation of responsibilities.
The alliance put together the co-designed solutions into a publication (currently only in Finnish, here). These solutions responded to the identified challenges:
- To increase demand, wood builders can sharpen wood construction arguments to attract investors, strengthen dialogue with investors, inform consumers about the benefits of wood, develop emissions transparency, and more.
- To increase supply, relevant stakeholders will develop information modelling, create shared reference banks, test new production and collaboration models, raise awareness of process changes, and more.
- To improve governance, municipalities will set strict carbon footprint thresholds in the plans, verify calculations, frequently consult markets and industry experts, facilitate peer learning between municipalities, and more.
- To change attitudes and grow skills, institutions must include timber-building in relevant fields and vocational training, fund research projects, invest in lifelong learning, broaden the focus of research beyond climate benefits, and more.
>> Want to know more about the solutions the alliance put together? You can email Otto-Wille Koste at email@example.com.
How we got to build consensus
One of the most celebrated aspects of this project has been the process of developing consensus and building cooperation between seemingly disparate interest groups. We followed the Humble Governance model, which breeds consensus through inclusion, experimentation, and in-built smart incentives.
Several factors contributed to the project’s success, namely:
- Concrete methodology: The Humble Governance model offered a strong and innovative framework to reach consensus.
- A balanced group of committed partners: The inclusion of representatives from the entire value chain of construction ensured rich and meaningful discussion, which all participants felt was both personally and operationally beneficial.
- Legitimacy through openness: We invited all of the relevant stakeholders and maintained openness throughout the process so that everyone could participate when and however they wanted.
- Connection to partner organisations’ timber construction programs: Partners already had their own timber construction programs, so the project served as a powerful incentive to collectively develop steps forward.
- Identified prospect for a pilot area: We were able to utilise one Helsinki neighbourhood as a pilot case, which provided a practical application and an opportunity to refine solutions toward a real-life case.
- Use of neutral mediator: Demos Helsinki’s reputation as a neutral mediator helped build trust in the beginning of the process.
The Humble Timber project has been a relatively quick process, which has launched a new phase of development linked to the growth in demand for wooden apartment buildings. Similar co-creation alliances involving business, public actors and researchers will be key to boosting low-carbon urban development in the coming years. They will test and disseminate new ideas, build a shared awareness of change and forge new partnerships between businesses.
Despite the specificities of the Finnish context, the Humble Timber model is promising for similar needs in other countries. We recognise that the timber transition is a long-term process, the course of which cannot be known and planned in advance. The fundamental transformation and the required solutions cannot be achieved top-down or without collaboration. Bottom-up input from the various actors in the sector is essential if we are to develop and mainstream new systemic solutions.
But, as with every beginning, we must agree on the shared direction first. Solutions follow as we leverage collective wisdom, expertise, and cross-sectoral commitment for a livable planet and a joyful future.
Want to know more about Humble Timber?
- Why timber?
- Who got involved in this project? How was it run?
- See the co-created publication (currently only in Finnish).
- The region of Uusimaa in Helsinki covered the story.
- Humble Timber followed our Humble Governance model — you can read more about the model here.
To discuss local challenges in timber transition, please contact:
Feature Image: Melena Nsk / iStock