How Innovative Partnerships Can Transform Cities

I had heard about Finland’s progressive culture and positive action on climate change. However, it wasn’t until I was on the ground and hearing from locals about clean tech, partnerships and new business models that I got a true sense of it. When I met with Tiina Kähö, Executive Director of Helsinki Metropolitan Smart and Clean Foundation, one of her first questions was ‘Who have you met already? We are all like a big club in Finland and we tend to know each other.’
The Smart and Clean Foundation build clean tech infrastructure and capability in urban environments. They focus on mobility, energy, buildings and waste management to name a few. Everything they do needs to be integrated and ‘smart’ but most importantly the tech needs to enable a better life for citizens.

With a population of 5.5 million and the second-highest public spending as a share of GDP among OECD countries, Finland is a dynamic place for understanding the relationship of public and private partnerships.

Meet Tiina

Tiina has over 20 years experience in the cleantech industry and in her time she has worked with dynamic leaders who want to make the world a better place in both the private and public sector. She worked in environmental consulting across industries and then as a Senior Lead at Sitra in their Carbon Neutral team.

I would highly recommend checking out the Sitra website as they are an innovation fund focused on future thinking initiatives that will advance Finnish society. They operate on an endowment seeded by the Government on their 50th anniversary. The work they are doing is world leading and they have much of their research and insights online.

Tiina Kähö, Executive Director of Helsinki Metropolitan Smart and Clean Foundation (left) with Tuuli Kaskinen, Executive Director at Demos Helsinki

‘Our job is to help the best players to develop scalable climate solutions for 1.5°C world and to make Helsinki the best testbed in the world for smart and clean solutions.’ Tiina said as she passionately told me how Smart & Clean Foundation came to be a powerhouse of Europe.

They focus on building clean tech infrastructure and capability in urban environments focus on mobility, energy, buildings and waste management to name a few. Everything they do needs to be integrated and ‘smart’ but most importantly the tech needs to enable a better life for citizens.

‘The clean part is where it all started for us and it is becoming extremely urgent with climate change so we need to actually do this transformation. And that is what we are doing!’

Tiina Kähö

The Smart & Clean Foundation

It is a group of 29 partners: 5 cities, 14 businesses, 4 universities and research institutions, 5 state actors and one regional council who are all working together to make Helsinki has the world’s most attractive emission-free mobility, the world’s most resource-wise citizens, the world’s smartest urban energy and the world’s leading circular economy city.


When sourcing ideas to test in real life conditions, they cast a wide net to source them through their networks. The criteria for ideas is:

  • It must have emission reductions and/or circular economy at its core
  • Have potential to be a sustainable business model
  • Need to have collaboration between public and private parties
  • A unique solution on a global stage
  • It needs to increase the quality of life for citizens

Role of the foundation

The Foundation then assess the ideas against the criteria and if it passes, they do one of two things:

  1. Find a partner or community member from the Smart & Clean Foundation network to help them implement and scale
  2. If it has strong scale and impact potential, then the foundation can bring it in-house and set up dedicated teams to work on it.

Case Study: Renovation Leap Ecosystem

To date, they have built 7 ecosystems, this creates opportunities for long term impact.

One, in particular, is the Renovation Leap Ecosystem. The aim is to transform the way we renovate old buildings. A challenge in Finland is that many of their buildings are historic and beautiful, which means they are old and not the most energy efficient. To combat this, repair construction is being sped up and made smarter through quality objectives, life cycle solutions, procurement methods and service concepts. Prefabricated elements and modular components improve the efficiency of repair construction and reduce the cost of, for example, pipe and facade renovations. At the same time, properties are made smarter and more energy-efficient. There are about 30 companies in the ecosystem. Components and other smart solutions will be tested during 2019 in residential apartment buildings in Helsinki and Lahti that are in need of repair.

The future of social innovation is…

1. Effective partnerships

They are halfway through their 5-year commitment and they are seeing strong partnerships form. One thing Tiina pointed out is that they don’t do projects. The challenge with projects is that they start and end.

Instead, they build ecosystems.

This allows the ideas they test to have an ongoing capacity to grow as well as looking at the people involved as partners with active roles, rather than resources engaged to complete a task.
Further, the key to each ecosystem is an open approach to data. Finland offers some of the best open Government data in the world. It is important that there is open source data to ensure that new players can come in and contribute to the ecosystem so it becomes a dynamic and evolving space.

Tiina highlighted that ecosystems should focus on building business models through the use of open data sources to increase sustainability and potential for impact.

2. Strategic timeframes

Tiina explained that the Smart & Clean Foundation is a 5 year commitment by a range of participants including Cities, business, Government (local and federal), academia and independent organisations.

It is no easy feat to get this up and running. The most important thing Tiina learned was to get every party to sign on for at least 5 years. In order to do so, it was critical to have a vision and a mission that everyone understands and sees where they can add value. Often if commitments are only annual, then the foundations spend all their time chasing the next envelope of funding, rather than focusing on the task. It also ensures that partners are strategic and have an understanding of long term impact rather than just throwing some money in and using it for a branding exercise.

3. The critical role of an orchestrator

Tiina sees the role of the Foundation as that of an orchestrator. They are important because they create a foundation that facilitates the relationships to maximise impact. They need to negotiate between different parties and ensure they align to the common goal.

Effective orchestrators have a set of key skills including:

  • Appreciation of diverse skills
  • Communicating in a common language that all partners (and the general public) can understand
  • Building trust between partners
  • Creating an innovation culture (eg: rapid test and learn with a focus on commercialisation)

4. Commitment to building a broad culture of social innovation

Finland has seen great growth in building their culture of innovation through Government, civil society, R&D and academic communities.

‘The last 10 years innovation culture has been our strength and our tool drive social change.’ Tiina mentioned how advanced their Tax Office is and that the reason for this their approach to developing iterative social experiments and looking for new ways of working that combine technology and society.


I will be keenly watching the Smart & Clean Foundation’s work as they continue to build innovative ecosystems with a range of partners and technology. You can follow them on Linkedin, Twitter, see their Youtube channel and of course their website.

We need to start looking at new ways to drive sustainable forms of partnerships and am so grateful for Tiina’s insights and openness to share her reflections in a way that was practical and engaging.

Questions to consider

  • How can you look at partnerships or projects as ecosystems?
  • Which partners can you explore an ecosystem approach to drive long term social change?
  • Which orchestrator skills can you start to build to drive the future of social innovation?

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