Oulu – A Technology Center with a Northern Twist

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This is the third post in a series about global environmental history and the World Congress of Environmental History published in collaboration with the International Consortium of Environmental History Organizations (ICEHO). The fourth World Congress will be held this August in Oulu, Finland.

The city of Oulu is an important seaside trading city located at the Gulf of Bothnia in Finland’s North Ostrobothnia region. Founded in 1605 by King Charles IX of Sweden, the city quickly became a hub for the tar and salmon trade. For centuries, tar was the city’s most important export product, bringing wealth to many local merchant families. In the twentieth century, as the importance of tar for the shipbuilding industry dwindled and the era of tar merchants came to an end, Oulu rebuilt itself as a northern hub for technological innovation. The University of Oulu was founded in 1958 and cemented itself as a leader in the field of information technology and computer sciences. This reputation has been strengthened by Oulu-based tech communities such as Technopolis or Teknologiakylä (Finnish for “technology village”), a local hub for technological companies and services, and the opening of the Tietomaa museum of science in 1988. 

Park region at Oulu waterfront
Photo 1: Photographer: Pasi Rytinki : Oulun kaupunki.

Oulu has since grown into a city of nearly 210,000 inhabitants, making it the most populous city of northern Fenno-Scandinavia and the fifth most populous in Finland. Despite the strong image as an “IT-city”, Oulu is hardly a concrete jungle of skyscrapers or mirrored-glass buildings. Instead, the city has been built in harmony with the surrounding natural environment. For example, the delta area of the Oulu River at the city’s waterfront has been turned into a sprawling urban public park, Hupisaaret, consisting of different sized islands joined together by white wooden bridges. [Photo 1]

winter cycling in Oulu Finland
Photo 2: Photographer: Sanna Krook : Oulun kaupunki. Winter Cycling.

What perhaps most characterizes Oulu in Finland is its geographical location in the sub-Arctic, with a northern climate that gives the city its unique atmosphere. Oulu’s wintertime is long, cold, and snowy, and its latitude means that light lasts for barely three and half hours during the winter solstice. The dark nights of winter (and especially late fall and early spring) make for an ideal setting for watching the aurora borealis. As the harsh winter conditions are an inseparable aspect of life in the North, the inhabitants of Oulu are accustomed to living with them. [Photo 2] One of the best examples of their resilience to cold and snow is the fact that inhabitants of Oulu are enthusiastic cyclists year round—even in the winter. Year-round cycling is supported by the city through robust infrastructure and maintenance: following a heavy snowfall, cycling paths are ploughed by the city even before driveways are. It is also no wonder that the capital of northern Finland, a country crazy over ice sports, is serious about its ice hockey culture. Oulu’s local ice hockey team, the Oulun Kärpät (“Oulu Stoats” in Finnish), has won the Finnish national league eight times and is one of the most successful teams of the league.

spring in Oulu
Photo 3: Photographer: Pasi Rytinki : Oulun kaupunki. Summer Night in Oulu.

[Photo 3] The long wintertime is followed by a short and mild summer season, during which temperatures tend to stay below 20 Celsius degrees. However, the short duration of summertime is balanced with the white nights that give the summer days a sense of endlessness and keep people outside up until late at night. During the summer, Oulu truly comes alive. In addition to great possibilities for outdoor activities such as hiking, lazing about the sand beaches of Nallikari, canoeing in the Oulu River delta, and visits to nearby nature conservation areas, summertime is big with festivals and other events. One of the most unique summer events is the Air Guitar World Championships, which has been organized yearly since 1996 (pandemic excepted). [Photo 4]

Left – Photo 4: Ilmakitaran MM-finaali Rotuaarilla 23.8.2019. The Air Guitar World Championships is a celebration of love and peace – the culmination of the world-wide season of air guitar gathers only the best to the battle in Oulu, already for the 24th time in August 2. (Sanna Krook / City of Oulu). Right – Photo 5:  Marketplace Bobby. Photographer: Eeva Kuikka.

It might be due to its northern mentality or to the city’s relative remoteness from other main urban centers, but Oulu has a definitive reputation as a place harbouring a certain northern originality and sense of self-irony. The ability to not take oneself too seriously is perhaps best demonstrated in two of the city’s iconic landmarks. The first is Marketplace Bobby, a bronze statue of a chubby police officer holding fort at the harbourside marketplace, erected to honor three constables who used to patrol the market place between 1939 and 1979. The history of these market square patrols also stands behind a famous saying in Oulu dialect: “Ookko nää Oulusta, pelekääkkö nää polliisia?” (translated as: “Are you from Oulu, are you afraid of the policeman?”). [Photo 5] Another iconic city landmark is perhaps even more peculiar as it is neither a famous statue nor fancy building, but a line of graffiti on the wall of a local apartment building, stating simply “paska kaupunni” (“shit town” but with a misspelling). The graffiti is not an official mural, but it was painted on the wall in the 1980s and whenever it has been painted over in the past, the graffiti somehow always reappears. The stubborn graffiti has become the unofficial symbol of the city and decorates various local souvenir items, from coffee beans and chocolate to t-shirts and magnets. The city of Oulu has even published instructions for knitting a jumper with the iconic text.

We are excited to welcome you to Oulu, this unique and lively city!

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Eeva Kuikka

Eeva Kuikka is a doctoral candidate of Russian language and culture at Tampere University, Finland. Her research explores human-animal relations in literature by Indigenous authors from the Russian Arctic. She also works as a conference secretary at the University of Oulu and she is part of the local committee in organizing the World Congress of Environmental History 2024.

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