Smart city mayor: Digitalisation contributes to equality

Mayor Päivi Laajala [Päivi Laajala]

When Nokia lost the smartphone race against Apple, its key R&D centre in Oulu, a high-tech city of 250,000 in northern Finland, weathered mass layoffs. Nokia has since rebounded and returned jobs to the area. Mayor Päivi Laajala told EURACTIV Slovakia about its recovery.

Päivi Laajala has served as the mayor of Oulu since April 2017. She previously served as deputy mayor.

Laajala was interviewed by’s Senior Editor, Pavol Szalai.

What is a smart city?

In a smart city, citizens have services which make living more easy, predictable and safe. A smart city is a place where economic life creates new jobs based on innovation.

Oulu focuses a lot on fast wireless internet. How can inhabitants use these networks?

The development of broadband and other digital systems and connections are seen as the answer to keep municipal services available to everyone. Citizens should have equal access to e-services and to participate in decision-making.

How many smart cities are there in Europe?

240 European cities with populations over 100,000 have some “smart city” features–meaning they use technology to improve their energy use, transport systems or other infrastructure, according to European Parliament research.

Nokia oversaw many layoffs and almost went bankrupt. It must have caused a lot of problems for Oulu.

Of course, it did. When Nokia decided to withdraw from mobile phone business, it had a big impact on the Oulu region. 2400 Nokia mobile phone jobs and about 700 contractor jobs were lost. At the same time, Nokia Networks has increased jobs from 2100 to 2500 in Oulu. In Oulu, Nokia has the biggest factory and a very large R&D centre today.

Nowadays, we have many start-ups. There are now more jobs in ICT in Oulu than at the time of Nokia mobile phones. The ICT sector works with the local schools and university. We help people to establish new companies.

Did Nokia workers who lost their jobs find new ones with small companies?

Yes. Many have their own small firms of 5–20 workers. The former Nokia employees did not leave Oulu.

How did you help these people after Nokia reduced its workforce?

Our city helps angel enterprises. About 10 years ago, we founded an organisation called BusinessOulu. It provides information on how to launch a company, how to get funding and so on.

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In retrospect, do you think it is good for a city to have many small and medium-size enterprises instead of a giant like Nokia?

Yes, for us it is good. Ten, fifteen years ago, we were dependent on what Nokia liked to do. Nowadays, we have many kinds of firms in many sectors. It is much safer for the city.

Oulu is a city close to the borders of several other countries. Is the location important for its development?

We have strong relations and cooperative structures with other cities, especially in the Arctic region and in smart community development. We are located between Europe and the Arctic region. From this position and with our Arctic experience, we can help Europe cooperate with the north. The EU is now very interested in Arctic issues. For example, the EU would like to know what we can do to improve the flow of information, goods and labour.

Can you give an example of such cooperation?

In 2016, the EU gave Oulu the responsibility to coordinate with the Bulgarian city of Sofia and with Estonia a partnership on digital transition within the EU Urban Agenda. This is due to the fact that Oulu has 50 years of experience in wireless technology. If you use a mobile phone, you are using a smart solution developed in Oulu. That is very much linked to the common history of Nokia and Oulu. At the moment, we are developing 5G solutions using fast wireless networks.

We also work with the cities in the Arctic area: Luleå, Sweden, and Tromsø, Norway. We also work with a lot of cities in Estonia and Spain. But we also work with Japan and China, the destination for exports of our firms.

How do you use digitalisation in improving services for citizens?

For five years, Oulu has invested in OuluHealth, which is a public-private ecosystem for the stakeholders in the health sector. These systems also allow us to provide new kinds of solutions and products to people in Oulu and globally. One example of global knowhow in wellness product and solutions developed in Oulu is the Polar Heart Rate Monitor Watch.

Oulu has developed traffic signal pre-emption systems. It gives automatic green lights on intersections to emergency vehicles – ambulances, firemen and police. Another example: If you want to build a house, you need a license from the city. In Oulu, it can be done from your computer at home. It is much quicker and easier.

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