Innovation agents channel companies’ development potential for the benefit of city residents

Have you already heard about the City of Helsinki innovation agents? Do you know how innovation and agents are related to each other?

Innovation agents are City of Helsinki employees, who act as intermediaries between the City and companies in matters related to innovation. Innovation agents enable companies to develop their products and promote their business while the City and its residents benefit from the new solutions thus created. Innovation agents operate extensively in various City Divisions: Social Services and Health Care, Education, Urban Environment, and Culture and Leisure.

Innovation agents seek new ideas in the business sector

Innovation agents are well acquainted with both their own field of expertise as well as the associated network, which may include, for example, companies, research institutes and public sector organisations. The main task of innovation agents is to look for areas of improvement in the City operations together with other experts in the field and to identify companies capable of responding to these challenges. Once the right companies have been identified, innovation agents help them develop their solutions to be marketable.

“Innovation agents constantly seek new ideas and are happy to hear from the business sector, so companies should contact an agent in their field at a low threshold,” says Kimmo Heinonen, Team Manager for innovation agents at the City of Helsinki.

As the name ‘innovation agent’ suggests, the work resembles intelligence operations. Innovation agents need to be constantly aware of what is happening in their field of expertise and what kind of companies operate in the relevant network. Furthermore, innovation agents relay the City’s views to the business sector and bring the business perspective to the City operations. So, information is shared both ways. The aim of effective exchange of information and practical experiments is to further develop the companies’ products and to create solutions that improve the lives of city residents.

Innovation challenges and experiments turn ideas into reality

Viable development ideas are refined into practical solutions through the City’s experimentation activities. Experiments are carried out in real experimental environments, such as schools, health stations and traffic.

Companies may contact innovation agents directly to see if their solutions could be tested and developed. Innovation agents have a direct contact to the City’s experimentation activities. The City also seeks potential companies for experiments by organising innovation challenges and trial rounds. The winning entry or entries of innovation challenges are selected for the actual development and experiment phase, where the proposed solution is refined and tested in cooperation between the company, City experts and end users. The selected companies will also receive financial compensation for their efforts. The aim of the experiments is to further develop the solution created by the company towards marketability. Other companies, consumers and sometimes also the public sector are sought as the customers for the developed product.

“Innovation challenges help companies develop their products together with a major player, the largest city in Finland, in authentic operating environments, which is naturally an excellent opportunity for any company,” says Innovation Agent Roope Töllikkö.

Töllikkö works in the field of physical activity and health promotion. Currently, a lion’s share of his contribution at work goes towards an innovation challenge seeking new ways of promoting the physical activity and comprehensive well-being of upper secondary students. The application period for the challenge recently ended, and ideas are currently being selected for the experiment phase. Read more about the challenge here.

The innovation challenge for increasing the physical activity and well-being of young people is an excellent example of a challenge that directly benefits not only the City but also the companies selected to take part in the experiment.

“We help companies gain a direct access to young people. Without the City’s support, this would be difficult. And the City always benefits when the health and well-being of its residents improves”, Töllikkö says. 

A lot of work remains to be done. Töllikkö brings out the market dialogue challenge, i.e., that the City and companies sometimes have difficulties understanding each other. The City Divisions do not necessarily have precise information on what kinds of companies operate in the field. Companies, on the other hand, are not always aware of what kinds of products should be developed and proposed for experiments. However, Töllikkö believes that mutual awareness will improve when efforts are made and time is set aside for promoting dialogue between the City and companies. Besides looking for new ideas, building bridges between the City and companies is an essential part of the work of an innovation agent. 

Entrepreneur – contact an agent in your field! 

Innovation agents often work for the City under the job title of Special Planner or Specialist as joint resources for the City’s Economic Development Division and the different City Divisions. The contact information for all innovation agents is available on the Contact page of this website. Do not hesitate to contact an agent in your field!

Photo: Marek Sebogal

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