On the Paradoxes of Finland’s Creativity

08 June 2016, posted by Alf Rehn

Creativity — the very idea… We live in a world where creativity has gone from being a marginal interest to something that is used and overused in almost every imaginable context, from describing some minute change to the packaging for a consumer product to the economic situation and future of an entire country. In this, cretivity has become something that in universally celebrated but culturally filtered, so that while every nation on the planet states that creativity and innovation are critical for their development, the meaning of these concepts will to a great extent rest on the specific mythos every nation and every culture has established for themselves. Thus it may well be the case that the UK, the US, Japan and China all present themselves as championing and supporting creativity, yet do so in wildly different ways.

Not surprisingly, Finland and the Finns have also become caught up in this idea, in the notion that one merely by starting to describe things with emotionally laden words such as “creativity” and “innovation” can change the outlook of a nation. The Finnish attitude towards Finnish creativity is however (and in direct line with the argument presented above) complex and tied to very specific cultural ideas and ideals. What counts as creativity in Finland and what Finns are prepared to see as creativity — particularly creativity as this might be applied to themselves — is not merely objective assessment but historically constituted and established through a set of cultural symbols. Thus, in order to understand the notion of a creative Finland and a Finnish creativity, we need to take a tour of the socio-cultural psyche and mythos out of which these spring.

Finns like to see themselves as problem-solvers, pragmatic and with a penchant for simple, robust approaches. Creativity may be a popular word among pundits and in reports regarding what Finland should be doing, but it is not necessarily something that holds the same kind of pride of place in Finland’s narrated identity — i.e. the stories told to establish notions of Finnishness. In many ways, creativity has in Finland often been associated with an elite mentality, seen as an affectation, or as a smokescreen for not attending to matters at hand. Finns admire the direct solution, the clever hack and the brave fight against difficult odds, but have only recently begun talking about this with words such as “creativity”. To understand why, we need to consider some issues of Finnish history.

The history of Finland has, particularly in the way in which Finns talk about the same, been a history of David fighting Goliath. First colonized by Sweden, later governed by Russia, Finland has always fought to define itself, and done so by describing itself through negations and calls to fate and necessity. In the strive for independence, one of the emerging country’s most famous motto’s was “We are no longer Swedes, we do not want to be Russians, let us therefore be Finns!”, and every child in Finland is taught this. To be Finn was thus from the start defined as a necessary opposition to some greater power, so that identity was forged from knowing what you’re not — defining identity through a wariness towards outside affectations. In addition, several wars and the pride that came from both the success (if not victory) in fighting a much more powerful adversary and later from paying war restitutions in full (unlike most other countries) gave Finland a narrative of survival and independence in which not bowing down or not changing one’s mind became central identity markers.

Put somewhat differently, when Finns talk of Finnish history, they do not talk of ingenuity or clever solutions, they talk of survival and beating the odds. Such a reading of history will highlight things such as perseverence, standing unbowed, despite everything. This, the idea of a specific Finnishness, one forged in fire and ice, is a critical part of how Finns tend to view their own identity. We have fought and conquered, and we have done so by not changing, by staying rooted, by staying true.

It is in the light of this we can read how Finland views its own creativity, and the possibilities of the same. By necessity, creativity implies that there is something to be overthrown, cast away. All creative action established some kind of critical query towards an established truth, and creativity is through this always a case of being un-true to something pre-existing. Also, creativity implies change, transmutation, but a specific kind of transmutation. Where change can be forced upon something by way of an external agent, change created through creativity is to choose to change. Both this issues are problematic in the Finnish context.

Looking at how Finland has told the story of its post-war existence up until this point, the story told is surprisingly simple. It is a story of construction, of engineering, of industrialization and of becoming global through technological excellence. The icons of this development are the great Finnish corporations — the forestry companies, the construction industry, Kone (elevators etc.), Tieto (IT), Nokia (mobile phones) and now also companies like Supercell (famous for the game Clash of Clans). All of these have been great technology companies, run by engineers in an efficient and, yes, problem-solving manner. They have also left an indelible mark on the Finnish psyche.

Talking to Finns today, they will often refer to Finland as “a country of engineers” and downplaying the role that creativity and culture has played in the development of Finland. While some of the great artists will be acknowledged, this will normally restrict itself to classical composers such as Jean Sibelius, or great artist of yore such as Helene Schjerfbeck. Listening to this, you could easily be tricked into believing that Finland is a country that used to have great artists and creative collectives, but who exchanged this for great engineers and builders. This, however, is a falsification of history.

Actual Finnish creativity has, throughout the ages, been quite different from the official and widely adopted narrative regarding the same. For instance, Finland was in the 1960’s bustling with creative energies, entrepreneurial dynamics (in surprising fields) and general attacks on societal norms. Literature progressed in a manner that even gave cause to one leading Finnish author being jailed for blasphemy (Hannu Salama for his novel Juhannustanssit). Armi Ratia had founded Marimekko as early as 1951, but it boomed in the 1960’s. New kinds of music, design and popular culture — including counter-culture — established themselves as at least temporary parts of the Finnish canon. Similarly, the 1970’s were an age of musical experimentation, giving rise to some of the most beloved Finnish artists of all time (such as Juice Leskinen and Rauli Badding Somerjoki). The 1980’s saw new kinds of culture businesses emerging, including but not limited to new kinds of radio and clubs.

Put somewhat differently, Finland exhibits a strange duality in its approach to creativity, one that is continuing to this day. On one hand there is the grand narrative of Finland, which emphasizes pragmatic solutions, engineering, and steadfast permanence. On the other, there is creative Finland, which has through the ages experimented, tested limits, annoyed and challenged. The question is: Why do these two not meet? How is it possible that Finland, despite the ease with which the opposite could be proved, still maintains a self-image that is actively at odds with Finnish history (as was last shown in the public outcry that emerged regarding homosexuality in the Finnish armed forces during the wars — an objective fact that many tried to actively silence so as not to confuse a simplifed image of our past)?

The paradox of Finland’s creativity is that in order to celebrate it, Finns would have to accept a more changing view of Finnish history. Rather than being a country that steadfastly has held to a specific identity, Finland (as so many other countries) has undergone constant change. For Finns, used to define themselves in opposition and as fiercely independent and unchanging, creativity becomes a problem — a marker of a constant flux that other aspects of the country’s identity politics would like to deny. Thus, Finland might officially celebrate a notion of creativity, whilst still actively trying to forget how it has emerged in our history.

Peculiarly enough, this might not only be an issue for Finland. While the politicised notion of creativity is continuously celebrated, by almost all countries on the planet, it is important to remember that creativity never emerges unchallenged or in an unproblematic manner. Creativity will always challenge prevailing stories, established truths and existing systems. Creativity is always the introduction of potentially chaotic change, a blow to the accepted view of the world. Thus, the paradox of creativity is not just Finland’s, but that of all nation. Every nation will, in the manner of Finland, highlight only certain parts of its history, and try to narrate its history in a way that is much more linear and causal than was actually the case. Creativity becomes a call to the future, but a problem of the past.

Today, as Finland is discussing its future and new paths in the same, calls are continuously made for new thinking, but also for looking to the things “that made Finland great”. For Finland, as for so many other countries, the solving of this riddle will be the most challenging of tasks. Should we truly look for new paths, including such which will force us to challenge cherished historical notions of ourselves, or stick to a history that might be a construction after the fact? Are we looking for the creativity we want and can easily process or the creativity we need which can shake and challenge us? Each country will solve this in their own way, and each country will face its own version of what I’ve here called Finland’s paradox. Hopefully, we’ll all come out of it a little wiser.

Previously published in Japanese in Kokka ga Yomigaeru Toki: Motarazaru Kuni de Aru Finrando ga Nandomo Saisei Dekita Riyuu, edited by Noritoshi Furuichi & Tuukka Toivonen and published by Magazine House (Tokyo).

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