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Creative Inspiration: Tallinn, Estonia

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Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between organizational strategy and city building (more on that in my next post). I do find it interesting how many cities and countries set strategies to encourage creativity and innovation without fully exploring or being aware of what other places are working to achieve or are putting in place. I also find that many small cities and countries assume that because they have small populations they cannot compete on the world stage.

This leads me to my recent trip to Estonia. I was invited by the great musical innovator/conductor Kristjan Jarvi to meet with officials and speak at Tallinn Music Week's Creative Impact Summit. I will admit, I knew very little about Estonia before this trip and nothing could have prepared me for the creative, entrepreneurial energy that greeted me in Tallinn. For those of you that don't know, Tallinn is Estonia's capital city. Estonia itself has a very small population (approximately 1.3 million people) and Tallinn has a population of approximately 450,000 people. Despite its small size, Estonia has become a creative and entrepreneurial hotspot with a robust creative hub (Kultuurikatel), a creative incubator (Tallinn Creative Incubator) and a creative cluster (Telliskivi). Tallinn is also the birthplace of Skype and a UNESCO world heritage site that has a beautiful preserved heritage district, coupled with a significant commitment to technology and innovation. Old really does meets new in Tallinn.

This theme of old meets new was profoundly embodied by Tallinn Music Week - a festival that showcases the widest possible array of exceptional music, while also facilitating and hosting a creative summit on creativity, culture and city building. The conference featured a roster of global participants, but I was most captivated by the contributions of the Nordic and Baltic thought leaders at the conference. Undoubtedly, Nordic countries have a disproportionate presence in the world of architecture, design and technological innovation. While Estonia is a Baltic country, its proximity clearly results in tremendous interconnection between it and Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden (Nordic countries).

If we are to consider the currently en vogue system of global rankings as a measure of success, it would be difficult to deny that the Nordic countries outshine almost every global ranking on any measureable, and the Baltic countries follow closely behind.

However, none of these countries are resting on their laurels. For example, at the conference we heard from Dan Stromberg, CEO of TELIA Estonia, who shared Telia's plan to make Estonia the world's first 5G country. This will create dramatic new opportunities for innovation and technological advancement (Verizon has estimated that 5G technology could "achieve speeds 40 to 50 times faster than 4G"). No doubt this will provide a significant edge for Estonia as our economies continue to evolve towards an "Internet of things" in which self-driving cars and smart homes become the norm.

This commitment to technology, coupled with the creative and cultural investments outlined above, position Estonia well for the coming global economic and entrepreneurial shift. I was inspired by their open, imaginative approach in Tallinn and I would like to see more cities and countries aim higher as is the case with the bold strategies and direction of Tallinn and Estonia as a whole. Beyond Estonia, the Nordic and Baltic countries are succeeding globally in a manner that far defies expectations based on a combined population of about 33 million people. The creative and economic conditions in these relatively small countries have led to the development of IKEA, Skype, H+M, Ericcson, Electrolux, Spotify, Nokia to name a few. Perhaps something can be learned from their approach.