“I want to get people excited about democracy”

If you combine academic research on democracy and principles from the startup scene, it can help to make more people interested in civic participation, says Stinne Vognæs. Her studies at the University of Helsinki together with the lively startup scene of the city have helped Vognæs work towards that goal.

In the autumn of 2018, Stinne Vognæs was in disbelief - complete strangers had arrived to take part in a sustainability walking tour she was organising. Vognæs felt like she was making a difference: getting other people to participate in order to make the world better.

During Vognæs first year of studying in the Master's Programme in Global Politics and Communication at the University of Helsinki, she participated in a Baltic Sea Hackathon, an event where people of different backgrounds from the Baltic Sea area came together to create sustainable business. Her team developed the idea of a sustainability tour of Helsinki.

After the hackathon, Vognæs’ team decided to execute their idea in practice and they took strangers to sustainable restaurants and stores. The experience was impactful for Vognæs.

“We wanted to challenge the idea that people are going to be a burden on the environment no matter what they do. Instead, we wanted to say that we are all the problem but we are all also the solution. Our goal was to give people ideas about how to live their lives in a more sustainable manner so that it would be easier for them to make ethical choices.”

Mixing theory with practice

Vognæs’ passions are democracy and civic participation. She did her Bachelor’s degree in Denmark in Political Science, but for her Master’s degree she wanted to combine politics and societal issues with something more practical.

She discovered the Master’s Programme in Global Politics and Communication at the University of Helsinki. Vognæs had always been into media and journalism, so mixing communication studies and political science felt like the perfect option.

The programme has met her expectations.

“I’m specializing in Media and Democracy. I find these issues so important because politics and democracy are shaping the lives of us all.”

“Politics should be second nature to everyone”

Why are more people not interested in participating in politics and democracy? This question constantly baffles Vognæs. At the University of Helsinki, she has been able to dive into the topic of civic participation.

One course that made a special impact on her focused on activism and social change. The course consisted of tangible tasks like tagging social movements around the world on an online map and then exploring them.

Their first class was on the day of the first big ‘Fridays for Future’ demonstration in Helsinki. Outside, right next to the classroom, young people were protesting against the lack of action on the climate crisis.

“The teacher was like, I’m going to make this fast so you can join the demonstrators and see how they are experiencing activism! I really liked the hands-on approach of the class. It was focusing on what’s really happening in the world right now.”

When Vognæs did an internship in Vilnius in Lithuania as part of her studies, it helped her to define her future path. She found a local centre for civic education that teaches people about politics and government. Vognæs is now planning to write her Master’s thesis on how the centre tries to change democracy from something people have to do to something that people actively do.

“I wish everyone would understand how important institutional politics is – and that engaging in it would become a second nature for us all. At the centre in Vilnius, they utilise new technologies so that people can explore things related to politics on their own terms and co-create the experience. It’s really putting democracy into practice.”

Utilising principles from the startup scene

Vognæs lived in Helsinki for a year before beginning her Master’s studies and ended up being active in a few startups. She instantly liked the vibe in the lively startup scene of the city.

When Vognæs found out about Helsinki Think Company, the entrepreneurship society of the university that helps people put their academic skills into action, she knew she wanted to be a part of it. She has enjoyed participating in their events such as the Baltic Sea hackathon.

“I like the idea of combining media and politics with some of the principles from startups and entrepreneurship: testing things, prototyping, making things hands-on.”

Vognæs thinks that all of academia could benefit from utilising these principles more.

“I appreciate the ‘start before you’re ready’ mentality of startups: they are always trying things out and seeing how it works. The same approach could help to make all the knowledge produced at universities more accessible and useful for everyone.”

Research shows that democracy is currently struggling around the world. Vognæs wants to capitalise even further on the experts within Universities to combat this issue: “We should be out in the society making sure these things are being addressed and trying to engage people.”

 “I found my little corner of the world”

In the future, Vognæs would like to work in a think tank or even start one herself. She is dreaming of organising an accelerator for civic participation. Accelerators are programmes that help startup companies develop their ideas and grow their business. Ultimately, the company is able to do a refined pitch, i.e. present a concise idea of their business plans to potential investors.

“I’d like to create an accelerator for people who do not know what politics is at all. Little by little, they could learn how the political system works and how they can participate in it. It could end with real activist campaigns or events organised by the participants.”

Vognæs feels that the University of Helsinki cares about the fact that the students get valuable experience during their studies. For instance, she has gotten credits from her internship and from being an assistant at a Danish class. She also likes the growing emphasis on practical courses. Vognæs especially enjoyed a working life course where the students created a communication plan for a startup.

The most important thing for Vognæs at the University of Helsinki has been finding her own thing – and a community of people equally passionate about similar topics.

“There’s this feeling that students are not here just to take classes and get them done as soon as possible. I also want to read my assigned books for fun in my free time. I have found my little corner of the world.”