The land of techno-elves

A look at technology in Europe's second-most innovative nation.

'Lord of the Rings' author JRR Tolkien discovered the Finnish language at Oxford and fell in love with it. The Finnish epic 'Kalevala', which he read in the original, became a powerful inspiration for his work, and Finnish formed the base for Elvish, one of the many make-believe languages he constructed to give his world of Middle Earth its depth, detail and believability.

In a letter to WH Auden in 1955, Tolkien wrote: "Finnish was like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me; and I gave up the attempt to invent an 'unrecorded' Germanic language, and my 'own language' - or series of invented languages - became heavily Finnicized in phonetic pattern and structure."

 One wonders if Tolkien also took his inspiration for ways and manners of the elves, the superior race of his imaginary world, from the Finns.

Although they claim the highest incidence of blond hair in the world, many Finns have high cheek bones and slightly almond-shaped eyes. Like elves.  They also tended to live in forest isolation, to be strong of character, and to have a mysterious, detached approach towards the world. Like elves. But there is a difference. The elves have magic. The Finns have technology.

Actually, the two are not so different. Who was it who said that, from a certain perspective, magic and sufficiently advanced technology are almost indistinguishable?

Vanity Prize

Here is a list of what the five million Finns are up to at the moment of writing:

Nokia, which makes a million handsets a day, is developing three sensational phones.

Nanotechnology is producing miracles. The latest Finnish project is a shape-changing handset that you flex from its candybar shape and wrap around your wrist or stretch to keyboard dimensions; a second handset under development will  allow you to take a photo of an object that instantly gives you Web descriptions of it; a third collects data about traffic flows based on the GPS satellite readings of the users' movements  which are then collated to build up a picture of the traffic situation and beamed back to the users to avoid the traffic snarl ups that cost billions of dollars a year.

Linus Torvalds, a Finn from the Swedish minority, invented the open source Linux software, with a stability and portability that makes it a favoured choice to run mobile phones, gaming consoles, and 85 per cent of the world's supercomputers. 

There's Fogscreen, the world's first walk-through projection screen made of 'dry' fog, which allows you to project images that seem suspended in mid-air, "a bit like 'Star Wars'". Fogscreen was invented by two virtual reality researchers from the university of Turku.

There's Habbo Hotel, one of the largest social networking sites, where teenagers use avatars to furnish their rooms, gossip, play games, say bubba to each other (sexual words are bleeped out) and spend their parents' money on intra website credits. 

Finland had the most boring television outside of the eastern bloc in the 1970s. Now they are compensating with Floobs, allowing anyone to set up their own channel on the Internet.

There's also Finnvoice, the electronic invoicing system which will be the model for the Single European payment area due to come onstream in 2010, facilitating, harmonising and making electronic the way European firms and individuals bill each other. 

Finland's Neste's biodiesel, NExBTL, is the perfect biofuel. There's Finland's RFID revolution, where patients are not restricted to the waiting room as they have electronic tags, and nurses download data straight to a computer from the sickbed.

Finally, the world's most modern and largest nuclear reactor is being built in Finland; and toys are being invented to beat the obesity epidemic.

Backing examples with figures, Finland is the world's leading patent applicant per capita, the second most competitive economy (and the greenest one) in 2006 and the second most innovative country in Europe (after Sweden). 

The country awards the Millennium Prize in Technology, which has been sarcastically  called the Nobel Prize of Finnish Vanity, and whose first recipient, Tim Berners Lee, admitted he first heard of it when he received it. But €1m are not to be sniffed at.

'Sisu' means 'guts'

Why are the Finns so successful? British educators take note. 

Whereas Tolkien used the prerogatives of a writer to invent a favoured race, the Finns have had to resort to hard work, native sisu (guts), and a fortunate turn of events. But, above all, the country's comprehensive education system has long been considered the best in the world. In the OECD rankings, Finland came first by a long way in science, was narrowly beaten to second in reading and maths by Korea and Taiwan, and was first overall. This was achieved not through throwing money at schools - Finland spends less on education per capita than the UK - but through old-fashioned virtues. Teachers are respected, and entry to the profession is competitive. The weak students are marked out early and looked after. Communications between parents and teachers are good; society is homogenous. Finland always had a free peasantry, and Lutheranism placed a premium on literacy even among the poor.

Add to the educational achievements a slow increase in liberalisation and deregulation, with refocusing the associated economic policies, and the boost to the national spirit after collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Finns have had a tough time from their neighbours. The Soviets invaded in  November 1939 with an army five times as large as the Finnish and with 100 times as many tanks. In the celebrated Winter War of 1939, the Finns had some advantages, however: they knew the terrain, were experts on skis and wore white smocks.

Their opponents wore khaki and clung to the roads.The Finns ambushed them, splintering and isolating Soviet units, and  targeted their soup kitchens. They left tree stumps and logs as tank traps, covered frozen lakes with cellophane to make them seem unfrozen to discourage crossing. They made their farmsteads uninhabitable as they withdrew and mined the saunas and latrines. When the war ended, a Russian general said: "We have gained just enough territory to bury our dead."

The Finns made peace with honour. But they lost the continuation war when they joined the Nazis in a revenge attack. A price was subservience to the USSR in foreign affairs which only ended in 1991.


There are dangers ahead. They never cease. Again, we can dip into Tolkien. One of the motifs running through his books is hatred of industrialisation and its consequences. The peasant goodness of the Shire contrasts with the industrial might of Mordor. In a key turning point in the story, the treacherous wizard Saruman embarks on a crash course of industrialisation, turning the countryside around his castle into a landscape of mines and foundries.

Later, he tries to do the same to the Shire. Perhaps the greatest threat the Finns face is not a resurgent Russia, but the consequences of industrialisation: this winter, temperatures were six degrees above normal. A Met office map over global climate fluctuations marks out the Baltic sea in warning signal red. The university of Tartu in Estonia estimates that summers are a month longer than 20 years ago; winters in those days saw the whole 500,000km2 of Baltic freeze over.

It didn't snow in Helsinki this winter. The ice breakers have been lying idle; the crocuses flourished in February. There was no ice, even in the inlets of the jagged coastline, or in the archipelago. A Helsinki newspaper commented early this year: "All our winters are now going to resemble Belgium in November." 

At least they will still have the Northern Lights.

Finnish companies are developing the world's most advanced biodiesel; and Wartsila, the engineering company, is a world leader in ships run on liquefied natural gas - ships are highly CO2 emitting.

With the Northern Route opening up across the Siberian coast to Japan and China, the Finns are developing cargo-ship ice breakers, to deal with ice cover. Several years running, the country has won Yale university's awards for its environmentally sustainable economy. 

But its fate, in this sense, lies with larger, more polluting nations. Against global warming, advanced mobile phone technology is not going to be of much help.

Patents and applications

There are still tweaks to be made. I talked to the chief adviser on innovation at Finland's Confederation of Industries, Timo Kekkonen, who said that Finland needs more entrepreneurs and venture capital. Nokia was a one-off, and most Finns are better engineers than marketers. Finns are good at inventing, there was a lot of support from industry, but most of them went to work for a bigger company rather than start one up themselves. Leading in patents, they lag in applications and execution: it is perhaps significant that the splendid fog screen costs $40,000 a unit. It needs economy of scale. 

Further, while Finnish schools are excellent and weak students are catered for, the best are not stretched enough, and Finnish universities are not in the same league internationally - Helsinki University is only ranked 78th in the world. Finland has opted out of elitism. Kekkonen says: "We have a very high proportion of people going to university, and we have a big country with a small population. With 20 universities, there is not enough money to spend on each one."

His solution is to attract more foreign students and academics, to achieve greater rates of knowledge transfer. Kekkonen says: "We have far fewer visiting academics than other Scandinavian countries." That way, Finland would become even more innovative.

'Lord of the Rings' ends on an elegiac note: the age of magic and elves is over; those that remain "go across the sea" to the land of immortals. The age of prosaic men has begun. Here the game of facile comparisons peters out. The Finns are here to stay, and will continue to develop their technology.

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