Finnish city Oulu sees light at end of Nokia tunnel

Finnish city Oulu sees light at end of Nokia tunnel
A man walks in front of the Nokia Solutions and Networks (NSN) building in Oulu.

OULU, Finland - From early December, the Finnish city of Oulu is trapped in darkness for all but a few murky midday hours, a darkness some feared might be matched by its economic prospects after big local employer Nokia hit the skids.

Oulu, with a population of about a quarter million, was once a key Nokia R&D site, before the mobile maker was left for dead in the global smartphone race by Apple's iPhone and handsets running Google's Android software.

Nokia and its networks venture at one point employed about 5,000 people in Oulu, more than three times the next biggest private sector employer, but now it has work for less than half that.

The city's unemployment rate topped 16 per cent in the summer, a level not seen since the Finnish financial crisis of the early 1990s.

But despite the gloom, and an average annual temperature of 2 degrees Celsius (36F), the buds of a recovery are visible in Finland's biggest northern city, 600 kilometres from Helsinki.

It is becoming a model for the rest of the country as it fights to fill the gap left by Nokia's tumbling sales and the tens of thousands of job cuts that preceded the former world beater's September decision to give up the mobile business and sell to Microsoft.

Oulu is now a leading candidate to host a new data centre for Microsoft, which wants to invest US$250 million (S$316 million) on such facilities in Finland after it takes over the Nokia business next year.

Former "Nokians" are starting to land on their feet, too.

Pasi Leipala, a former senior manager at Nokia, is now chief executive at Haltian, which designs electronics and software products and is one of the city's most successful start-ups.

Last year you could count its employees on the fingers of one hand. Now it has a staff of 70.

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