i3 | May 28, 2019

Tech Leadership is Ingrained in Finnish DNA

Antti Niemelä

By Antti Niemelä, Minister Counselor and Head of Trade and Economic Affairs at the Embassy of Finland in Washington, D.C.

"I was a 'Millennium Nokia' child. We were all proud of Nokia and all had one”, says Elisa, a 22-year-old colleague of mine. Finns have always led in the adaptation of new technologies as well as in designing and developing those. How mobile phone usage spread like a wildfire is a great example.

In this regard, Elisa is already an “oldie” in the Finnish tech scene. She got her first cell phone “in the fourth or the fifth grade,” about the time American children receive theirs these days. My own son recently received his phone in the first grade in Finland, and he was almost the last one.

Finland punching above its weight in technology has many roots, but the main reason clearly is that technology is ingrained in the Finnish mentality and that the whole society is included in technological progress and thinking.

It is only natural that Finland was the first country to offer a free artificial intelligence course for everyone and one of the first to include coding in the curriculum at the elementary level. Furthermore, Finland is where a successful tech company established a free, peer-to-peer based coding school, and where the government became the first in the world to make broadband access a basic right of its citizens.

The Finnish approach to new technology is based on the involvement of the whole society. For example, with artificial intelligence, the government program for AI – called “AI Era” – was not only done in PPP-format, but also the PPPP-format. That’s public-private-people-partnership.

This PPPP process makes Finnish development of new tech policies efficient and productive. AI ethics principles are already widely adopted in the Finnish business community, because the same businesses were part of this government initiative. Actually, people from business chaired the whole process.

This inclusive approach is fundamentally visible in all Finnish technology actions, from policy to education to the future of smart cities. Kalasatama, a smart district in Helsinki, prides itself for being community driven with piloting new technologies rather than company or gadget driven. The aim is not a tech wonderland, but a very concrete benefit for residents – one more hour of extra time for yourself each day.

Based on our experience this cooperative and grassroots-led approach fosters innovation and solutions focused thinking.

However, to make this approach work, we need a population that is educated, tech-savvy and, most importantly, tech positive. Therefore, education remains the key for tech leadership. Not just STEM education and training of engineers, rather, the whole society has to embrace technology.

As Elisa’s and my son’s experiences point out, embracing tech in Finland starts from a very young age and continues throughout one’s lifespan. More importantly, it is not just about being a tech geek. Ingraining technology into our lives from a very young age brings tangible benefits.

Children in Finland are independent much earlier than in the U.S., walking or taking public transport to school from the first grade. Cell phones enable parents to communicate with their children and check on them. However, overall safety of the streets in Finland is not a by-product of technology, it is the result of successful societal policies.

First and foremost, despite our ingraining of technology, Finns remain realistic about tech. Technology is a tool, not an end. Tech leadership also means carefully evaluating the impact to our well-being each technology [development] might entail. Elisa put it perfectly: “Tech helps. People lead.”

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