Christopher Raymond’s team helps build thriving cities – “Society must define success in a new way”

Professor Christopher Raymond at the University of Helsinki leads the Transformative Cities project, which develops tools for accelerating the sustainability transition. One of the project’s most important partners is the lift company Kone, which intends to utilise research findings in its strategic foresight operation

Cities are facing significant change: to keep hold of the capacity for good living, they must cut emissions and preserve biodiversity – in short, this means the achievement of climate and biodiversity goals as soon as possible. There are obstacles on the road to that objective.

“We lack tools to help citizens and organisations navigate change,” says Professor of Sustainability Science Christopher Raymond from the University of Helsinki.

This is why Raymond and a group of Finnish researchers have now joined forces with businesses and cities in the Transformative Cities project, which received €2 million in funding from the Academy of Finland for the period 2023–2025. The goal is to produce information on everyday lives in cities in support of Finland’s national Recovery and Resilience Plan and accelerate the sustainability transition.

According to Raymond, the transformation is hindered by our financial system and legislation. They favour the status quo. Another problem facing cities is politics that does not support systemic change: ministries, cities and various industries can all have their own mutually unreconciled carbon neutrality and biodiversity strategies. Moreover, further information is needed for urban planning on what residents and businesses are looking for in a sustainable future.

“We need data streams and systems that can bring these expectations together,” Raymond sums up.

New digital applications to support sustainable everyday life

One of the researchers’ partners is Kone, with whom the University of Helsinki signed a strategic collaboration agreement in March 2022. The mission of Kone is to make cities better places to live, together with its customers and partners.

“Involvement in the steering group of the Transformative Cities project provides us with valuable information on how to engage urban residents in sustainable change. The information can be utilised, for example, in the development of digital applications that help people consider, among other things, the sustainability effects of their everyday choices,” says Jaana Hyvärinen, who oversees strategic foresight at Kone.

Together with researchers, Kone wishes to investigate how the business can take advantage of various data streams in decision-making.

“We gain a connection to top-level researchers in various fields who approach sustainability from a multidisciplinary perspective. It helps us accumulate knowledge that can be applied in the development of environmentally friendly solutions.”

According to Raymond, major opportunities to speed up the sustainability transition lie in transport hubs that assemble under one roof rail traffic, the underground, bus services and cycling opportunities. It is important to find new ways to encourage citizens to travel sustainably and to build charging stations for carbon-neutral means of transport.

In addition, green roofs and walls, rain gardens and wetlands must be built in urban areas. Nature-based solutions can support human wellbeing, minimise harmful spills by absorbing rainwater, reduce flood risk and safeguard freshwater ecosystems.

Businesses can help stop biodiversity loss

In the UN biodiversity conference organised in December, nearly 200 countries committed to protecting a third of Earth’s biodiversity by 2030. According to Raymond, businesses have an important role in achieving this goal. They must be able to include measures that restore and protect the environment in their business plans.

“Understanding the topic requires extensive cooperation with our partners and customers. This research project will increase understanding of the future of urban construction and mobility,” Hyvärinen notes.

According to Raymond, the financial wealth of businesses will be increasingly linked to ecological and social wellbeing. Businesses must be able to weigh their decisions in terms of the common good. They need indicators with which they can perceive the impact of their operations on the environment.

“This requires new kinds of networks that we hope to be able to establish in the Transformative Cities project.”

Societies must redefine success indicators

According to Raymond, Finnish cities have a good starting point for a sustainable future: their carbon neutrality strategies are ambitious. However, what remains to be decided is how to implement the plans in practice. Raymond points out that, in order to succeed, it is essential to be able to establish sector-transcending strategies between ministries, industries and urban planning departments.

In addition, cities must consider the consequences of their decisions for the entire planet. It is not enough for Finland to be carbon neutral if we outsource the energy consumption required by solar panel production to China.

“A gap remains, but therein also lies a genuine opportunity for future collaboration,” Raymond says.

He believes that it would already be a big step forward on the path towards the sustainability transition if citizens, businesses and cities would have the means to critically examine the consequences of their decisions. The mindset of short-term economic growth must change and be replaced with broader indicators of wellbeing, such as fairness, equality and biodiversity.

“Society must define success in a new way,” Raymond says.

Transformative Cities enhances understanding of people’s lives in cities

  • Transformative Cities is accelerating the transition towards carbon neutrality and climate sustainability. The project has received €2 million in funding from the Academy of Finland.
  • The consortium is headed by Professor Christopher Raymond from the University of Helsinki, one of the world’s most highly cited researchers in his field, who is involved in the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS) and the Finnish Nature Panel.
  • Also contributing are Aalto University, the University of Eastern Finland, the University of Oulu, the University of Turku and the NATURA network as well as a number of international partners.
  • Participating Finnish cities include Helsinki, Espoo, Lahti, Oulu and Turku. In addition, several companies are involved: KONE, Telia, YIT, ITS Finland, the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, Mapita and Sova3D.
  • The project will organise several courses and webinars open to businesses, researchers and decision-makers.