Accelerating economic development

Looking back over the trajectory of Nordic economies since the educational reforms of folk Bildung, it is astonishing how quickly these changes boosted their standards of living. Although Sweden had the fastest growth record, Denmark and Norway were also highly developed by the 1930s. Finland took longer because it was a Grand Duchy of Imperial Russia until 1917, following which it was disrupted by two world wars. Nevertheless, its longstanding connections to the folk Bildung movements of its Nordic neighbors enabled it to catch up rapidly in the post-World-War-II era.

The swift development of Nordic economies in the 20th century parallels the expanding consciousness of their people. As their shared “circles of belonging” widened, they developed a capacity to see and understand the world in a broad holistic context and to respond proactively to emerging economic challenges. The common thread in these wide circles of engagement is respect for life: a value rooted in Pestalozzi’s ethics and Shaftesbury’s vision of living in “harmony with Nature.”

The eminent Harvard socio-biologist Edward O. Wilson later named this very human instinct “biophilia,” which he defined as an innate human tendency to focus on life and life-like processes. In his 1986 book, titled Biophilia, he described how these qualities became wired into the human genome over thousands of generations: because individuals who revered life lived longer than those who did not and were therefore better able to pass on their genes.10

Since Wilson’s definitive work, a growing school of thought has coalesced around the connections between humanity’s biophilic instincts and our highest “spiritual intelligence” (SQ). To physicist Danah Zohar, who coined the term “spiritual intelligence,” people who think and act in accord with such instincts engage their highest thinking capacities, which give meaning and direction to their other intelligences, including their aptitudes for creativity and innovation.11 Doubt it, if you will, but the elevated SQ of Nordic people has endowed them with exceptional capacities for creativity and sustainable innovation.

As evidence of this, consider the Global Sustainability Competitiveness Index, an annual survey of 180 countries based on five variables: governance, intellectual capital, natural capital, social capital and resource efficiency. Compiled by SolAbility, a global think tank and advisory founded in 2005, its rankings are based on data made available by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), diverse UN agencies and prominent NGOs. Similar to other global surveys cited in this book, its 2019 rankings placed Sweden at the top for global sustainability competitiveness, followed by Finland (2), Iceland (3), Denmark (4), Switzerland (5) and Norway (6).12

Although holding less than half of one percent of the world’s population, Nordic countries were also rated in the top tier of the 2015 Global Creativity Index (GCI) sponsored by the World Economic Forum. Of the 139 nations surveyed, the Nordic five were solidly in the top decile with Denmark and Finland tied for fifth, followed closely by Sweden (7), Iceland (8) and Norway (ll).13 We find similar top echelon results in the 2018 Global Innovation Index compiled by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), as mentioned in Chapter Two.

What we see in these connections is a feedback loop where high-quality education and Nordic SQ strengthen regional economic development, and where that development in turn supports free public education as it feeds through to government revenues.

“What made the Nordic countries successful were not unique natural resources or some magic ingredient that cannot be reproduced somewhere else, it was human development and cultivation.”

Andersen and Bjorkman, zoty’4

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