International networking is part of the daily life of a developing city

Published: 26.5.2021 12.11

As in so many of the city’s operations, the COVID-19 pandemic has also meant changes in the city’s international activities. For example, the normally busy schedule of international visits to Espoo has been suspended altogether. International cooperation, however, has not diminished, but its nature has changed.

“As a rule, routine contacts with international partners took place electronically even before the pandemic. International cooperation was never just about hosting guests or taking business trips abroad. However, the pandemic has enabled us to address identified development needs which, in the so-called normal times, we might not have enough people to handle,” says Jasmin Repo, Deputy Head of International Affairs.   

Annika Forstén, international affairs specialist at Education and Cultural Services, says that in some international networks, the pandemic has even intensified cooperation through the utilisation of digital tools. “For example, cities that are members of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities have had a tremendous need to learn and hear how other cities address the challenges posed by the pandemic. For example, it has been discussed at joint remote meetings how equality between learners of different ages can be supported in exceptional times.”  

Different digital event platforms, however, allow discussion between participants to a varying extent.   

“Innovation and international activities will certainly still require personal encounters, through which long-term and confidence-based cooperation can be established. That can never be fully replaced by digital tools,” Forstén continues.  

Youth collaboration project rewarded for flexibility  

The Team Ocean project of Youth Services faced a challenge when the COVID-19 situation forced the meeting of Finnish and Turkish young people planned for the autumn break to be postponed. Despite this, the project is progressing. While waiting for a change in the pandemic situation, Finnish young people practice Turkish with a youth worker who is fluent in the language. They also use online tools to interact and communicate with Turkish young people regularly. The project, which focuses on cleaning up the seas and shorelines, did not stagnate but continued with a new plan.  

Ville Leino, international planner at Youth Services, is excited about the determination of young people to face the changed situation.  

“In the event of setbacks, it is important to create new and nice content to replace what has been cancelled. In the case of Team Ocean, young people have the opportunity to get to know each other even better than in the original plan. According to feedback from young people, the best thing about Erasmus+ projects is meeting young people from other countries. Online cooperation offers new opportunities for this interaction.” 

For young generations, internationality is often a part of daily life. For example, social media, e-gaming and interaction with a classmate who speaks a different native language are not perceived as particularly “international” activities. On the other hand, gaining international skills and understanding is becoming increasingly relevant in a world where cultures meet and phenomena are global. International work is, therefore, a significant part of the activities of Education and Cultural Services.   

The Environment Department’s Health & Greenspace project gained extra time due to the COVID-19 pandemic 

At the moment, two international projects are under way at the Espoo Environment Department. The Flying Squirrel LIFE project aims to reconcile the city’s growth with the protection of flying squirrels in urban areas. The Health & Greenspace URBACT network project promotes the health benefits of urban greenspaces. 

In both projects, joint international meetings abroad were cancelled. The project partners have postponed for example planned training events and photo exhibitions. In both projects, this means that when it is possible to organise events again, a lot will happen in a short time.  

Health & Greenspace received an additional three months due to the pandemic, which is important for a project lasting 2.5 years. During the pandemic, it has been more challenging to involve health sector actors and residents in the Health & Greenspace project. Flying Squirrel LIFE did not get extra time because in the long-term project (2018–2025), it will be easier to reorganise events and adapt activities to changed circumstances.  

Finnish maternity and child health clinic system raises interested in Japan 

Espoo’s cooperation with Japanese partners has continued despite the pandemic. There have been contacts from Japanese organisations, the Embassy of Japan in Finland and the Embassy of Finland in Tokyo. For example, Minna Eväsoja, a specialist at the City of Espoo, has been invited several times to speak at Tokyo Medical University. Espoo also engages in research cooperation with Osaka University. Eväsoja has cooperated closely with the university, which is why Espoo’s family and social work model “Let’s Talk About Children” (the Let’s Talk method) was mentioned in a Japanese publication.  

“The cooperation between maternity and child health clinics in Finland and Japan began for my part in 2015 and culminated on 4 July 2019 in the state visit of Crown Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko, whose programme also included getting acquainted with the Iso Omena maternity and child health clinic,” says Eväsoja. 

For example, the maternity and child health clinic in the Shibuya District in Tokyo has been influenced by the maternity and child health clinic at the Iso Omena Service Centre in Espoo.  

From bilateral cooperation to networked activities  

The city’s international activities have increased significantly in recent decades. Traditional twin town activities have given way to networked activities. The change affects not only Espoo, but the importance of cities in the international arena has increased rapidly around the world due to urbanisation. It is estimated that 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities in 30 years’ time.  

Cities are also subject to a lot of regulation outside national decision-making. For example, Espoo is committed to promoting sustainable development in accordance with the UN 2030 Agenda, and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are also a new language of cooperation between cities. According to estimates by the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities, approximately 60 per cent of EU legislation concerns cities in one way or another.   

Different international networks provide cities with the opportunity to interact directly with other actors across national borders. Espoo is a member of both actual networks of cities, such as EUROCITIES, the Union of Baltic Cities and the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities, and thematic networks, such as the Big Data Value Association.  

However, the tightened economic situation due to the pandemic means that the city’s international activities need to be made more efficient. In Espoo, this means, among other things, that hospitality practices and, for example, the reception of various international delegations will be considered more carefully. The city already has an operating model for technical visits(extrernal link), where the costs of international visiting groups are covered by a visit fee. This activity is also to be developed.