The City of Helsinki initiated collaboration with Aalto University’s Department of Design last spring to evaluate the impact of design activities. The evaluation represents the first extensive survey of the City’s design projects and the benefits and challenges of those projects. The results of the evaluation were presented at the closing seminar of an Aalto University design course in December.

The City of Helsinki has utilised design for many years in the development of services and the built environment. Design has also been incorporated into strategy work and organisational development in recent years. 

“Helsinki has been a pioneer in the use of design in the public sector, but information on the scope of the City’s design activities and on the contents and impact of those activities has not been gathered systematically,” says Helsinki’s City Design Manager Päivi Hietanen.

“Our collaboration with Aalto University has given us a good picture of Helsinki’s strengths in the utilisation of design and areas to develop. We now have an excellent analysis of the current situation and have obtained new tools and practical advice for the development of our operations,” Hietanen says, delighted with the results. 

Opportunitiesand challenges of design recognised

According to the analysis produced by Aalto University researchers, Helsinki has utilised design extensively and without hesitation for a variety of purposes. Design has been used to make customers’ voices heard, to increase the understanding of customer needs, and to improve services and internal operating models. The researchers also see it as a strength that design and customer orientation have been incorporated into the City Strategy.

Some of the challenges discovered in the survey were the great variance in design expertise and how well design is utilised in the City organisation. Furthermore, design activities are often carried out as projects, and the opportunities and concrete benefits of design are not yet fully recognised. 

“The findings of the researchers strengthened our own understanding that it is advisable to invest in systematic and persistent design activities. In addition, we should compile and share information and lessons from various design projects increasingly systematically,” Hietanen asserts. 



Visualisationof city design map. By Bin Shamsul Amri Daud, Nader Sayún Michel, Zheng Zheng, MenegolliAlessia

Studentsvisualise a city design map 

The City of Helsinki and Aalto University collaboration produced a city design map. The map divides Helsinki design activities into six categories. The city design map can be used to categorise various design projects and to evaluate their properties and impact. The map helps users to store information on projects and to communicate about the City’s design activities. 

The collaboration continued in the autumn with the Strategic Co-Design course, in which students worked on the results of the analysis phase. Students took a closer look at the City design projects and refined the city design map. 

“Students created a straightforward and comprehensible method in the course to evaluate and to categorise various design projects. They developed an interactive version of the city design map, and they visualised the map magnificently,” Hietanen says. 

“Our work with the students produced concrete tools for us to define project goals and to measure the achievement of those goals. This is a good basis to continue the City development work,” Hietanen asserts.

Aalto University is also satisfied with the collaboration. 

“The City of Helsinki is a pioneer in the use of design. Especially the scope and diversity of the City’s design activities create completely new types of challenges to develop design and its impact. Our expertise and interests are well suited for solving those challenges,” says Sampsa Hyysalo, Professor of Co-Design at Aalto University. 

“At the same time, the collaboration has given us a unique vantage point to wide-ranging use of design in urban contexts through both research and student projects. Our collaboration has been a pleasure to us so far, and we are hoping that it will continue far into the future,” Hyysalo says.

Internationalinterest in the evaluation of design

Helsinki’s design expertise has roused international interest.

“Helsinki is a large-scale consumer of design, and the international community has taken note. Design has made Helsinki an exciting role model. Helsinki is asked for experiences and advice in the use of design,” says Development Consultant Meri Virta of the Helsinki City Executive Office.

For the City of Helsinki, design means human-centred approaches and the utilisation of the customer perspective.

“Helsinki seeks to be the most functional city in the world. A functional city is created through cooperation, by listening to customers, and by taking customer needs into consideration. Design has a great deal to offer in this regard. We want also to be pioneers in evaluating our design activities. That is why I would welcome continued close cooperation with Aalto University in the future,” Virta asserts. 

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