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Finland, Finland, Finland
Jamais Cascio, 9 Aug 05

Finland is a pretty decent place to be student or an older worker, but how does it stack up otherwise? Sunday's Washington Post tells us: generally speaking, there are few better places on the planet. As listed by the Post, Finland ranks number one globally in terms of competitiveness (according to the World Economic Forum), sustainability (according to the annual Yale/Columbia rankings), lack of corruption (according to Transparency International), and trains more musicians per capita than anywhere else.

How much of the Finnish social experience can be used outside of Finland? Not all of it -- Finland has a small, mostly homogenous population, a focus on consensus over political competition, and a willingness to embrace very high taxes. But author Robert Kaiser argues that the education model would work elsewhere, but more importantly: ...we could learn from Finns' confidence that they can shape their own fate. Finns speak of the Finnish National Project, an effort involving much of the country, and nearly all of its elites, to make the country more educated, more agile and adaptive, more green, more fair and more competitive in a fast-changing global economy. (emphasis mine)

We can shape our own fate. That's the WorldChanging story, and we're sticking to it.

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Comments

Finland deserves the kudos, Jamais, and living here in friendly-arch-rival Sweden, I can note something cultural that I've heard some Finns say about themselves, and why they excel (and which I've often observed first-hand): they are extremely hard on themselves, and on each other. Nothing is ever good enough. They focus on their failings more than their successes. They surpass the Swedes in this regard ... and the Swedes are extremely tough on themselves as well.

This is not simply an idle observation, but a real cultural difference between, for example, Scandinavians generally and Americans, a difference that is much discussed here, usually among business leaders complaining about barriers to can-do entrepreneurialism in the Nordic countries. To illustrate: About two years I organized an invitational seminar for mostly Swedes and Americans, with some other Europeans. The Americans' chief complaint was that they had come to learn about best practice from the Swedes, but the Swedes only talked about their problems and their failings (while the Americans, of course, talked glowingly about their successes and skipped the failings).

While I've only touched on it here anecdotally, the general point I am reaching toward is that deep cultural traits, going back centuries or more in terms of their roots, cannot be underestimated in terms of their effect on how nations develop. And sometimes your perceived weaknesses prove to generate strengths.

One more illustration note, and this again reporting a cultural reflection from Finns, on why they grew to dominate the mobile phone market with Nokia: because they have difficulty talking face to face. Mobile phones made it easier for shy people to communicate, and the robust and quickly-developed domestic market gave them an advantage in the global market.

Now ... how much of the above is true? Probably very little. Here in Sweden, we're taught to embrace the idea that we don't really know anything, we're probably not that good at it, I'm sure I've totally misunderstood the basics ...


Posted by: Alan AtKisson on 9 Aug 05

I also wonder, given all the positive thing I hear (as Alan points out normally from outsiders) why Finland has one of the world's highest suicide rates?


Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 9 Aug 05

Just read a review on a new book that examines families in the 20th century and it quoted one finding where the Finns are more promiscuous than any other nation. Also have heard that there high rates of suicide in Finland and depression as well. Then again, they are crazy about tango.


Posted by: gmoke on 9 Aug 05

About the Suicide rate in Finland, I believe it has something to do with A. Lack of Sunlight and B. Lack of Genetic Diversity.

Those are just wild guesses, but I found I started to become a bit crazy after working the night shift in Canada for over a year, only saw the sun during the summer lol.


Posted by: Chris on 10 Aug 05

Zaid: Well, suicide is a pretty healthy, so to speak, indicator of depression, and as I understand it, there are much higher rates of depression as a whole in Finland.

But since a big part of one's risk for chronic depression appears to be genetic, and since Finland's Finnish population is relatively hoomogeneous, I wonder if *any* societal model would much change that... In other words, I don't think that suicide rate is a very good assessment of societal fairness, vitality or sustainability, as such.

But then again, I fall firmly on the nature/chemistry/genetics side of the debate about mental illness, as opposed to the nuture/spirit/misfortune-makes-us-mad side, and I strongly suspect we'll cure/be able to effectively treat 95% of mental illnesses within the next three decades.

But, all that aside, yes, Jamais, "We can shape our own fate," indeed.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 10 Aug 05

Well I'm not sure I entirely buy the genetic explanation for Finland's suicide and depression rates. I'm not dismissing them at all, I'm simply raising the point that perhaps the relatively clear picture of success that Jamais paints is perhaps more complex. I wonder, for example, if some of that "success" correlates somehow to higher suicide and depression.

As for shaping our own fate...well, I agree although I also believe (as you point out) that we inherit a lot of things.


Posted by: Zaid on 10 Aug 05

Actual data:

http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/suiciderates/en/

Few are pondering the societal vs. genetic factors of Belarus and Sri Lanka. The "suicide" argument is hurled, almost an epithet, at all the Nordic countries at one time or another. Something about their pragmatic democratic socialism seems to set teeth on edge, and we look for the fatal flaw. The data say otherwise.


Posted by: David Foley on 11 Aug 05

David, thanks for bringing some facts into the discussion. It's notable that Finland has a slightly high suicide rate for men (although nowhere near the highest), but Sweden and Norway are not unusual for European/Western nations as a whole.

Overall, the numbers are interesting -- far and away, the worst suicide rates are in the countries once part of the "Soviet Bloc." It doesn't simply map to post-Soviet economic depression, though; the Baltic countries (Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania) are by most accounts doing relatively well economically (certainly in comparison to their former Soviet neighbors), but have some of the highest rates on the chart.

Another notable number: China is one of very very few countries where the suicide rate for women is higher than the rate for men.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 12 Aug 05

It's really not that useful trying to compare a country like Finland to the US or Canada, or a lot of other large, populous, ethinically diverse countries. After all, there are only about five and half million people in Finland - more like the state of Minnesota (which, by the way, has a lot of people of Finnish descent).
Regardless, I agree we can shape our own fate. And I like what the Finns are doing are heck of a lot more than what I think is happenning here in Canada.


Posted by: Bruce on 17 Aug 05

I lived in Finland for 2 years in the mid 90s. I now live in New York but am doing everything I can to get back. It is an amazing place that takes much time to understand. It is very homogeneous but that doesn't seem to matter, Finns still travel much outside their country to distant places, much more so then people in the US. Since there is no corruption, you don't have to worry about your taxes going to some highway in the middle of Alaska or whatever else.

Finns also don't feel that they are the best, another huge difference. THey don't feel like they have the right to dominate the world militarly like the US. It never joined NATO so didn't get any help from the US after WW2 under the Marshall plan.

Overall, the society is crime free. You don't have to worry about getting robbed or attacked. You don't have to worry about nothing really.
Everything is state of the art, they have a high speed network of trains that connects the major cities of the country. Internet access seems to be near universal, and most people handle their banking needs online.

There are a couple drawbacks. One, the impenetrable language that takes YEARS to learn. Two, the relative remoteness of the country. There is a problem eating real pizza because they can't ship Italian cheeses to Finland, or so it was at one time. There is a lack of diversity, which makes the country seem like one big extended family. Helsinki has been changing alot, but outside of Helsinki, Tampere and Turku there are still the R-Kioskis(the 7-Eleven of Finland) supermarkets, and local bars. There are not much in the way of ethnic restaurants or general diversity. The third drawback is the winter, it is long and harsh and if you are from an equatorial country (I got a Cuban background) that time of year can be very depressing. Like I said, Finland is very unique, and the more it opens itself up to the world, the more it will become like Sweden next door, not very special but more like a regular European country with the same societal problems. For now these don't exist.

Finland is much more like Maine or Minnesota, but to compare it to the entire US would not make sense. In a perfect world, the entire Earth would be like FInland, but for now that is just a far off dream.


Posted by: Phil on 22 Aug 05



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