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Learning, Identity, and the benefit of the Future

What makes the barren and freezing cold land like Finland become the hometown of many great design works of the world? The vase by Alvar Aalto, for example, gives the new definition of beauty through its shape. Marimekko’s flower-pattern fabric has become the model of flower pattern around the world. Also among the examples is the design work with technology like mobile phones which are led by Nokia, the giant telecommunication company.

 ‘Helsinki’, the capital city of Finland, was appointed by the International Council of Societies for Industrial Design (ICSID) as the World Design Capital™. This is not because of the design culture which is deeply rooted from the past until now, but also the education and research system which is considered one of the world’s best systems. All in all, these are the evidence of future potential of this society.   

Design for Identity
For the Finns, ‘design’ has always been an important element for building their society. Their design focuses on the development of innovations and solutions which respond to the needs of people in accordance with the concept called Embedded Design. This means design is embedded in everything in their life, such as bright –colored metro, the flight of steps at cathedrals, or the town square with pebble floor. In most societies, design may not be necessarily the focus of everyone. But for Helsinki people, the grow up with excellent design works from generations to generations. It seems like the basic concept for Scandinavians is that design is not only the aesthetics of life, but also a factor that makes daily life more convenient, and more importantly, more enthusiastic. In addition, design also enables the world to see their identity more clearly.

What defines the background of Finnish identity? It would not be an exaggeration to say that Finland may build its identity from abstract concept like belief, religions, state, or occupations. At least, on the opposite, even though the Finnish society has gone through political challenges or attacks, their design works seem to be ignorant of those social complexities. The country chooses to define its identity through the geographical location. It can be seen from the creation of outstanding design from the simplicity of nature. This reflects the concept about the beauty of normal things and makes natural materials like metal and glass become significant parts of Finnish design works.

Open Mind, Open City
Some says that Finland is the land with the least social class division. Finnish people’s opening to diversity is equally well known to the world as Nokia. This is based on the basic idea that says no one has the rights to evaluate the value of others. So, the Finns usually listen to others before judging someone.  The open-mindedness here may be mainly derived from their respect on and learning to live with the nature. Also, it may contribute significantly to the country’s faster introduction of new technologies, as well as great success in international trade.

As opening to diversity is almost in their blood, Helsinki has planned to drive itself to become the Open City through the campaign called ‘Open Helsinki’. Some has expressed their concern that what is not addressed by Helsinki is cultural diversity. But when looking deeper, it can be seen that it is because the Finns do not take differences as a factor for defining behaviour, or ideas. The policy for attracting foreigners enables the world to experience the open-mindedness of Finnish people through the statement : ‘Foreigners are those who live with us and who shall share our society’s output’. So, it is not surprising why Helsinki is a city that attracts people to work and live their life. Since it is still a small society, elements in the city are well integrated and interdependent. Businesses of Finland also show integration of design with the small society. An obvious example is that design works are presented for consideration in the management committee meeting of Nokia, and is a significant part for management decision at Kone, another major business of the country.

Though it is not a ‘megacity’, what Helsinki cannot be defeated by other big cities is high quality educational institutes and various galleries. Also, the city has planned to open its own world-class museum – Guggenheim. This is based on the cooperation among the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which sees the potential of the city, the Finnish Cultural Foundation, and the Swedish Cultural Foundation in Finland, which co-sponsor the project.

 The yellow building surrounding the Senate Square is being renovated to welcome the year of 2012, in which Helsinki is appointed the World Design Capital, following Turin (2008) and Seoul (2010).


The Best Investment

While the fruits from the past can be continuously harvested, like the vase by Aalto that is available for sale until now, Helsinki people never forget to plant their perfect seeds to ensure beautiful output for the future.

The ‘Savoy’ vase by Alvar Aalto. First produced in 1936, the vase is still on sale until today.

Forbes magazine posted its headline news in an apparently boring tone - ‘Finland Tops Competitiveness Index -- Again’ after the country was ranked as the most competitive country for the third consecutive year in 2005. According to the analysis by the World Economic Forum, the organization which compiles the ranking, no other countries’ economy would lead to sustainable growth as much as Finland’s. And even though the country did not top the competitiveness ranking in recent years, its strengths in innovations, research and development, as well as education and advanced skill development still maintain Finland among those highly competitive countries.

And where else in the world would its government say that there are ‘too many’ educational institutes? This is the rationale for merging 3 universities, Helsinki University of Technology, Helsinki School of Economics, and University of Art and Design Helsinki, into Aalto University, which was named after the legendary architect and designer of Finland.  

Reducing the ‘number’ of educational institutes may be a superficial statement. The true rationale may be the increase of ‘quality’ for the education. The world clearly shows that the future human capital is those who can respond to multi-disciplinary work. According to Bill Sermon, a management of Nokia, ‘people join the company as specialists and become generalists as their career develops’. Similarly, merging of educational institutes which focus on economics, technology, as well as art and design would ensure learning for new ideas.

After students graduate and enter the professional world, businesses are in the best position to say which kind of human capital is needed.  Effective linkage between business and education is the management of demand and supply of human resources. Nokia and Kone are good examples. Both businesses have long play major role in developing Finland’s educational system. And they work with the 3 universities which were merged into Aalto University with the joint education programme called International Design Business Management (IDBM). Content and educational resources from the 3 institutes are combined. Students with various background are selected to join the programme, which was initiated for over a decade and sponsored by Nokia, Kone, and Desigence – a famous design company of the country. The companies also recruit graduates from this programme to work with them.

Did you know?

• The ratio of Finnish people who are multi language speakers is double of average number in other European countries. Finland is only one out of four countries where high school students learn at least two languages.
• Apart from Aalto University, which is the merger of 3 universitiies, Helsinki is also the location of University of Helsinki, one of the best universities in the world.
• The European Commission is establishing a new unit called European Design Innovation Initiative (EDII) to drive for the linkage between design, innovation, and competitiveness. Its secretariat will be situate in Aalto University.
• The other short listed candidate for World Design Capital™ in 2012 is Eindhoven, a major city of the Netherlands which is also renowned for its education and research. 

Though Finland is not a big country and what is given is merely the barren and cold land, the country is successful in building strong macro economy, advanced technology, and open and friendly cities for living. This is because the country has the best investment – the creation of high quality ‘human’. And this means they have designed the desired future as well.

as an Open and Intercultural city report  by COMEDIA (
The Global Competitive Report 2010-2011
report by World Economic Forum (
Lessons from Europe
report by Design Counciland HEFCE(

By Nantiya Lekomboon
Translated by Thaya Wichayathian

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  • Published Date: 2011-05-31
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