Estimated reading time 5 min
This post has been archived and may include outdated content

Returning to Finland


Marco Steinberg

Director, Strategic Design, Strategic Design


I joined Sitra on July 1st as the Director of Strategic Design….but I’m really struggling with life.See, I’ve lost the meaning of words.

I’m not talking about those obscure, multi-syllable words so popular with the academic crowd.  I’m talking about basic, everyday, words. These are the ones that seem to challenge me the most these days.

I know this may concern many (not the least my wife and colleagues at Sitra). Maybe I’ve regressed, or maybe I’m having neurological problems, or perhaps it’s simply part of a natural adjustment phase? After all, our family did just move back to Finland from Boston.  After living 14 years in the Boston area and teaching at Harvard, one may assume that a few bumps along the way would be only natural.

While that may hold true, I’ve begun to realize that the root cause lies elsewhere. It’s that the meaning of simple words is in such great flux these days. Yes, we returned to Finland, but the more I think about it, the less clear I’m about what “return” means. Why is that?

Well here’s a few thoughts:

1. I never left. That’s true- sounds odd, but it’s true. The hard fact is that we’ve been back to Finland on a regular basis (each summer, Christmas, etc. ) so we’ve never been away for any protracted stretch of time. Furthermore our “return” coincided with our normal summer stay in Finland, so our “return” is not an exception, but the norm.

2. Finland is not just in Finland. To “return” one has to first experience a change in environment, otherwise you would never know that you left. Certainly there are language and cultural difference between Boston and Helsinki. Even the weather – from time to time – seems to be different. But are they that different? We speak Finnish at home regardless of where we are. Our son (4 years) loves the Finnish Muumis, so we read and watched them on DVD in Boston. We had gingerbread cookies, met Finnish friends, got the Sunday edition of the Helsingin Sanomat, and even took our shoes off at home…  all in Boston, not Helsinki. Well, you get the picture. While Boston did provide many differences the questions for us is whether those outweighed the similarities.

3. Ideas don’t have geographies. This is the least flushed out reflection of mine, but the truth is that ideas, discussions and world perspectives move fluidly between cities, countries and continents. This fluidity helps create continuity between being “there” and “here”, hence the sense of a “return” is less evident.  What I do at Harvard and what I do at Sitra are not that dissimilar. The context may be a little different but the issues are very similar. The continuity of that shared realm is a powerful eraser of the distinctions between places.

But let’s examine these three core thoughts through a different lens:  What does this mean for Finland?
A few quick observations (I’ll expand on them postings to come):

We have to re-examine what it means to be Finnish. Finland has been living a terrific transformation. The concept of “being Finnish” has blossomed: There are Finns who’ve grown abroad; there are “Third Culture” Finns born to foreign parents; there are Finns who’ve immigrated from other countries; there are Finns born between nationalities. This expansion of Finns is a tremendous wealth and richness, but it’s a transformation that has not been discussed enough in Finland. I hope to contribute my thoughts in the next postings on how these issues affect my work at Sitra and the competitiveness of our country.

Finland is the world: Where past competition was built around countries, today’s competition is built around ideas.
Historically, one might argue, countries were the engines of competition. Where in the past you asked people about their country or origin, today we ask them about their education. The point being, that ideas and competencies are creating greater commonalities than geographies. The engine of competition is built around communities of ideas and competencies not national boundaries. And in this context, Finland has all the right ingredients to be a global leader. The fluidity with which we “returned” is just a small example of the world we live in. It may sound naïve (and I’m sure it is!), but Finland is the world.

Last, but not least, a thought on why we returned. Not really a full-meal-of-a-thought, but rather an appetizer: We returned because of the social and ideological values that Finland offers.  Where there’s choice the question of what kind of life you want to live becomes central. As you have parity on traditional differentiators (such as pay and opportunity) national competitiveness will be build around the social and ideological values that they provide.

Needless to say I’m excited to “return” to Finland and “begin” my work at Sitra.