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Unlocking the full potential of digitalisation and the data economy – including in the EU

Strategic choices for the data economy must be made within the framework of the European Union and on the basis of national strengths.


Kristo Lehtonen

Director, Fair data economy


In the current government term, Finland has a golden opportunity to exploit the potential of data, the most important raw material of our time, for the benefit of all Finns. Data and artificial intelligence are powerful tools for promoting sustainable growth, strengthening competitiveness and improving public services.

Digitalisation and the data economy feature prominently in prime minister Petteri Orpo’s government programme. They are mentioned as part of the vision for Finland, as a snapshot of the current situation and as a source of growth.The data economy also has its own “broad-based set of strategic themes”. Finland is seen as a technological forerunner that “will make full use of the opportunities provided by digitalisation and artificial intelligence while making sure people keep pace with technological change”.

In Sitra’s work, we talk about a fair data economy, where data is used to create services that improve people’s everyday lives, businesses of all sizes thrive and better solutions increase the well-being of society and the environment. These ideas have also been promoted in the national data economy roadmap work led by Sitra.

Harnessing the full potential of digitalisation and the data economy is an important part of the new government’s growth agenda.

The theme of the data economy represents a welcome strategic approach to economic policy. A key problem in our economy is that labour productivity and investment have lagged behind peer countries such as Sweden.

Ultimately, renewing Finland with data and realising the potential of the data economy comes down to people. We need a shared understanding, acceptance of measures and new ways of working. We also need to keep everyone on board in the information society. The economic sustainability of the welfare state is at stake.

More strategic approach to promoting the data economy

Finland’s paradox is that we are at the top of international digitalisation rankings, but we have failed to reap the benefits of this development. Finland needs to be more strategic in seizing the opportunities of the data economy.

Strategic choices must be made within the framework of the European Union and on the basis of national strengths. We must have the courage to set priorities. If we focus on everything, investments will become fragmented and ineffective.

The authors of the government programme have had the courage to name the top priorities of the strategic programme for the data economy. These include quantum computing, high-speed wireless networks, health data, cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. Data mobility, computing power and AI are now needed for green transition solutions, such as improving energy efficiency or, for example, streamlining logistics chains.

Finland is an agile Nordic engineering nation. We have exceptional strengths in certain future technologies, and it is worth building on these to drive national renewal. Space technology, semiconductors and the digital-green transition could also have been included. These are mentioned elsewhere in the government programme.

AI and quantum technology for Finland’s skills profile, including in NATO

In the coming years, the most complex computations will be performed by combining quantum computing with traditional high-performance computing. This combination will revolutionise the most common protections on the internet and enable, among other things, innovations in personalised medicine in the coming years.

All sectors must learn to apply AI. This is a massive challenge of re-education and change of approach across society. But Finland must not remain a mere adopter of technology.

An interesting detail is that, according to Orpo’s government programme, AI and quantum technology – together with cyber and information security and countering hybrid threats – will be part of Finland’s NATO profile.

This is a welcome inclusion. Finland’s geopolitical position has fundamentally changed with NATO membership. NATO Finland can be part of a stable Nordic bastion, but it must also bring its own capabilities to the table. It is important to consider whether Finland’s NATO profile could include a high-tech profile in addition to and alongside traditional military capabilities.

If necessary, we must also have the courage to consider capabilities that we do not yet have and the determination to build them.

Better use of social and health data to help people

In Orpo government programme sees digitalisation, data and AI as playing a key role in improving social and health services, developing access to services and strengthening prevention. Increasing the use of AI is an explicit goal of the programme.

The government programme sets out strategic objectives for health and social care information management and reforms the legislation on health and social care information management. In addition, data management in the well-being services counties will be made more centrally managed with national targets, and guidance on the mobility of health data will be centralised at ministerial level. These are positive steps.

Public sector debt and growing labour shortages, as well as an ageing population, are putting pressure on the funding of social welfare and health care. Better use of social data and increased use of artificial intelligence will make it possible to target interventions towards disease prevention and the development of new and more effective treatments. In the best case, this can increase the lifespan and well-being of Finns.

The use of data can also save hundreds of millions of euros a year in social welfare and healthcare and free up thousands of nurses’ and doctors’ working hours for care work, according to a Sitra report, published in May.

Better mobility of social data will also enable better care. Currently, patient health data does not move from the health centre to the emergency room with sufficient scope or speed. For example, surgery referrals from one well-being services county to another are even sent by fax.

Social and health data should be able to move within a well-being services county, and when needed from one well-being services county to another and, in the long term, from one EU Member State to another.

The EU’s aim is that health data should also move smoothly from one country to another and between different health information systems, as needed. Finland needs to be prepared for this development: health data will also move across the EU’s internal market, authorised and secure, as unbelievable as it may sound now.

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