Interview, The Hieno X Suomi 100 Official Series
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[The Hieno! Suomi 100 series] Interview with Professor Alf Rehn, an accomplished academic and internationally ranked thought-leader in innovation and creativity.


The Hieno! is the official partner of the Finland 100 independence programme:What is “Finnish-ness”? endorsed by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Today we have Professor Alf Rehn with us to discuss about this topic. Professor Rehn is an accomplished academic and an internationally ranked thought-leader in innovation and creativity, and active all over the globe as a keynote speaker and a strategic advisor. He is also a ginthusiast and a lover of trashy popular culture.

For more information on Professor Rehn, please visit his website. Enjoy the interview!

TH: Hello Professor Rehn! Can you tell us more about yourself?

Alf: Well hello there. Now, you should know better than asking an academic to say more about themselves – we never shut up when given that kind of a chance!

But if you want the capsule bio: I’m an academic, more precisely an organizational theorist who is also the chair of management and organisation at Åbo Akademi University. That’s the bit most people find boring.

However, in addition to this I’m a strategic advisor, a relatively popular speaker, and a board professional who works globally and spends a lot of time writing and commenting on stuff on social media. I also really like coffee, rap music and gin, but not necessarily in that order. You can follow me online at places like my website or on twitter.

TH: In your book “dangerous ideas”, you defined a “dangerous idea” as one that challenges the very identity of the context within it emerges.”

What is the one idea you would consider as “dangerous” to Finland today–and is that good or bad?

Alf: That’s a good question.

I think one of the things we may need to challenge, and one of the things that would be a “dangerous idea” in Finland, is our attachment to getting things right. For whatever reason – our love of technology, our culture of honor, our protestant ethic – we Finns have a tendency towards perfectionism.

We don’t really like experiments, but instead want to create big, safe systems. We’re also very uncomfortable when forced to try out something new which hasn’t really gotten properly standardized yet – which makes us slow to adopt new things.

So in a sense, “the experimental” and “the emerging” are dangerous ideas in Finnish culture, and this can have negative consequences. For instance, Finnish companies have a tendency to turn to new ways of working when they’ve been properly tested elsewhere, at which point they’re no longer as valuable…

TH: In one of your TED talks, you mentioned that “to lead is to have a vision, yet love change”. Do you think this applies to Finnish politics today?

Alf: Well, it applies in the negative sense, insofar as I really cannot see what the vision would be in most Finnish politics today, and at the same time politicians show a great aversion to change.

I don’t see us having much in the way of leadership in Finnish politics today. There are exceptions, of course, but a scary amount of our political discourse is one of protecting existing structures and maintaining the status quo.

TH: I am puzzled by Finnish politicans who can blatantly promise “no cuts to education”, be photographed with signs saying that, and then eat their words once they are elected into power.

You have been vocal about your stand against funding cuts to universities in Finland. Do you think the protests by key opinion leaders like yourself and the student unions have actual power to impact current and future university funding, or can the politicians simply do whatever they want?

Alf: I have voiced my opinion, yes, and I guess the thing you’re referring to is an impromptu speech I gave at a student event and which oddly became something of a viral video (it even made some news programs).

However, I don’t really think it had any impact at all, unless you count the fact that other people who were against the cuts seemed happy I’d spoken out. We often over-estimate the influence of “opinion leaders”, and I think it’s very rare that a single individual can really affect the decision-making processes of the government.

Still, if enough people make enough noise, even politicians will listen!

TH: What are the 3 things/ traits you would consider as uniquely “Finnish”, and why?

Alf: I’m not all that comfortable declaring anything uniquely Finnish, but if pressed I can list a few things:

  • Makkaraperunat. This is a grill delicacy, consisting of awful French fries combined with low-grade sausage, dripping in fat and condiments. Finland extolls this, as it is basic, simple, and unashamedly awful.
  • Cheerfully bad comedy. Finland desperately wants to prove that it can outdo Germany in clumsy, hackneyed, slapdash comedy. So we glorify repeated catch-phrases, men dressing up as women (badly), and cheap double entendres. Kummeli, Turhapuro, and Putous are prime examples of how Finland glorifies just how tacky and tawdry we can be.
  • Pride and honor. Although we rarely talk about this, Finns are an immensely proud people. We cannot stand being talked down to, or questioned, or challenged. Also, we are the only people in the world who are allowed to say bad things about our comedy and our makkaraperunat. We don’t want much, but we demand respect, and the right to not be patronized.

TH: Finland has always ranked high globally on innovation and press freedom. Do you think there is a positive correlation between “innovation” and “press freedom”?

Alf: I’m a little uncomfortable with this question, as we often confuse correlation and causation.

Is there a correlation? Sure, absolutely. Countries with a lot of freedom, including freedom of the press, tend to be more innovative than more restricted countries.

But that doesn’t automatically mean that one leads to the other. Sure, freedom of the press may be part of the general innovation culture of the country, but at the same time innovative countries are more likely to grant freedom of expression.

The two are, to me, intertwined and reinforcing.

TH: Finland seems to be a society where people don’t really like to stick out of the crowd, or say things that invite controversy and strong opposition. Yet, you seem to be both “dangerous” and “popular” at the same time. How do you do it?

Alf: Well, to begin, one has to realize that whilst Finnish society appreciates discretion, humility and not making a fuss, it is also a culture that appreciates straight talk and which has always celebrated its oddballs.

Throughout the years, Finland has always celebrated the ones who walk their own path, as long as they do it in a self-assured way. Armi Ratia was adored, and Jörn Donner has always been celebrated. Everyone loved Spede Pasanen, and noted weirdo Esa Saarinen is cherished.

So I think it’s a myth that Finland doesn’t appreciate people sticking out. The thing, though, is that Finns demand that you stick out properly, and put yourself on the line.

If you’re seen as fake or half-ass, Finns won’t stand for this. If you go full-on, apeshit crazy, like a Jouko Turkka, a Juice Leskinen, or a Jorma Uotinen, Finns will consider you a legend.

TH: In Finland, Swedish is a mandatory school subject for Finnish-speaking students from grades 7 to 9. Do you think Swedish should continue to be a compulsory language for these students in Finland today, even if they show no interest?

Alf: Ah, language politics, one of my least favourite subjects… I don’t have a strong position with regards to this. Finland has always had two official languages, and I don’t really see the justification to change this. But does this mean that both need to be taught in school, and to what extent? I don’t know.

On the one hand I’m very much in favour of freedom of choice. On the other, I think that Finnish should be taught at least to some extent in Finnish schools – for your question contains an error! [TH: Opps!]

Sure, we may go for a system in which you do not need to study both the official languages in school, but that then means that Finnish wouldn’t be a compulsory language either. I guess what this means is that I’m open to ideas.

Maybe we should have more freedom, but keep some kind of “Finnish/Swedish basics” in the curriculum, i.e. a system like today but with a cut-down compulsory bit. Maybe there should be total freedom. Maybe things are pretty OK as they are.

Overall I don’t think this is the most pressing issue we have, even in the education system… It’s more of a populist issue, easy to parade out for some less than surprising outrage. It’s Trumpism, avant la lettre…

TH: Against the context of globalisation, who do you think can and should define “Finnish-ness”?

Alf: I have nothing very intelligent to say here, as I don’t think there’s any one group who should be allowed to define Finnishness – including the Finns.

I think we need a more diverse conversation, one that accepts that there are many ways of understanding Finland and the Finns, and which is mindful of the fact that any one such will always be limited.

So I don’t think Finnishness should be defined. It should be a topic of conversation, but never enshrined in a definition.

TH: What is the one popular misconception about Finland/ Finns that you would consider as far from the truth?

Alf: Now this is a question I love! I think a key problem in Finland is the manner in which we work so hard to keep a series of myths about ourselves.

It’s tricky to pick one of these misconceptions, but I’ll go with a classic. Finns are said to be a quiet lot, who don’t really like to talk that much, and who can sit silent for hours.

Now this is just bullshit. Sure, Finns can be careful about not speaking out of turn, but the fact is that Finns can be quite garrulous. I’ve sometimes jokingly said that Finns are defined as being the one nationality on Earth that uses the greatest number of words to explain that they are very quiet.

Finns yammer on endlessly in social media, will talk for hours as long as they feel they’re in a safe place, and smalltalk incessantly about how Finns can’t small talk.

TH: I’d heard a popular perception about Finns being “jealous” whenever a peer is successful. How do you feel about your success and being looked up to by so many? Are there downsides to being successful in Finland, and how do you cope with it?

Alf: This is a notion that Finns seem quite fond of, that Finland would have a particularly envious culture.

I think it’s a flawed assumption. Every time a Finn has the tiniest success, papers write it up as a massive achievement, and I’ve often found Finns to be quite supportive of each other’s successes.

Sure, there might be envy directed at neighbours, and villages where you’re not supposed to have dreams above your station, but this is true in many, if not most cultures.

As for me, I really don’t think I’m all that looked up to – I hope I’m not! Sure, I have people who say they appreciate my writings or liking my little rants in the media, and that’s nice. An author writes to be read, after all. But I’m not that famous, nor that successful, that I feel it has impacted my life greatly.

As for downsides, there have been very few. Sure, I’ve gotten the occasional threatening letter, email and internet comment, as well as having been accosted in the street by people with delusions, but nothing major or too aggravating.

Overall I feel I’ve gotten a tremendous amount of support in Finland, and far, far more positive feedback than ever negative. The fact that there are a few people who think it is unfair that I get more attention than they do is part of the game, and true everywhere in the world.

TH: What is the happiest moment of your life in Finland?

Alf: I guess I’m supposed to answer something simple along the lines of “the birth of my children” or “the day I got my professorship”. That’d be a lie, though. They were days filled with joy, but also days filled with apprehension and confusion.

Looking back, one of the happiest moments of my life was celebrating my son finishing what goes for high school in Finland. A big party, lots of his friends in attendance, I stayed out far too late and missed my flight to London the following day. Not my proudest hour, but a happy time celebrating a child of mine.

TH: Who inspires you in Finland, and why?

Alf: There’s quite a few people, actually.

I love the way Nina Ignatius fights for her dream. I love the way Matti Lievonen at Neste runs a “boring” business whilst changing the world. I love the way Anna Pylkkänen fight for pride in old age. I love the energy with which Saku Tuominen wants to revolutionize schools. I love how we have engaged chefs and designers and advertising agencies.

Oh, and my kids of course – big love to Line and Sean.

TH: What are your personal dreams and vision for the future?

Alf: These are things I prefer to keep private. Not least because I have literally no idea about them. I don’t know where I’ll be in five days, let alone in five years.

TH: I am sure some young people in Finland regard you as a role model, since you are so confident, charismatic, vocal and sometimes provocative! How do you feel about this?

Alf: Well, I am Finnish enough for that question to be more than a little uncomfortable… I don’t always feel very confident, and I damn sure do not think of myself as charismatic!

But sure, I guess that there are those who think I have a pretty cool job, and who appreciate having the freedom to speak ones mind and the position to make ones voice heard.

Lord knows if anyone sees me as a role model, but I do hope that I’ve at least shown some young person that you do not need to conform to get ahead, that you can keep dressing in sneakers and still be listened to.

Too many young people in Finland learn to not speak their minds, to be in a specific way, and to aim for conformity rather than creativity. That’s pretty sad.

TH: What is the one advice you have for aspiring young Finns who want to become a “dangerous” academic and skilled practitioner like yourself?

Alf: Well, that one is easy, and I can just copy the great advice of Steve Martin: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

Work smart at building your foundation, and once you’ve reached a position from where you can start hitting harder, use the opportunity. I worked hard at academic things when I was quite young, and I got my chair (i.e. tenured professorship) when I was 31.

I realized then and there that I’d been given one of the most valuable things in the world – freedom. I no longer had a direct boss, and I was free to speak out, write about things I thought were important, and do what I felt meaningful.

I also realized that having been given this freedom was a great responsibility.

TH: What is the one 100 year-old birthday wish you would make for Finland, since 2017 is Finland’s 100 years of independence?

Alf: If there’s one wish I have for Finland 100, it is that it won’t be about the last 100 years, but the 100 years to come.

That is, I appreciate that we celebrate our history, and we should look at our achievements with pride, but we can’t just look backwards.

I prefer thinking about the future rather than obsessing about the past.

TH: On a parting note, do you have anything else to add?

Alf: I’ll just end with a quote from Quentin Crisp: “Never keep up with the Joneses. Drag them down to your level.”

We hope you have enjoyed Professor Alf Rehn’s interview! The Hieno! is the official partner of the Finland 100 independence programme: What is “Finnish-ness”? endorsed by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Feel free to follow Professor Alf on twitter @alfrehn or visit his website. Cover photo courtesy of Professor Alf Rehn’s strikingly page.


    • @markku~ thank you! But really, it’s Professor Rehn who gave such an eloquent and intelligent response. ♡ I am but a nobody!

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