Reinventing innovation in Finland

Mikko Torstila

by Mikko Torstila

In late August, protesters threw a large demonstration in Helsinki to object the Finnish government’s most recent plan to increase Finland’s competitiveness. A group of demonstrators was carrying a banner that demanded the government to “shove innovation up their a**es”.

Just last week, Erkki Virtanen the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Employment and the Economy argued that Angry Birds won’t be able to save the Finnish economy, although the game industry and hype are “nice”.


Wake up and smell the reality

Unfortunately, these two examples can no longer be considered as isolated instances. While it’s clear that the overwhelmingly negative attitude towards innovation is nowhere near the popular consensus, a growing number of people seem to have forgotten that Finland has one of the world’s most vibrant startup scenes and a gaming industry with estimated annual revenue of 2 billion euros, and counting.

While Virtanen bases his inflammatory arguments on the fact that our nation has traditionally carved its bread from forestry and the steel industry, he seems to be overlooking one important factor: without groundbreaking innovation, these industries would have amounted to a fraction of what they have become. From state-of-the-art paper mills to record-breaking high-tech subs, Finland’s competitive advantage has always stemmed from innovation. I’m not even going to name the obvious suspects, but instead I will go ahead and suggest that an interior and fashion giant’s Unikko fabric has probably been cut with certain orange-handled scissors. Yes, these companies have been the saving graces of the Finnish manufacturing industry and yes, we definitely should be proud.

For all the success stories, there have been at least as many disappointments. The decision to move fine paper manufacturing to China rattled the national economic structure and left thousands of workers unemployed. Similarly, working at a shipbuilding yard hardly qualifies as a stable career in today’s economic climate.


What's next?

If anything, staying in the game requires more innovation than ever. I, for one, am a firm believer in Finnish innovation. After all, it is no accident that Nokia still holds the highest number of patents in the global telecom industry.

Just recently, Anssi Vanjoki, the Professor of Practice at Lappeenranta University of Technology made the following remark in the Confederation of Finnish Industries (EK) Manifest for Growth: ”Finland is a peripheral area that spends beyond its means and will fade away. A rapid U-turn is needed in attitudes as well as new measures to improve the operational conditions of the industries. That is the way we create work, livelihood and well-being.” As someone, who has had the distinct pleasure of working with Vanjoki, I can safely interpret this as a call for more innovation.

Still not convinced? Don’t worry – there’s more. An organization called Invest in Finland promotes Finland as a country of innovation and technology. They even state that Finland is spending more money per capita on R&D than any other nation in the world. By now, you’re probably wondering: what do these guys have to back up their claim? Well, I’ll tell you what. You see, the World Economic Forum places Finland as the second most competitive country in Europe, and the most innovative country in the world. So let’s get off our a**es and instead of shoving innovations up there, collectively put them to work for an even more innovative nation.


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