It’s a hot August day in Helsinki and Bruce Oreck arrives to our interview at the main building of the University, accompanied by his “ambassa-dog” Deckard. They have just been rowing at sea. After his post as U.S. Ambassador to Finland ended this July, Oreck decided to stay in Finland. He is known for being interested in start-ups and cleantech. Recently he bought an apartment where he will stay for one half of the year, and the other half abroad.
“If the world of social media has taught us anything, it’s that the world is awash with ideas. No matter how ground-breaking your idea might be, the greatest challenge is to get people to hear it”, Oreck says.
Unfortunately, people are not trained enough in storytelling and communication. Oreck knows that Finns are extremely skilled in languages, which should make us excellent communicators. In addition to researchers being impactful communicators, Oreck says that universities should have departments of storytellers, whose jobs are to make compelling stories out of science to make it easier to absorb.
“When you come home tired, you’d rather look at cat videos than puzzle over the state of the world. Science needs to bend into something more entertaining.”
A science competition is not a one-night stand
A science competition draws attention to grand challenges and calls for ideas to resolve them, but according to Oreck, grand challenges of today can only be solved through collaboration between communities and societies. The question is how to create lasting consequences, so that the solution becomes more than a “one-night stand”.
“Our world is in a pickle and I can’t say it’s getting any better. The challenges we face are all us-challenges by nature, like climate change for example. If we don’t solve them together, there will no longer be an us.”
The foundation of good innovations is in science and well-researched knowledge. However, Oreck points out that if you are committed solely to pure science with no other agenda, you’re going to miss the train.
“This is exactly what Helsinki Challenge is about. It embraces the connection of science and practice and uses research to solve the actual challenges of our time.”
Science has to have an impact
Oreck defines a good innovation as something with social value and long lasting impact. An innovation isn’t necessarily a new invention. An innovation emerges when someone sees a pattern that others have missed in this immense amount of existing information.
“There’s, if you will, data or information that scientists figure out. But by itself it’s just a random piece of data. But it’s the guy that goes ‘Oh I see the bigger picture’ who creates the invention.”
Why, then, isn’t every solution we’re offered a real innovation?
“It’s because of you”, says Oreck.
And by you, Oreck means us Finns. Most of the challenges that Finland faces are ones that Finland has created for itself, Oreck says. There is no outside power forcing Finland to hold on to old regulations and laws instead of implementing new, more innovative ones. As an outsider, Oreck sees Finland as a country that should be charging forward, but for some reason it isn’t doing that. It’s frustrating to see economic growth being held back by laws written way before the digital revolution.
“We have this belief that for some reason we can’t let go of what there is, but until we do let go, we can’t get onto what’s possible. That’s why people don’t always innovate.”
Oreck encourages researchers and especially digital natives to start a bottom-up revolution. Innovation requires courage and the ability to handle uncertainty and failure. In Finns, Oreck sees a strong fear of making mistakes - and urges us to get rid of this trait.
“You guys just gotta be brave, just do it. Fall on your ass. It’s a good thing. That’s why they’re there.”