This week, I find myself back in the Nordic North - the Danish capital, Copenhagen. Having lived here for a number of years, and now moved to the USA, it’s interesting to come back and have another chance to reflect on “The Scandinavian Model”. Different now as an outsider, I find it fascinating to watch on as people ride their bicycles in the snow, leave work at a reasonable hour, accept high levels of government regulation and of course, pay almost 50% in income tax.
In fact, the movement around which Danes and Scandinavians live, work and socialise has become so widely captivating, it’s become a verb…
So, why is this? What’s so great about this small group of island and peninsula nations and the way they go about life? Let’s look at some facts from the OECD’s (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Better Life Index…
First of all, 94% of Danish citizens believe that they know someone they could rely on in time of need, higher than the OECD average. Voter turnout, which is regarded as a measure of public trust in government and of citizens’ participation in the political process, is around 88%; considerably higher than the OECD average of 72%.
In terms of the economics - more than 73% of people aged 15 to 64 in Denmark have a paid job, well above the OECD employment average of 66%. Balance of women and men in the workforce is better than most nations - 76% of men are in paid work, compared with 70% of women. Danes work around 29 hours a week, significantly less than the OECD average of 34 hours and face the lowest income inequality with the highest minimum wages in the world.
They also score well on environmental parameters, with some 20% of national power production from renewable sources and one-in-five Copenhageners using a bike to get to work each day.
So this all sounds lovely, and one can imagine a city of viking-descendants pedalling their way to work, kids on the back, arriving at a reasonable hour to their wind-powered, gender-equal workplace. It sounds pretty good. And despite the weather (which, trust me, is fairly oppressive at times), Danes are among the happiest in the world.
But is it just something the rest of us have to imagine with envy? Or visit? Why can’t we, in nations such as Australia, set our benchmark for a future society around similar goals?
This week, I was reminded that ‘The Scandinavian Model’ of universal healthcare and education, subsidised childcare, greater levels of government regulation, an emphasis on social welfare and a focus on people-centred, urban design is not just a utopia that the rest of the world can discuss but not achieve. Actually, and despite the fact that Denmark faces challenges including the same economic woes as the rest of Europe, the model can and should be seen as a blueprint for cities and societies around the world. Including ours.
Moreover, it is not just a vision for a cosier address but also a more sustainable future. Think for a moment about our two biggest challenges for the coming century globally - climate change, and the epidemic of chronic disease. Now ponder what a city would look like were we to build it around mitigating these great threats and deciding to actively turn the Titanic we’re all on…
Societies where the collective decide to create a financial and social safety net through reasonable, progressive taxation to ensure the protection of all - including paying university students to study (as well as providing their courses for free) and a year of maternity leave for parents, which can be shared between both partners. Cities which are built for people and for happiness, not cars. A working culture in which we work to live, not vice versa, and where it is acceptable to mould our working hours around family and for those hours to be reasonable - in part because debt and credit cards are less of an accepted concept. A housing market that is flat and affordable due to laws that ensure housing is seen (like water and food) as a right and not a commodity - with laws prohibiting the buying of property for investment purposes. Cities, as a result, that are contained, dense urban centres with a concentration of high-quality services, infrastructure and greenspaces. The list goes on…
Now I am not Danish and I am a proud Australian. I do not have shares in the Danish tourism industry. I have not been brainwashed.
But spending time in a nation with an obesity rate half that of Australia, where people are happier, lives are just about as long, where people pay higher taxes but seem to get so much back - it makes me wonder. Could we learn a lot from our Nordic neighbours?
Maybe it’s time to stop calling it ‘The Scandinavian Model’ and start calling it ‘The Future Blueprint’.
Copenhagenize us? I’d be up for that.