A virtual twin expands opportunities for cities to host citizens and visitors, says Hanna Harris, Chief Design Officer of Helsinki


In October 2018, a group of VR developers gathered in Helsinki to develop a platform that would allow others to explore the city without having to be there. Virtual Helsinki (VH) is a digital twin of Helsinki’s city centre and a highly sophisticated VR city experience platform. Local studio Zoan developed VH by pairing open data sources with detailed 3D modelling, alongside images of the city.

Many cities internationally are using 360-videos and Google Earth experiences, but VH’s operational principle goes further, allowing visitors to move about freely in the digital simulation to explore at their own pace and create their own experiences in past, present and future time.

But why go virtual? Helsinki is actively looking for new VR solutions for several reasons. First, VH is one part of Helsinki’s overarching digital strategy: the city aims to be a global leader in digitalisation.​ Second, rethinking travel is part of the vision. The virtual experience serves as an engaging way to market the destination, but also, importantly, it is part of Helsinki’s aim to be a forerunner in offering sustainable and democratic travel.

At the moment, the VH experience includes a mix of urban life, nature and architectural gems. For instance, you can take a guided tour of Alvar Aalto’s home and studio. In VR, you can dive deeper into the designs at your own pace, learning about Aalto’s life and maybe in the future, even order furniture.


Alvar Aalto’s home and studio is among the visitor attractions that can be accessed within Virtual Helsinki (hwww.virtualhelsinki.fi).

A more contemporary virtual destination includes some Helsinki-style island hopping. Under the umbrella of Helsinki’s marine strategy, the city is making its 130 kilometres of shoreline increasingly accessible to anyone. Now this can happen from the comfort of your home. The island of Lonna, a 10-minute boat ride from the main market square, is included in VH. As in real life, you can find a beautiful seafront public sauna, designed by OOPEAA, and a charming restaurant. Recently we have added a virtual experience of the exhibition currently on show at the Amos Rex art museum, designed by JKMM.

Virtual Helsinki’s most iconic destination is Senate Square and its environs, designed by Carl Ludwig Engel. Landmark buildings include the cathedral, the Government Palace and the university’s main building. In real life, the square’s stately feel is coupled with regular moments of collective joy and protest, and the cathedral’s wide steps serve as a perfect stage for events of various kind. One key moment was Helsinki Day in June 1993, when the Leningrad Cowboys performed with the Red Army Choir. It was a cold, cloudy day, a couple of years before Finnish EU membership. The event went down in history as a sheer explosion of past and present, people and power coming together. The city was alive.

The way events are staged in the city’s most important spaces is also an important consideration for architects, designers and tech developers working in the virtual realm”

Little did anyone know at the launch of VH that just over a year later, the iconic square would, again, become a symbol of urban culture in transformational times. First of May celebrations are a Helsinki tradition, embracing the arriving summer and gathering all around the city’s parks and streets for picnics and parties. In 2020, all of this was called off due to Covid-19.


A virtual Senate Square hosted a public May Day concert by JVG during the coronavirus lockdown.

The city and Zoan pushed forward with co-developing a VR concert platform to host Finland’s most popular band virtually. JVG performed live ‘from’ Senate Square for an audience of 700,000 people. A month later, on Helsinki Day, the ‘stage’ was taken by pop star ALMA with a special VH showcase.

Helsinki has a strong track record of festivals and events, and how they use the city space. Music festival Flow is renowned for including urban design and landscaping into the very DNA of the festival experience. Thus, it is only fitting that the way events are staged in the city’s most important spaces is also an important consideration for architects, designers and tech developers working in the virtual realm.

In the future, the aim is to design a computer-generated Helsinki that can incorporate a full range of experiences, from exploring history to shopping. Importantly, users might want to explore upcoming city planning and development projects. We will be offering further opportunity for citizens and visitors alike to engage with the built environment as it is being envisioned and designed – be it the Senate Squares of the future or those more intimate urban moments passed on a little boat taking you to an urban island oasis.