They are part of the global gaming elite, who could get a job and home almost anywhere in the world, yet here they are, on the 13th level of an office block in Ruoholahti, Helsinki. As is the custom in Finland, the question goes: why on earth did they choose to come here? Finns find it hard to believe that someone would voluntarily move to the small, northern, cold and empty land of just 5 million people, with a strange language and introverted mentality
On the other hand, Finns have had quite an ego boost lately, as Finland and capital Helsinki have in turn been named the most functional and attractive places in the world, offering the best quality of life. Helsinki Airport is busy building its reputation as a handy hub linking Asia with the west, and the Nordic Model sparks plenty of interest amid an uncertain global economic climate.
We are sitting in the Helsinki office of startup company Lightneer. The company’s 50-year-old CEO Mark Cochrane from Britain isn’t wearing any shoes, as he sits on a yellow couch. Mark and his family set up home in Espoo, which is part of the Helsinki metropolitan area.
Why did the family move to Finland?
Cochrane has been a director in the game industry for the past twenty years, and the main reason for coming to Helsinki was work. Lightneer was looking for a CEO, and recruitment was global: they wanted to find the best possible person, regardless of home country, town, language or citizenship. The gaming industry has a global character, and headhunters are used to find top talent.
According to Lightneer’s co-founder Lauri Järvilehto, the recruitment process for the position took nearly six months. Four applicants were shortlisted, all of from outside Finland. “All four flew to Finland to meet with our team, not intimidated by our middle-of-nowhere geography or less-than-ideal weather.”
Finland has been named the most functional and attractive places in the world, offering the best quality of life.”
There’s nothing new in everyone wanting to go to London, San Francisco or New York, but Finns are still getting used to the thought of top global experts being lured to this far end of the world. Studies are fiercely underway on what attracts global talent to Helsinki and other Finnish cities. What are the preconditions for high-skilled migration?
Rankings for different cities in recent years have not highlighted the classic magnets famous for their skylines in movies. A metropolis can be an attractive and exciting travel destination, but rankings look beyond the hype, concentrating on quality of living. Especially when moving with a family, there are other factors to think about than just the business side.
For Mark Cochrane, moving to Helsinki had its pros and cons. When initially contacted by a headhunter and forced to think about the prospect at least hypothetically, the first thing that came to mind was Finland’s high quality of education. For his children, aged 14, 12 and 10, the thought of moving was a hard one to swallow. ”Have you gone mad?” was their first reaction. For them the thought was “like a nuclear bomb”, says Cochrane.
Yet the move can be beneficial especially for the children: their international school in Espoo provides a soft landing to acclimatizing to life in Finland. As Mark Cochrane points out, education is of a high standard in Finland, renowned around the world for its Pisa results. “You can’t say the same for Britain. The government is doing its best, yet it’s all a mess. Brexit, and all kinds of stuff…”
Family Cochrane isn't alone in being swayed by Finland's reputation as an educational superpower. English-speaking education is on the increase in Helsinki and Espoo to make it easier for international families to move to the country.
Schools having to acknowledge the needs of the global business elite puts Finland in a relatively new situation. The first thing on the list for Helsinki’s new, energetic mayor Jan Vapaavuori (National Coalition Party) was to make Helsinki a more attractive home for global talent. Coupled with an impressive launch, his strategy for Helsinki declares that it will be the world’s best city in utilizing digitalization and among Europe’s most intriguing locations for startups. Vapaavuori wants his city to include a startup campus that will entice the global geek elite to Helsinki. Vapaavuori has also been thinking about their families. “More English and Chinese-speaking education is needed in schools”, he outlines.
”The content and languages on offer at schools make a difference for migrants like us. The weather was no issue”, says Mark Cochrane. “We are from Great Britain after all.”
Mark Cochrane’s resumé includes successes at companies like Popcap, Sony, Psygnosis, Vodafone and EA. He could have looked for work elsewhere. However, the Helsinki and Espoo region has a strong reputation in the gaming industry. A startup mentality centers around Aalto University, and many of the gurus in the field are from Finland. Also, Lightneer has received its fair share of publicity for founding members including Rovio’s former marketing director Peter Vesterbacka and co-founder Niklas Hed.
Talent mobility goes hand in hand with herd behavior: talents follow each other, as the accumulation of skill creates advancement prospects and inspiration. Helsinki forms a globally renowned hub in the gaming industry, but when the city competed for hosting the European Medicines Agency in fall 2017, no one was ready to relocate to Finland, and Helsinki dropped from the race already in the first round. The European Medicines Agency and Banking Authority had to relocate from London after Britain decided to leave the European Union. The Medicines Agency employs around 900 people. The winner was Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
The appeal of cities also depends on the sector. Spanish engineer Juan Luis Ordoñez, who develops games at Lightneer, says he ended up in Finland partly because he had read that Helsinki is one of the best locations to work in the gaming industry. In addition to Finland, USA and Canada are in the top three , he says.
Startup Genome compares startup ecosystems and their strengths on an annual basis. In 2018, the Global Startup Ecosystems Report (GSER) compared 45 cities. Helsinki was already known for its game industry, but this year also health and artificial intelligence were noted as Helsinki s strongholds. Also, the report states that Helsinki is the best ecosystem for local connectedness in the world, leaving behind ecosystems such as Silicon Valley and London.
CEO of Helsinki Business Hub Marja-Liisa Niinikoski comments on the results, saying that Helsinki has excellent co-operation between startups, cities, corporations and research institutes. As we all know, we don't have a huge market in Finland. That is why our startups aim straight for the global market. When competition is tough, we need to work together.
As comparisons show, a small city is neither a problem or trump card as such. Small circles can be an advantage in the international game industry: it is vital to collaborate and head across borders. But a small size can also pose a problem: Helsinki is unknown territory for many and is not necessarily seen to offer interesting job opportunities or a high enough quality of life. Who would want to live in western Siberia, goes the joke in Helsinki.
The GSER report compares Helsinki to Jerusalem, which, according to the analysis, both offer small, strong startup ecosystems and have a similar degree of a sense of community. The Greater Helsinki region, however, displays stronger local relationships. The report indicates that founders helping other founders improves the overall performance of the ecosystem.
Also factors like the mentioned strong local relationships influence the appeal of a city. The startup scene in Helsinki often takes pride in its openness, which also the GSER report mentions. In part, this is down to a culture created by pioneering entrepreneurs: openness has been the cornerstone of activities right from the start, and a matter of pride. This way of working benefits the entire city.
In attracting talents from one city to another, another thing to remember is that there’s more to life than work even for the most dedicated.
Engineer Juan Luis Ordoñez, who relocated to Helsinki from Alicante in Spain, mentions that the standard of living and work conditions are better than for instance in his home country. He values public services and the Nordic society model. He lives in the Töölö district in downtown Helsinki, and cycles to work, winter and summer. Ordoñez has also lived in Tallinn and Amsterdam in the past and done his fair share of traveling. “My Erasmus exchange period opened my eyes to how much you can do and see in life.”
For him, moving to Helsinki was not a major statement or final decision: “I was open to go anywhere”.
In the thoroughly international game industry, many agree that it doesn t really matter which country you live in at the time, as the operating environment is international anyway. Lightneer has around twenty employees and the working language is English. The company has amassed a funding totaling EUR 7.7 million from investors, which include US-based GSV Acceleration, French Brighteye VC, Finnish IPR VC and Reach Capital from Silicon Valley.
Sitting in Lightneer s office, you wouldn t necessarily think you were in Helsinki or even Scandinavia. The kitchen is kitted out with a coffee machine, fruit, snack bars and oat milk. The thoughts of Ordoñez on the society he now lives in do not relate to his own needs but a wider model: he is entitled to use occupational health care services but mentions the welfare society that centers on public health care as Finland s advantage. He goes on to list other classic good points: it s clean, safe, healthy and stable.
Zurich in Switzerland holds the top position in the 2018 Global Cities Talent Competitiveness Index (GTCI), coming second the year before. This year, Stockholm came second, followed by other Nordic countries: Oslo, Copenhagen and Helsinki. GTCI is an annual benchmarking report compiled by international business school INSEAD with The Adecco Group and Tata Communications. It measures and ranks 119 countries and 90 cities based on their ability to grow, attract and retain talent. INSEAD’s faculty members hail from 40 different countries, and it calls itself The Business School of the World.
The volume of potential workplaces has increased exponentially, as talents can look for work anywhere in the world.”
The GTCI ranking began to measure cities a couple of years ago, after it became apparent that cities had their own competition going on, separate from the countries themselves. The report on the GTCI results states that high-ranking cities showed similarities. As is the case for countries, over time, higher GDP levels naturally lead to higher technology penetration, creating ecosystems with better quality education, business, healthcare and infrastructure. This virtuous cycle leads to stronger talent competitiveness.
The reputation and appeal of cities have become separate from the nation state. People in the global labor market would say they live in London, Brussels, San Francisco, Tokyo, Shanghai or Copenhagen. Who would say they’re moving to work for the EU in Belgium?
Globalization and digitalization have resulted in a global job market. The volume of potential workplaces has increased exponentially, as talents can look for work anywhere in the world. At the same time, recruitment channels have transformed.
Cities should be thinking about how to increasingly make use of global talent. On the other hand, they need to chart the opportunities and hindrances newcomers might face: possibilities for developing business activities, career advancement, finding friends, business partners, funding, facilities Also, the general mood makes a difference. A city has a soul, too, which isn t so easy to build consciously.
The rise of cities has been a known topic for decades. Theorist Benjamin R. Barber (1939-2017) was one of the messengers of rising cities. He asserted that nation states would fail as a result of their own impossibility, and key issues of the human kind are solved in cities, led by mayors. Problems cannot be solved without experts.
Barber was a top-level international consultant on participatory democracy as well as an adviser to Bill Clinton, Howard Dean and Muammar Gaddafi. Many municipal decision-makers agree with Barber that the city is a logical operating environment when aiming to solve major questions: climate change, terrorism and the positives and negatives of digitalization. This results in cities being attractive business environments. Cities are more flexible – or agile when put in business terms – than states, as they do not need to guard their borders or sovereignty.
Also attracting talent benefits cities more than nation states. Economic growth is usually more rapid than for states, and they offer good transport connections and level of service. Cities have more culture, diversity and tolerance than in the countryside. Countries can be marketed to tourists, but someone considering a future home will be looking at the city. People do not live their everyday lives in a state, but in a town.
It is worth considering why a city needs to be interested whether an IT expert comes to Helsinki or chooses Singapore instead. The report that examines the GTCI results provides an in-depth analysis on the significance of diversity for cities and communities. According to studies, diversity is not just a nice-to-have or a result of globalization that needs to be dealt with, but rather a desirable state that brings prosperity and freedom of thought. Becoming a talent hub requires actively maintaining diversity. “…cities are devoting increasing efforts to foster diversity by attracting individuals (and companies) with very different backgrounds and profiles. For example, researchers Ottaviano and Peri (2006), considering evidence from a sample of 226 US cities from 1980 to 2010, showed that linguistic, racial, and composite diversity increased the average income of working-age population in American cities. They also showed that such positive effects are generally higher at city level than at that of the nation.”
Wearing a Janis Joplin t-shirt and jeans, young chap Jose Arrias is sitting in Lightneer s office in the Ruoholahti district of Helsinki. Originally from Venezuela, Arrias has lived in Helsinki for the past five years. He is the Social Media and Community Manager for learning-game studio Lightneer.
Why did this talent decide to leave Venezuela’s hottest corner for the cold north?
”A Finnish online education company was looking for a native Spanish speaker. I first worked remotely, thinking whether to come to Finland”, says Arrias. He had lived in Kenya before, and already knew it did not make sense to believe in preconceived ideas. Kenya was completely different to what he had imagined, and maybe the same went for Finland!
“And it was. It took a long time, nearly eighteen months, to see the true character of Finns. They are reserved and quiet at first, unlike us Venezuelans, who are friends with everyone. But once you get to know a Finn, you have a friend for life.”
Jose has learnt the language and seen the country as far as northernmost Lapland. He is a good example of how alongside rational decisions and city branding, high-skilled migration is a result of coincidences.
“I could have set off for Hong Kong or Brazil but found myself in Helsinki.”
Jose calls Helsinki his home and says if he could choose where to live from all the places in the world, he would choose Finland or Kenya. The two countries appeal for totally different reasons, but they both offer an adventure.
This long form also includes additional stories and viewpoints
"Major, world-changing innovation arises in places where people from different fields collide”, says urban influencer Mikko Särelä. In attracting talent, the aim is to increase networks of this type. Read the whole story
"The intention is to dismantle unnecessary bureaucracy around visas and permissions, and increase language offering in schools. Finnish working culture is promoted at the same time: “We have a culture of working together, low in hierarchy, which we need to be proud of”, says Tuula Antola, who is in charge of economic and urban development for the City of Espoo. Read the whole story
Talents move to interesting and attractive cities, not from one country to another. Hence along with a positive image of Finland, Helsinki needs a strong and realistic brand – one that fulfills the high expectations of global talent, writes Riitta Lumme-Tuomala from Aalto EE. Read the whole point of view.