The first things you notice as you come in to land at Helsinki airport are the trees, millions of them, stretching away towards the sparsely-populated North. Then you see the radio masts, jutting above the houses, relaying mobile phone signals around Finland's capital city. There aren't as many of them as trees. Well, not yet, at least. But if Finnish society keeps changing at its current extraordinary rate, the idea of forests of base stations might not be as bizarre as it sounds.
Without the rest of the world noticing, this overlooked country, with its 5 million inhabitants and its image of long nights, Lapps and saunas, has become one of the most technologically-advanced nations on earth. 1 in 5 Finns have email addresses, compared to about one in 20 in the UK. Almost a quarter of Finnish industrial revenue now comes from micro-electronics, the other big player being paper (remember those trees?). Linux, the Finnish home-grown computer operating system, now powers hundreds of thousands of computers worldwide.
And then there are the phones. 47% of the nation owns one, and they seem to keep them sandwiched to their ears night and day. If the rumours about mobiles and cancer are true, there will probably be no Finns left by 2010. Among young people ownership runs at over 90%, and in some Helsinki high schools, what the smug man from Nokia refers to as 'mobile penetration' already exceeds one hundred percent. That is to say that cool Helsinki teens are starting to buy more than one phone each. And, says the Nokia guy with a barely-repressed grin, "to be accepted they have to be the latest models". Be afraid, British parents, for this is your future.
You could reel off statistics until the reindeer come home, and they all tell the same story. For every one hundred Finns, there are eight internet host computers (most of them holding websites). In the UK that figure is two. Sixty percent of Finns go on to higher education, many in technical subjects. In the UK it is, ahem, around five percent. Talking to Helsinki high-tech businessmen, you catch a strange, hungry look in their eyes, as if they're probing to check if really you might not be an engineer, instead of a useless journalist. Engineers in Finland, especially those who understand software or microelectronics, can have their pick of top jobs. Expansion has brought about a major shortage, despite a big educational push. I wouldn't be suprised to hear that visiting ones were kidnapped at the airport and whisked off to Espoo, the impressive (though unfortunately-named) high-tech suburb of Helsinki. And since Finnish salaries are around a third higher than British ones, that fate might not be too bad.
But - how come? What turned a nation whose previous largest appearances on the world stage have been in ice-hockey and 'Leningrad Cowboys Go America' into this twenty-first century powerhouse?
"It is very cold in Finland," says Pauli Heikkilï, who works for the Finnish government, promoting IT. "Distances are also very long. When your work day finishes you don't go to a café because it's so damned cold. You go inside and use internet services." I see. "It is our language," says Arto Karila, a professor at the Helsinki University of Technology. "It is too hard. So we all learn English." Someone else claims that Finnish grammar is structured rather like unix. I think this is a joke. It is very hard to tell when Finns are joking. But language is certainly a factor. Being a native Finnish speaker, a tongue which has a similar number of cases to Latin and whose only close linguistic relatives are Estonian and Hungarian, is certainly something of a short straw in the world communication lottery. Finns have, by necessity, acquired an outward-looking attitude.
The Russians may also have something to do with it. After seven hundred years of rule by the Swedes, Finland was ceded to Russia at the start of the nineteenth century. The Finns are still hurt by this, and Swedish-Finnish rivalry runs high to this day.The Russians were also perceived as a colonial oppressor, and when telephony started, the Finns had no intention of letting the Tsarist post office take control unless absolutely necessary. Post Office officials took the view that telephony was a passing fad. By the time they changed their minds, enterprising Finns had started private switches and cooperative networks around the country. Things were out of Russian control. This tradition of deregulated telecoms has carried on to this day. At the moment there are around eighty telecoms providers in Finland, competing to offer new services and lower prices to their phone-crazy customers. Latest innovations include mobile phone-operated bar jukeboxes, soft drink machines (dial 2012 for a coke, and the cost is added to your monthly bill) and carwashes.
The great Finnish success story is, of course, Nokia. A company which started selling a motley collection of paper and rubber products (Nokia shoes, anyone? Toilet paper?) it made the fateful decision to switch to telecoms in the nineteen eighties. It got rid of the paper and rubber and is now a global corporation which made US$9.84 billion in net sales last year from handsets and a variety of GSM networking equipment. Nokia has big plans for the GSM network. At the moment, your mobile transmits at 9.6k/second, slower than the modem attached to your computer. But by 2000, the GSM network will be capable of 384k/sec. "More than fast enough for video telephony" says Nokia's indecently happy spokesman. So-called "third generation" services, debuting in Japan during 2000, will be capable of 2Mbit/sec transmission rates. Finn-fone-fun is, it seems, only just beginning.
The Universities are also playing a big part in Finland's success. There is close cooperation between universities, government and business. Indeed Finnish spokespeople claim that their high-tech companies openly share data and cooperate with each other. This would certainly be unthinkable in the UK or US, but the Finns seem hurt when I suggest they might not be as pink and fluffy as they are making out. Perhaps it is not so implausible.
Everywhere there is evident a spirit of pragmatism and practicality, and, as I am constantly reminded, a consciousness that "this is a small country", and in-fighting would be counterproductive.
One practical unversity project is a gigabit network which will deliver 100Mbit connections to student residences. (Yes, you heard right. One hundred megabits to undergraduate desks) The idea is to use the students as guinea pigs for high-bandwidth media services. Obviously, absurdly fast websurfing and enormous collections of pirated Mpeg music will be fringe benefits. "Maybe we will also get companies to give students digital money to test how that works." muses Professor Karila. Finnish companies would give free money to students? "Sure, why not?" I am displeased. All I ever got as a student was a five pound record token for opening a bank account. Britain suddenly seems a very stuffy, stuck-up place. Finnish IT culture is, by most accounts, between five and ten years ahead of the UK, and further ahead of most of the rest of their European neighbours.
The Americans are, of course, the biggest global technologists, though in one respect they have shot themselves in the foot - and naturally the Finns have taken full advantage. Because of US legislation outlawing the export of strong cryptography, Datafellows, a Finnish company specialising in crypto and antivirus software, has had almost unopposed access to the rest of the world market. Every year since the early nineties it has experienced 90-120% annual growth ,and ironically its customers include many big US banks, military and government installations. The flourishing Finnish hacker culture is paying off in export dollars.
So the millions of fir trees are the symbol of yesterday's Finland. Millions of base stations are the way of the future. There is a construction boom in Helsinki. Corporate HQ's, government offices, labs, and a new museum of modern art, are all nearing completion. Much of this is funded by technology money. Much of the population will still spend this weekend at their back-to-nature summerhouses (no running water, no electricity), swimming in near-zero Baltic waters and thrashing themselves with birch-twigs. But fashionable young Finns will also pause between phonecalls to go dancing at one of the new clubs, or go inline skating through the capital's wide streets. And a Finnish technologist will probably have another very good idea, and go practically, quietly, pragmatically, about implementing it. As one businessman told me, "We Finns are not by nature hesitant about new things. We have proved this by much research and many questions. If it is good, we go and do it." With this attitude, Finland is not going to be a 'small nation' for much longer.
A version of this piece appeared in the Daily Telegraph.