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Sitra Trends: interdependency is increasing

Paula Laine examines the growing need for an awareness of interdependence in today's society...


Paula Laine


Since the elections, there has been fierce debate about national division. Bubbles and the ability of network algorithms to generate self-reinforcing communities whose own reality reinforces itself have been a topic of discussion. At the same time, however, our multi-level interdependence within society as well as globally has continued to grow. Apparent bubbles cause upheaval, perhaps precisely because it is through interdependence and transparency that we have to face and deal with diversity. In an interdependent society, embracing diversity is a valuable skill which we will need in the future in all segments of society, from administration to businesses.

This series of articles, Sitra Trends, concludes with a certain megatrend of megatrends – interdependence is increasing. This is by no means new. Last year, the same phenomenon appeared in Sitra’s Trends list in the article (in Finnish) A global destiny. The article carried an interview with Petri Rouvinen from the Research Institute of the Finnish Economy (ETLA). The ideas in last year’s article are still relevant. For example, the changed security situation has once again over the past year demonstrated how dependent we are on changes in the international context.

This time I am approaching interdependence within the boundaries of society by examining different sectors. How does increasing interdependence alter the entirety of society? A joint challenge in all sectors of society is to increase competence in integrating things that are traditionally perceived as separate. We therefore need specific expertise in integration.

Towards more comprehensive thinking and competence

Traditional academic research has been a key driver and an arena of specialisation. The benefits of specialisation to the development of societies are undeniable. There is, however, a growing debate within the world of research, for example, under science 2.0 and open systems science on whether specialisation and an interdisciplinary approach could be combined and balanced more effectively.

The underlying principle is intensifying interdependence. It is becoming harder to distinguish between an increasing number of phenomena and those other phenomena that affect them. This means that it is necessary to examine the interdependence between different phenomena through the methods and perspectives of a variety of disciplines simultaneously. For example, in the United States, major new research projects specifically focusing on interdisciplinary research are under development. In Finland, for example, the research themes of the Strategic Research Council are phenomenon-based.

Increasing interdependence in the labour market, too, is apparent in the growing demand for cross-disciplinary competence, among other things. The view of competence based on a specific qualification can be questioned.

The need for lifelong learning is intensified in an interdependent world in which new connections and inter-relationships are found continuously. It is inconceivable that the static knowledge learned in the early stages of an individual’s career from a discipline regarded as independent could carry them through their entire working career. For this reason, questions regarding the responsibilities and costs of continuous development of skills and know-how between societies, employers and individuals will undoubtedly become increasingly important points of discussion.

The same phenomenon is apparent in the world of business. The average lifespan of companies has shortened. Frequently, one key driver of this is the rapid change and integration of disciplines brought about by technological development. Companies that wish to succeed in the long term can no longer focus exclusively on following their own sector. The companies that succeed best are those that are most rapidly able to identify the possibilities of integrating expertise and skills across sectors and creating new industries. The role of foresight and cross-sectoral foresight co-operation will be enhanced.

Will political decision-making become paralysed?

Politics – in other words the management of matters of common concern – is in some way a problem in a society that has become interdependent. Highly specialised areas in a society from their own perspective generate a huge amount of information and many needs which politicians should be able to integrate in the best possible way. At the same time, politicians should have a deeper familiarity with the substance of politics. It is no wonder that it has become a challenge for the political system to find solutions for systemic issues.

One solution to this increasingly complex decision-making situation could be different ways of simplifying the prevailing reality. For example, one interpretation of Sweden’s EU election results (the article is in Finnish) is the rise of single-issue parties. It is not claimed that all problems can be solved, but it is promised that at least one issue can be resolved properly. The same phenomenon can be observed in the Finnish political arena as well.

Unfortunately, this will not solve the problem with respect to the bigger picture. A phenomenon-based approach, strategy orientation, determination of consensus and learning by trying are all management techniques that Sitra, too, has proposed to return the political ability to act (link to article in Finnish).

Interdependence also compels government to reinvent itself. Significant progress must be made in taking into account connections between issues as early as the preparatory phase, as well as in implementation and impact assessment. Committing government to the strategic management model improves the perquisites of politics to address the challenge of interdependence.

Public debate and the role of organisations

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have traditionally been single-issue movements. In an interdependent world, organisations can find new scope to exert influence through closer co-operation with other organisations, in which case a joint effort on their part can solve societal challenges even more effectively and comprehensively.

The role of NGOs in co-ordinating co-operation will probably grow, and new central and umbrella organisations may emerge rapidly too. One example is the Finnish Local Renewable Energy Association Lähienergialiitto, which brings together the fragmented field of renewable energy forms.

One of the tasks of the media is to simplify issues and enable wider public debate. The risk in an interdependent world is, however, that things are oversimplified. Under the pressure of radical change in the media, the demands for journalism that digs deeper into issues are problematical. Nevertheless, the media bears a strong responsibility for communicating and clarifying the connections between issues.

In our specialised society, journalists, too, have to strike a balance between specialisation and integration. Political journalists, financial journalists, science journalists, among others, have more and more to give each other.

The role of culture in understanding an interdependent world plays an important role in everyday life. Culture has always been the first to address phenomena that have perplexed people, and has sought answers through interaction with its public.

The social role and contribution of culture in the social debate could be more visible. Perhaps the main challenge for the field is closer integration with the rest of society and in areas other than debate in cultural arenas.


Open systems science, Sony CSL

Tieteen viisaus monien äänten orkestrointia” Ritva Engeström, Tiedepolitiikka 4/2014

Santa Fe Institute (An example of interdisciplinary research in the United States)

Technology is wiping out companies faster than ever, MIT Technology Review

(Kokemuksellisen) politiikan paluu, Demos Helsinki

Kohti toimintakykyistä politiikkaa, Sitra

Finnish Government’s OHRA Project