Former ski jumper Matti Nykänen is famous in Finland as much for his sporting success as he is for pearls of (usually unsolicited) wisdom. “I colour my hair once every two months, and the world changes, and I change along with it,” Mr Nykänen has been quoted as saying when asked about his flamboyant style. But it is not only Mr Nykänen who is busy rethinking his image.

Phone giant Nokia, one of Finland’s most prominent companies, has been sinking ever since Apple started the smartphone revolution. In 2012, after 14 years at the top, Nokia lost its status as the biggest mobile phone producer to Samsung. Worse still, the company has fallen outside the top five smartphone producers and its sales in the third quarter of 2012 were down 22% compared with the same period in 2011. In March 2012, the company axed 1000 jobs from a phone factory in the city of Salo, in western Finland. Then in January it announced that a further 300 jobs were to go and a further 820 would be shifted overseas.


Opportunity knocks

“Obviously, there is a crisis connected with Nokia. But it also creates opportunities. Nokia ties up a lot of resources and we can come out of it with a more diversified economic landscape,” says Micah Gland, CEO of Helsinki Business Hub, the investment promotion agency for the Greater Helsinki region.

What may look like a desperate attempt to look for a silver lining behind a massive cloud created by Nokia’s demise is, in fact, an example of sisu  – a Finnish term that can be loosely translated as the power to move forward rationally, despite difficulties.

Yet, it is not only sisu that keeps fuelling Finnish hopes that the country has not lost its tech appeal. “When companies enter a new market, they spend a lot of time and money to find a country manager and a right team. We have people who, while working for Nokia, gained global exposure and know how to innovate,” says Markku Huotari, who was employed at Nokia’s research and development (R&D) centre for 17 years. In 2012, in order to deliver a soft landing for the new investors and ex-Nokia employees, Mr Huotari founded Kaato, a networking platform for tech professionals. Sponsored by local and national entities, as well as Nokia, Kaato not only links potential investors with ICT professionals, but aims to provide turnkey solutions for tech companies willing to invest in Finland.

Tech hubs

Finding targets for mergers and acquisitions also helps, especially among the start-ups. The proliferation of fledgling tech companies is one of the most positive outcomes of Nokia’s crisis. “Earlier, people had no reason to leave Nokia. Now we are in a totally different era. There are more and more new companies coming to life. Nokia alone spun out 400 start-ups, with experienced global business teams and intellectual property rights licensed by Nokia,” says Ari Huczkowski, CEO at Otaniemi Marketing, a company responsible for promoting Otaniemi Technology Hub. "You can guess how investors feel about this. It is a candy store for them," he says.

Otaniemi, located eight kilometres outside Helsinki, is home to more than 800 companies, including Nokia, engineering company Kone and Rovio, the company behind the Angry Birds game. The revenues of Rovio, the most recent Finnish company to enjoy international success, catapulted to $106.3m in 2011 – 10 times higher than a year earlier, as smart-phone users around the world indulged themselves in a bird-hurling frenzy. Mr Huczkowski is, of course, pleased at seeing Rovio’s rise to prominence, but he becomes really animated when it comes to talking about Rovio wannabes. “We have so many start-ups now. They are at the early stage of development at the moment, but wait for a year and see. Some of them will go under, of course, but some will stay and make a difference,” he says.

Otaniemi is a fertile ground for new tech companies – largely thanks to the aptly named non-profit organisation Startup Sauna, which was established in 2010 at Aalto University campus, in the Otaniemi complex. To date, more than 90 companies that graduated from the programme have raised $25m in funding. The organisation also arranges Slush, an annual get-together of entrepreneurs and investors. The event has strong appeal in the tech community; the most recent Slush gathered 3500 people, 550 companies and 250 investors, according to the conference organisers.

Alternative ecosystem

“Otaniemi is already the biggest innovation hub in northern Europe and it keeps on growing,” boasts Jukka Mäkelä, the mayor of Espoo, the municipality where the hi-tech campus is located. Mr Mäkelä is also quick to point out that Espoo is not copying Silicon Valley, but aims to create an alternative tech ecosystem. “We see Espoo as the innovation city for families, as it is not all about the buildings, but also what is between them,” says Mr Mäkelä. And between the R&D centres, residents of Espoo can find vast forests, 95 lakes, 165 islands and 58 kilometres of coastline.

Espoo has been growing for decades, due to its close proximity to Helsinki. However, thanks to the innovation clusters, its role in the Greater Helsinki region goes beyond being the capital city’s bedroom.

Vantaa, a city located 30 kilometres east of Espoo, shares a similar growth story. And like Espoo, the city did not settle for being merely a suburb of Helsinki. “We have an international airport, and that is obviously our biggest strength,” says Kari Nenonen, the mayor of Vantaa. “But apart from that, we also have a very good business climate here. We did a survey among entrepreneurs based here and their feedback was very positive,” Mr Nenonen adds.

The airline Finnair, headquartered in Vantaa, offers another example of Finland's drive to overcome adversities. The flag carrier for a nation of 5 million people, hosted 8.77 million passengers in 2012, thanks to Finnair’s decision to specialise in flights to Asia. In 2012, it was the third largest airline servicing Asian destinations from Europe.

Better together

Helsinki is upping its game too. As the nation’s biggest city, it has naturally been bringing in people from all over the country, but the city’s ambitions go beyond that. “As much as 5% of the workforce in Helsinki came from Estonia. Tallinn is our twin city, not because of formal agreements but because people vote with their feet and there are many synergies between the cities,” says Jussi Pajunen, mayor of Helsinki. The informal twinning of the cities is also helping to build a bigger market for potential investors. The combined population of Greater Helsinki and Tallinn is more than 1.7 million people – nearly double the number of residents who live within Helsinki’s city limits.

Increasingly, the Helsinki region has been attracting young professionals, not just for its career opportunities, but also its leisure attractions such as Taitoliikuntakeskus, where amateurs can try their best at space acrobatics, and Serena, a water park and winter park centre. “We want to be fun and functional. I have been the mayor of Helsinki for eight years now and I must say that over that period, the fun part of the city has been growing stronger and stronger,” says Mr Pajunen.

Finland has been heavily affected by the crisis in Nokia. But the way in which the cities in the Greater Helsinki region are coping with that shows an admirable strength in adapting to changing circumstances. “I am prepared for every day – even for tomorrow,” says hair chameleon Mr Nykänen. It seems that those responsible for the Finnish economic development can say the same.