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Settling on the West Coast of Finland

Vaasa is making a name for itself as an international technology cluster

Large lithium reserves attracting investment to the region

A Finnish city where English is extensively spoken

The Vaasa market square. Photograph: Paul Wilkinson

Paul Wilkinson
Mon 17 Feb 2020 18.00 GMT


Map showing the 63rd parallel north.              OpenStreetMap

The City of Vaasa can be found halfway up the west coast of Finland, at about the 63rd parallel north. By following the same line of latitude around the globe, you would pass through northern Russia, the American state of Alaska and the Atlantic Ocean ebbing and flowing off the southern tip of Iceland.

Almost all visitors to Vaasa, a former Finnish capital, are impressed by the city’s wide avenues, modern infrastructure and pristine archipelago. Depending on the time of year, tourists will experience warm summer days filled with almost constant daylight or a cold, dark winter.

Today, there are vested interests to turn this Finnish city, with a population of almost 70,000, into a major technology hub of the future. The city itself wants to become carbon neutral already by 2030. In addition, both the city council and regional actors believe that the population of Vaasa will increase by over 40% as likeminded visionaries move to the city in the next ten years. All around Vaasa, modern blocks of flats are currently under construction to accommodate a growing potential workforce in the new high-tech jobs of tomorrow.

But this is no pie-in-the-sky scheme. The strategy for Vaasa’s growth is firmly based on Finnish pragmatism. Two of the world’s leading energy technology companies are already here: Wärtsilä who design and manufacture energy solutions for ships and powerplants and ABB who focus on electrification and automation.

There are many smaller companies too, working either as subcontractors to the so-called ‘Big 2’ or developing alternative energy solutions within their own niche areas. Vaasa also has two universities specialising in educating engineers for the local industries. Moreover, significant lithium reserves have been found in the region, which is an important but rare element needed for electric car batteries. It should be no surprise then, that the city has branded itself, Energy Vaasa.

However, when it comes to growth and development, one of the biggest challenges the region still faces concerns where the new residents will be coming from. Finland, after all, has one of the world’s lowest birth rates at 1.4 births per woman; the rate needed to simply maintain a society’s population is 2.1.

Any significant population increase in Vaasa will be coming from beyond the Finnish borders. And at first glance, that would appear to be a surprisingly easy thing to achieve.  After all, the world’s population is growing at a rate of 82 million per year. Unfortunately, many of those willing to make a move to Vaasa are without the specialised skills and qualifications needed by the city. Immigrants will therefore have to be educated first, which takes a lot of time and expense. There is also no guarantee that they will ever wish to remain in Vaasa, once they have qualified in their chosen profession.

Competing with Helsinki

The greatest challenge preventing growth in Vaasa comes from the lure of a better life in the country’s capital, Helsinki, 420 km to the south. As Nordic capitals go, Helsinki (pop. 630,000) is on a par with Oslo and Copenhagen, although it is still a lot smaller than Stockholm (pop. 1.4 million). Still, during the next 20 years, the Helsinki metropolitan area is expected to grow by a quarter of a million people, while the population of the entire rest of Finland is predicted to rise by fewer than 100,000. This means that the populations of almost all the other towns and cities in Finland, including Vaasa, will either fall or remain more or less as they are now.

So how do you persuade people to live in a place like Vaasa? Until now, the focus has been on good housing, employment, a clean environment, accessible healthcare, free education and a low crime rate. However, long winters, relatively high taxation rates and language barriers often prove to be more of a deterrent to potential settlers than the benefits.

Vaasa is hoping that by promoting the use of English as an unofficial third regional language, settlers will be more willing to move here. The largest global companies in Vaasa already use English in their official business communications and the language is widely spoken in shops in the city. The City of Vaasa runs a comprehensive website in English as does the Tax Administration and many smaller companies.

Still, if settlers intend to permanently settle with families in the region, then local language skills are going to be needed eventually, particularly when it comes to assimilating with the local population on a grassroots level. And this is where Vaasa has an ace up its sleeve to play. Vaasa is actually one of only a handful of bilingual cities in the country, where both Finnish and Swedish are extensively spoken. There are no monolingual Swedish or Finnish districts in Vaasa; here neighbours speak different mother tongues freely and without problem. In this light, Vaasa actually has a long history of tolerance towards different language groups.

Many foreigners living in Vaasa learn Swedish quite easily since it is an Indo-European language with many similar words to English. Take the word ‘international’ for example. In Swedish it is ‘internationell’, which is similar enough to remember. In Finnish, the word is ‘kansainvälinen’.

The reason why Swedish is spoken so extensively in Vaasa comes from the history. Swedish settlers have been living all along the west coast of Finland, in an area called Ostrobothnia, for more than 800 years. The distance between Vaasa and the Swedish city of Umeå is only 88 km by sea, which is less than the distance between Holyhead and Dublin (106 km). Finland itself was actually a part of Sweden for more than 700 years; and a King of Sweden even named the City of Vaasa after the Swedish Royal House of Wasa in 1606.

Still, for anyone willing to make the extra effort and learn to speak the Finnish language, there are many excellent courses available in Vaasa, although it goes without saying that the quest will be one of the most challenging experiences you ever face here. Mastering the grammar structure of Finnish requires several years of dedicated learning, particularly if you ever hope to one day conjugate a partitive sentence with any degree of confidence or fluency.

Learning Finnish at an evening courses arranged by the City of Vaasa. Photograph Paul Wilkinson

But once understood, you will know that you have taught yourself a superpower to enjoy small talk with your neighbours, assuming of course that they are not too shy to talk to you.

If you would like more information on the City of Vaasa, then a good place to start is at www.vaasa.fi

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