Perceptions of Network Capital of a Small country – Prof. Göte Nyman

This was originally published in March 2016 in FinnishNews… and it is still very relevant!

For a small country like Finland with its 5 million, well-educated people it is not insignificant how our best brains in academia, business life and even sports and arts spend their time, linked with the world of nets and with their local physical communities here at home.  Together, these two forms of networking – global and local – are nationally extremely valuable, but especially when they occur together.

In order to prosper and build our cultural base we need access to the best emerging knowledge and interaction sources in the world but we cannot make it without being recognized members of such networks of excellence.  This is easier said than done, how could we Finns have a special role in such networks?

The breakthrough of social media, MOOC’s (massive open online courses), mobility, software for collaboration and education, and digitalization in general, have made dynamic networks the de facto means for accessing valuable knowledge. They have become the ever-changing, modern gateways to progress and prosperity. But there is a peculiar blind spot in this familiar view: the huge dynamic potential of knowledgeable and educated individuals as contributors to the most valuable networks in the world.  Access to the networks is a necessity today, but contributing to them makes all the difference.

Networking with limited resources

Finland does not have resources to foster a large number of scientific, industrial and art programs. Hence, there is a belief in our Government and among the higher education managers that we have to guide the focus of our national educational and r&d activities to a few  ”strategically selected” areas. The aim is to support only what is called “top science”,  assuming that large universities and research and educational units will lead us to international success. Accordingly, the number of universities – distributed all over Finland including Lapland  – should be smaller than the present 14, perhaps only half a dozen of them, located in our major cities.

A huge strategic mistake

This unwise “cut and waste” strategy is like deciding that from now on, the Finnish ice hockey rinks from small cities and villages should be melted and only big clubs be allowed and mainly in our major cities.  This should make us world champions and bring us new heroes like Koivu, Kurri and Selänne, the tops of the top in Finland and at NHL.

But our ice hockey kids enjoy the game everywhere in Finland, even a small spot of ice invites them to try their skills with sticks and pucks; their passion takes them to the backyard ice, even late in the evenings and in the darkness, and in summer on artificial ice. From very early on they know the best players in the world and know what are the best NHL players made of. Our kids grow into the world-wide ice hockey culture and become connected with that world. When some of them become skillful enough, they become the invited and respected members of the global ice hockey community. Those succeeding in their career, will in return bring their knowledge and hockey-networks back home already while playing NHL. Actually, this has been one of the secrets behind the success of our teams. Nobody says to them, “But you only played in the small club.” Their skill matters – not where it originated. Those who do not make it to the top still learn to understand the game and the culture and cherish the passion during their lifetime

In the following I shortly explain what is seriously wrong with the “cut and waste” –approach in our r&d and education strategy and suggest a compelling alternative, which makes use of the limited, but well-educated network resources and facilitates unique knowledge building and discoveries.

The model is based on the “so-far-hypothetical law”, derived from my observations, work, and experiences on dynamic value networks. It is a novel strategy for any small country or community with limited resources and willing to join and benefit from the modern dynamic networks. I believe this “law” offers a huge potential to any, even a small community – IF it can flourish a world-class, general, knowledge excellence.

This is the law:

The network capital value of each individual network member increases as a sharp, non-linear function of the skill and knowledge excellence of the contributing individual. Because of the global and local connectivity, the network gains value from this but as a return it also reflects unique value back to the local, physical and national network environment of the individual who has significantly contributed to the network.

Any community can gain a profitable two-way access to the networks if it has members capable of contributing exceptional value to the net. Take the Finnish-originated Linux and its open source collaboration model as an example. Only excellent individual network members can contributes to the OS and thus increase the overall network value. Everyone wants to be a member of a compelling network, but it is seldom noticed that in return only the excellent contributors and hence their own local (physical-social) networks benefit from the return value shared – locally. If you cannot achieve such a position, you remain a free rider but with less deep and valuable return. This is also why so many “delegations” to knowledge hubs like MIT, Harvard, and Stanford can be wasted time and resources if they are not also contributing members to the knowledge networks.

Building valuable network memberships

“All we desperately need is a five-minutes break in this continuous stupidity!” exclaimed my mentor, professor Fergus W. Campbell, a prominent visual and brain scientist from Cambridge University when colleagues sometimes in late 1980’s were boasting about their long work-hours and huge research grants. In the networked world we Finns, as a small community, can indeed have access to the knowledge that interrupts our stupidity in minutes and relieves us from ignorance. Networks are dynamic and superfast and a game change can take place overnight and anywhere. So, in a small country we need people and individuals  – especially within our higher education system – who live as our knowledge radars and can sense the global knowledge pulse.  But they have to be contributing members in such networks and with the capability to receive and share locally the return value gained. All too often network memberships are seen as competitive, private and personal assets.

Vitality through global and local networking

Finland has the tenth largest area among European countries and Rovaniemi, for example, the city on the Arctic Circle has a larger area than any other city in Europe. So, for the widely distributed population of 5 million Finns it is a serious question how to sustain the vitality of the whole country and to provide its people everywhere the best possible knowledge and learning assets to survive and prosper. Our education system does just that as anyone in Finland has access to free basic education and to practically free higher education at universities. There is a University in Rovaniemi, too. Now our Government and many of the university academics, especially in the south would like to direct these geographically distant resources to the large universities and get rid of the “country-universities”.

University model with a global and local network value

A widely distributed university system has a significant national impact if it lives on the following two simple principles in its research, education and local interaction.  All our universities could and should do this, some of them are well on the way already, but this significant achievement has been largely neglected in the official Finland.

First, the members of any local higher education unit (university, polytechnic) must possess and maintain the best knowledge and competences available within the region of their direct impact, within the scope of the local industry, educational institutes, health care services and any other societal functions. The researchers must renew their skills and knowledge continuously, and be capable of coaching, educating, consulting and otherwise interacting with the local businesses and organizations benefitting from their knowledge. In other words, the higher education personnel must have very strong local networks where they interact. But this is no enough.

Second, the members of every higher education unit must have gained access to the best knowledge and collaboration networks within their own fields.  They must be able to demonstrate and show how this is manifested in practice and how the memberships of such networks return value to them and to their own higher education units, such as research groups, institutes and even faculties. A core task, in addition to basic research, is to participate and provide value to the local networks and the communities involved.

There is no need to have large units everywhere for research and education since it is enough to have skilled and well-educated people who through their excellence can achieve a significant role as a member of the global knowledge networks and communities in their own field. And indeed, these people need not be publishing automates – any form of real, demonstrated scientific and technological knowledge or competence that has acknowledged global value is sufficient as long as it is reflected in their genuine membership of the best network communities in their field.

There is a multitude of ways to launch and guide the emergence of such a new model. You could call it a “resource based approach” as it trusts on the intelligent and unique use and development of national human resources, everywhere in Finland where it is feasible and relevant.  The most valuable resource Finland has is its extremely well educated and growth-oriented people. Every one of us must have a chance to grow this knowledge further. This is not the place to explain in detail what this model would mean to our current national university organization or to our innovation system in general: according to this view, 14 universities is not even much and their size does not matter. A single brain in the right place can save a nation.

Unfortunately, our Government and academic management have chosen the “melt the ice hockey rinks” or “cut and waste” model. Time will show what will happen but the signs are not promising especially for the small communities all over Finland, with their hunger for ever better and vitalizing knowledge, for people having their roots in and passion for the countryside. Meanwhile, the relative number of unemployed doctors has grown exponentially during the reign of the current university management. These 2000 doctors, the best of our brains, would have a lot to contribute to the global and local networks and to share the return value with their local communities.

Göte Nyman, Professor, University of Helsinki,




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