Clusters and networks have been built since the 1970s in regional development. More recently, we have come to address them as ecosystems. Interest in co-operation in urban ecosystems has grown everywhere in the world. With an emphasis on the role of cities as the drivers of regional economic vitality, different kinds of specialised ecosystems are needed. The city is not able to tackle urban challenges alone, but acting as a co-creation orchestrator, it enables actors to work together as an ecosystem. This was also the case in Vantaa.
The City of Vantaa faces a challenge of low-skilled workplaces and an under-educated workforce. This causes risks for the competitiveness of the Vantaa-based SMEs, especially in the era of digitalisation and automation. The problem has been addressed in Vantaa with the support from the Urban Innovative Actions initiative, which offers urban authorities the possibility to experiment and test innovative and creative solutions. The city of Vantaa has been involved in the co-creation and testing of new solutions together with education providers, businesses and research institutes. Such local co-created trials are needed to try out new solutions that address pressing urban challenges.
City of Vantaa as a living lab for solutions supporting SME growth
The Urban Growth Vantaa project started in January 2019 with an aim to co-create innovative solutions combining elements that support SMEs’ growth and enable their social investments. The project was initiated as a response to the needs of Vantaa-based SMEs and their employees especially in upskilling, but also digitalization and employment in the era of technological change. The main actors were the City of Vantaa, Laurea University of Applied Sciences, Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, Vantaa Vocational College Varia and five Vantaa-based business partners.
Co-creation methods are suitable in urban ecosystems that need to tackle complex challenges. The co-creation operating model is based on the city's role as an urban living lab and as an enabler of innovation in urban ecosystems. The city orchestrates the work of different actors, each with its own goals but with a common vision. Co-creation methods and tools help everyone in the urban ecosystem to shape and create more efficient, needs-based services.
Local communities and regions are best positioned to respond to this urgent call for solutions that respond both to the needs of employees and businesses (OECD 2022). The city of Vantaa has recognised a concurrent need to support SMEs in their growth and working adults to acquire new jobs and skills. Working adults need training, reskilling and upskilling now more than ever. In Vantaa, around 30 per cent of employees have only basic-level education. A high number of jobs are in industries such as trade, construction, manufacturing and logistics, which face the pressure of automation. Businesses and employees need help in the transition from declining to growing occupations and sectors.
Reskilling and upskilling can best be seen as a collective responsibility where education providers, businesses and employees work together for locally responsive solutions (Erkkilä & Kortesalmi 2020; OECD 2022). In Vantaa, local companies were engaged from the beginning in defining the needs and terms of upskilling. Close liaisons with local companies in skills development have proved to provide an important gateway, especially when reaching out to the vulnerable groups in working life, i.e., those employees who have low qualifications or outdated skills. These groups are under-represented in adult learning and in risk of being left behind in digitalised working life (see Erkkilä 2022). Also, innovative training packages were tailored for a higher educated workforce.
Together we are more
The Urban Growth Vantaa project was implemented using co-creation methods. A diverse group of experts from the organisations involved in the project participated in the planning and ideation of the project. Creating a shared understanding and working towards common goals over organisational boundaries played a central role in the project. During the project, innovation work was conducted in various groups and workshops to create solutions for the competence needs of SMEs, which meant that mutual interaction and communication were key to the success of the project. (Lamberg, Lappalainen & Louekari 2022). The project impact was measured through an impact evaluation that utilized a randomized control design and a qualitative post-evaluation. Overall, the evaluation findings were positive confirming that the project was successful in obtaining the expected results.
The main benefits of co-creation were that each organisation and each participant brought different strengths, knowledge, networks and connections that supported successful project implementation. The final evaluation findings also concluded that co-creation as a practice steered the project actors to engage in joint discussions and cooperation. (Ruokonen, Pyykkönen, Antikainen, Nyman & Laiho 2022).
Regular meetings at different levels within the project team, as well as various workshops and working groups, supported smooth cooperation across organisational boundaries. This was an enabling factor for co-creation and finding solutions to challenges that concerned different types of actors. Further, dissemination of the lessons learned across the organisations provided participating organisations with new perspectives.
The project has helped different actors to deepen and strengthen their cooperation, which improves the opportunities for the continuity of the emergent local (growth and) competence development ecosystem (Ruokonen et al. 2022).
According to the findings of the project, working in an ecosystem promoted the development of agile solutions and innovations that, in this case, managed to address companies’ diverse competence needs successfully (Lamberg et al. 2022). Moreover, we claim that the cooperative network of project partners in the co-creation process resulted in the creation of a local ecosystem of continuous learning. The project team has been successful so far in gaining funding for two further project based on the findings of Urban Growth Vantaa, namely MUUVO and VALUE, which continue the work for Vantaa SMEs growth and workforce upskilling.
Significant efforts were made to scale up the best practices. The team compiled learnings into a publication ‘New Competencies for Growth’ which together with a Policy Brief were shared at national and international level for practitioners and policymakers. The project also established a strong connection with the newly established national Service Centre for Continuous Learning and Employment, which reports directly to the Ministry of Education and Culture and the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment. The Centre will play a crucial role in contributing to the dissemination and scaling up the project results.
Management team as a shared leadership practice
During the project, we launched the management team concept in connection with a personnel change. The management team included the programme manager of the city of Vantaa and the project managers of the universities of applied sciences. We worked closely together in managing the project.
We believe that this model was one of the key factors in the successful implementation of this interorganisational project. The fast pace of the project required constant discussion and interaction. We made the biggest decisions together, sparred and supported each other in changing situations, and we learned from each other. Each manager was responsible for her own team, but also led the entire project with her own contribution in a common direction.
The project came to an end in July 2022. The challenge in development projects is their short implementation cycle, which poses challenges to the long-term development and implementation of innovations. As stated in the project final evaluation, ’the dialogue between businesses, educational organisations (both universities of applied sciences and vocational education organisations) and the city (further developing the ecosystem) needs both unofficial and more structured official ‘encouragement’. Cooperation and further co-creation indeed require adequate resourcing in terms of people, time and facilitation (Ruokonen et al. 2022).” We believe that the emerging skills development ecosystem will help to ensure the continuity of the project results. The co-creation mindset, culture of trust and a shared vision for the next steps will be the enabling factors for continuous dialogue and cooperation.
Erkkilä, L. 2022. Inclusion through the workplace – Vantaa upskilling solutions. Laurea Journal, 6.5.2022. http://urn.fi/URN:NBN:fi-fe2022050633375
Erkkilä, L. & Kortesalmi, M. 2020. Jatkuva oppiminen on työntekijän, työpaikan ja kouluttajan yhteistyötä. Urbaania kasvua Vantaa. Kokemuksia kentältä (hankejulkaisu), 41-53. https://urbaaniakasvua.fi/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Urbaania_kasvua_hanke-2.pdf
Lamberg, A.-R., Lappalainen N. & Louekari, V. (Eds.) 2022. Uudella osaamisella kasvuun Urbaania kasvua Vantaa -hankkeen ratkaisuja pk-yrityksille. Laurea-ammattikorkeakoulu 2022. https://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-951-799-646-4
OECD 2022. OECD Local Skills Week, Future-Proofing Local Skills Systems 15-17 February 2022. Highlights. https://www.oecd.org/cfe/leed/future-proofing-adult-learning-cities/OECD-Local-Skills-Week-2022-Highlights.pdf
Ruokonen, H., Pyykkönen, S., Antikainen, J., Nyman, J. & Laiho, A. 2022. External evaluation The Urban Growth – GSIP Vantaa Project (MDI) https://urbaaniakasvua.fi/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/Evaluation-of-the-Urban-Growth-GSIP-Vantaa-project-FINAL-19.5.2022.pdf