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The Nordics: Inspiration for innovation



By Ariane van de Ven - Global Trends Expert at Telefonica Digital As published in eKISS Bulletin No 285 - Knowledge Netork. Business & Technology Strategy

"We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey." /John Hope Franklin/

   This quote from John Hope Franklin summarises the reason behind under-taking an innovation tour to the Nordics very well [note: done by Telefónica Digital]. Indeed, to ensure our added value and place in the future, we need to venture into the unknown and draw inspiration from successful innovative places & people.


   The Nordic cluster is one of the most innovative regions in the world, not just from a technological perspective but also from a societal one.

   The Economist recently coined the region the "next supermodel" as "the Nordics cluster is at the top of league tables of everything from economic competitiveness to social health and happiness".

   "These small countries... have reached the future first. They are grappling with problems that other countries too will have to deal with in due course, such as what to do when you reach the limits of big government and how to organize society when almost all women work" (www.economist.com)

   The Nordic cluster is interesting because it tackles challenges differently, resulting in innovations across the board from public to private, and often involving technology as a core enabler.

   For the purpose of this innovation report, we [read Telefónica Digital] focused on the following Nordic countries: Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Estonia.


   Overall, the Nordics appear to be a happy and positive place with high levels of life satisfaction and wellbeing. We found this to be conducive to an innovative mind-set and culture.

The Nordics high levels of innovation activities are happening on three levels:

  • society
  • technology
  • business

   Nordic society is characterised by a fiat, open and transparent system. Almost all of the people we met felt that having few problems that impact their everyday life enables them to put trust in the government. Indeed, a recent poll found that half (51%) of Swedes believe politicians will help save the world compared with less than a fifth (18%) of Britons (Future Poll's Sweden Consumer Attitudes Audit spring/summer 2013). Additionally, the Nordics report high level of honesty due to policies that are geared at increasing transparency of both government and citizens. As a result, people don't have to worry about security, and having their basic needs met, they are able to think in terms of opportunities instead of limitations.

   Furthermore, the famous Nordic welfare system enables people to take risks with little fear and to challenge the established rules, because they know the state will help them if they fail.

   Nordic countries are also known for their alternative and disruptive education approaches that generate a highly competent workforce. For instance, in Denmark parents are allowed to take their public funds to private schools with them but also to top them up (within limits) with their own money. Finland is recognised for having the best educational system in the world (as measured by the PISA tests [www.minedu.fi/pisa/2009) by emphasising creativity and group learning.

   Nordic societies are also characterised by an egalitarian and fiat system which enables people to believe that anyone can succeed regardless of their background. They celebrate local heroes. This was specifically pronounced in Helsinki where game companies like Rovio (the creators of one of the most popular games in the world, Angry Birds) and SuperCell have earned tremendous respect and given a new direction to Finnish innovation and technology.

   As a result, Nordic citizens have a 'can do' attitude and display a strong sense of individual duty to create positive collective impact. Individuals look for their added value to the collective as they are driven by a desire to positively impact society. Nordic citizens define success beyond material pursuits. This provides them with a strong sense of achievement and purpose.

   Finally, because of their geographic location characterised by a tough climate and remoteness to the rest of the world, Nordic countries tend to plan ahead and face future issues head on. They also display an international mind-set. This can explain why so many Nordic innovations are global successes.

   Technology is perceived as a positive source of future growth. Nordic countries have for a long time, shown an interest for the new and a desire to try different things. As a result they are often used as test markets by multinationals.

  Additionally, due to their geographical location and the fact that populations are widespread across the territory, it is commonly understood by Nordic citizens that technology can enhance many aspects of their life. Estonia for example has in a decade achieved mass adoption and reports some of the most innovative types of e-government services. The mobile ID for instan­ce, has become the new form of identification. Since the 1980's all Nordic countries have ambitious tech adoption plans. They are characterised by a strong ecosystem that promote the adoption of technology and access to world-class technological education.

   Technology is perceived as a democratic force in the Nordics: it brings young and old, rich and poor access to information, education, health, and entertainment. Indeed, tech innovations are often perceived as having the potential and the duty to positively impact on society. As a result, instead of protecting innovations, the Nordics have a history for developing new international standards. For example, the first fully automatic first generation cellular system was the Nordic Mobile Telephone (NMT) system, simultaneously launched in 1981 in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. NMT was the first mobile phone network featuring international roaming. Additionally, the open source movement has a very strong hold in the Nordics, contributing to challenge the status quo and develop disruptive technologies.

   Finally, one can conclude that the success of tech innovations often comes from the strong collaboration systems that exist between business, start-ups, academia and research & design institutions. The Aalto University in Finland is a great example of this as it creates highly skilled and complementary teams.

   Regardless of the industry, in the Nordics there is a clear belief that techno­logy can help enhance performance, efficiency and mass adoption of various products and services and create a better future for Nordic companies.

Nordics' business mindset is characterised by a discerning global and challenger approach

   Nordic businesses have learnt how to turn their disadvantages into advantages. As their home market is small and therefore limited, Nordic business, even start-ups, tend to have a global mind-set and the ambition to be an in­ternational success. They also tend to create strong networks among Nordic countries to play on each other's strengths.

   Most of the entrepreneurs we met expressed the fact that they feel they need to work harder than entrepreneurs in other countries in order to succeed - because they have a lot to prove. As a result, we see a real Nordic collaborative culture being created between industries, competitors, and across different disciplines. This is based around the philosophy that by working together they can all do better.

  Nordic businesses tend to re-invest (at least partly) their successes into the local community. It is common for young start-ups to get access to local VCs, angels and to speak with members of the government or large corporations in order to get support and advice.

   Most startups are driven by the need to solve real problems instead of ego. Generally speaking they seem to want to make the world a better place, for most people. As a result, there is a very ambitious and disruptive business culture that is purpose driven not process driven as exemplified by Skype, Spotify and new start-ups such as Flattr, Holvi and FundedbyMe.

   Governments in the Nordics are very supportive of entrepreneurship and innovation. They are creating innovation centres and encouraging more partnership between corporate and academic worlds. However, if there is a real push for innovation and entrepreneurship, it is understood that taking risk and failing needs to be done fast and cheaply and that individuals have to be responsible for their own actions instead of being taken care of by the whole community.

Innovation trends

   Our research in the Nordics demonstrated that in many ways, these countries are already experimenting with the future opportunities and challenges we have identified in the Global Trends Report 2013.

   For instance, the Labour of Love Trend reveals the importance of crea-ting solutions to support specialists. Nordics start-ups such as Kiosked, a smart-content platform, and Eliademy and GrabCAD, which are learning platforms, enable people to achieve mastery and to exchange and grow their expertise.

   The Personal Odyssey Trend stresses the importance of helping people discover more about themselves and the world around them. In the Nordics, video services from VionLabs and Magine or content services such as Tunaspot, Vamos and Surftrain enhance the content discovery experience. In the Nordics we discover many start-ups with a strong focus on sustainability that echoes the Sustainable Utopia Trend. For example, Terranet provides connectivity to remote locations and start-ups like Enevo and ZenRobotics offer innovative solutions for better resource management. The Intelligent Disobedience Trend shows that people increasingly leverage technology to challenge the status quo and create alternative systems. During our Nordic research we found innovative services such as Crypho of­fering encrypted safe and secure communications and Holvi, which provides an alternative to the traditional banking system.

   Nordic start-ups like Uplause and Opphos, provide ways to link real-life gaming with digital gaming, bringing more physical and embedded interaction as we identified in the Physical Pixels Trend. Another interesting start-up, Volumental, is experimenting with Kinect and 3D to create a scan to print app, which will allow makers to turn their dreams into physical realities.

  Finally, we found some great start-ups in the fields of wearable technology with Memoto, a small wearable life logging camera that enables users to create a continuous life log, and Korulab, a fine software and user interface for social jewellery products. We also found some interesting start-ups in health monitoring such as OmegaWave and Moves.


  In many ways the Nordics give us a glimpse of how mass adoption of tech­nology will impact on society: more participation, more demand for trans-parency, more egalitarian and meritocratic systems, but also more rebellion and challenges from informed and educated citizens.

   Many aspects of Nordic culture contribute to foster a favourable environment for innovation and entrepreneurship.

   The innovation successes are often the results of great collaborations


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