Welsh economic lessons from Finland

Dylan Jones-Evans says the Welsh Government should take a leaf out of the Finnish playbook and establish an arms length innovation agency

Last week, I attended a conference organised by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to examine the future of manufacturing. It was a timely event, as I am currently undertaking research into the development of advanced manufacturing in Finland during the last thirty years and the lessons that other small economies can take from this experience.

We heard from a range of experts in the field, including Professor Martin Schmidt of MIT, who has been advising President Obama on a new emphasis on manufacturing within the US economy.

The report from his review is fascinating, mainly because of the differences in the philosophy regarding economic development as compared to most parts of Europe. In fact, the conclusions to the report to ensure American leadership in advanced manufacturing comprehensively rejected a picking winners policy, either in terms of individual companies or specific sectors. Instead, it proposed pursuing an innovation policy for advanced manufacturing that would provide the best environment in which to do business, ensure that the most powerful new technologies are developed in the USA and that technology-based enterprises have the infrastructure required to flourish.

Given the way that manufacturing in the USA and many other advanced countries has been ignored in the last decade as financial services became the favoured sector and there has been a rush to move production to low cost countries such as China, this report is long overdue.

Yet, during the two days in Brussels discussing the future of advanced manufacturing, there seems to be little appreciation of an example within Europe that could also act as a model for developing a more innovative and competitive economy.

During the last fifty years, Finland has changed itself from an economy that was based largely on primary production and an unskilled agrarian workforce to one that is recognized as one of the most competitive in the World, particularly in the field of high technology manufacturing within key sectors such as information communications and telecommunications (ICT).

Most of this change took place during the early 1990s when the Finnish economy endured a major economic recession that included a major banking crisis, unemployment rates of 15 percent and high levels of government debt.

In response to these issues, the Finnish Government took a bold long-term view to focus its strategy on innovation and promoting, in particular, the development of high technology sectors such as ICT. Since 1995, the Finnish economy has been one of the fastest growing in the developed world, with an average growth rate of 3.5 per cent. Unlike other rapidly growing economies, most of the growth within Finland has been generated by the development of domestic companies.

Therefore, through indigenous growth in a number of key sectors, Finland has become recognised as one of the most innovative and competitive nations in the World and the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2012-2013, which assesses the competitiveness landscape of 144 economies, ranked Finland third in the World in terms of a range of different factors driving productivity and prosperity.

And one of the main driving forces behind this success has been a specific government body that has driven and developed innovation throughout the Finnish economy.

Established in 1983, TEKES is responsible for administering public support for private and public sector R&D and innovation in Finland. Its mission is to promote the development of industry and services by means of technology and innovations. Its impact has been tremendous, being responsible for supporting more than half of Finnish innovations during the last thirty years.

Whilst its programmes have been focused very much on supporting technology within companies and public institutions, there have been additional positive effects such as increased networking between companies and R&D organisations in targeted clusters and increased collaboration between researchers across different disciplines. Simply put, the focus on the innovation policy that the US Government now recognises as being critical to its own manufacturing sector has been one of the key successes in turning a small peripheral nation into one of the most competitive economies in the World.

And there are certainly lessons for Wales from this experience.

Indeed, whilst there are those who still hanker for the return of the Welsh Development Agency, it is clear that during its existence, its focus on attracting large foreign direct investment did little to support the long-term innovation performance of our nation. Its subsequent integration into the Welsh Government has also had a minimal impact on ensuring that Wales becomes the “small clever nation” which politicians have been calling for since the advent of the National Assembly.

As the Minister for Business is currently examining the development of an innovation strategy for Wales, one option in creating a more competitive Welsh economy would be to consider establishing a Welsh TEKES that would be an arms length organisation that would focus on developing the innovative potential that exists within this nation.

If we were to get only a fraction of the success that the Finnish economy has enjoyed during the last three decades, then it would be one of the more astute policy decisions that the Welsh Government will have made in developing the economy.

Professor Dylan Jones-Evans is Director of Enterprise and Innovation at the University of Wales and Chairman of the Welsh Conservatives' Economic Commission.

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