UN member states have made commitments to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) but the responsibility of achieving these is shared more broadly -- by cities, companies, and even individuals.
Among the cities taking the lead on implementing the SDG’s the city of Espoo in Finland stands out for its role in finding and sharing local solutions to collective problems. Leading that effort is the city’s mayor, Jukka Tapio Mäkelä, who has held the office since 2011. A city of about 280,000 located just west of Helsinki, Espoo is a founding member of the SDG Cities program.
UNTIL: Why did Espoo choose to be an SDG pioneer city?
Mäkelä: Sustainability is in our DNA, and it’s all facets, ecological, economic and sociocultural sustainability have been integrated into our city strategy, The Espoo Story, since 2013. Being a responsible pioneer is one of our most important values, and therefore it is natural for us to take a global leadership position in regards to the SDG’s as well.
UNTIL: The nations of the world signed up for the SDGs. How can a city monitor them effectively? How does Espoo accomplish this?
Mäkelä: We have tied sustainability holistically into the goals and targets we use to measure the realization of the Espoo Story. Additionally, we have been part of external conducted European sustainability studies, which have found us to be the most sustainable city in the European Union twice (2017 and 2018). Measuring success in each SDG could benefit from universally accepted and utilized measurement tools, so we could better assess how we are doing in comparison to our partners around the world.
Espoo, The Most Sustainable City in Europe
UNTIL: Espoo has made a number of reforms to improve issues like transit and pollution? What lessons would you pass on to mayors in cities developing countries who might not have the resources of Espoo?
Mäkelä: In reality Espoo does not have any excess of resources. Like growing cities everywhere, we must balance between the competing demands of expanding the city infrastructure to meet the needs of our growth with the continuous work to provide cost-effective high quality services to our residents. Perhaps it is worth noting, that our systematic investments into sustainable mass-transit systems such as the metro and fast tram lines, have a clear positive impact on the city ecologically, economically and socially. These systems not only reduce pollution and carbon emissions, but also allow for a denser, more cost-efficient yet human-scaled city structure which is appealing to citizens, businesses and investors alike. Continuing to grow the city along the lines of the urban sprawl of decades past would ultimately have been much more expensive, in terms of service production, the environment as well as quality of life of our residents. In short, these are large investments but they do pay themselves back in a multitude of ways.
UNTIL: How does the city of Espoo promote innovation in its work? What processes does it follow? What have been the most helpful technological innovations you have embraced for achieving the SDGs? Can you suggest any for other cities?
Mäkelä: We strongly believe in a culture of co-creation and experimentation in collaboration with universities, companies and residents, as well as cross-functional development inside the city organization. We have, for example, devised the Make With Espoo toolkit, which allows for the city organization to co-create new services and ways of working together with companies. We routinely utilize hackathons, idea competitions, service design, and other methods that bring the customer and resident to the center of the development. As for technological innovations, we work with the best minds in our local universities and companies to be able to see if their innovations can bring value to our residents. Light pole -embedded 5G networks, experimental geothermal energy plants, autonomous electrical buses are just a few examples of technologies we a currently experimenting with. In general we believe all technologies that answer the call to battle climate change are worth exploring. They are not only in line with our city’s values and long-term prosperity, but also offer extremely lucrative business opportunities globally to the partners that co-develop new solutions together with us. (overlaps with following answer)
UNTIL: Espoo has a sizeable technology cluster. What are some local technological solutions that were born in Espoo that are helping you achieve the SDG's?
Mäkelä: Light pole -embedded 5G networks, experimental geothermal energy plants, autonomous electrical busses are just a few examples of technologies we a currently experimenting with. In general we believe all technologies that answer the call to battle climate change are worth exploring. They are not only in line with our city’s values and long-term prosperity, but also offer extremely lucrative business opportunities globally to the partners that co-develop new solutions together with us.
All SDG’s are important, but Espoo has chosen to focus especially on SDG’s 4 (quality education), 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure) and 13 (climate actions). These three are areas which are traditional strengths of our city, and areas where we believe we can devise tools that can be scaled to help the rest of the world achieve their goals. Simultaneously, we want to challenge ourselves to do even better in these areas. If we want to be responsible pioneers, we must work hard every day to stay ahead of the curve.
UNTIL: Espoo resembles many mid-size cities in that it has ample urban sprawl. Yet One of the SDG Goals - # 11 - calls for sustainable urbanization. What is Espoo doing in this area? Is there a conflict here?
Mäkelä: We are systematically developing our urban fabric to allow for higher density along our growth corridors, the areas served by our mass transit systems (metro, local train, fast tram). In addition, we are transforming previous brown-field areas to new walkable urban centers that allow for a sustainable lifestyle. There is no conflict here, a sustainable, networked city structure is at the core of our growth strategy.
UNTIL: Espoo officials I've met seem very committed to the SDGs? How do energize people around such distant and abstract ideas? What tips can you offer other urban mayors?
Mäkelä: The key point is to bring down the lofty SDG’s to the level of the everyday lives of residents and stakeholders, and discuss actively with them on how and why to achieve these goals. We have participatory processes built in to our strategy-making; The Espoo Story has been co-created together with residents from young to old, as well as with our key stakeholders, the universities and companies. I would urge other cities to follow suit and dare to truly co-create your strategy with the people. This will allow you to truly share understanding of how and why a better future can be created together.
"The advances of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, including those brought on by a combination of computing power, robotics, big data and artificial intelligence, are generating revolutions in health care, transport and manufacturing.
I am convinced that these new capacities can help us to lift millions of people out of poverty, achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and enable developing countries to leap‑frog into a better future."
23 March 2018, New York