Juha Eskelinen: “We can be the Silicon Valley of the welfare state”
The Uusimaa region is dear to Juha Eskelinen. He knows it like the back of his own hand, but not only because he works for the Helsinki-Uusimaa Regional Council. He has also moved around a lot within the region due to his history of working for NGOs.
“I’ve been out and about all the way from Loviisa to Hanko and everything in between. Uusimaa is the region closest to my heart”, Eskelinen says.
Working for Helsinki-Uusimaa couldn’t suit Eskelinen better. He runs the Regional Development unit which is responsible for setting the strategic guidelines for the whole region. The unit works in close collaboration with the region’s other actors such as decision makers, universities and companies.
“Our unit takes care of the development of everything from city planning to industrial policy and culture related questions. We evaluate the suitability of different projects from the strategic plan’s point of view and direct funding towards the ones that are in line with it”, Eskelinen explains.
Understanding the big picture
Eskelinen sees the Helsinki-Uusimaa region as unique in many regards. When comparing to other metropolitan areas around the world he finds that the capital region of Finland sticks out thanks to its proximity to nature.
“It’s not an everyday thing to have such large green spaces spread around a metropolitan area. It’s like coming up for fresh air midst all the urbanization, the fact you can go for a run and breath easily.”
According to Eskelinen Helsinki-Uusimaa stands out from the rest of Finland because of its versatility. No single industry or sector dominates the region like in many other areas around Finland.
“Some areas depend on the paper industry for example, while in the Helsinki-Uusimaa you can find a scope of various different fields. The service sector obviously rules the capital, but we also hold know-how in many industrial fields including harbours and traffic.”
The diversity of subjects is what motivates Eskelinen in his job. Cities and metropolitan areas face many different kinds of challenges including immigration and requirements for the cutting of emissions. To top that, technology development shapes many domains of life as we know it. Dealing with all of these questions requires a forward-looking approach.
“In my job it is important to understand the big picture: what are the dynamics of societies and how they will develop”, Eskelinen says.
Technology for the people
Eskelinen believes that the word ‘smart’ does describe the metropolitan region well, but his approach to it goes way beyond technology-based solutions. Technology has its limits and can’t solve everything on its own.
“Loneliness can’t be filled with technology. Take the elderly, for example: I doubt the city’s home help service receives better results by observing the elderly via web cameras than by checking in on them and having a cup of coffee with them in person. It should be the combination of the two”, he says.
In the light of the current discussions about information privacy Eskelinen thinks it is more crucial than ever to consider the moral and ethical issues regarding technology use.
“It’s necessary to pay close attention to how to make sure technology does good for all human beings.”
That is why he emphasizes the fact that in region development smart doesn’t solely have to mean a mobile phone application: it can be a completely new way of doing things.
“Social innovations are just as important, be it neighborhood events or village parties that add to the coziness of the area. They demand similar kind of resourcefulness and ability to organize and encourage others.”
How does Eskelinen see the future of the smart, socially innovative Helsinki-Uusimaa region?
“I can imagine us being the Silicon Valley of the welfare state. Culture is just as important to us than the nerdy stuff. We are creative but we know how to take care of all our citizens.”