The Good Life, the Finnish way

Man walking dog in Töölö, Helsinki on a December afternoon

Tytti Määttä, Mayor of Kuhmo and Finland’s most influential spokesperson for rural areas, recently published an excellent column “Vitality to the countryside with a five-point programme” (original column here: http://www.maaseuduntulevaisuus.fi/mielipiteet/vieraskolumnit/artikkeli-1.757296).
Since some of you may not be daily followers of this fine publication Maaseudun Tulevaisuus (The Future of the Countryside”), with Tytti’s permission, I will paraphrase her points here (originally relating to the rural areas), as I think they provide excellent reminders and positive words of encouragement and motivation for us all, whether speaking of rural or urban Finland, or perhaps even of your own country, wherever that may be.
1) Don’t feed into a negative cycle and lack of vision
It is important to know the course of history, to keep an eye on future forecasts and to be sensitive to the developing megatrends around us. But do not let the forecasts paralyse you into acceptance and inaction. Such forecasts are projections of what may happen, if we do nothing, not statements of unalterable truth. A lack of future prospects and vision will stifle all development, no matter where you are.
2) Talk about the qualitative aspects of development and live in the present
While bearing in mind that according to current forecasts, Finland is experiencing population decline, demographic indicators are just one measure among many. Perhaps investigating and visualising these other indicators, e.g. for well-being and quality of life, for example, could help us create a more positive outlook.
3) Tackle the challenges and seize the moment
We are all fully aware that significant challenges exist. Rather than hiding from them, let’s tackle them straight on, let’s come up with new solutions, build networks and be inspired by good practices, wherever you may find them.
4) See the potential and exploit the opportunities
We live in the smartest and happiest country in the world. See the opportunities around you, encourage young people to seize them and let’s build on them together. The world is our oyster.
5) Spread the positive message
Most people across the globe have probably never heard of your region. You can help to decide what kind of image of Finland and of your home region will be promoted – why not spread a positive message, it is after all with such messages that we can feed into positive development.

December morning in Mathildedal, Finland

Expert knowledge and social media – an impossible equation?

Copenhagen’s communication network data visualised
@Design House Copenhagen 2018.

Do you feel frustrated with the quality of discussion in society? Do you feel we are inundated with data, but need better analysis and a closer dialogue with research and society? Do you get annoyed at the way public debate seems to ignore scientific knowledge? Are you appalled at how politicians and opinion leaders seem to treat academic knowledge as being merely ’on a par’ with that of the layman in respect of the complex issues facing our societies? Do you grind your teeth when reading the day’s headlines in the ‘popular’ media? Join the club. There are luckily still several ways in which experts and the academic community more generally can make themselves heard.

“Joining the club” is actually an accurate metaphor in this case, as this blog is very much inspired by our “phenomenon club”, a loose network of experts and civil servants brought together by the shared wish to broaden our perspectives and engage in some learning-by-doing in the area of systems thinking and change-making. The club has now been in operation for about a year, with sporadic meetings around various topics and in different constellations. The topic of expert knowledge and its changing nature has been a recurrent theme on our self-organising agenda.

Perhaps the most significant megatrends influencing the ways in which researchers and academic experts need to engage with their audiences is digitalisation, as well as the many technological developments which enable new work practices, promote greater mobility, virtual working modes and new communication methods and practices. Many of the mega trends and the most interesting processes impacting the future of work for academic experts are also central to the ongoing changes in our democracies. This is perhaps also why they are so pertinent: they reflect both the possibilities and limitations of our democracies as they currently exist. While openness, transparency and equal access to information remain at the core of our system, we cannot continue to take these values for granted, they need to be maintained and renewed through concrete action and daily practice.


In our “phenomenon-club”, we have often been confronted by these concerns. On a number of occasions, when, with the help our “systems mapping canvases” which are intended to help the systems mapping exercises along and help make causalities visible, relevant “phenomena” for discussion have involved the issues of “post truth”, “the changing nature of expertise”, “the impact of social media on communicating factual information”. We have even discussed them, but seldom with such a deeply thought-through and such a hands-on support as in our most recent session , when our club enjoyed an introductory note by two professionals on this very issue, Petro Poutanen and Salla-Maaria Laaksonen.

Petro Poutanen and Salla-Maaria Laaksonen

Petro and Salla-Maaria have worked on these topics for a long time and recently published a guidebook for professionals on the topic, i.e. Faktat nettiin! Asiantuntijaviestintä sosiaalisessa mediassa (or rather, “Facts Online! Expert communication in social media”). Their argument starts from the assumption that social media is not first and foremost a threat to fact-based knowledge and information, rather it also allows for new possibilities for fact-based research communication, beyond traditional dissemination and communication. Social media allows for the improved visibility and dissemination of research information, diverse and enriching encounters and forms of collaboration, as well as increased openness during the various stages of research. By making assumptions and findings available, accessible and debated online, experts can, above all, correct misinformation in the public domain and bring knowledge-based perspectives to the heart of the public debate.

The book itself (published in Finnish, hopefully with an English-language version to follow) is based on expert interviews and years of research on the topic, expanding the topic beyond the itself useful perspective of science communication and considerations of expert roles, from institutional and authority-based traditional expertise to post-modern forms of experts as brand-builders. The introduction provided by Petro and Salla-Maaria and the debate that ensued with our network of experts from various fields of society provided the inspiration for this blog.

Traditional expert authorities are increasingly challenged.

We identified some of the reasons behind the need to respond to and change the way we act and communicate as experts and researchers. Behind the perceived need to adjust our own practice was, for instance, the common perception that respect for traditional forms of institutional authority is declining. While this can be viewed as a healthy sign of a well-educated society, where titles and institutional positions are no signifier of intellectual or professional superiority, it also reflects some of the negative sides of our societies, with all of those associated post-truth and “fake news” tendencies. As we, in Finland, like to think of ourselves as a country of social mobility, equal opportunity and meritocracy, there is generally little deference automatically shown to authority, but it remained a shared view nonetheless that the traditional respect for research and science should not fall prey to impatience and ignorance. Other factors behind the perceived need to change included the strong tendencies towards increased individualism, partly connected to the marketisation of expertise and the fact that information and knowledge are increasingly commodified, market-driven, and platform-based.

The starting point of our meeting was the belief that these issues should be explored through multiple perspectives and viewed through systems glasses. Societal openness is at the heart of these megatrends and the need for transparency, equality, openness and the renewal of our democracy are central to the changing role of the expert and the status of expert knowledge.

Phenomenon-based thinking and the systems approach to societal knowledge creation are also connected to notions of complexity. The uncertainty of evidence (re: complex phenomena, no more easy answers and simple explanations, increasingly contingent knowledge, requiring interpretation) and the increasing inability of (experts) to control public debate emerged as central drivers behind the shift in expert roles.

The debate concluded with some important reflections on what is required in terms of skills and competences. The characteristics required from experts and researchers today are once again at the heart of the human skills that also accompany systems-thinking and phenomenon-based agency more generally, namely empathy, situational awareness and sensitivity, as well as an understanding of the segments and targets groups (of various communicative efforts).The discussion also concluded that what the experts need is a stronger goal-orientation, i.e. who do I need to reach with my knowledge and findings, why and how can I get my point across, who else may need to know about this and how may his or her community benefit from this knowledge. The key question then ultimately concerns the utilisation of knowledge, rather than its production or diffusion. There was also a shared realisation that one needs to reflect further on the need and/or ability to draw boundaries around one’s professional and personal identity. Are you ready for it? Will you engage in social media, though it may not be part of your incentive structure? Because we need your research and expertise.

Here it goes!

Welcome to my bubble! Many of us in Finland see it as the best place in the world to live. It has the quirkiest people, the most poetic, though incomprehensible and inaccessible language; a remarkably beautiful but often harsh nature endowment; the coolest urban centres, even though they can seem a bit ‘edgy’ at times and the most enlightened governance/ government which seeks to help its citizens to pursue their lives in sustainable and meaningful ways, with a sense of purpose and contentment. “What’s not to like?!”… as my better half would say.

Plenty of room for improvement however remains. One of the issues that I’ve mulled over in recent years is our ability to be resilient and agile, inclusive and welcoming and to work across geographical, professional and disciplinary as well as sectoral boundaries. In 2018, I was involved in a Sitra (www.sitra.fi) project where we explored the possibilities of a more systems- and phenomenon-based approach to governance and administration, building on the tradition and historical success of Finnish good governance, whilst  at the same time wishing to renew it in ways that are better suited to the complex societal challenges of today – from global mega trends to everyday conundrums. The project resulted in a discussion paper aimed squarely at policy makers and a collection of tools promoting a more phenomenon-based dialogue and planning approach, aimed at everyone and anyone wishing to engage in a more system-driven and multi-perspective approach to planning and strategy-work. It also provided a platform for thinking about our societal dialogue and knowledge base. Systems-thinking provides a useful starting point for many human and social endeavours. It may help us to escape our bubbles, even.  

This was the start of a journey that has, for me, been one of discovery and joy but also one of deep frustration. Why is it so difficult for us to work together across boundaries? Why are we so easily dissuaded from making the effort to conceive of problems and solutions across boundaries, from multiple perspectives and in exploring issues and phenomena with empathy? Why are we so easily locked in our perspective(s) and unable to shift focus with empathy? Why are cognitive biases so strong? In order to train our minds, our thoughts and actions to be more phenomenon-based and systems-oriented, we also launched a loose network together with colleagues from ministries, agencies and small expert companies, entitled “ILMIÖKERHO” (“Phenomenon club”) in collaboration with fellow experts, civil servants and people from different walks of life in order to ponder these issues further. It was initially set up as an informal network, with a Facebook page and a few engaged individuals. We now number about 260 people in this “club”, meeting occasionally around a phenomenon that we consider worth exploring from multiple perspectives (ranging from climate change and its impact on consumer behaviour and lifestyle choices to trust, confidence and integrity in the public sector). In May we even organised a pop-up club meeting at the Finnish parliament, thanks to a fellow “clubber” from the State Audit Office.

During the last year or so we have collectively and individually explored what a more “phenomenon-based” policy, planning or exploration or our society could entail. This has led us into really interesting discussions about why we need a more phenomenon-based mindset, the changing nature of expertise, changing our everyday practice, solution-based methods, empowering dialogue, collaboration and cold and warm data. There is so much to explore and we can only do it in a collaborative framework. This also brings into focus the need to look for better ways of working together, as networks and teams. I’ve often used the wisdom of Stanley McChrystal’s “Team of Teams”, where the three E’s are central to coming to a shared understanding and collective solution:  engagement, exploration and empowerment. When working together towards a shared goal or solution, we can only achieve common value if we are willing to engage on equal terms and are able to explore, experiment and search for answers together. In so doing we can even be empowered. Who knows.

This goes to the heart of the promise of phenomenon-based policy. I see it not as being intrinsically of value in itself but rather as being more in line with the conundrums that currently crowd our societal agenda and by extension as being at the heart of the main characteristics of policy today: 1) the capacity for better policy consistency and coherence which can, in turn, be more effective in achieving policy impacts; 2) the systems-approach: making the causalities, root causes and interconnections more visible and in so doing, focusing greater attention on the knowledge- and evidence base of policies; and 3) creating a more open and inclusive dialogue across the various sectors and policy spheres – each of which can be seen as having an intrinsic value of their own –  leading, perhaps, to more inclusive policies and a more deliberative-style of public policy-making.

Now I wish to open up the discussion further by establishing this blog. My intention here is to discuss, share and explore what I feel are interesting phenomena in Finland. Some of them may be connected to political debates, some are professional musings, while others are altogether more personal explorations, perhaps discovering hidden gems when travelling to different parts of Finland.

I love my hometown, Helsinki, but I am always eager to explore new places to visit and to find interesting and enjoyable corners in everyday life. Finland for me is a phenomenally good place to live, but we should not be complacent; things can always be improved, and this requires collaboration across societal sectors. Society as a whole is also very contextual, fragile and susceptible to contrasting interpretations. This is why phenomenon-based thinking and dialogue is so valuable. I hope you will join me in this journey of discovery into Finnish life and its phenomenal potentials!

Some Finnish phenomena and some external glimpses into them worth checking out:

Hyvä elämä, “the Good Life”: https://www.helsinki.fi/fi/uutiset/hyvinvointiyhteiskunta/frank-martela-hyva-elama-on-itselle-arvokkaiden-asioiden-etsintaa, https://frankmartela.com/2017/12/22/the-meaning-of-life-what-makes-life-worth-living-in-one-sentence/

Good life in the shrinking regions and communities:

Happiness (in all of its shapes and sizes, though not everyone would consider it happiness, some – especially Finns ourselves – have been sceptical and see the ranking more in terms of the absence of unhappiness or misery than active happiness. See: https://qz.com/1276649/the-happiest-country-on-earth-is-finland-and-finns-arent-happy-about-it/):

Urban life in Finland: https://urbanfinland.com/

Kaupunkiaktivismi, ‘urban activism’: https://kaupunkiaktivismi.wordpress.com/

Local action in villages and suburbs: www.suomenkylat.fi

Finnish research in rural developmenthttp://www.mua.fi/the-finnish-society-for-rural-research-and-development/

Finnish research in urban development: http://www.kaupunkitutkimuksenseura.fi/tutkimus

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/03/finland-is-the-world-s-happiest-country-again/

The Nordic Theory of Everything: https://www.anupartanen.com/the-nordic-theory-of-everything/

Phenomenon-based education: https://www.progressiveteacher.in/the-finnish-phenomenon-in-education/

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Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus you own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about?
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.