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How a Google millionaire is creating an offline future for communities

How a Google millionaire is creating an offline future for communities

The colourful wooden buildings in Kapyla, a district in the north of Helsinki, were built in the 1920s to house the city’s working-class population. Like other garden cities, the idea was to enhance the sense of community for the workers escaping the slums. Multiple families lived in one building, with private garden plots for tenants, and…


The colourful wooden buildings in Kapyla, a district in the north of Helsinki, were built in the 1920s to house the city’s working-class population. Like other garden cities, the idea was to enhance the sense of community for the workers escaping the slums. Multiple families lived in one building, with private garden plots for tenants, and courtyards in which to gather.

Jyri Engestrom, a Finnish entrepreneur, grew up in Kapyla. When he was young, every house had a grocer or a shop beneath, catering to residents. These days, all the businesses have closed down as the buildings have been converted to attractive residences, populated by creatives. With few communal resources, Kapyla risks becoming a neighbourhood where people come home from the city to watch TV in the evening, never talking to their neighbours. Apart from two months every summer, when Engestrom opens the door to Cafe Siili.

Siili, which means hedgehog in Finnish, is intended to be more than a neighbourhood cafe. It is a place for locals to gather and a focal point for the area. Engestrom hopes it can restore some of the sense of community in the area.

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“Our fortune, in the next decades, will be intricately connected to our community structure,” he says one sunny afternoon in the front garden of the cafe. “A place like this is not just about vegan food or recycling waste but allowing people to rely on each other as we face the challenges of climate change.”

Cafe Siili is one of 81 Helsinki businesses participating in a programme by the city government to help local consumers make more environmentally sustainable choices. Think Sustainably measures participating businesses against criteria that includes vegan, organic and fairtrade dishes (for restaurants) and using electricity from renewable sources. Consumers can use the website and the app to choose restaurants, shops, events, experiences and accommodation according to this criteria, then see CO2 emissions-free public transport routes to get there.

Tia Hallanoro, director of brand communications and digital development at Helsinki Marketing, says the service has been developed in response to local concern about the climate crisis. She points to the results of a survey showing that two-thirds of local people believe climate change is the biggest threat to their lives in the future. 

“Many feel frustrated that there’s nothing they can do to stop it,” Hallanoro says. “There’s a great demand for the frustration to be channelled into something productive that allows us to rethink our lifestyle and consumer patterns. As a service, Think Sustainably gives you concrete tools for that.”

Laura Aalto, chief executive at Helsinki Marketing, describes Helsinki as a “test bed” for solutions that might be scaled up to other cities. She says the city’s small size, well-developed infrastructure and strong knowledge economy makes it well-placed to effect change that other cities might later be able to adapt and harness. “Helsinki is eager to experiment with policies and initiatives that would not be possible elsewhere,” she says. “We hope that others can learn from our experiments.”

Engestrom believes that sustainability is about more than just recycling waste and offering vegan dishes. He trained as a sociologist and believes that the structure of communities directly affects their ability to survive in crisis conditions.

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“In [the Jared Diamond book]Collapse, the reason that emerges for the collapse of the Easter Islanders is that they were a hierarchical community and not integrated in an equitable way,” he says. “In another study by the University of Chicago about the New York heatwave, the neighbourhoods where elderly deaths occurred were those without a community cafe or a space looking out for people.”

Siili runs community events, such as pop-up pizza nights, and evening gatherings for entrepreneurs where people can explore solutions to community problems. It’s the day after an entrepreneur gathering at the cafe, and Engestrom talks animatedly about an app calledGubbe.io, which connects elderly people with younger locals, to create jobs, stave off loneliness and help older people live longer in their own homes. 

Engestrom knows a thing or two about creating communities. In 2006 he founded Jaiku, a Finnish social networking, microblogging and streaming service, comparable to Twitter. In 2007, it sold to Google for an undisclosed amount. With his partner, the Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake, Engestrom cofounded Yes VC in 2018.

This venture capital fund has invested $6m& in businesses, according to Engestrom. He says they are looking for ideas that have a human case, as well as a business case, including Public Goods, an anti-Amazon, membership-based home goods store, and Hipcamp, an app that helps people find places to camp. 

Engestrom believes online communities have evolved into social media because it is easier for digital companies to sell: “You can sell media, but not community. I believe that’s the fundamental reason we have these bad actors like Facebook.” 

When the cafe closes at the end of each summer, Engestrom returns to Silicon Valley to seek out entrepreneurs that have a commitment to using tech not just to make money, but for social good. But as the years go on, he says he thinks more and more about returning to Kapyla to live permanently. “In San Francisco, people talk about community, but tech has destroyed it,” he says. “The cafe is about returning to the heart of the matter.”

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