The Sharing Economy Is Booming in Helsinki: Here’s Why
Popup stores in Helsinki during Restaurant Day in 2014. (Photo: Henri Kotka / Flickr)
Helsinki is, in many respects, a sharer’s paradise. The Finnish capital boasts a range of sharing economy platforms and services, from just-for-fun neighborhood initiatives to global for-profit startups. “There are both big and small examples, innovative and everyday ones, of how sharing takes place” there, summarized Pasi Mäenpää, a researcher in the University of Helsinki’s Department of Sociology. If you want to share it – whether “it” is car or a meal, a skill or a services – chances are good that in Helsinki, you can. Helsinki’s sharing scene puts the lie to the widespread misapprehension that the sharing economy comprises only a handful of major for-profit players (Uber, Airbnb), and serves as an example of how local history and culture can positively shape a technology-influence social and economic change.
The catalyst for the most recent wave of collaborative innovations in Helsinki was Restaurant Day. Now an international event, Restaurant Day launched in 2011 as a quarterly “food carnival.” The model is simple: would-be restaurateurs dream up a concept for a pop-up cafe, establish a location and menu, issue a public invitation through the Restaurant Day website, and, for one day, transform a private home or city park into a bonafide eating establishment. The popularity of Restaurant Day and other projects, including Cleaning Day, a resident-driven swap meet inaugurated in 2012, has in turn inspired other grassroots sharing initiatives. “Restaurant Day has implemented the idea that, ‘Yes we can – everything is possible as long as we do it together,'” said Timo Santala, an event producer, DJ, journalist, and photographer who serves on the Restaurant Day board and is Head of Food Culture Strategy for the City of Helsinki. “It’s a positive cycle. Once you have the first ones that pave the way, you’re bound to have more.”
But the seeds of Helsinki’s contemporary sharing economy were planted long before 2011. “The humorous way of saying it is that we came down from the trees later than others,” said Matti Aistrich, Senior Lead in Business Development at Sitra. “We were an agricultural nation until not that long ago. The agrarian society was always very sharing and circular economy focused.” The Finnish concept of talkoot (literally, “bee”), which prizes voluntary communal work, survived the transition from the fields to the central city. “Centuries ago, when crops needed to be harvested, it was a tradition that the men of the village would do it all together, because it’s more effective that way,” said Santala. “We still have that. If you have an apartment building, every fall they gather together to do yard work or maintenance around the building.”
(Contrast this with examples abroad including Seoul, South Korea, where a failure to transfer rural values to the new urban landscape has likely contributed to high suicide rates and a round-the-clock work culture. The city’s recent attempts to initiate sharing practices from the top down have so far met with limited success.)
A couple of fundamental characteristics of Finland’s political economy also helped set the stage for sharing. First, a longstanding commitment to political democracy makes it easier for individuals or small groups to launch their own initiatives. And like its Nordic neighbors, Finland is a welfare state. “We have a strong tradition of social security and state involvement,” said Santala. “So we have inbuilt in our politics the idea that if someone has more, we should share it, and the state will distribute [resources] equally.” With such basics as healthcare and childcare covered by the state, moreover, Finns have spare time and money to devote to passion projects including sharing. “Our lifestyle allows us to use our energy [elsewhere],” said Henni Ahvenlampi, Head of Marketing at peer-to-peer delivery platform PiggyBaggy/CoReorient.
Then there is the city’s relationship to technology. Mobile technology in particular has accelerated the growth of the sharing economy worldwide, allowing sharing economy service providers to add convenience and cost savings to the ideological and/or ecological reasons for choosing against conventional models. Birthplace of Nokia, Finland has long been a hub for global technology firms. The nation is also known for a high level of technology penetration; the World Economic Forum’s Global Information Technology Report 2015, for instance, ranked Finland second worldwide in the Network Readiness Index, a measure of each economy’s ability to leverage information and communication technologies. Anecdotal evidence suggests, moreover, that Finns use mobile technology as a means to IRL ends. “Facebook is really, really widely used in Finland,” said Jaakko Blomberg of Yhteismaa, the group behind Cleaning Day, Dinner Under the Helsinki Sky, and other projects in the sharing space. “There are a lot of really big things going on, and they’re usually organized on Facebook. It’s not just posting cat videos, but actually creating something.”
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, today’s sharing scene in Helsinki is the product of a strange alchemy between an excellent education system and high rates of unemployment. “People in Finland are really highly educated,” said Blomberg. “At the same time, academic unemployment is high. People are doing jobs that they’re not happy with, and using their creativity for other things.” PiggyBaggy’s Ahvenlampi concurred, noting that her firm’s co-founders previously worked for Nokia. “[With] large companies laying people off, people need to come up with something to do,” she said.
Helsinki City Government’s Lukewarm Embrace of the Sharing Economy
The City of Helsinki has been largely reactive, rather than proactive, in its response to the burgeoning sharing economy. Though it has begun to leverage events like Restaurant Day as tourism boosters, its commitment to collaborative experiments is superficial at best, argues PiggyBaggy’s Ahvenlampi. “To be honest, I don’t think the City of Helsinki has done a lot,” she said. “It has done trials with us and with other parties. [But] it seems more important to them how many trials per year they are having than where the trials end up. There’s this need for a change of attitude when it comes to making permanent change.”
Helsinki Regional Transit Authority tested the sharing waters directly beginning in 2012 with the introduction of Kutsuplus, an on-demand shared van service. But ridership remains low, says blogger Timo Hämäläinen, and rumors abound that it may cease operating as a public service. “Kutsuplus is interesting, but it’s totally incapable of supporting itself financially,” concluded Aistrich.
The sharing economy benefits indirectly from some of the city’s top priorities. Helsinki is on the cutting edge of the open-data revolution in municipal government, thanks largely to a recent mayoral initiative. The Finnish capital has an entire department – City of Helsinki Urban Facts – dedicated to statistics, research, and open data. Though originally motivated by a desire for improved governmental transparency, the treasure trove of publicly-available data can be put to good use by actors in the sharing space. “It’s providing a huge tool for creating sharing economy platforms, or ideas,” said Santala. “From this data there are so many things you can do.”
Helsinki also works hard to maintain its status as a mecca for startups. “The startup scene is very active and very strong,” said Santala. Both Santala and Ahvenlampi mentioned Slush, a conference for startups, tech entrepreneurs, and investors held each winter in Helsinki. “Any time something’s done to make startups’ lives easier, it helps us, too,” said Ahvenlampi. “We get the same support other startups here do, whether it’s gaming, communication, etc. – so that kind of attitude is helpful for us.”
The city’s most helpful interventions have involved its failure to act – moments when city officials chose to ignore code violations that might otherwise put a stop to sharing activity. Pekka Sauri, the Deputy Mayor of Helsinki, frames the administration’s look-the-other-way approach as follows: “Mainly, we try to enable and encourage [sharing]. It happens anyway, and we endeavor to remove unnecessary obstacles. Also, it is the city’s role to coordinate activities so that, for instance, no two events coincide in the same place.”
Others within the Finnish sharing space are more blunt. With respect to Restaurant Day, said Aistrich, “the key point in terms of the government is, ‘we actually have a health code, but let’s ignore it.'” Blomberg recalled the city’s attempt to cancel the first Cleaning Day when they caught wind of the idea. “After the first [year], they contacted us and said that we have to acquiesce to some rules, but that they couldn’t ban it because people would hate them,” he said. Since then, the city has been more supportive, yet remains reluctant to directly finance sharing economy initiatives. “It’s easy to get permission, but there’s still no funding for this stuff,” said Blomberg.
Obstacles and Optimism Within Helsinki’s Sharing Sector
The bright spots in Helsinki’s sharing scene, from the volunteer-run public Sompasauna to Sharetribe, a tool for creating online marketplaces (with an open source option), shine all the brighter when one considers the obstacles the city’s collaborative sector still faces. The sheer scale of the local government can make it hard for individuals and groups to navigate official permissions. “The City of Helsinki isn’t a one-policy thing,” said Santala. “There are 40,000 employees in 31 departments.” When asked where there was room for improvement vis a vis the city’s relationship to the sharing economy, Deputy Mayor Sauri said, “I think the main problem remaining is the City’s complex organization. People find it hard to find the right office or person to contact. We’re working on this. Social media helps.”
Another potential obstacle is the other side of the welfare-state coin: a tendency toward overregulation. “We sometimes call it ‘bureau-crazy,'” said Ahvenlampi. “There’s so much regulation in the field of transportation, for example, that when you learn about it, it’s so ridiculous that it makes you want to change it.” Santala agreed. “The flip side of the coin of the welfare society that has strong state interference is that the state interferes in things they shouldn’t, and the same thing happens on the [level of] the city – all sorts of rules, regulations, red tape,” he said. “I think this is the main area where we should improve as a city and a nation, and impose more trust on the citizens and companies. Again, that is just something that widens the possibilities for companies to develop their products and services.”
Finally, Helsinki’s relatively small population makes it harder for sharing trends to gain traction. “There are a lot of people who want to do things, but at the same time it’s tough because here the market is so much smaller,” said Aistrich. “It’s hard to find enough people to sign up and actively participate, so a lot of sites pop up . . . And [then] are sort of dead. There’s a lot of interest, a lot of grassroots activity with good intentions, but not a lot of success stories.” His hope for the next five or ten years, he said, is to see the scattered projects and movements coalescing around a set of “major categories of projects and services that can be shared. My fear is that we can’t build a critical mass, and so then what ends up happening is we have foreign platforms coming in to Finland. That’s not bad, but hopefully we’ll have some more homegrown platforms coming in.”
Despite these challenges, Helsinki residents have plenty of reasons to remain optimistic about the future of their sharing economy. Not least of these is the nature of the community that has sprung up around sharing initiatives. That community is expanding, said Blomberg. “Mostly you know the people who are doing something like this,” he said. “This year I’ve been happy about the fact that I’m seeing a lot of projects and actions made by people I don’t know.” And while there’s room for improvement – it has been hard to organize a formal network of sharers in part because “people want to create something,” not just talk to one another, said Blomberg – the relationship among the various project teams reflects the collaborative ethos from which they emerged. “Even if we’re doing the same thing, we communicate with one another,” said Ahvenlampi. “That’s a really good strength. We don’t compete against other sharing economy companies; we’re competing against less efficient ways of doing things.”