Finnovations: How the unique landscape inspired progress


The Helsinki Cathedral


The world has come to know Finland as the home of Santa, reindeer and well-educated kids, but beyond that Finland is still a mysterious patch of land between Sweden and Russia. Even more mysterious than the land itself however are the Finns themselves, whose ancestors migrated to this northern area during the late ice age. Not much is known of the early Finns other than they seemed to like bears, pottery and the forest. They lived their existence far from the hub of human civilization in the Mediterranean, hunting and gathering, the prototypical caveman life one could say. However, one thing separated these cavemen from your average club wielding stereotype; the early Finns were cavemen on ice.

Possibly the first true invention ever created by the people that would one day be called Finns were the ice skates. Created from bone 5000 years ago to help traversing the Finnish lakes during winter, the ice skates were a necessary element to help in travel and hunting in subzero environment. The cold and long winter also helped in the creation of the first true Finnish Sauna, which were first only covered pits with hot stones in the middle, and people used to live in them during the coldest periods. Yes, the early Finns lived in saunas. If that is not a stereotype, I don't know what is.


Skaters in Kyläsaari, Helsinki


The world of change and challenges

The world did eventually creep up north and the Finns slowly but surely became who they are today, but the days of innovation were not over yet for the pesky little cavemen. Long gone were the days of hunting and gathering, and the Finns took up agriculture and adopted Christianity, although fitting for our stubborn nature it happened very slowly. After the old ways were forgotten things sped up, and Finland switched between Sweden and Russia, until finally independency came in 1917. Wars were fought both internally and externally, and as the modern world slowly took it shape, Finland as a stable Nordic welfare state emerged from the dust.

The new state had problems however. The wars had depleted the population and the heavy war reparations took a toll on the slowly industrializing Finnish economy. Necessity once again stepped in and innovations were to follow. To combat the food shortages and the low production capabilities of the Finnish agriculture Artturi Ilmari Virtanen created AIV fodder that greatly increased milk production. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1945 for his invention. Arvo Ylppö continued the success of Finnish research by pioneering the treatment of premature born children to reduce child mortality. The unique landscape and environment also inspired Finnish architecture and design, which was needed to  create a unique nordic style for the rebuilt nation. The pioneer of this was Alvar Aalto whose buildings and furniture are the gold standard of Nordic design.

Although not strictly speaking a Finnish innovation, one cannot talk about Finland’s image in the world without addressing Finnish education, which was needed to get the most out of the limited population and usher in a generation of scientists and prioneers. The school system in Finland is the crown jewel of the state, and the secrets of the Finnish school system have been the subject of multiple studies and documentaries from all around the world. The strangest thing about the Finnish school systems success is that for most of us Finns it is a complete mystery. Many of the aspects that other countries praise like free school meals or the teachers having the liberty to formulate their own teaching methods, feel completely normal for us. One could even say that we Finns were the last ones to notice the success of our own education system.


Designed by Alvar Aalto, the Finlandia Hall was built in 1971


Technology from perseverance


Tux, the official mascot of Linux


The development of Nokia mobile phones

Long distances and little nothing to do during most of the year might had something to do with the fact that the IT-boom and the early innovations on the internet were made all the way in Finland. Nokia created the first true mobile phones, and a group of Finnish engineering students created Erwise, the first internet browser with a graphic user interface. Quick innovations in this field were to follow, with Nokia pioneering text messages and Finnish internet pioneers forming the basis for internet chat forums in the form of internet relay chat (IRC). Linux was created by Linus Torvalds, and was a free open sourced operating system, which quickly spread like wildfire around the world. Today Linux is everywhere; it is the basis for Chrome OS and the Android smart phone operating system.


Angry Birds theme park in Tampere

The Finnish game industry has been booming in the 21st century, with hits like Max Payne, angry birds, Clash of clans and cities skylines to name a few. Games are used not only for entertainment, but as teaching tools and there is a growing game development scene in Finland which works to create the next generation of games that will help to keep Finnish game development at the top of worlds charts, and hopefully usher in the next great Finnish technological breakthough.

Some innovations that Finns have made are not so grand and world changing as Linux or the cellphone. The humble dish drying cabinet, heart rate monitor or the ball chair won’t be found in the most important invention ever list, or neither will one think of clash of clans of Angry birds of changing their lives forever. These Finnish creations are more of a reminder that we are up here, silently and patiently waiting for the world to notice us. In the end, the source for innovation in Finland has always been the remoteness, solitude and necessity. The harshness of the climate, great distances and lack of people forces one to improve their surroundings. The innovations in farming were created to improve the unfertile land; the advances in child welfare and education were done to increase the population and get the most out of the people, and communication technologies were needed to help communicating and in connecting Finland with the rest of the world.

All of the innovations and inventions all however pale in comparison when you take a step back and look at the statistics. Finland has been nominated the world’s most stable country and it has been seen as the most successful state in the world. This humbling fact gives us something to think about here up north. Just like with the education system we Finns have been awestruck by these results, and the sad truth is that we cannot really tell what components of its success are. Just like all the other inventions and innovations done by a Finn the nation itself has been molded by the climate, the land and by necessity.