As we (and by we I mean me, obviously) get older, our once razor-sharp vision tends to blur a little and where once we saw the world with crisp edges, things take on a softer focus. This change isn’t limited to just our vision, however. Our memories also take on a softer focus – the summers of one’s youth seemed longer, warmer and more full of opportunity than they do today.

Recently I’ve been thinking of this tendency towards seeing the past with rose coloured lenses. I’ve just returned from a whirlwind 10-day business trip spent mainly in Scandinavia. I have a long-term penchant for our Northern European cousins. I lived in Denmark for a time back when my vision was clear and my life all ahead of me. That time created a firm love of Scandinavian design, food and society.

Indeed, after leaving Denmark to spend the obligatory six months in London, I wrote an opinion piece for the expat Kiwi newspaper, New Zealand News UK. In that piece I posited that Denmark, and by extension Scandinavia, delivered all that New Zealand purported to, but didn’t really. Social cohesion. A fantastic social welfare system that was seen as a safety net rather than a crutch. A general acceptance that high average taxes delivered a more equal and egalitarian society. Heck, even widespread recycling in a time when back home we liked nothing more than dumping our waste in the local dump (even better if it was built right on the side of the river we got our drinking water from.)

So, I was interested to return to the region to see what the ensuing 30 years had done and whether my memories were, in fact, accurate. The short version is that Scandinavia, or in any case the parts of it I experienced, is still something of a paradise. Those high taxes still remain, the pervading sense of niceness is still palpable, and the infrastructure – from healthcare to social welfare, from public transport to a free media – is still alive and well.

I was discussing my observation with a colleague I was travelling with. What is it about Scandinavia, we wondered, that allowed it to deliver this seeming Nirvana while the rest of the world – from Trump to Brexit, from Ukraine to Fake News – was going to hell in a handbasket?

Now the critics will be quick to point out, quite rightly, that Norway, in particular, enjoys huge oil reserves and that this helps pay for this perfection we experienced. That is a fair point. But other countries have petrodollars gushing from the ground but are far from egalitarian. And not all of Scandinavia is blessed with oil reserves, yet everywhere I’ve experienced in Scandinavia has similar traits.

The thing we landed on is strong social cohesion and a strong societal agreement about priorities. I’m not so naïve as to think that people don’t grumble about paying tax rates a good 20 percent higher than we pay. I’m sure people do their best to minimise their tax burdens. But the overarching feeling in Scandinavia is that a greater level of economic equity is good for all members of society. Quite simply, the gap between rich and poor in the region seems far smaller than here in New Zealand. Poverty, while it undoubtedly exists, feels less acute. The middle class, those who in New Zealand have seen their relative buying power crushed by the soaring cost of living, housing unaffordability and rising interest rates, seem more comfortable in Scandinavia.

Of course, the fact that these countries have had thousands of years to mold social norms helps. The Viking history runs deep, and this undoubtedly forms a cohesion that we don’t enjoy. It’s not like that here in New Zealand, notwithstanding the very obvious fact that iwi enjoy this kind of history and cohesion. We’re a young country made up of peoples from all manner of nations. Another issue is that the fact that the first European settlers in New Zealand tended to be the later progeny of families from the homelands. They were often sent to New Zealand to get rid of them and, as is the case in so many other British colonies, this created some kind of societal inferiority complex where one’s position, relative to one’s neighbors, was of huge importance.

But I cam away from my visit to Scandinavia a little depressed. We have such an opportunity to create a nation where everyone enjoys a high quality of life. The thing that is missing is an honest discussion about who we are and what we want to be. Our political system is cast as a zero-sum game where it is ether left or right, bottom up or top down. We’re lacking a robust understanding of the benefits and the trade-offs, and we’ve not spent enough time making decisions based on evidence as opposed to dogma.

I hope it’s not too late and we can start to think about what we really want as a nation and what it will take us to get there.

Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. There’s nothing he likes more than rugbrød med laks og remoulade.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.