Vendors often find it hard to get their products in front of the right people in cities outside a formal procurement process. Meanwhile, city departments want fresh ideas but can find themselves overwhelmed with solutions that may not meet their needs.
Helsinki aims to help both parties with its team of ‘innovation agents’. The city employees act as intermediaries between the city and companies – their goal is to understand and articulate the city’s challenges and priorities and identify companies that can help, then support them to develop their solutions.
Kimmo Heinonen, Helsinki
Kimmo Heinonen, who manages the team of innovation agents in Helsinki, told capitaltribunenews.com: “As far as I´m aware, our approach is quite unique.
“Some other cities in Finland have some similarities in approach regarding opening the city as a platform for innovations, but as far as I know Helsinki’s ‘agent’ approach is rather special.”
The programme launched in 2016 with one innovation agent who worked across economic development, social services and healthcare. Since then, the team has expanded to around 15 agents covering additional areas including education, culture and the built environment. The agents are joint resources for the economic development division and the relevant departments.
“As the name ‘innovation agent’ suggests, the work resembles intelligence operations,” said Heinonen. “Innovation agents need to be constantly aware of what is happening in their field of expertise and what kind of companies operate in the relevant network.
“A good innovation agent is curious, innovative, result-oriented, and has excellent people skills.”
Companies can contact an innovation agent in their field directly on an ongoing basis, rather than having to wait for formal proposal requests.
“Innovation agents constantly seek new ideas and are happy to hear from the business sector, so companies should contact an agent in their field at a low threshold,” said Heinonen.
The team also runs innovation challenges and real-world trials to find new partners. Areas of focus include the circular economy, education, traffic safety, promoting exercise, and low carbon housing.
“Innovation challenges help companies develop their products together with a major player, the largest city in Finland, in authentic operating environments,” said innovation agent Roope Töllikkö.
He is working on an innovation challenge to encourage physical activity in young people.
“We help companies gain a direct access to young people. Without the city’s support, this would be difficult. And the city always benefits when the health and wellbeing of its residents improves,” Töllikkö said.
To other cities, Heinonen said: “It is of utmost importance that you find a way to activate and motivate key people from different divisions to work together with innovation agents or equivalent people. You should also accept that it will take time to make this concept work properly. Be patient.
“In addition, innovation agents are just one – important – piece in the puzzle when you aim for opening the city as an innovation platform.”
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