When 1+1 is more than two: Peter Vesterbacka
Chances are that you are among the one billion people in the world who has downloaded and enjoyed the wildly successful game Angry Birds. In which case you have our today’s guest, Peter Vesterbacka to thank for. He played a crucial role in developing and branding the game, winning him the nickname the Mighty Eagle.
Recently, Peter Vesterbacka has become known for his plan to build a tunnel that would shorten the travel time between Tallinn and Helsinki to only 20 minutes. His ambitious FinEst Bay Area idea would surely be boosted by opening the tunnel for travel by 2024.
A guy like Peter Vesterbacka is an inspiration to most of us – with his bold ideas and the courage to pursue them. He’s a true global citizen, with projects and connections in each corner of the world. So on a beautiful April day, Wuruhi jumped on the ferry to Finland to have a coffee with the guy who famously always wears a red hoodie. Finding him relaxed and buying plane tickets to India for the next day, we bore into his take on the Tallinn-Helsinki collaboration and role of design in the world.
You seem to think that Estonia and Finland have a lot of similarities and that there should be plenty of collaboration between the two countries, despite our historic differences. Why do you think so or how can these differences be overcome?
The historic differences are a matter of perspective, I guess. It’s a little bit like when you ask the Chinese about their thoughts on the French Revolution: they will tell you that it’s too early to tell. If you just think about the recent history, of course there is a difference between Finland and Estonia but if you look at the longer term, not so much.
We actually had a discussion about the tunnel a couple of days ago in Helsinki. Valdar Liive, who has been working with this together with us, used this example that when Elias Lönnrot was collecting stories for Kalevala, he spent a lot of time in Estonia. At the time, there was no common language because the educated elite in Estonia spoke German or Russian and everyone in Finland spoke Finnish or Swedish. Things change fast.
But I think that for every difference, there are more similarities. If you look at the ferry here, there are a lot of similarities and a lot of interaction. When we came on board, we were discussing that you can obviously tell that it’s not just the Finnish people going to Tallinn to buy cheap alcohol, which is the usual stereotype. Not all Estonians go to Helsinki to fix or work on somebody’s house. Not that there aren’t people doing it but there is also a big diversity in the people, in the interactions between Helsinki and Tallinn.
High school kids tell that going to Estonia from Helsinki doesn’t even feel like going abroad. Going to Tallinn is no big deal, it’s like going to Turkku and Tampere. Probably a similar thing for Estonians when they go to Helsinki.
Just looking at the recent history since Estonia regained its independence, we have seen a massive growth in the interaction and I think we can expect that to grow on every level. In business, in politics, in everything. That’s one answer.
Another thing is that Helsinki and Tallinn are geographically very close – it’s a driving force that two capital cities are only two hours apart. What I think will happen with the tunnel is that at the end of 2024, when we have the first trains running and it’s only 20 minutes from one city to another, it will boost everything. It will boost and multiply the interaction.
Then it will be very clear why we’re not talking about two cities but one metropolitan area with the Helsinki part in the north and Tallinn in the south. It will be a metropolitan area that is bigger than Stockholm, bigger than Amsterdam. Tallinn and Helsinki are at the centre of this entire FinEst Bay Area; and a bit more in the periphery you have Saint Petersburg, you have Stockholm.
If you look at the bigger picture, Helsinki and Tallinn are at the heart of Eurasia with Europe on one side and Asia on the other. Our home market is 5 billion people – 70% of the world’s population right around us. I can get on a plane tomorrow and in 6 hours I’ll be in Delhi, in 7 hours in Beijing, in 8 hours in Shanghai and Tokyo. We are the closest European neighbour to China, India, Japan, most Asian countries.
I think it’s something a lot of people don’t realize but it actually makes the Helsinki-Tallinn area the fastest growing metropolitan area in all of Europe and one of the fastest growing in all of Eurasia. We have a very unique story with two capital cities becoming one. Having one metropolitan area, it’s unique. I mean there are twin cities – like Minneapolis and Saint Paul where this has happened but I don’t think we have any other examples of two national capitals becoming one.
What do you think the Tallinn-Helsinki combination or FinEst Bay Area can offer to the world? Why would it be a good dynamic?
I think it’s fantastic because you have two nations – same but different. The most obvious thing is that now we have a metropolitan area with all that Helsinki can offer and all that Tallinn can offer. Helsinki doesn’t have anything that even compares to the Old Town of Tallinn. I mean, it’s one of the most amazing Old Towns anywhere.
Then if you look at what can Helsinki offer – of course we have a fantastic airport with connections to all of Asia, as one example. If you ask people here on this ferry about why they’re going to Tallinn, it may be because of the Tallinn Music Week but many are probably going just to have a nice night in the Old Town, get something nice to eat and drink. When we take the ferry back and ask the same thing about Helsinki, there might be a concert or a play they want to see or friends to visit. There’s always something unique in each city.
I think that by having two cities, kind of perceived as one, makes growth inevitable and the entire area a bit more attractive. It’s a competition between cities, between metropolitan areas. By working together, Tallinn and Helsinki can give the guys in London a run for their money with Brexit; we can compete with the likes of the Tokyos, Shanghais and Beijings.
It’s making Helsinki and Tallinn a real metropolitan area. When you have two cities together and have enough of people, amazing things will happen.
Another thing that we can offer in our metropolitan area is that we have an urban area and then half an hour out, you’re in nature. A lot of healthy balance, it’s not like Shanghai and Beijing where there’s only more and more of urban area.
Helsinki and Tallinn are a very good size, functional and they are both well designed. Both cities appreciate design. In Helsinki, people take it for granted, because why wouldn’t you do things properly? Meaning, why wouldn’t you design things? Nobody would even question that.
I see a lot of positives. And of course you can ask whether there isn’t a risk that all becomes the same. Maybe, but I don’t think that this is a very likely outcome. Overall, I see it as a very positive process.
I like that you say that the more people, the more interesting things will come out of it. When you look at Wuruhi, it might seem just a store, just a magazine, but the whole idea behind it is to create a community of creative people – and designers. To bring together people from the same field who can share their know-how. Do you see it happen between Helsinki and Tallinn – or Helsinki and Baltics?
Of course; and it’s already happening.
On a very simple, micro level this is exactly what will happen: you can have two instead of one. Here you can get amazing things, two capital cities in one metropolitan area. This is actually true already now but the tunnel will make it even more real. I can wake up in Helsinki and I can have lunch with my friends in Tallinn and be back home in the evening or even in the afternoon. 20 minutes, done! I think we don’t even realize how big the change will be for the mind-set – we’re actually so close and near to each other.
True! Talking about what’s worth visiting in Helsinki, I spent a few hours in the Cable Factory (Kaapelitehdas – ed.) that seemed like a nice place for creative people.
Yes, it’s great. We with some other people have a co-working space there. Cable Factory is fantastic, it’s the biggest cultural hub in all of Europe: five hectares of stuff. If you walk the corridors, the different floors – and even though we have an office there –, you always discover new things. There are so many companies, so many things: there is Kung Fu, a dance school, artists, painters, movies, TV channels, it’s, wow… galleries, so on. It’s one of my absolute favourite places in Helsinki just because it’s packed with this kind of stuff. And then, it’s super close to Tallinn (the port – ed.).
Have you been to Telliskivi Creative City in Tallinn as well?
Yes, of course. Love it, it’s great.
What do you think is the role of these kinds of hubs?
In Beijing you have a similar hub which is even bigger and more amazing. It’s an old factory that used to do be very underground and very anti-authority. You take Telliskivi and the Cable Factory and multiply them by 10 or 20. It’s amazing! You can find these in big cities and big metropolitan areas. I think we’re lucky in Helsinki and Tallinn to have these hubs.
The role of these is to bring like-minded people together. It’s an opportunity to design cool projects. Amazing things always happen when people meet. Take Tallinn Music Week, Slush or Flow festival; take any of these events, there are always unexpected results when people meet and talk. That’s why cities are engines of, let’s say, culture, growth, and business. It’s just how the world works.
An example of a collaboration born in one of these hubs actually came to life during Tallinn Music Week. The founder of AR Video Booth Katja Rasi from Finland and an Estonian PR consultant and video producer Vahur Orrin met in Kaapelitehdas about a month ago. They came up with an augmented reality experience where people can sit in a train between Tallinn and Helsinki with me – while the train is actually not there yet.
My experience tells that what unifies the Finnish and Estonian entrepreneurs the most is the willingess to do things together and make quick decisions if needed. And when you have more people, it’s more likely that better and more interesting ideas come than when you have a person hanging out alone in the forest. Not that it’s a bad thing to be alone in the forest!
Coming to design, we’ve discussed in Wuruhi that many Finnish designers have figured out how good of a cultural export article design is. Take Marimekko and Iittala for example – how do you think their global success happened?
It’s happened over time. But when you look at many of the designs and brands in Finland, we’re still not particularly good at getting our products and service designs out there to the world. It’s doing okay but I think we could do much-much better. But of course we have some global success stories – also iconic ones like Fiskars scissors, patterns from Marimekko.
One of the reasons we have been very successful in for example games in Finland is because of beautiful design. Take the character business – we have the Moomins, Angry Birds, a few characters that we’ve managed to turn into global icons. It’s good to see that it’s happening.
And of course we have many successful designers and companies in the area of service design. How do you design these new digital services, that is, games but also any other online services? We have Fjord that was acquired by Accenture, Idean by Capgemini, and others that are globally successful in digital service design. I’d say it’s because of the culture of appreciating good design, be it physical or digital.
When you look at the digital service side, we are super impressed with what Estonia has been doing with the e-government services, also in the area of the new digital services for people. For me, it’s a good, everyday life kind of design.
Design does seem to have an important role in your life – or at least you think about it a lot.
Yes, but for Finnish people it’s also one of these things that are taken for granted – that of course, things should be beautifully designed and you’re surprised when they’re not. Like a coffee cup or a digital service online… It’s like air you breathe: when you walk around, you don’t think: “Oh, it’s really nice air to breathe here.”
It’s the same thing with good design: it’s there, it works. You don’t realize and you don’t think about it until you feel that the air is not very good. Same thing with design – ideally, you shouldn’t even think about. You notice design when for example a table is not visually appealing; or if it’s designed without thinking about function and it doesn’t do its job.
Have you seen the original movie “Wall Street”? Michael Douglas is in a scene there where a young guy made a lot of money on Wall Street and his wife or girlfriend has partly designed their apartment. Gordon Gekko puts his glass on the table but the table doesn’t have a surface. It looks like a table but his glass just falls on the ground. The guy says: “Oh, it happens all the time, it’s a design thing.” A great example of something that looks great but it doesn’t perform the function at all.
You can see that in for example French, Italian or some other European design. You realize that it looks fantastic but there is no functionality.
When you look at Finnish, I would say Nordic, and Estonian design, we appreciate that first and foremost, it’s a table and it works. Whatever it is, it fulfils its role. But once you have the function, there is no excuse of not making it also beautiful. That’s my definition of good design.
And then you can add other layers – that design should be sustainable and you should use materials that are not destroying the planet, and so on.
Yes, I think you’ve summarized the Nordic view on things, including design, really well. To start wrapping up, I wanted to ask a bit more about what you’re up to these days. Is it true that you now have an honorary position in a Chinese university?
Yes, talking about design, it’s actually a good point! I’m an adjunct professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at the College of Design and Innovation in Tongji University which is the best design school in China. I didn’t even think about it.
How did this happen?
I’ve known people from Tongji for years. Also, Tongji is in Shanghai, the sister city of Espoo for the last 20 years and there has been a lot of interaction between the two. Tomorrow I’m going to India and from India I go straight to Shanghai because there is a mayor to mayor meeting between the mayors of Espoo and Shanghai. Also, Aalto University and Tongji University work close together and I’ve gotten involved in the collaboration. Through this I know the people from Tongji University really well.
I work closely together with them in the areas of innovation and entrepreneurship which is also the background to Slush (a startup and tech event – ed.) that I started in 2008. I’ve been going to China twice a month for the past 6-7 years. If you want to understand what’s going on in the world, you need to understand what goes on in China and there’s a lot happening there!
And if you want to understand China, you have to be there and be involved. Being an adjunct professor is great for me in order to interact with the Tongji staff but then also with the students from China and from all over the world. It’s a learning opportunity.
I’m also on the advisory board for this new high school in Shanghai that is now applying the Finnish approach to education. The Chinese or the Asian approach is to be in school and get lots of homework. Basically: school and no life.
We’re now applying this model where 40% of the curriculum is project- and phenomenon-based learning and 60% is the traditional Chinese curriculum. Our thinking is that the students will get better results through this more independent and creative approach to the education. So that’s one thing that I’m doing there – working at it with start-ups all over China, with entrepreneurs, designers, innovators, etc. It’s a great way to learn.
For a regular person, what you do and have done, what you dare to say… is a bit insane.
It’s one of these things that I don’t really stop and reflect over that too much. It’s only when I do interviews like this that I start thinking about it. If I look at this week – last week I was in Tokyo for Slush, very intense and lots of meetings going on. Then I came back to Helsinki on Monday, two days there; one of these evenings we had the discussion about the tunnel, FinEst Bay Area, Helsinki and Tallinn.
Yesterday morning, I went to Jyväskylä for meetings with the local university, local polytechnic and came back a few hours ago. Now I’m here, going to Tallinn and tomorrow evening, I’ll go to India and then Delhi, Mumbai, Shanghai – and back. It’s normal for me. No big deal.
In February, we went to India to Andhra Pradesh with a delegation of governments from Finland and Estonia and had fantastic meetings with the local government to help improve their education system. Tomorrow, we are going to India with a delegation of Finnish and Estonian companies, other people from schools, universities, one mayor from Finland… Our idea is that we work together with the people in Andhra Pradesh to make their educational system better.
This is also a very Finnish, and maybe also Estonian, culture that because we have small nations, we work together. One reason why Finland is a superpower when it comes to open source is that sharing is deep in our culture. It works really well in this digital and online era. It’s very powerful.
This is also linked to design because design is also about approachability and inclusiveness. These are excellent global, universal and human values. Being small nations, for Estonia and Finland it’s not only a good thing; it’s a necessity and a must to adapt to the value of open borders. We can’t ignore the outside world. Well, we can but we’re not North Korea. We really believe in these kinds of values, we are egalitarian, we believe in providing equal opportunity for all in Nordic societies.
Coming back to why the Helsinki-Tallinn metropolitan area makes sense, it’s one of these cases where one plus one is more than two. I think it’s very important to have this discussion: how do we design it so that we have the best of the two worlds? We should see the opportunity to work on all of these common things, tunnel or not. There is no reason to wait. Every once in a while we have organized discussion events where we talk about the tunnel but not only; we talk about the FinEst Bay Area and what the tunnel would enable.
It’s like now we took Estonian and Finnish entrepreneurs and went to India instead of Finnish companies going with some Finnish ministries and Estonians by themselves. Why wouldn’t we do more of this? No one cares if it’s a Finnish or an Estonian or a Swedish company; what matters is if the company has a solution to problems in Andhra Pradesh, Beijing, and so on.
We can do more with less if we work together. If we share, we use less resources; this applies to city planning, education, financial regulations, space programs – anything. No reason to have two if we can have one. What we do can then be more impactful, powerful and meaningful to the world. So using the tunnel discussion to fuel other collaborations, that’s great.
I’ll finish up with a small question. Where would you like to see or think the world will be in 50 years?
The world? In 50 years? (thinks for a long time) Already 5 years is far out for me!
I think it will be a world that is a good place for people to live. That’s already a pretty big ambition – that we have safe air to breathe and water to drink. It’s of course a question of how you define good and ‘a better place’. For me, a good place to live means to have freedom and democracy but also, that you have individuals with an opportunity to fulfil themselves on every level. A world without borders, borders on every level: national borders, mental borders.
Even though there are a lot of not so amazing things going on like in the US, a lot of the good values are still there. For example, a good place to live also includes that there’s pursuit of happiness. I was of course very happy to see that Finland was ranked the happiest nation on the planet.
Also, I mentioned the delegation going to Andhra Pradesh in India: we are actually going to the Happy Cities Summit in Amaravati. They’re building happy cities while others speak about smart cities.
In the end, I’d say it’s actually about happiness, happy nations and happy planet. So… the world in 50 years, I think, will be a world of happy people.
In the end, Peter hands me his business card that reads: Peter Vesterbacka, Ambassador of Earth & Marketing, SpaceNation.org. In collaboration with NASA and Axiom Space, they had just launched a new, open for all, training program for astronauts. And of course, it all starts from a mobile app.
The interview has been shortened and edited for Wuruhi Magazine with permission from Peter Vesterbacka.
Interview from Wuruhi.com editor: Carina Paju
Photography: Arttu Karvonen
Assistants: Alli-Liis Vandel and Anna Vandel
Production: Wuruhi.com team