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The power of vision

Why does Finland seem to be lacking a positive vision of the future? Sitra's president Mikko Kosonen outlines the bold experiments that need taking...



After a long period of gestation, Finland is finally about to step towards structural reform. This is great news. The decisions made have been difficult for many. The reasons given for them emphasise necessity, as well as worst-case scenarios of what might happen should these decisions be left unmade. A silent hope has been that these decisions would solve problems for good, and we would not easily find ourselves outside our comfort zone again.

As long as structural reforms are made because we have to, motivated by fear, it is only natural that we wish to avoid them. A saying claims that obligation is the best motivation, but studies suggest that change is best motivated by an opportunity to pursue an inspiring future. An attractive vision of the future has been conspicuous by its absence from public discussion.

Finland and other developed, industrialised countries are experiencing a historical turning point. The global distribution of work, the culmination of environmental problems, the ageing of the population and new welfare problems make it necessary to reshape society’s traditional structures and operating models. The world has become very unsteady and unpredictable as physical, digital and cultural globalisation has entwined people and organisations into an infinitely complex network of interdependence plagued by upheavals and crises.

As desirable as it may be, it is quite unlikely that the recent structural reforms, although positive in themselves, would suffice at this turning point in history. We should be prepared to continue making regular, persistent changes in the coming years. This is only possible if we find ways to see and experience structural reforms as logical steps towards a positive future.

Why are we lacking a positive vision of the future? In my opinion, it is not possible to construct such a vision on the prevailing thought models of the industrial age. Finland and many Western countries are imprisoned by the success model they have created – the model prevents us from seeing and tapping into new opportunities to their full extent. This cannot be blamed on any single person or player. Instead, it is a natural continuum of the leadership models and operating methods of the industrial age. They have served us well until now, but some of them have become hopelessly outdated. Instead of desperately trying to control our reality with old tricks and leadership wisdom, we should be bold and construct a new vision and new operating methods with potential for success in the future.

The Finnish public policy discussion has traditionally revolved around the economy and the welfare state. Environmental issues, the civil society and personal welfare have not risen to the centre of public policy and the related discussion. The culmination of environmental problems, the new problems of mental well-being and the economic dead end of the traditional welfare state challenge us to broaden the focus of public policy. In tomorrow’s Finland, the key purpose of all actions must be welfare experienced by the people. The civil society is an important resource of welfare and its foundation. The economy and the welfare state are its instruments. Natural ecosystems are its critical precondition which is why their limits must not be exceeded. Such sustainable well-being requires a cultural paradigm shift which Finland is well-equipped to make.

Finland could develop sustainable well-being know-how into a new national competitive advantage. Finland has a high level of well-being, plenty of specialist well-being expertise and technology, a culture built on trust, reliable authorities and public institutions, plenty of room and unspoiled nature, as well as Nordic values that support sustainable operating models. We are particularly well equipped to take advantage of digital technology in welfare business. Inclusion in the government’s structural reform programme of investments in a national service infrastructure provides an excellent foundation for this development. Finland should forcefully invest in the further development of the welfare advantage because it provides the grounds for a sustainable future.

A society faces many obstacles on its way to sustainability. Economic and political interests, established networks, the complexity of problems and hidden resources easily result in short-sighted, selfish decisions that are detrimental to society’s well-being as a whole. What we need is a new kind of leadership and public administration. Solutions will not be reached by giving orders through vertical chains of command in silos. Instead, development must be collaborative and cross-sectoral, and take place from bottom to top. In this new paradigm, the role of leaders is to build trust and actively involve people by providing them with frameworks, incentives and the tools with which to participate. Building trust always requires reciprocity. One cannot make demands on others if one is not willing to give up something important in return.

The structure of public administration must be open to reform. I find it quite alarming that the prime minister and government are hardly able to make any change in the “Finnish organisation” in order to implement the Government Programme. This is not the case in all Western democracies. Scotland, for example, has already been using what could be called phenomenon-based administration for some years. There they organise administration according to the main themes included in the Government Programme. Each ministry brings its expertise and funds to the table in order to solve each phenomenon in question. A minister is appointed in charge of each theme.

The increased uncertainty and declining predictability of society challenges the entire traditional operating model based on rational planning. More and more frequently, the information needed as the grounds for decision-making must be sought through experiments. Systematic experiments must indeed be made part of the public administration’s operations. Small-scale political experiments may help avoid the risks associated with major reforms, and speed up decision-makers’ learning processes. Consequently, we should quickly lift all legislative obstacles which currently prevent swift experiments. This is a key priority in the development of the social and healthcare sector, for example.

In my opinion, the more wretched the problems and reasons for change we face, the more important the way things are done becomes. Structural reforms are systemic by nature, and the right solutions can often only be found by means of broad cooperation and practical experiments. To simplify, the question “how?” used to be subordinate to the question “what?”. Now things have changed, and “what?” is usually dependent on “how?”. By reshaping the way we work, and by keeping our eyes boldly on the future, we will be able to find a positive path and to harness the power of vision.


This post opens Sitra’s Towards sustainable well-being blog series.

In late April 2013, Sitra published a report entitled Towards a sustainable well-being society: building blocks for a new socioeconomic model. This outlines the building blocks of a sustainable well-being society. These include a broader and deeper understanding of the factors of well-being, empowering individuals and communities, benefiting from the skills and resources of the elderly, creation of sustainable living environments which promote well-being, development of new business ecosystems, promotion of a resource-efficient and immaterial economy, taking the interests of all interest groups more equally into account in business operations, and improving the resilience or “shock resistance” of society.

These principles will simultaneously strengthen several aspects of sustainability. Together, they will guide the discussion about the development of Finnish society. This outlook will be developed and detailed further through new research results, experiments and public discussion. The Towards sustainable well-being blog series will discuss the topic from different viewpoints.

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