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Digitalization in urban development

05 December 2023
City of Pietarsaari Director of Urban Development's views on remote work and digitalisation
Technical details

Director of Urban Development, Director of the Technical Department, Mika Hakosalo, City of Pietarsaari

My responsibility area is managing the technical sector including real estate, urban planning, municipal engineering, land area management, building permits and environmental issues. I am also responsible for city development both strategically and operatively. In this role I often reflect on how future housing and living will appear. Everything changed with the pandemic. Traditional office buildings are no longer needed. There is an undeveloped plot next to the bus station in Pietarsaari, but we need to plan carefully before we build anything, we hope that it will still function in 50 years.

It is possible to live in a small town, even if your workplace is in a larger city.

I am interested in the digitalization related to urban development.

Take, for example, the old Town Hall in the Pietarsaari City Centre. The second floor Council chamber and group rooms are only used once per month for a few hours when the city council gathers, but it’s empty during other times. It could be offered to external users as daytime workspaces. With the help of the digitalization, we could enable different users, electronic locks, surveillance, security, and access planning. Not just anyone can walk into this building. In any case, this relates to a larger trend of what the versatility of a building could be.

Not everyone needs to have an office space in their home; instead, we could create shared remote workspaces to revitalize the city center. People working remotely in the city center can use services and enjoy restaurants and coffees. This way, we also encourage entrepreneurship. In this case I don´t talk about an ordinary office hotel but a low-threshold community space where remote workers, as well as entrepreneurs, can gather. Students also need workspace and community. Networking alone can create new business opportunities. Of course, municipalities want businesses to thrive.

The use of school buildings, for example, could be developed to improve their utilization rates. For example, a historical warehouse of Tobacco factory, these spaces could be utilized better. It could be turned into low-threshold artist studios. One must be aware of how the world is changing. These are significant questions for municipalities and urban planning.

Nowadays, there are alternatives to the work at the office or remote work alone at home. I’ve also worked in Stockholm in Sweden. For example, when Ericsson moved from South-Stockholm to North-Stockholm, the employees still lived in the southern part of the city. At that time, remote workspaces were developed (although Ericsson ended up paying for home office renovations for employees and giving each employee 10-15,000 SEK for setting up their own home office).

There’s a trend in Stockholm where people are moving outside the city. Why live in Stockholm if you only need to be in the workplace once a week. This is an opportunity for small towns, and remote workspaces can be a good tool in attracting people. Distances no longer limit work and residence.

Maybe Finnish people prefer live and work alone in their own homes, but this is also a cultural question. Perhaps those with an immigrant background need more social life. Inclusion issues are part of urban development and the future of the working world.

People who have always lived here in Pietarsaari and have established social networks may not necessarily understand the importance of remote workspaces. They might think that it’s enough to design home offices inside the detached houses. But it’s crucial to also think about new forms of downtown living. You can live in the city center and still have access to remote workspaces, art spaces, or music spaces, even if these are not in your own apartment. This leads to the question of what constitutes a good quality of life.

About Sustainable Development

As the director of the technical department I can influence many different aspects regarding sustainable development. I always try to incorporate sustainability into all planning. Our architects have a lot of expertise when it comes to urban space planning. For example, the planning of the road network involves many elements that should be considered sustainably, such as stormwater management, buildings, intermediary spaces, vegetation, green design, water planning, and microclimate.

I always think that it’s worth investing in small experiments. An example of this is the summer bus trial. We are still analyzing the feedback from the trial because performance needs to be measured. User experiences, comfort, and quality of life are also important when developing, so that there are no additional costs later on. We are not seeking quick wins. Communication and marketing are also important. You have to be able to proudly communicate your successes. Sustainability garners positive attention.

You can rent electric bikes from the city, and we also have shared electric cars. Some of our employees come here from the neighbor city Kokkola, and they need their own car because they must use it during the day while moving between different locations, but pre-bookable shared electric cars enable them to use public transport for intercity commutes.

There is no public transportation in Pietarsaari, and I am currently working on that. In terms of social sustainability, we should consider who has possibility to participate to hobby activities in the evenings and in which areas they live. It’s not fair that car owners have better opportunities for hobbies.

Digitalization can achieve significant energy savings. We have installed IOT-robots in 20 buildings and with the data we gather we can optimize the comfort and energy use in the buildings. The estimated net savings are 200 000 euros next year.

About Remote Work

“You have to be at the workplace because otherwise it’s not considered as a real work”. This is a common attitude, especially in small municipalities in Finland. Remote work is based on trust. You can work from home without supervision if the information flows and no one isolates themselves. Municipalities don’t really know how to utilize remote work tools. Training is needed to show the possibilities of these tools. Sometimes it feels like we have very strict personal workstations, and people only work with their own department, without knowing others. By rearranging things slightly, some employees could work remotely at times, while others can rotate workplaces and thus interact with people beyond their immediate acquaintances.

Of course, there should be common rules; can you work while commuting, for example, on the train? How should work hours be recorded without a time clock? Can we hire remotely?

Article/interview by Laura Palovuori