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Is Finland ready to engage the new opportunities for innovation?


In the short time I have spent in Finland what has amazed me most has been the consistency with which most Finns that I meet obsess about innovation. It is not since Jack Welch made GE obsess about Six Sigma that I have heard and sensed this kind of collective obsession. After the venerable sauna the national obsession in Finland seems to be innovation. I see the word everywhere and I hear this phrase often – “We must make Finland a leading country in innovation”.

Other than the passion that infuses this obsession I found it difficult to understand how innovation could be planned. Innovation as I have known and seen is usually driven by some sort of passion and passion is not something that can be planned. My discomfort with innovation as a planned national agenda continued until I gave the issue of innovation a bit more thought. I started by googling innovations of the 20th century. Being an Indian it was natural for me to look for innovations from India. To my great disappointment I discovered that in the last century there were no innovations from India that were truly transformational in nature i.e. those that changed people’s lives. I was shocked and dismayed and I wondered – how is it possible that we, a country of one billion people, have not contributed a single innovation of significance this past century? In attempting to answer the question I was reminded of a statistic on education in India that I had read a few years back. The statistic also provided me an insight into the relevance of planning for innovations.

A few years back Dr. R. A. Mashelkar the then Director General of the Council of Industrial and Scientific Research (CSIR) in India had observed and I quote “What happens to Indian talent today? Fifty per cent Indian children go to school. Thirty per cent of them reach up to 10th standard. Forty per cent of them pass. Thus, six per cent of our children go past the 10th standard. This is only a tip of the iceberg, of which only a very small part shines. A huge part of the iceberg remains submerged and dark. To me, India will be truly empowered when we let the entire iceberg shine by lifting it.”  Those who complete college degrees are fewer still. Clearly the availability of skilled labor is one of the most essential inputs for innovation. The question one is immediately tempted to ask is – what if the odds our children face in their pursuit of education could be improved – would that further improve our economic output, our scientific and industrial output, and our ability to compete and innovate? Surely the answer is yes. The question then is what needs to be done to improve the odds? It is an easy question to pose but I believe it is significantly harder to execute. For starters, in India, improving the odds will require reframing the national agenda, reprioritizing social investments, re-thinking organizational behavior and realigning institutional rewards among other things. It is almost about changing the psyche of a nation. The scale of choreography, if I may use the word, is perhaps bigger than the iceberg that Dr. Mashelkar refers to. It is in this context that Finland’s national obsession and planning for innovation starts to make sense.

The Finnish effort at generating a sort of national consensus around the need to innovate is thus nothing short of extraordinary. As an outsider looking in I am impressed and envious. But as an outsider I also feel that Finland already has a by and large working innovation environment. A national infrastructure of policies, institutions and the will to promote innovation exists. The integration between policies and institutions can be further improved but a critical mass seems to exist. To me it appears that the debate in Finland is no longer centered around whether Finland needs to innovate but how should Finland innovate, and where should Finland invest and focus her limited resources? Should innovation be national or transnational? Should Finland collaborate or compete? The answers, as is usual with such broad questions, would be complex and nuanced. Also the answers are for the Finnish people to develop through their own internal debates.

In attempting to think where the challenge to debates that attempt answering the above questions would emerge I am drawn to some not so thrilling experiences that I have had in Finland. I will share just one to highlight an observation that I have confirmed across other interactions.

I have, over the many years I lived in the US and Japan, gotten used to getting my work clothes professionally cleaned. Naturally arriving in Finland I sought similar services. I found a provider but much to my disappointment I found the services to be exorbitantly priced. Now, I realize I am not the most well paid employee at Sitra but neither am I struggling.  If I find something expensive then it perhaps is for a majority of Finns also. Obviously, as a consumer, I had a choice to reprioritize my expenses and not get my clothes professionally cleaned. But that is not the point here. The point is had similar prices been charged in the heart of Chicago as I am forced to pay in the heart of Helsinki the cleaners in Chicago would have been run out of business by someone who would see an opportunity and provide similar services at a lower more acceptable price. Acceptable, that is to the customer and to the supplier. The mindset to not be satisfied with the status quo and to explore opportunities despite risks is what would have motivated a competitor as well as the consumers. Here in Helsinki short of me opening my own cleaning business I must pay the price that within a few short cleaning trips would buy me a new shirt and perhaps after a few more trips a suit. My response – I dress business formal when necessary and reuse more often than I would prefer. I am not so concerned about the adjustments I have had to make but I am intrigued at the quiet acquiescence by the Finnish consumer and the lack of a competitive response to such price gouging. The usual answers that Finland is a welfare state and Finns do not mind paying higher prices does not cut it – Finns as far as I have seen and known also like to get value for what they pay. Although this example is from a sector that is not the usual focus of innovations studies it perhaps does reflect consumer and supplier mindsets that may exist nationally.

At Sitra’s partner day seminar held on the 29th of August in Helsinki the overview of the Asian innovation environment sparked a debate. Sitra’s President Mr. Esko Aho framed the debate by inquiring of the participants for a comprehensive overview of the opportunities and challenges that Asia has to offer. Dr. Mikko Kosonen the newly appointed leader of Sitra’s Innovations and new solutions stressed on the need for Finland to learn from the Indian and Chinese innovation models. Eminent panelists and participants raised thought provoking questions and observations. Dr. T. Ramasami the Secretary to the Government of India for the Department of Science and Technology observed the need for making innovation more inclusive. Mr. Petri Peltonen of the Finnish Ministry of Trade and Industries stressed on the need to making Finnish innovation shine brighter and higher than competing ones. Their observations and lessons were relevant. The debate also established that opportunities from learning and sharing with each other outweigh the risks.

But learning and sharing is easier said than done. At its foundation it starts with the right motivations and the right mindset. A mindset that approaches risk in a way so as to expand the exposure to opportunities while reducing the potential of downside. It is a mindset that where appropriate relates instead of managing, participates instead of delegating, interacts instead of informing, accommodates instead of confronting and collaborates instead of competing.

As the eminent author Dr. Deepak Chopra once said and I quote “There are no extra pieces in the Universe. Everyone is here because he or she has a place to fill, and every piece must fit itself into the big jigsaw puzzle”. The pieces in the puzzle of globalization are countries and they are continuously changing their capability contours. If the big picture has to emerge without conflict then the pieces that have the natural asymmetries in their contours need to cooperate and collaborate. The capability contours will determine the natural partners as well as the natural competitors.

Is Finland ready to engage these new opportunities for innovation and the new models of collaboration and co-operation is the question.