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These are the big things we can learn from small nations

Davos 2023: Small nations like Singapore pictured have much to teach us.

Small nations have responded to the conditions of the larger world with its attendant chaos by reinventing traditional ways of doing things. Image: Mike Enerio on Unsplash

Paul Bennett
Co-Chair and Chief Creative Officer, IDEO
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Small Awesome Nations, or SANs, have much in common and much they can teach us all as they gather momentum and grow in influence.
  • SANs mobilized at record pace during COVID-19; they talk like people, not governments; and they value the perspectives of the next generation.
  • SANs have responded to the conditions of the larger world with its attendant chaos by reinventing traditional ways of doing things.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with small countries. Specifically, small nations with superpowers that larger nations covet. I grew up in Singapore, the ultimate small-but-mighty island at the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula. As I grew up, I watched it transform from jungle kampongs and a river so dirty that it glowed neon green, into the ultimate modern metropolis.

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Singaporeans now enjoy some of the best quality of life in an integrated society. It is home to the world's best airport and has become a sophisticated financial hub, and even made history in the universe of gastronomy, receiving the first ever Michelin star for street food. The river itself is now so clean that dolphins and fish have returned in droves.

Fast forward 50 or so years. My partner and I have found ourselves living in Iceland for the last three years, the literal polar opposite of Singapore, but equally impressive. You need only pick up any quality-of-life index to find Iceland near the top of the safest, most egalitarian, most tolerant civil societies in the world. The country has taken a leading-edge approach to climate science, with bold plans for its domestic geothermal energy and the electrification of its transport system.

To be sure, it’s a rather isolated island with a population under 400,000 in the middle of the Arctic Sea. Nonetheless, Iceland was led with a calm and steady hand through the COVID-19 pandemic, achieving a 91% vaccination rate in record time. It’s a society that is well read, well informed, and one in which citizens revere nature, considering themselves guardians of the wild environs they've inherited.

A word I often use to describe life here is “sane”. Icelanders are pragmatic, do not hyperbolize or dramatize, and work together to achieve collective goals. Icelandic businesses feel it is important to do their part, too. The national flagship airline, Icelandair, recently announced that they will decarbonize all internal flights by the end of the decade, the first national carrier in the world to do so.

In the years between inhabiting these two islands, I have lived, studied and worked around the world, spending considerable time in Norway, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand and the UAE, all of which play at a much more significant scale on the world stage than their geographic mass would suggest. It helps that all of these nations are well led, with crisp, long-term plans and goals. And it is no coincidence to me that in many cases they are led by women.

Other small nations that I watch from a distance, like Estonia, are digital pioneers, transforming an antiquated governmental system into an e-Residency – their human-centred, digital citizenship programme. Way back in 2014, Estonians described themselves as a “start-up country”. Rwanda has followed suit with similar initiatives: one-stop digital services designed to incentivize small commercial enterprises and entrepreneurs to launch businesses there. Finally, we must shine a light on Ukraine which, whilst in the midst of war, are making plans to regenerate themselves, building a greener, more modern society out of the ashes and carnage.

Agile Governance: something that the SANs embody is being human focused, starting from first principals, and welcoming multiple viewpoints. small nations. Davos 2023
Agile Governance: something that the SANs embody is being human focused, starting from first principals, and welcoming multiple viewpoints.

So, what do these Small Awesome Nations (SANs for short) have in common, and what do they have to teach us all?

Small nations act fast, talk human, value next-gen

SANs act faster: COVID-19 taught us all, especially governments, that cumbersome bureaucracy and endless consensus-building wasn’t just unnecessary, it was life-threatening. To be able to quickly assemble task forces as information came in and cut through red tape was critical. Smaller countries mobilized at record pace, and in many cases got essential supplies to the frontlines faster. Taiwan, China, for example, immediately activated contact tracing and phone tracking to make sure that those in quarantine were actually fulfilling their end of the deal. The fact that Taiwan's vice president is an epidemiologist didn’t hurt.

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SANs talk like people, not governments: To me, this is critical. Early in the crisis, the Norwegian prime minister, Erna Solberg, broadcasted a specific COVID-19 address to the children of Norway, saying: “Many children are finding this scary. I can understand that. It’s quite OK to be a bit scared when so many big things are happening at once.” Taking a direct, matter-of-fact tone, she assured them that their parents would likely be fine, but acknowledged that they might miss birthday parties and life at home would be “a bit boring.” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden declared on national TV that the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny were both considered “essential workers” in New Zealand, but that they might also be at home, “tending to their own baby bunnies.”

SANs value the perspectives of the next generation: The human-first, sure-handed leadership of both Solberg and Arden is especially compelling in a time when so many young people express apathy about politicians who “don’t speak to us.” Addressing that lack of engagement, the UAE government hired 23-year-old Shamma bint Suhail Faris Mazrui as its first minister of state for youth affairs in 2016. At the time, she was the youngest serving minister in the world. She is now one of the most outspoken advocates for youth voices and perspectives, ensuring her generation and the next are shaping government programmes and policies. When asked at Davos why the ideas of Emirati youth were so important to her government, she said: “Hopelessness results when youth are not seen as resources, and apathy results when they’re not seen as assets.”

Then there is Sophie Howe, Wales’s first future generations commissioner. Described by The Guardian as the world’s first “Minister for the Unborn”, Sophie’s role is to provide independent advice to the government and other public bodies on delivering social, economic, environmental, and cultural wellbeing for current and future generations. She’s a committed champion of the next generation and, in particular, for tapping into youth culture as a resource for creating societal change. I was part of an event she created at COP26 in Glasgow where they brought together youth with poetry, music, conversation and politics. It was a potent mix, more akin to a Taylor Swift concert than a governmental think tank, and I watched the young audience members' eyes glow with pride at the end, feeling both spoken to and heard.

What's become clear (and really exciting) to me is that these Small Awesome Nations are gathering momentum and growing in influence. These nimble countries have, in many ways, responded to the conditions of the larger world with its attendant chaos by reinventing traditional ways of doing things. And in the process of disrupting themselves, they’ve learned valuable lessons that their bigger cousins would do well to follow as they look toward the future.

If there was to be an actual League of SANs, what would you want its mandate to be? Which country would get your vote as a founding member and why?

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