Helsinki Impact Conference, organised by the City of Helsinki, invited decision-makers, experts and researchers to join forces and examine the role of cities as global change-makers in the future of Europe. The conference, held at Musiikkitalo in Helsinki on 9–10 October, was part of the official programme of Finland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union, and its theme was particularly topical: it is cities that serve as the stage for nearly all contemporary phenomena such as immigration, accelerating inequality and climate change. As cities grow quickly, it is important to find solutions to promote the well-being of both people and the climate.

The panel discussion in the morning came face to face with reality, slowed down the pace and had faith in a good day-to-day life

Mayor of Helsinki Jan Vapaavuori opened the conference with a speech highlighting the significance of a long-term attitude towards the challenges cities face. Vapaavuori’s opening address was followed by a three-person panel discussion, where the former chair of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme Joan Clos stressed the immense speed of urbanisation. It is estimated that the urban population of the world will double by 2050. Throughout history, cities have been hubs for wealth, jobs and human capital, which is why the challenges of cities keep increasing in step with population growth. As challenges become more difficult at an increasing speed, we must come to a social contract that everyone can accept.

Deputy Mayor Maria Vassilakou from Vienna continued by explaining how Vienna had succeeded in staying at the top of the list of the most liveable cities in the world for the past ten years. Comprehensive and affordable public transport, developing the city in a more child-friendly direction, comprehensive public housing production throughout the city and the construction of large green areas make Vienna a top class city to live in. This creates spaces where people naturally slow down their pace.

The third participant in the panel was Marko Peterlin, director of the IPop research institute. He shared experiences from Ljubljana, which is dominated by vehicles and where traffic generates massive amounts of emissions resulting in high costs. Peterlin emphasised three points in his speech: instead of efficiency, we should be talking about a good day-to-day life; private operators can help build networks to resolve social issues; and we should always look beyond early adopters when designing solutions.

The afternoon focused on data, people and learning

Themes of the talks in the afternoon included data democracy, truly equal urban and social politics, and means of developing better cities. The first speaker of the afternoon, Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer at Barcelona City Council Francesca Bria stressed the significance of a human-centric data society. Europe must be careful not to drift into a North American system of data giants, where data is owned by the mighty and few. On the other hand, we must also be wary of drifting towards the Chinese model of using data to monitor people. Because it is the people who produce the data, they must also own and control it.

City Dramaturg Tunde Adefioye from City Theatre of Brussels explained the lay of the land when it comes to truly equal urban and social policies. He asked an important question: how can we promote an open and equal city, if the decision-makers never come face to face with all of the realities that the residents must confront? The question emphasises the importance of diversity in decision-making bodies. If cities and other bodies are developed without listening to marginalised groups, politics cannot be truly equal.

Brent Toderian, who has developed cities on all continents for the past 25 years, gave the closing speech of the afternoon. Toderian reminded us that plans are not enough to mitigate the climate crisis. We must also act on our plans, and in Helsinki we can promote the implementation of climate goals by expanding the pedestrian district in the City centre. All in all, city development should put the pedestrian first, because cities designed for cars are not even ideal for motorists. For this reason, cycling should not be promoted at the cost of pedestrian walkways: the right solution is to do it at the expense of car lanes.

The second day inspired tangible measures to find solutions

The second day of the conference took a more in-depth approach to the themes of the previous day, ensuring that the conference would become more than just words. The day was kicked off by State Secretary Jari Partanen, who emphasised that Helsinki, as one of the most ambitious emissions reducers, plays a key role in climate action, and that enabling effortless mobility is an important means of reducing emissions. Climate action should focus on people and remember to look to the future in addition to the present.

Jyrki Katainen made a video appearance and talked about European climate measures, such as funding mechanisms for urban technology development. The Urban Innovative Actions initiative, for example, is currently accepting applications, and five Finnish cities have already secured funding.

The speeches were followed by the publication of the joint Helsinki Impact Declaration by Helsinki, Stockholm and Tallinn. The declaration outlines tangible planning solutions. The declaration stresses the significance of systemic change through means covered during the conference: cities must invest in combating climate change, working towards developing a human-centric internet and ethical use of technology, improving urban environments through spatial planning and facilitating social equality and more inclusive cities.

For the rest of the afternoon, participants had the chance to choose a small group of their liking and discuss data, resilient districts, the development of the Metropolitan area and digital innovations. The day, and with it the entire conference, ended with a summary of the discussions of each small group.

Helsinki Impact Conference showed that we are unanimous when it comes to urban challenges, and we even seem to see eye to eye on the elements of the solutions. Learning from each other is key along with functional and innovation-promoting politics as well as confidential cooperation between the City, residents and operators at state level. A functional social contract promotes social cohesion, and reliable, human-centric data enhances and improves city services. The conference was sure to provide many people with new perspectives on the resolution of global urban challenges, and hopefully bred new coalitions that are ready to experiment with solutions.