Last updated on May 20th, 2019 at 11:23 hrs.
Panta rhei. Everything is in flux. Even urban planning. That’s right: especially in western societies, laws and regulations, advances in technology and a more innovative culture in general are driving city and municipal planners to involve citizens more closely in their projects.
Planners need to collect background data and input from residents at various stages of their planning process. Typically, they will arrange meetings per neighborhood to present their initial plan and solicit feedback.
Apparently, what often happens is that only a small percentage of the people affected show up in such meetings: “the usual suspects”, who are all too ready to shoot down any proposals without offering much in the way of alternatives. This can be a rather frustrating experience for the planners.
Maptionnaire is a cloud-based toolset for creating questionnaires on a map and enriching it with interactive communication. Now, urban planners can invite everyone in a residential area with just a link to view proposals for development as layers on top of maps and then collect feedback at the same time.
Higher levels of involvement
The company behind Maptionnaire, Mapita Oy, is one of a dozen startups taking part in the internationalisation programme ‘Software from Finland to European Markets’, run by growth consultancy Pro Growth Consulting Oy, sponsored by the Finnish Software & E-Business Association (Ohjelmisto- ja e-business ry) and supported by the Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment (ELY-keskus).
(For transparency: I contribute to the Software from Finland programme on the topics of doing business with the Dutch and digital marketing in the Netherlands.)
Last Thursday, on April 25th, Mapita won Kasvu Open’s Smart City Growth Path competition, which is part of a nation-wide sparring programme connecting 900 growth experts to 450 SME businesses. According to a press release (in Finnish), the jury appreciated Mapita having an immediately international service, strong references, and deep substance know-how.
Mapita’s Co-founder & CEO Maarit Kahila tells me how positively surprised and inspired her customers – urban planners – have been when discovering the level of involvement their tool has managed to generate.
“At the start of the planning process,” Maarit says, “officials will ask people’s opinions about how they use the area, how they move around, what routes they take to work, which areas they use for recreation, services they use, how they value the living environment, which views they find beautiful or ugly, where they feel safe or unsafe, and so on. But they can also ask for citizens’ thoughts and ideas about the future.
“Furthermore, they can show different development scenarios on top of a map of the area and ask people to evaluate those. Respondents can click on objects on the map for more information and to answer questions, or even add their own ideas as objects.
More constructive feedback
“People can also be asked to submit their formal comments with authorization,” she continues, “which Mapita can then automatically report to city archives in the shape of PDF documents.”
According to Maarit, planners using Maptionnaire have not only realized that they can get much higher levels of participation this way, but also that the overall feedback is often more constructive and useful compared to the traditional neighborhood meetings.
Mapita Oy, established in 2011, was born out of research at the Helsinki University of Technology back in 2005 (nowadays Aalto University), where Maarit and her colleagues developed a Public Participation Geographic Information System (PPGIS) tool called SoftGIS.
“As researchers, we were interested in the perceived quality of living environments,” Maarit says. “So we created survey templates with questions tailored to that topic. But when we presented the tool to pilot users, it turned out that those urban planners were not at all interested in using our questions. They were not suitable for the practitioners.”
So Mapita pivoted and the first version of Maptionnaire became a fully customizable platform for urban planners to create their own questionnaires. By now, Maptionnaire has been used on all continents, in more than 5000 city and municipal planning projects.
New technologies around the corner
“While the back-end questionnaire editor is in English, our application has a built-in translation tool for the front-end respondents’ view. It’s already been translated into more than thirty languages,” Maarit adds.
This spring, Maptionnaire will be launching its next-generation platform, built from the ground up.
Maarit: “We have been looking to develop a more flexible service that allows us to create more different kinds of tools inside Maptionnaire. In the future, we will need to cater to a wider variety of needs that urban planners have. 3D maps, Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are all around the corner. We need our platform to be flexible enough to work with those technologies.”
The company focuses on the markets where urban planning procedures and the culture of innovation are most similar to Finland’s. That means the Nordic region, Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.
Half of Mapita’s revenue comes from outside of Finland. The company has a subsidiary in the United States and sales representation Norway, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.
Crazy Dutch partners
“In the Netherlands we were approached by these crazy partners who were super eager to spread the word for Maptionnaire. They have taken this opportunity very seriously and done outstanding work,” says Maarit.
“That’s great because everyone values how it is being done in Holland. In the field of urban planning, it’s the country that people always refer to. And as it happens, new laws in the Netherlands will require more use of digital tools in urban planning.”
How about the Dutch competitive landscape then? Maarit: “Of course there are always competitors, for example local companies who develop tailored tools for cities. But in SaaS (Software as a Service) we don’t have that much competition yet. And cities are quick to realize how costly it is to create a new tool for each and every project.”
The Software from Finland programme focuses on the Netherlands as a primary foreign market. What does Maarit expect to gain from taking part in the programme?
“We already created our international growth strategy before the programme started,” she says. “The main reason I’m here is to get new ideas and inspiration on how to keep growing.
“Cities and municipalities are our main customer segment. Next up are universities and research institutions. And we also sell to the private sector, primarily consultants in the field of urban planning.”
Urban planning needs to innovate
Asked about what has contributed to Mapita’s success so far, Maarit says: “I think part of our success comes from the fact that urban planning needs to innovate, to communicate more closely with citizens, and our solution meets that need. Another factor is that we have this university background, so we had an international network to start with.”
On the other hand, Maarit admits that commercial growth has been relatively slow and resources have been tight. “We chose not to involve external investors but to grow through our customers instead. We feel that this has given us the possibility to really listen to our customers’ needs rather than compromising on our ideas in order to grow faster.
“So far we’ve acquired customers through word-of-mouth. For example, the City of New York found us through a conference attended by another customer of ours. But we do have a growth strategy now, with elements of inbound and outbound marketing.”
Maarit says her team has no lack of ideas for inbound content since she and other research colleagues keep publishing in scientific journals as well.
“The trick is to create this steady flow of new material to stay visible, to remind people that we are here and what we do. Especially in the early phases of the customer journey, when people are exploring different tools to assist in urban planning, it’s good if they find material from us so they get interested in how Maptionnaire might work for them.”
Final question: Have you read any good book – or consumed some other interesting media resource – lately?
Maarit: “I was really inspired by Veijo Komulainen’s book, ‘Growth and Scaleup Enablers for SMEs’. It has helped me to identify the pain points in our business, how to take the necessary distance to reflect on our work and on the bigger, strategic questions.”