On 24th April a group of Finnish producers, student volunteers and music festival organisers were holding their breath in Tokyo, Japan. They were kicking off something big. But they were not in Japan to play music. They were in Japan to transform the country’s economy.
The event was Slush Asia, the first overseas instance of a Helsinki-based start-up carnival. To get a grip of what we are talking about, think about a Glastonbury version of the Shark Tank. The event has its root in Aalto Entrepreneurship Society, a Finnish student network promoting the start-up ideology as a way to tackle the problems inherited from the corporate age. Titled by The Economist as “the most constructive student revolution in the history of the genre”, Aalto Entrepreneur Society is an interesting story in its own right. To be honest, creating one of the world’s leading venture capital events is a hell of a job for a student society. But more importantly, the story is only one act within a bigger play: a play featuring a new generation of Finns determined to shake away the dust of the past.
Despite the many similarities between Finland and the Scandinavian countries, their histories differ significantly. When Finland gained independence from Russia in 1917, it was the backyard of Europe. This didn’t change during the following decades. The Finns didn’t truly care, they were busy enough building an independent state. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that Finland turned to the third chapter of the story: the lifestyle state.
The youth gathered inspiration from no-borders Europe, as their parents invented the mobile phone. A new generation was ready to kick the field. Not only were they educated by the universally praised Finnish school system, but these kids were hungry for the world. This hunger, embodied and exported by the Slush-entrepreneurs, has yielded an astonishing change in the urban landscape of Finland. The older generations were bewildered about change that took over the streets of Finnish cities in the new millennium. The void capital had turned into one praised by the Michelin Guide, full of music festivals and buzzing with energy. When the lifestyle-bible Monocle announced Helsinki as the world’s most liveable city in 2011, a lot of us gave a deep sigh. We did it.
But times were changing quickly in 2011. Europe was in crisis. An array of alarming data started piling up from Finland. While Slush was launching in Tokyo, people voted for the new parliament in Finland. The preceding debate had seen a country united by the anxiety of the economic depression, divided in the values that they wanted to salvage from it. Conservative values won. Many fear that Finland’s economic troubles will make it a new member of the European periphery. Rome without jobs is still the Eternal City. Helsinki without jobs will easily become a city long forgotten in the cold, windy north. No matter how much faith the nation places in the Slush-generation, it might be that even these young people cannot save the country from forces of greater magnitude. The entrepreneurs might disagree. They are running, and might be winning.
But they had better keep running, for the soil is fast disappearing beneath their feet.