Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.— Oscar Wilde.
This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.
Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.— Oscar Wilde.
This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.
The impacts of policy decisions to close national and some regional borders, drastically reducing people’s mobility, are likely to last considerably longer than the actual policies themselves. Importantly, they may also trigger substantial ongoing changes to our societies.
In recent decades framed by globalisation, witnessing our societies and economies being driven inexorably towards hypermobility has become a shared experience. Hypermobility prefigures an exponential growth in mobility. This includes both an increasing number of frequent but shorter trips and a greater time- and space-related delimitation of both professional and private lives. In recent years, our perceptions of distance, place and space, as well as routine and non-routine environments, has changed considerably.
Although these mobility restrictions are likely, eventually, to be lifted, the question remains whether our mobility patterns will reset to ‘a new normal’ or revert back to pre-crisis trendlines.
Current policies designed to combat the corona crisis have however brought this kind of unbridled mobility to an abrupt end. Most prominently, the closing of national borders and in some cases (e.g. China, Italy, Austria and Finland) even regional or municipal borders, has significantly curtailed major flows of people.
National lock-downs and social distancing rules, in principle forcing people to stay at home, entail an even more drastic disruption to our mobility patterns, be it for businesses, social life, in our local communities, or for traveling around Europe or the world. In Europe, they also drastically impinge upon the very essence of the “European project” based, as it is, on the free movement of people, capital and goods. As such, this has exacerbated an already difficult situation precipitated by the increased prominence of populist and neo-nationalistic movements in many corners of the continent.
Although these mobility restrictions are likely, eventually, to be lifted, the question remains whether our mobility patterns will reset to ‘a new normal’ or revert back to pre-crisis trendlines. We argue that the situation will more likely reflect the former than the latter for three main reasons, and that each may necessitate the development of different governance responses. We suggest that the main reasons that our post-crisis approaches to hypermobility and integration will diverge from pre-crisis trendlines are as follows:
(1) Socio-economic impacts of current policies: The policies on closed borders and personal mobility restrictions will reveal their full impacts and consequences only when they are lifted. Indeed, the social, societal and economic consequences can be expected to be long-lasting and will affect our mobility patterns for years to come. Moreover, it is widely assumed that the economic recession set to follow the corona crises is likely to be considerably more severe than that which followed the financial crisis of 2008. Thus, as the demand for products, services and travel declines, mobility patterns will change – at least temporarily.
(2) Lasting disruption due to ‘temporary re-imposition of lockdowns’: The corona crisis can be seen as a disruptive moment (See Kai Böhme’s territorial thinkers blog on this topic). While disruptions are usually characterised by short-term interruptions which change development paths, current discussions around possible lockdown exit strategies suggest that we may experience some further temporary interruptions as exit strategies take shape. Indeed, it is entirely plausible to envisage that, in order to strike a balance between healthcare system capacity and economic necessity, for the next 2 years European countries will routinely shift between 6-8 week lockdown periods (to flatten the curve and reduce the reinfection rate) and 6-8 week periods of free movement (some may argue to establish ‘herd immunity’, though this is, in itself, a deeply controversial issue where the science is not clear). Nevertheless, such temporary exit strategies with recurring waves of lockdown and opening will likely prolong the deleterious socioeconomic impacts further.
(3) Repatriation of industries: We can expect that many countries will develop long-term policies to ensure that essential industries (in particular in the health and food sectors) are located nationally and can function and support the country in times of crisis with limited dependence on imports. The question is whether this is confined to the repatriation of only essential industries or whether it fuels broader trends in respect of autarkic tribalism.
The corona crisis already risks accelerating pre-existing trends in relation to the undermining of democratic decision-making and solidarity. The European integration project has fostered the setting aside of tribalism and a re-focusing on the positive power of joining together to build confidence in families, communities and neighbourhoods. The risk associated with the corona crisis is that it precipitates a descent into tribalism, particularism and the striving for short-term advantage once again. In times of crisis, people focus on looking after their immediate kith and kin, be it family, friends, social groups, neighbourhoods, regions or countries. Unilateral closures of national borders or the closing of regional borders within a country are just one territorial expression of this.
Having already experienced the reality that our own economies are substantially impacted when cooperation partners close their borders (to protect their tribes), this may precipitate a more profound analysis of the risks associated with globally or EU-wide integrated supply chains and the total outsourcing of some production to locations in third countries outside the EU. Moreover, re-industrialisation policies may be viewed in a different light after the corona crisis has passed and both national policymakers and the managers of large firms may be more inclined to discuss the need to reduce the geographical dispersion of their value and supply chains. This could presage a decisive turn in the eternal ‘competition versus cohesion’ debate and tip the balance in favour of national/EU ‘champions’ while providing a boost to EU ‘industrial policy’ proponents.
(4) Psychological damage: Being faced with lockdown conditions will also have severe consequences for us as human beings and for our communities as well as on the functioning of our economies. European societies are based on trust. Although there are differences in our societal structures, trust in others is a key element of all our economic and governance systems. To illustrate this, trust is considered a key indicator in the European good governance index, while much research on regional development underlines the fact that trust is a key feature unleashing development potential. With the current experience of social distancing, trust (in other people) cannot be taken for granted, in fact in many cases it is being replaced by suspicion. Suspicion as to whether others are following the rules, staying safe and not posing a risk to others, suspicion that one might be punished for behaving (according to the old regime) ‘normally’ and not following the new rules. Given the return – both potential and actual – to tribalism and distrust, we can observe the acceptance of the curtailing of fundamental citizens´ rights in Western democracies and, exceptionally, the exploitation of the crisis to side-line democratic principles and the system of checks and balances in some EU Member States.
In a recent article, professor Janne Hukkinen from Helsinki University warned of the risk of our society becoming chronically authoritarian if the ‘Emergency Law mentality’ becomes the norm. “Because crises will be recurring, our beloved democracies may become partially authoritarian societies,” says Hukkinen. This issue has already aroused extensive debate across Europe among constitutional law experts, though the crisis has also generated some positive impacts too in respect of collaboration between researchers and policy-makers (see, Nadia Urbinati: “Un patto tra politica e scienza”, La Republica, 3rd April 2020).
The expected changes will affect our (hyper-) mobility in many different ways and thus also our integration at a global level, in Europe and even within countries. We would here like to highlight a few possible impacts to stimulate debate and thinking about possible policy responses to it.
1) Global trade flows: Global value chains and the reliance on some parts of the world to be the production centre or workbench for others, may become less important post-corona if the above- mentioned ideas of industrial repatriation and re-thinking of global/international value and supply chains gains ground. In this sense, much of the debate in Europe around Brexit and how to handle integrated cross-border value chains may just have been the warm-up for similar debates at a far larger scale. Similarly, the flow of people across the globe may experience significant change if industries become less globalised, particularly in respect of business travel. Private travel may also decrease, not just because of the expected economic recession but likely due to persistent travel restrictions, i.e. who is allowed to go where.
2) EU Mobility patterns: For many of us, the EU was perceived as a borderless space of possibilities and flows. Post-crisis, though perhaps to a lesser extent than the global changes discussed above, we can expect similar flow effects as regards goods and people. Less integrated value chains and less cross-border trade, commuting and travel may all very well be a realistic supposition here. Although the EU will endeavour to maintain as much as possible its strong single market and community, the scares left in some areas affected by the unilateral decisions of others will not be easily forgotten. Border regions, with a strong tradition of integration across the border, where people and businesses rely on cross-border services, or where substantial parts of the workload (also in the health care sector) rely on cross-border commuters, were often severely impacted by national-level decisions to unilaterally close borders. Clearly, in some areas this experience will lead to thinking about how to increase regional resilience in case such developments recur in future. This may very well lead to less cross-border integration and more ‘tribalism’.
Mobility remains at the heart of the European project. As countries resort to closing borders and frantically search for optimal solutions to protect their population and economies, we need to identify the best and most resilient governance mechanisms to keep our democracies alive and protect the tangible gains made through support for ideas around cohesion and interdependence.
3) Multi-locality: With countries closing their borders and even regions within countries also being cordoned off, Corona era policies have played havoc with our integrated labour markets systems and our globalised economies. This deeply impacts some of the new multi-locality patterns that have been emerging over the past decade. Multi-locality refers to trends in respect of the variable functionality of places and spaces, for instance people sharing their lives and identities between multiple locations, internationally and nationally. This could be for work (long-distance commuting), for private life (long-distance relationships, second homes), or for fun (swapping between different exciting locations or between urban and rural lifestyles). The trend towards multi-locality has clearly been impaired by mobility bans and closed borders. In rural areas, those who dare to remain in their holiday homes shy away from contact with the locals, as outsiders are seen as ‘sources of risk’ and contamination while urban centres with dense populations and a low degree of self-reliance are increasingly seen as places of risk and spaces of restriction as the multi-functionality of life spaces is replaced by stay put – scenarios.
How does all this resonate with our governance options and instruments? Is our territorial identity being re-nationalised beyond repair or is there still justification to hope that a post-Corona anticipatory territorial governance, with a cosmopolitan approach, will emerge to replace the current introspective overtones of national-level decision-making?
It seems inevitable that the current crisis will produce long lasting impacts. In order to address these impacts, we propose three vectors or lines of thought for discussion:
Cooperation instead of unilateralism:
Clearly, a successful response to a global challenge which ignores societal or territorial borders can only be found in cooperation. Unilateral responses – putting “my territory first” – will never be powerful enough and only risk accelerating fragmentation, tribalism and nationalism. Joint responses are needed in respect of both the immediate public health response to Covid19 and in relation to the post-crisis economic reboot. In response to the crisis, Europe needs to keep its borders open and limit the geographical spread of the virus by asking people to avoid unnecessary trips. Border closures threaten European integration and solidarity when cross-border commuters in the health care sector can no longer travel to work or when essential intra-European value chains break down. Perhaps we need to ‘think the unthinkable’, go beyond the Cross-border healthcare directive (2011/24/EU) and embrace shared European healthcare systems – at least at a regional level – ensuring that people see that we are all working together and sharing equal access to the same resources. The immediate post-crisis period is also likely to witness an increase in social despair, unemployment and economic recession and while these issues are intimately inter-linked, they will also be spatially differentiated. Again, joint solutions will likely prove more productive than competition between groups and places, pitting winners and losers against each other. Would a shared European social welfare or unemployment system, or even an EU-wide basic income programme, be at all thinkable in this context? How then, in the wake of the current crisis, can we effectively address the re-emergent, often unconditioned (for EU most countries) response that defaults to tribalist and nationalist mindsets? What positive ideas can we put forward to buttress the European territorial solidarity project?
Governance without a budget, mobilising resources beyond the obvious: Governance and regional development may look different after the current crisis. In recent years, we have grown used to an attitude where many players only engage in processes if they are paid or can expect a direct monetary benefit. The sums currently made available for emergency packages across Europe have been, historically, unheard of and beg many questions in relation to the previous decade lost to ‘austerity’. Nevertheless, they remain insufficient and much more will need to be done to boost local and regional development while dampening socioeconomic disparities and fragmentation. Given the sums currently being spent, it appears likely that after the immediate crisis subsides, the public sector will be asked once again to bear the fiscal burden. This however raises significant questions over how to mobilise and engage players in complex regional development and governance approaches without financial incentives. Or have we already reached the point where the market-driven logic of our society has exceeded its limits and a fundamental rethink is necessary? In relation to services of general interest, Hummer (2020) argues that “under the immediate impression of the ongoing Corona pandemic, a pure market-driven economic growth logic appears ever more questionable for regions.” This poses questions about future means of governance and also about future non-budgetary measures to avoid increasing regional disparities where the distance between shrinking and thriving places becomes ever more iniquitous.
Other methods of management and governance towards an anticipatory mode: We need also to be better at thinking on our feet and at embracing co-creation and collaboration in order to improve our ability to foresee future needs, rather than simply seeking to address today’s problems. One way of achieving this could be through promoting multi-level initiatives on social cohesion and territorial dialogue, as well as urban level development platforms, bringing together technological and social innovation through RDI-funding instruments, citizens’ movements and 3rd sector organisations to produce concrete business ideas designed to serve local populations and their interests. This could be attempted, for instance, through urban experimentation and innovation platforms, ideation between expert organisations, local urban and rural communities, third sector organisations, as well as businesses.
In sum, the current crisis and the policy response to it will undoubtedly impact territorial governance patterns and flows across Europe, with manifold repercussions for social and territorial cohesion. We urgently need to acknowledge that European responses and cooperation are not a luxury, nor are they irrelevant political mantras of yesteryear but rather, a very immediate necessity. Europe can win the fight against Covid19 only if it plays as one united team, building on mutual trust and the commitment of all team members, as well as by acknowledging that even the most global of crises do have a territorial and spatial impact.
This article is an output of discussions and sharing of concerns between Kaisa Lähteenmäki-Smith and Kai Böhme, two ex-colleagues from Nordregio (2000-2004), who share a strong belief in the European project and an interest in all things Nordic. Kaisa currently works as a consultant at MDI in Helsinki and Kai is the CEO of Spatial Foresight in Luxemburg.
Where are we?
Our global condition puts us in a position where we need to constantly re-position ourselves in the face of increasing digital, functional and cultural interconnectivity. Digital solutions and technological advances have compressed time and space by reducing the distance between potential localities and the time that it is takes to travel or work in mobile settings. Multi-locality is thus a condition that is partly forced upon us as mobile labour or immigrants on the move, but is also something that has a more positive side, at least in developed economies where people make choices about living and working that are more flexible, multi-locational and voluntary. In the Finnish case we generally think of multi-locality as a potential source of increased quality of life on the individual level and of vitality and sense of community for rural regions.
Welcome to the Club!
Our purpose in the “Phenomenon Club” context is that we want to better understand the systems and causalities moving and shaping our society. This was once again the case, as our expert speakers provided us with their insights and engaged us in a fruitful dialogue and to discuss this Finnish phenomenon with global roots, at the heart of urban-rural interaction.
Multi-locality is a perennially reoccurring topic on the Finnish agenda. In the recent ’phenomenon club’ meeting, we welcomed presentations from two experts on the topic, each approaching it from quite different angles: Hilkka Vihinen, a leading rural expert from the Natural Resources Institute of Finland and Pauliina Seppälä, an entrepreneur and co-founder of Mesenaatti.me, the biggest Finnish crowdfunding platform. As is customary to our phenomenon club, we were interested in the root causes and interesting processes of emergent trends and topics, and ought to approach them through multi-focal lenses and, in so doing engage in building bridges between expert communities approaching similar questions through divergent disciplinary or professional frameworks.
What’s it all about? As mentioned above, the core theme was multi-locality. Increased mobility, changing conditions and the realities of working life, ageing population and demographic change, increased free time, as well as ongoing shifts in the values and priority structures of our societies and communities are changing the way we think about rural and urban environments and their interaction. Climate change and digital solutions place human interaction, dialogue and empathy, but also a shared sense of urgency, into sharper focus. Our very understanding of the phenomenon of multi-locality is therefore shifting.
On the move
Mobility is increasing both globally and nationally. We as a species are on the move. This mobility is reflected in all human activity, from work and services to how we choose to spend our time (free time and hobbies), how we choose to spend our money (consumption and ownership) and how we live our lives and interact. The share of potentially mobile and ‘multi-local’ workers accounts for an estimated 3.6% of the entire workforce while seasonal mobility within Finland affects an estimated 2.4 million people. In areas classified as ‘rural’, the seasonal population is 1.3 million larger than the population for these categories as a whole.
Whilst on the macro, snap-shot level (e.g. based on the December 2019 data, collected by Statistics Finland), the picture is one of an increasingly concentrated population and demographic change favouring only a few urban centres. Approaching the data at a more detailed level however often reveals a quite different picture. During July, Finland’s rural areas are populated by 1.5 million people more than in January. (Source: Olli Lehtonen, LUKE & Hilkka Vihinen’s presentation) Seasonal shifts are caused for instance by the high degree of seasonal living and large number of holiday homes in the countryside: in a country of only 5 million people, there are over 500 000 holiday homes and in a country of 310 municipalities there are 65 municipalities with more seasonal than permanent inhabitants. This obviously has an impact on how services are used, resources dispersed and infrastructure needs addressed. With resources largely dependent on the size of the permanent population, the financial burden faced by many small communities is considerable and the degree of service utilisation varies considerably.
None of this is news. Regular debates on multi-local citizenship and the necessary preconditions to enable flexible, multi-local, living have reached the national policy agenda before. Thus far however few concrete measures have emerged. In may however be that the convergence of the shrinkage debate and calls for smart shrinking strategies, climate change and contested demands for carbon neutrality, as well as the ongoing shifts in political identity have this time succeeded in finally delivering the issue of multi-locality onto the mainstream agenda.
Sharper focus required
The nuances of the situation are coming increasingly into focus. As Hilkka discussed in her presentation, even if one describes regional development with traditional variables such as population development, employment and commuting, once you take the seasonal variation into consideration, seasonally growing areas are more common than declining ones. What this more contextualised focus reveals is that growth is taking place in many localities and that the growth network extends across the country from southern Finland to Lapland.
Whether growth is desirable as such, is another issue (perhaps for another phenomenon club). New areas of seasonal growth are characterised not only by seasonal use but also by the increased intensity of use. This may be a concern for the service structure and both the social and environmental aspects of sustainability.
It is noteworthy that the demographic decline of the regional structure may be narrower and considerably more fragmented than previously assumed. Taking into account the seasonal population shifts which remain under radar, only a quarter of Finland can really be classified as ‘declining.’
As Hilkka so elegantly put it, the ways in which centralised and decentralised solutions are balanced and how we place ourselves in the national space is undergoing major change. This implies not only the distribution of population, but also the time, space and intensity of our human presence, interaction, consumption and community.
Enter the scene: Citymaalaiset
Another perspective into multi-locality and mobility was provided by Pauliina Seppälä, who is one of the founders of the group Citymaalaiset (Cityruralites), a working group set up by Pauliina, together with Heli Mäenpää and Sirkku Varjonen (More on the working group Citymaalaiset/Cityruralites, here: https://medium.com/@citymaalaiset/citymaalaiset-ovat-t%C3%A4%C3%A4ll%C3%A4-72249e7fb117, https://www.facebook.com/citymaalaiset/, pauliinaseppala.com)
While Citymaalaiset as a working group has a specific mandate and goal of collaborating for a better collaboration and interaction between rural and urban areas and finding new solutions for doing this, “Cityruralities” may be a larger group or potential type of community who often are (in Pauliina’s words) middle-aged representatives of the creative classes, artists or entrepreneurs that are not tied to any particular place for professional reasons and have, or are, considering’ escape’ from the over-priced urban living of the capital region and swapping or complementing it with rural living choices.
Finland is famous for its late urbanisation with many people still retaining close ties to the countryside, despite living in urban areas. A barometer from 2011 showed that 38% of the Finnish population felt they were both urban and rural in their identity. This closeness may in fact be one of the factors behind the seemingly traumatic and tense relationship between urban and rural dwellers and identities. Would it not instead make sense to make the most of this potential duality of identity, as for instance the Cityruralites group are doing?
Pauliina reminded us of the drivers behind the Cityruralities -phenomenon and the reasons are largely similar to those behind the multi-locality issue, explored by Hilkka in her presentation: Digitalisation (and all that it entails for distance working, e-commerce, social media communities etc.); High living costs (especially in the capital region); demographic changes (increasing retired population, adult children caring for their elderly parents living in different parts of Finland); Changes in lifestyles and living situations; Nature trends and appreciation of nearness to nature (often cited as a particularly Finnish trait).
The city as a place, phenomenon and as the dominant narrative of the late 20th century is changing and these changes resonate with some of the changes in the rural sphere. While in 1978, the hottest new architects (including household names such as Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid) opened “the sparkling metropolis” exhibition at New York’s iconic Guggenheim Museum, Koolhaas has recently opened a new exhibition entitled ‘the Countryside’, aiming to turn the spotlight, as he put it “on the 98 percent of the planet not yet occupied by cities” (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/arts/design/rem-koolhaas-guggenheim.html). While the creative classes have been expected to sprawl and flourish in urban environments and the dominant narrative of growth has equally been built around the utilisation of the rural areas for the benefit of the urban, the climate agenda and the changing economic logics of the post-industrial market economy have seen an attention shift back to “the rural 98%”. The rural areas and the new combinations and meetings of the two may just be where it’s at.
The stories we shared remain poignant in their universality: the Finnish countryside is not alone in its’ desire to survive despite the logic of exploitation and monetisation. While the sustainability agenda has remained secondary to the growth agenda, the urgency of the climate change paradigm has finally forced us to think anew about what constitutes interaction between urban and rural areas. We’ve only scratched the surface and only just begun to map out this dialogue.
In our systems-driven debates we always seek to end with a positive note of engagement and activity, identifying action points rather than remaining at the theoretical level. We are not helpless in the face of even the most fundamental societal changes. What can and should be done? How could local authorities and local communities benefit from these on-going trends of multi-locality and re-thinking the rural?
Despite their divergent starting points Hilkka and Pauliina finished with similar conclusions. Promoting a circular economy favours decentralised solutions – boosting them, and at the same time strengthening local economies. Scalable and sustainable solutions and systems (for infrastructure, energy, food, waste, co-ownership-based new transport or housing solutions) can and must be re-designed. Local solutions for ‘Plan B’ strategies should allow for more variation in life choices and mobile and flexible service solutions. Choosing your health provider (as one example) could be more flexible to reflect the emergence of multi-local living. But mobility and functionality are areas where the sky really is the limit.
Municipalities should also stop thinking in terms of zero-sum competition and find new ways of becoming attractive, in collaboration with each other. If every municipality builds on cheap housing for families with children or cheap (and potentially less than sustainable) planning solutions to ensure industrial facilities locate to their municipality, they may be missing out on market segments that could be the key drivers of future vitality and sustainable attractiveness, such as the creative classes, artists and artisanal workers.
The most vibrant communities of the future may be those who dare to be open, think differently and allow for temporality and experimentation. The city of tomorrow may be the rural community of today. The urban activist of today may be the rural entrepreneur of tomorrow. Spatiality, urbanity and rurality are increasingly conjoined; the shift towards multi-locality has only just begun. WATCH THIS SPACE!
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.
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 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.
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.
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 development: http://www.mua.fi/the-finnish-society-for-rural-research-and-development/
Finnish research in urban development: http://www.kaupunkitutkimuksenseura.fi/tutkimus
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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