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Three ways Finland leads the world – and education isn’t one of them

Finland’s education system is globally renowned. For more than a decade, Finland has been one of the top performers in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). But the Finns are not only outperforming others in the classroom; they are also frontrunners when it comes to change management, implementation of evidence-based measures and education in artificial intelligence (AI). These factors contribute to the image of Finland as an innovative and ambitious nation equipped to meet the new societal challenges ahead. There are undoubtedly many countries in the world that could benefit from looking to Finland.

The Empire of Nokia – the rise and fall

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Finland was plagued by deep economic depression in the 1990s. However, within a few years the country changed from being an investment-driven economy to becoming a knowledge-driven economy. Many people still remember Nokia’s golden era in the 1990s and early 2000s. Nokia put Finland on the map and enjoyed global dominance as the leading mobile phone brand. That was before Apple disrupted the whole market with their innovative new mobile phones, however – and from that point on, Apple and its iPhone launched a new era marked by a new generation of phones – smartphones. Back in Finland, after Nokia’s abdication, many of the engineers went into the video game industry. This has resulted in success stories such as Angry Birds and Clash of Clans. Thus, in recent years, Finland has developed a leading start-up environment from the ashes of a fallen empire.

Radical research initiatives

Finland also impresses in its successful approach to integrating research and innovation into its own healthcare system. Between 2004 and 2016, Finland conducted a research project in which participants were screened for colon cancer with a faecal occult blood test (FOBT). The results from this research showed no clear evidence of reduced colorectal cancer mortality from this screening, and thus the plans to implement a national cancer-screening program with FOBT was put on hold.

Finland now plans to launch a new screening program in 2019, but this time using the more research-validated faecal immunochemical test (FIT) instead. This knowledge-based approach, coupled with the ability to reflect on research findings and make the necessary amendments as the basis for important decisions is exemplary.

The Finns are also focusing on the future of healthcare services. In the last couple of years, the growth of healthcare technology has accelerated globally. As a result, more and more data are used to improve clinical practices and patient outcomes. This development demands equally adept healthcare professionals, which can be achieved with the right training. Clinical informatics is the term used to describe this particular field, and Finland has already invested in it. The International Medical Informatics Association (IMIA) has created an accreditation system for universities that teach clinical informatics, and the first accredited university is located in Finland.

Finland has also performed cutting-edge research on social innovation. In 2017, the controversial research study on universal basic income (UBI) took place in Finland. The concept of UBI is based on the idea that the government pays all citizens an unconditional income, without means testing. In the Finnish experiment, 2,000 unemployed people between the ages of 25 and 58 were selected to participate in a two-year pilot during which they received a monthly basic income of €560. This group of people was compared to a control group consisting of unemployed individuals who received a traditional minimum unemployment wage. The primary objective of this study was to investigate whether receiving UBI could stimulate the unemployed individuals to acquire work. The secondary objective of this experiment was to find novel ways and gather more insight on how to revise the Finnish benefits system. However, the government stopped the support for this research programme. The preliminary results after a year showed no effects of basic income on the employment rate – but the self-perceived wellbeing of participants had improved. Regardless of the preliminary results, this research-based approach shows that Finland is willing to make evidence-based decisions in political matters, and is bold enough try out big ideas that few have tested before.

AI for all

Finland was the first country in the EU to develop an official strategy on AI in 2017, even beating G7 nations such as the UK, US, Italy, France and Germany. Since then, many other countries have joined them in this endeavour. Nevertheless, few are as forward-looking as Finland.

The Finns are focusing on collective competence building in AI, meaning they want the whole population in general to become fluent in basic AI. In 2018, the University of Helsinki and the consulting agency Reaktor launched a free online course on AI available to everyone. Finland set a goal of having 1% of the country’s population take the course. The goal was reached far earlier than expected, and now several countries have been inspired to do the same. Swedenand the Netherlands have made their own versions and have set the same 1% goal.

Have you read?

This initiative is part of Finland’s plan to become a world leader in practical applications of AI. Arguably, Finland understands that AI is going to become the electricity or internet of our generation, and thus the entire population must receive training in basic AI. Finland’s Minister of Economy, Mika Lintilä, recently stated that the country will never have enough resources to compete with countries such as China and the US who are leading the race to develop AI technology. But Finland could nevertheless become a leader in practical applications of AI.

The Finns also want to challenge other countries to take part in education in AI and seeks cooperation with other neighboring countries in order to experiment with AI. It remains to be seen whether the approach of countries such as China and the US will prevail, or whether Finland succeeds in creating the most enlightened population equipped to meet the challenges of tomorrow. Nonetheless, Finland is punching way above its weight. (Source: World Economic Forum,