The Helsinki Process

finland equity report coverIn the last months of 2011 subject to a series of preparatory discussions, the author was invited to work with the support of a small team of professionals under the direction of the City Planning  Department /Transportation in order to organize, carry out, and as appropriate follow up on these open public conversations.  We spent close to two months laying the base for the public discussion stage of the project.

During the two weeks in Helsinki we met with almost 200 people representing a broad cross-section of interests and points of view,  organized and participated in on the order of twenty interviews and  brainstorming dialogues, three half-day master class sessions, and on 27 April a final plenary presentation organized to present and invite first feedback and recommendations on this intensive process.  The final presentation was followed by a session of questions from the audience and general discussion, with a brief closing summary of observations and findings made by the Deputy Mayor of Helsinki Pekka Sauri, in charge of Public Works and Environmental Affairs for the city.

From the beginning of this process we were careful not to be seen as trying to “sell” the equity concept per se.  Rather we set out to  see what we all might learn as a result of these open public discussions looking at this original equity/transport concept from a number of different vantages.

We were fortunate to get the views of not only the public authorities, operators, planners, managers, high representatives of local government, student groups, representatives of different political parties, transport user representatives, researchers and academics — already a huge cross-section of the population — but also to hear from representatives of  associations defending the rights of the elderly and handicapped, taxi operators, several people with deep knowledge of the countries equity-based educational reforms, pedestrian and cycling groups, hactivists, transportation tool builder, and others.  (Impressive as this might be, I also wish we had been able to meet with representatives of women’s groups, the homeless (of whom there are few in Helsinki, but still there is always a great deal to learn from them), schools, local business groups, police and the world of health and sport.

We came to Helsinki not to provide answers or even offer expert counsel, but in the hope of widening  the debate about this important and until now largely explored concept.  The goal was to open up these critical discussions at a time when many have already concluded that new ideas and approaches are needed if the city is to become a true world leader in sustainable transport policy and practice — building on their remarkable achievements over the past decades in the field of equity-based education.

The hope of the author is thus  to make a contribution by opening up what I view to be a powerful and timely topic for discussion, and in the process drawing the attention of a broad array of thought leaders, activists, administrators and political parties — and with any luck at all introducing the equity/transport virus in Helsinki and hopefully in due course in cities across Finland and beyond.

Finally, the point needs to be made that there are already a number of innovative pattern-breaking projects going on which already embrace or potentially come close to the equity concept.  As can be expected those running these projects have their hands full with the challenges of managing their project,. Our hope is that when they find the time, they will take a look at some of the ideas that are set out here and possibly even somehow make use of them within their own challenges.  That would be most gratifying.

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finland-helsinki-street scene-3

Helsinki Executive Summary/Final report

 * The full Helsinki report is available at

Objective:  An independent project lead by Eric Britton under the sponsorship of the Department of City Planning/Transportation of the City of Helsinki, the goal of this first phase was to initiate a broad-based public inquiry and open discussion of the concept of equity as a possible keystone for a new paradigm for transport policy and investment in Helsinki and beyond  — and to determine if there is support for taking the first round of findings at least one step further.

The Process : This first stage took place from February – May 2012 and centered on a first round of  consultations and exchanges with something like two hundred people from a wide variety of institutions and points of view from across the Helsinki region.  At the core of the program was a two-week mission during which meetings and events were scheduled to explain and test the concept: some 20 workshops, three collaboratively organized Master Classes and a final presentation and public discussion were the core of the project. In addition a number of international colleagues pitched in by following the project and exchanging views, criticism and suggestions as it developed.

Finding: It is this author’s view that the project has succeeded in its first stage objectives as set by the organizers.  Let me see if I can summarize in one sentence the position that we heard from the great majority of all of those with whom we discussed the concept in all those meetings and events: “The equity concept sounds interesting and possibly promising as a new base for transportation policy — and although we are not at this point quite sure we understand in detail how it is going to work in practical terms, we nonetheless agree that the concept is worth further attention”.[1]

Starting Point: We had a significant advantage.  This emphasis on equity – a concept not so widely discussed in the context of public policy in most parts of the world — is something that is well known and widely accepted by people, political parties, and interest groups across Finland.  In part this is a matter of culture (no small thing in itself).  But no less important we had the good fortune to be able to draw on a solid base of world level achievement in the Finnish education sector, in which the equity principle has served as the North Star of the country’s educational reform and management over last decades.  This equity-based approach had achieved world-level results placing Finland consistently at the top of the international list of student performance and preparation for life.

Peer review : This report summarizes the process and the principal findings of this first stage investigation.  However, rather than submitting it as a definitive final report with detailed recommendations at this point, we decided first to put it to work as a base for a collaborative “thinking exercise”, sharing the present draft with as many as people and groups as possible in Helsinki, Finland and abroad for critical comments, suggestions and opinions.

Dates – May/June: The report was open n for review and comment over this period subsequent to which the project team will meet to collect and analyze the results and prepare a definitive report, recommendations  and program statement detailing eventual next steps. Please note, we are not seeking a comfortable consensus: at this point we are looking for critical ideas and content. Once we have received and dealt with these as best we can, it may then be time to think about getting comfortable.

[1] I am comfortable in making this statement since the present draft will be reviewed by a number of those who participated in the various events and so there will be every opportunity to correct that wording.


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