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Finland's innovative model worth emulating

The Allegro waits in a railway station.

Peter Wilson/The Canadian Press/Peter Wilson/The Canadian Press

In the early 1960s I was lucky enough to pick Finland as a place to live, work at minimum wage, have twins, learn the language and reflect on a completely different culture … for a year. Since that adventure I have used Finland as my default benchmark case in my career in architecture, teaching, strategy, policy and foresight. In the early 1970s when I was an adviser to the Privy Council Office, the conversation around the P&P staff table sometimes would stop for a quiet minute, then the tease … "Well, Glen, aren't you going to tell us how they do it in Finland?"

You probably know that today Finland consistently leads in almost every international indicator for social, economic and environmental innovation, productivity and quality of life, including the lowest level of government corruption. Their system steadily produces brilliant software developers, entrepreneurs, marketers, designers, managers, musicians, orchestra leaders, hockey goalies, etc. They have done this despite suffering a nasty series of geopolitical shocks in the 20th century comparable to the reunification of Germany.

Nokia, Kone and other Finnish companies are thriving in the international marketplace. It's forests are only .1 per cent of the world's forests yet Finland supplies much of the equipment for forest-based industries around the world, including the IP for 90 per cent of Canada's forest equipment.

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How do they do it?

Innovation is serious business in Finland, and has been since they were making their own tools, clothes, music, architecture and poetry on remote farms from the Middle Ages onward.

Like Canada, their innovation system includes tax support for research and development, technical support for innovation, incubation centres, clusters, financial support over the risk canyons, strategic partnerships, etc.  But there are some unique components that enable innovation in every person and organization.

For the past 20 or 30 years their national innovation system has been led top-down, by the Parliamentary Committee on the Future, in the middle by a series of councils and technical and economic support systems in every sector, and bottom-up by every citizen. Over the past 25 years, the committee led the creation of some radical resources and infrastructure for innovation, including the creation of a 95-per-cent-connected transparent web of organizational and personal information.

The four objectives for that information system are: high levels of trust, efficient transactions, open and accessible governance and democracy, and more competitive exports. These objectives have led to a system in which information is all  in and freely accessible via the Internet, until the case is made to take it  out for reasons such as national security or competitive intelligence. A noisy public debate and referendum was held leading up to this information policy before it was accepted by a margin of 80-20.

Now citizens can follow and suggest the activities of government via the Internet rather than depend on press stories. One can make contributions to the discussion on the proposal to be discussed in cabinet – or city council. You can use the licence number to find the name and address of the person who owns the car in front of you … and their most recent tax return.

The results in Finland in regard to the above four objectives have been spectacularly positive.  It enables faster research on any topic by being able to tap directly into information systems rather than relying on the vagaries of search engines. Citizen participation in government at all levels is high. If you move to a new residence, your address is changed (within seconds of your taking ownership) on most data bases, including the corner garage, insurance agencies, subscriptions, government departments, colleagues, suppliers, clients, etc.

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My guesstimate is that their information system frees up about an hour a day by drastically reducing administrative work, and makes a significant contribution to innovation and productivity.

In 2008, I had a conversation with the Swedish ambassador to Canada in her office. She was slightly aghast that Canadians seem determined not to comprehend the myriad benefits that flow from such an open and connected information system, which the Swedes, and more lately the Norwegians, are also developing.

Another key component of the Finnish innovation system initiated by the committee is music. In Finland, all children from age 6 to 16 sing, play a musical instrument and write music at their level. The results include high math skills, embedded creativity, left/right brain connections, higher self-esteem, teamwork, etc. Meanwhile, in Canada, some of our provincial governments are just now reinstating the arts in public education after they were lopped off a generation ago, and "design thinking" has made a cautious entrance.

In Finland, there are regular competitions and awards in every line of work, from cake baking to national monuments. Commissions for the design of most new public buildings are awarded on the basis of quick "idea" competitions that enable dozens of firms, large and small, to participate. The top two or three ideas are sometimes awarded a modest sum to develop a detailed competitive proposal. These competitions encourage creativity and innovation in a wide net at low cost compared to our grinding request-for-proposal system that, in sum, extracts value from the economy.

The Finnish model can serve as a competitive benchmark for our efforts to build a more innovative and internationally competitive economy and successful society.

Glen Milne is a partner in COGNITUS, an Ottawa-based consultancy. He is adjunct professor in public administration at the University of Victoria; and Strategic Foresight and Innovation at OCAD University in Toronto

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