Last week at an event called Nordic Edge, held in the beautiful Norwegian City of Stavanger, hundreds of experts from fields far apart assembled to look at the Nordic Model, what being Nordic means for the Twenty-first Century in Nordic societies and indeed globally. It was a display of amazing innovation but also of how and why the Nordic countries belong together. Under the subtitles "Smart Meets Human" and “Smart Happiness”much of the conference was about smart cities of the future, why Nordics are among the happiest, but it went way beyond that. It was an orgy of fascinating ideas, technology and design. Technological progress driven not just by the urge for financial success, but by the desire to further improve the quality of life the region is known for. It was truly impressive and inspiring.
But the event was also a moment of soul searching, it was about the looming dangers to the Nordic model. In the public and private conversations there was a clear uneasiness about the future: can the model survive. Is a pampered society, which is used to cradle to grave care, able to sustain this level of welfare, maintain their position as global leaders in a number of fields? Will they be outcompeted by others, first and foremost China. Some of the responses were uncomfortable, even scary. As a leading Norwegian newspaper cynically noted about the host country " Producing fantastic wooden bridges, even if technological marvels , will not be enough to replace the oil wealth, once that oil is gone".
After years of great and free publicity for the Nordic countries in America under the Obama presidency, things seem to be changing. For years they were the darlings of the White House, and Americans in general. They were heralded as the ultimate example to follow. They were on top of every imaginable list comparing countries. The happiest, the wealthiest, the most innovative, the best social care systems, you name it. The list is long. But now we are at a different stage of history. Maybe the hype and interest showered upon them wasn't as lasting is they thought ?! Was the admiration for the famous "Nordic model" perhaps unwarranted?
As a life-long student and an admirer and fan of the Nordic way of life and mindset, I dare state with great confidence that the attention and respect they have won is fully warranted and it should not necessarily go away. The admiration for their incredible achievements are well earned. Peel off the politically motivated attention, and there is still a good solid image of the Norden in the world, including the U.S.. Get rid of the ideologically motivated misconception or idealist approach. They must be admired for the right reasons. And as a side note: even President Trump likes the Nordics.
The Nordic Countries, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden as a group hold some secrets to the future, they are the stem cells of democratic societies, if you will. As a group they are to be reckoned with as an economic powerhouse and technological and social innovators. They are doing very well, but not by the grace of God or by the grace of their advantageous geographical location. (Let's give Norway the benefit of doubt, given its oil and gas wealth.) On the contrary, their success is spurred more by the strong sense of survival in the face of all odds, of hard work and suffering.They have come a very long way from being the poorhouse of Europe less than a century ago, to becoming the shining stars of the West. The Norden was for centuries an unforgiving place of hardship, a fight with the elements. That fighting spirit is still there. So make no mistake: the Nordic model is not some socialist utopia. They are hard core market economies with a strong social sense, capitalism with a heart. They are also some of the closest allies of the United States.
They are however right to be worried. The Nordic model is being tested. In history, nothing can be taken for granted. Powers once stretching across the globe and thought invincible, are now a mere shadow of themselves. Complacency is a dangerous thing, and with wealth, it comes easily. The Nordic countries must avoid the trap. They cannot and should not take their position in the world for granted. They must face the challenges head on: extremism, a bloated state sector, rules and laws stifling competition, barriers to risk taking, migration and other issues. But then a repeated and constant self inspection, asking the right questions is the first right step towards finding the right answers. And this is where the strength of Nordic societies lie. Only in self confident but open minded countries, with a strong sense of reality, is perpetual renewal possible. Nordic Edge was encouraging.
It is fascinating to follow the debates in all the five countries about the future, about the dangers on the road ahead now brewing. In their debates nothing is sacred: old concepts and structures, if rotten or mold infested, must be gotten rid of, no matter how beautiful or how well well they served progress in the past. Social welfare structures will have to be reformed. The notion of work must be rethought. Disruptive economies must be adapted to. The notion of education will have to change, even if their public education is among the best in the world. Industries must be allowed to fail, if they are overtaken by those faster, more innovative and more competitive. Political parties will have to undergo not just facelifts but a complete overhaul. There cannot be exceptions, if that is the price of survival. The Nordics know there is a need for big ideas. The need to think outside the box is omnipresent in the debated.
In the endless conversations, no one questions the foundations, the need to maintain a strong democracy, market economy, the rule of law, free speech, in short, democracy. Authoritarian rule, as an “effective” alternative is out of the question. There is consensus that only in an air of freedom, free of fear of repercussion is it possible to ask the right questions, even inconvenient ones, and come up with the right answers.
Is this at all relevant to the United States? Yes, it is!
When America itself is going through a phase in its history of reinventing itself, and when it too is looking for ideas and practical solutions, Americans will want to embrace concepts that have a proven track record in countries it can associate themselves with, ones Americans, for the right or wrong reasons, admire and respect. This presents both an opportunity and a responsibility for the Nordic countries.
Bring Nordic Edge to the United States.