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Finland vs. the experimental society

Could Finland benefit from looking beyond the social policy consensus?


Timo Hämäläinen

Senior Lead, Competitiveness through data


There are always alternatives to current ideas and solutions, claims Timo Hämäläinen of Sitra in our research team’s Weekly notes blog. Finland is a small country whose people are under huge pressure to conform to the social policy consensus. So it is no surprise that foreign experts’ views on social development make for refreshing reading – particularly when they provide a radical departure from the prevailing situation in Finland. One such person is Harvard Professor Roberto Mangabeira Unger, one of the world’s leading intellectuals. The ideas put forward by Unger, who has even taught President Obama, may be radical, but they are an excellent fit with a society that is increasingly plagued by complexity and uncertainty. In a recent article, Unger presents a new social model based on continuous experimental activity and institutional redesign. The starting point for this would be overthrowing “dictatorship of no alternatives” in social policy. Unger points out that social institutions, structures and the related ways of thinking are human and therefore always open to challenge and improvement. There are always alternatives to current ideas and solutions. Unger’s social model emphasises the combination of a shared vision and direction with decentralised experimental activity that moves us towards achieving our vision. Social improvements and reforms can be explored through a multitude of small-scale experiments and by learning from the experiences of others. Such continuous, small improvements will cumulate over time into major reforms. In other words, social systems are no longer regarded as monolithic entities open to large-scale reform only. Unger’s model emphasises communal learning processes and social innovations, with the civil sector playing a key role in experimental projects and social reform. The education system is geared to producing lateral thinkers, for whom challenging existing ideas and institutions is all in a day’s work. In addition to decentralised decision-making, Unger underscores the importance of the public sector’s strategic prowess. In this connection, the Chinese governance model springs to mind. In China, strategic central government is combined with highly decentralised and experimental decision-making at local government level. Unger’s social philosophy begs comparison with Finland’s current situation. In Finland, social debate often rests on the notion that “there are no alternatives”, or that any alternatives that are presented tend to be based on outmoded ideas. New, innovative solutions are not openly and systematically sought. On the other hand, central government’s recent interest in experimentation is encouraging in this regard. Unlike some nations in regions such as Asia, Finland also lacks a shared and concrete vision of the future. This leads to social reform being implemented in different social sectors without a shared direction or co-ordinated decision-making between actors, leading to the loss of multiple synergies. In Finland, social policy decisions still tend to be planned in line with the traditional model, leading to an over-emphasis on individual experts in recent years. This is ill suited to an increasingly complex and uncertain world, in which thorny policy issues require the attention of experts from various fields working in close interaction with each other. Instead of engaging in experimental activity and cross-sectoral dialogue, Finland has traditionally believed in economies of scale and overall structural reforms of systems. Social innovations made their way into the strategy documents of the Science and Technology Council in the 2000s, but were never placed at the core of innovation policy. The focus is still on technological innovations, which will never produce the desired benefits without organisational and institutional reforms. In addition, the civil sector has also failed to challenge the hegemony of the private and public sectors in the policy debate. Unger, on the other hand, believes that it is the latent resources in the civil sector that should be supported in the search for new solutions. The civil sector is home to plenty of creative “buzz” and enthusiastic people who are coming up with new ideas and models. The Finnish education system focuses on developing socially acceptable citizens rather than movers and shakers. Given the rigidity of Finland’s current social model, new generations will have to adopt an experimental, questioning mindset while still young, if Unger’s social model is to make any headway – something for the Finnish education system to get its teeth into!  

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