What Makes Finland So Innovative? Try Its Love of Hackathons!

Rivers of ink have been spent on trying to pinpoint exactly what makes Finland such an innovative place. Many wonder how come a country with only 5 million inhabitants manages to be responsible for 10% of all the startups exits in the world. The answers usually range from anything to the quality of its education to the scarcity of natural resources or the good old Finnish sisu. After Junction 2017, the biggest hackathon in Europe, I dare to add to the list yet another possible explanation: Finland’s passion for weekend-long marathons of hacking.

Now, when most people think about hacking, they imagine someone sitting in front of a computer, writing code, drinking unhealthy amounts of caffeine and potentially doing something illegal – or at least in a morally grey zone, right…?

As common as that vision might be, it is not exactly accurate. Yes, we do have those types of hacks, but we also have countless possibilities beyond them. To put it simply, a hack is any clever or ingenious solution for a problem. Because of that, you can hack anything, from coffee machines to institutions. If you can find a new way to do something, perhaps by taking elements out of their usual contexts or by rethinking processes, you are essentially hacking it.

The latest edition of Junction was nothing if ambitious: 1.500 hackers from more than 90 countries set out to find ways to use tech to optimize 13 different fields. Would you like to find uses for space data? Perhaps make the law more accessible to ordinary people? What about using artificial intelligence to automatically summarize the news? If you want any of those things, not to mention the possibilities of disruption in the financial market, in health, in logistics… This hackathon’s got you covered.

The team that won the hackathon, for instance, used machine learning and big data to make the process of maintenance of street signs faster and more efficient. Other finalists designed VR games from scratch, developed a dinosaur app to teach children about energy consumption in order to stabilize the national power grid, or came up with ways to use AI to create ads on social media, found ways to use satellites to plan routes based on street safety levels and mined through the European Commission data to make sense of trends in the job market to help people find new jobs and skills… And that’s just the finalists of an event that led to the execution of more than 300 projects on the course of three days.

In Finland, you can always find a hackathon happening nearby, meaning that you will always have people getting together to design and implement solutions that benefit society. Many of these projects end up becoming companies that make positive impacts on the world, and even when the participants decide not to move forward with the ideas, they end up becoming friends. The first time I watched Tekes’ Finland Defining the Next 100 Years, I thought it was science fiction. Now, after discovering the Finnish hackathon scene, I’m convinced that that future is closer than we imagine.