Authored by Cory Robinson
Modern society is faced with a seemingly overwhelming development of technologies that seek to both disrupt and potentially benefit society in many ways. However, many of these technologies are poorly understood by stakeholders. Where many of the processes of AI, IoT, and e-health are proprietary technologies hidden the from view of the citizen (i.e., the “black box” in AI), how can public institutions support and ensure these high levels of trust in Nordic culture, and extend these concepts of “digital trust” to technologies such as AI? One possible solution is by authoring national strategic policy that enshrines cultural values and personal rights. As an example, GDPR is heavily influenced by the EU’s stance that privacy is a human right. It is critical that national policies enshrine cultural values, as a lack of inclusion of culture in national AI strategies, could damage the social fabric of society (1).
Annual rankings and surveys often reference the citizens of Nordic nations as being the “happiest people” or having the “best quality of life” seemingly year after year. Indeed, all five Nordic nations were ranked in the top seven countries reported in the 2019 World Happiness Report (2). (To create the rankings, the report explored six key variables: GDP per capita; social support; life expectancy; freedom to make life choices; generosity; and corruption levels.2) Because of findings such as the World Happiness Report, the Nordic nations have become synonymous with values of trust, transparency and openness; so much so, national marketing strategies reinforcing these perceptions of these cultural values have been created (3).
It is impossible to elucidate all variables and historical events that have led to these high levels of trust in the Nordics, however, we can address some major historic impacts. Historically, these values can be attributed to the 19th century associations more present in the Nordics, helping to hold society together and promoting norms or trust and respect, and coinciding with the transition from agricultural to industrial societies (4). The state’s relationship with these associations created reciprocally beneficial outcomes: citizens could exert political influence through the associations, increasing trust in state authorities, while the state had open attitudes towards these associations (even while associations typically held critical views toward the state), underpinning public perceptions of government transparency and fairness (4). In addition to the unique relationship of associations and government, research also suggests that Protestantism’s important role in Nordic history lead to high levels of societal trust (5) – specifically, Protestantism’s non-hierarchical identity allowed the flourishing of social trust (6). Notably, even with disparate national histories, the Nordics indeed share institutional similarities (7).
The sharing of these values by all Nordic nations creates a cultural unity amongst them (8) – “Similar cultures and languages support the development of a common Nordic identity with a unique trust in national, regional and local authorities” (9). This cultural unity found in the Nordics is further underscored by numerous organizational proposals for collaboration, including their “AI in the Nordic-Baltic region” policy document (10), and regional collaborative bodies such as the Nordic Council of Ministers, a body for inter-governmental co-operation (11), which seeks “Nordic solutions wherever and whenever the countries can achieve more together than by working on their own” (12). The depth of cultural unity in the Nordics is profound, with the Nordic Council being the world’s oldest regional partnership (13), with the combined 2018 GDP of the five Nordic nations representing the 12th biggest economy in the world (9). Critically, it is even argued that Nordic countries share several values with respect to AI (14).
What cultural values are indeed unique in the Nordics? And how might these cultural values be utilized to better equip implementation and adoption of technologies?
One of the deeply ingrained Nordic and Scandinavian values is trust, a broad concept that has been explored across many disciplines, and is vital in both digital and analog environments. Trust is a deeply ingrained cultural trait in Nordic and Scandinavian societies (15) - where the majority of citizens trust others (16). The levels of trust seen in the Nordic region are globally unique (4, 17), as highlighted in a 2020 study when participants were asked to respond to the statement, “Most people can be trusted” - citizens of the Nordics respond higher as a proportion of the population than elsewhere in Europe (15). Contrary to most countries, trust levels in the Nordics have increased, rather than decreased, over the past 30 years (16).
Trust is an important concept which functions at various levels of society. For example, one might consider the personality trait of trust, or at the organizational level, such as trust in government institutions (18, 19) or trust in public institutions (20-22). The aforementioned rankings and “happiness” indices conceptualize trust as social trust, or the notion that people in general can be trusted (23). While explored in-depth across many disciplines, there exists a lack of explanation for differences in trust across countries and states (23).
Nordic nations possess high levels of transparency (24, 25). An abstract notion like trust, the value of transparency can be defined as citizens’ ability and right to access government information and information about that same government (26). Within the European Union (EU), the Nordic countries are regarded for their innovative role in guaranteeing transparent operation of government (27, 28). Transparency is noted as a crucial concept for creating trustworthy governments (29), however it is a concept often overlooked when exploring differences between cultures (29). Exploring transparency more deeply, it involves the extents to which an organization or individual disclose relevant information about their performance, functioning, decision processes, and procedures (30, 31). The availability of information about performance of a business or the internal workings of an entity are some of the multiple components that transparency might include, creating abilities of individuals or external organizations to monitor activities or decisions taking place within a noted organization (29). A holistic definition of transparency is “the availability of information about an organization or actor that allows external actors to monitor the internal workings or performance of that organization” (29).
In addition to transparency, the Nordic countries have high levels of openness (32). The concept of openness is truly broad, and can be explored as a higher-order concept (the philosophy of openness), open or accessible resources (such as open APIs, open data), open or participatory processes (i.e., crowdsourcing, open innovation), or opening or democratizing effects (i.e., open government, open education) (33). In defining a set of personality traits, being open means an openness to experience being demonstrated by one’s willingness to engage in new activities or ideas, and being naturally curious (34). The OECD frames openness in the context of policies focusing on citizen engagement and citizens’ access to information (35), or equating it as access on equal terms (36). In contrast to societies possessing true openness, a society with lacking regard for openness would foster anomy and abuse of power instead of enhancing civic cohesion and overall system performance (37). An open government is responsive to innovative ways of thinking and demands from citizens and others stakeholders, and is accessible at all times, to all individuals38. A more holistic definition of openness is “accessibility of knowledge, technology and other resources; the transparency of action; the permeability of organisational structures; and the inclusiveness of participation” (33).
Preservation of Values
Like any country, the Nordics are not sheltered from the winds of time, and while the Nordics have been referenced as idealistic, there are real challenges in the five Nordic nations (39), some linked to increased heterogeneity, perhaps arising through polarization of politics (40) or increased immigration (4). Indeed, the impacts of economics, politics, and technology surely have an impact on values of trust, transparency, and openness.
What are these specific forces currently threatening, or perhaps reshaping, these Nordic values? Political stalemates could erode trust, as seen in the Swedish national elections of 2018 where a governing agreement required four months of political compromise and discussion (41). Also, the general confusion and fear surrounding AI is another potential threat which might undermine trust in the technology before it is even properly implemented (42). Further, seeming inequality can have impact on trust levels, as lower trust correlates with inequality, and increasing inequality can impact social cohesion and trust levels between citizens (4). Increasing inequality in the Nordics (43), as research has indicated, leads to a decline in trust (39). Also, decreasing levels of citizens’ perceived well-being impacts the level of trust in a society (44). Potentially the most “trust damage” occurs when people, who have lost trust in others, find it hard to regain that trust, even if aware that all would benefit from increased partnerships (45).
Nordic values as basis for reinforcing democracy and privacy
As highlighted, the Nordic nations share a unique bond through cultural identity (8, 9), creating an environment where these societies can exist with high levels of trust (4, 15, 17), transparency (24, 25), and openness (32).
Sharing values of trust, transparency, and openness by Nordic nations creates a cultural unity amongst them, affording an opportunity to demonstrate how shared cultural values have encouraged strong, value-laden technology policy, as example, seen in the five Nordic strategies for AI development. Indeed, the literature supports the notion that the Nordics’ shared values extend in to technological developments, too, as the Nordics have some shared values even in regard to AI (14).
The Nordics provide a unique opportunity for reaffirming cultural values of trust, transparency, and openness, and supporting robust democratic institutions. Through focusing on the unique regional cohesion in the Nordic region, progressive privacy research in AI, IoT, and e-health can be conducted so to understand the relationship between values of trust and implementation and adoption of technologies. Results from these studies can help inform policy at a European level for inclusion and adoption of Nordic values, which are critical to maintain and strengthen democratic institutions, and the human right to privacy.
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While other countries or regions report trust, transparency, and openness as important values, the Nordics are truly unique with reportedly high levels of all three values. This uniqueness of high levels of all three cultural values creates a unique cultural unity, creating possibilities for implementing and adopting technologies where trust, transparency, and openness are crucial.