A conversation with Jan Vapaavuori, mayor of Helsinki

Helsinki cityscape with Helsinki Cathedral, Finland

On September 3, Brookings Senior Fellow Anthony F. Pipa and Helsinki Mayor Jan Vapaavuori discussed Helsinki’s leadership in promoting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) locally and the city’s strategy to be “the most functional city in the world.”

Watch the whole conversation here or read the highlights below.

Since becoming the first mayor of Helsinki in 2017, Mayor Vapaavuori has led a strategy to make it the most functional city in the world: according to him, a “system that simply works.” An effective city government and efficient public services enable residents to spend their time on what matters to them.

Helsinki has aligned its strategy to the SDGs, “the most comprehensive development framework” for cities, according to Mayor Vapaavuori. Helsinki was the second city after New York to report a Voluntary Local Review (VLR) to be accountable about its progress in achieving sustainability and inclusion.

Helsinki aims at reaching carbon neutrality by 2025 even though half of the city’s current heating energy comes from coal. To accelerate that change, Mayor Vapaavuori launched the Helsinki Energy Challenge, a 1-million-euro competition to incentivize innovation for Helsinki. Mayor Vapaavuori sees Helsinki as a testing ground: The city experiments with new ideas at scale and then share its successes with the rest of the world.

“The closest collaborator and friend of a mayor is another mayor somewhere in the world,” remarked Mayor Vapaavuori. This reflects Helsinki’s active engagement in city networks and global cooperation. For instance, Helsinki signed the Declaration of Cities Coalition for Digital Rights, joining other cities like Amsterdam to create ways to utilize the internet in a more humane and democratic manner.