31.5.2017


Civilized society 2117, Part 5: In the future, becoming civilized will be as natural as breathing

Mika Aaltonen is a former professional footballer turned futurist. He believes that the civilized society of the future will be built on rationalized, innovative and courageous visions.

Mika Aaltonen_Suomi100
Mika Aaltonen has found success in many areas of life. He started as a professional footballer and became a top researcher with an extensive international network.

The interview should be getting underway, but there is minor problem; the interviewee seems to be missing. The photographer and I sit together in the café of the main library at the University of Helsinki, where researcher Mika Aaltonen had, a moment earlier, been getting coffee with us.

After a brief wait, Aaltonen shows up at the table with a thick book in hand; in those few moments, he had taken the opportunity to do some spontaneous shopping in the café bookshop. He purchased a book that deals with Alvar Aalto’s career as an artist.

This surprising detour to purchase a book fits well with Aaltonen’s life philosophy: he endeavours to develop each day, both in body and mind. So this was simply his way of acquiring further nutrients for his brain.

Aaltonen has succeeded in reaching his goals and achieving good results in both of the aforementioned areas.

Many will remember him as a professional footballer, who also played for the Finnish national team during 1982-1994. Aaltonen played one season for Inter Milan and was the first Finnish player to sign a contract to play at the highest level in Italy. During his football career, Aaltonen also played for Bologna FC and Hertha Berlin.

A Master’s Degree alongside a football career

While kicking the ball on pitches around the world, Aaltonen remained committed to his principles and worked on developing his mental capacities. Aaltonen studied to get his Master’s Degree and managed to nearly complete his thesis at Turku School of Economics while still fostering his professional sports career.

Playing professional football is no walk in the park. How on earth was it possible to study at the same time?

“It is possible. Training took only about two to four hours a day, and at that age, one is still young, energetic and fit. It's all a question of what you choose to do with the rest of the day. There is, of course, a significant amount of social pressure to use your free time in other ways,” Aaltonen concedes.

Football is often referred to as an intellectual sport. In Aaltonen’s opinion, however, it does not directly prepare one for an academic career, since the university arena requires a completely different type of intelligence from that which is required on the playing field.

“I will say, though, that as a game, football is quite clever, since there are a great number of variables; technique, physics, tactics and lots of different individuals.”

A strong historical presence

Aaltonen’s academic career has also been quite international in nature. He has been, among other things, a visiting researcher at three different universities: the London School of Economics, Cnam in Paris and the Gregorian University in Rome.

At these schools, European civilization and its long-standing history are strikingly present. Aaltonen tells that at Cnam, for example, there is visible pride in the fact that the French Revolution got its start there.

“Then, when I was in Rome, I met several futurists from the Catholic Church. My discussion with the Chair of the Gregorian University Foundation began with him placing the Gregorian calendar on the table and telling me that it had been developed in the neighbouring building. This then led to a discussion about the doctrines of the Jesuits.”

Aaltonen belongs to the British Royal Society of Arts and is the founder of the affiliate organisation in the Baltic region.

“This is a 260 year-old organisation that is focused on enlightenment and that boasts members such as Karl Marx and Adam Smith. That's how they start their presentation and then they ask what you have to offer them.”

Looking towards the future

Aaltonen is known in the academic world primarily as a futurist. Upon receiving his Doctorate, he headed up the Helsinki office of the Finland Futures Research Centre of the University of Turku.

In this arena, he has worked collaboratively with the Danish futurist Rolf Jensen. In 1999, Jensen published the bestseller, The Dream Society, which earned him recognition as one of the world’s leading futurists.

“We met at a seminar where we had both been asked to speak. I thanked him and told him that his speech had been both entertaining and visionary. I also stated that he must have read the works of the linguist A.J. Greimas. Rolf said that I was the only person who had ever said that. And that’s how our co-operation got its start.”

Aaltonen and Jensen have written two books together: Mr & Mrs Future and the 5 Big Questions (2012) and The Renaissance Society (2013). Currently, they are working on developing another new concept through which to visualise the future world.

“It involves a discussion of two issues. The first is ‘battlefields of tomorrow’ and the other is ‘engines of the future’. We present three battlefields, on which human beings, companies and states will carry out their battles in the future. We are also thinking about the machines, tools, events, issues and people that will mould our future,” explains Aaltonen.

Mika Aaltonen_pöydän ääressä
Aaltonen does not believe in idealistic solutions that can be universally applied anywhere in the world. The local context must always be taken into consideration.

Now it gets complex

Aaltonen is not especially thrilled with the title of futurist. Rather, he would like this interview to focus on, for example, complexity. What exactly does that mean?

“Complexity refers to the concept of not viewing the future as something far off in the distant tomorrow. The future is bound to this moment and the choices and decisions that we are making all the time.”

According to Aaltonen, complexity is also integrally related to contextuality and bound to time and place. As an example, he points out the problems related to management literature, in which these issues are not often considered.

“The literature offers idealistic solutions to situations and, often, the solutions originate from the east or west coasts of the United States. Then the idea is that these solutions can be applied all over the world in all fields in the same way. In the end, all you get is a headache, since the solution doesn't necessarily work for us.”

There is no civilization without economy and society

Aaltonen approaches the theme of this interview, namely civilization and a civilized society, through the concept of complexity.

“I don’t want to have an idealistic conversation that simply addresses civilization. I think it’s important for the conversation to delve into context as well,” he states.

And indeed, that's what happened. When Aaltonen is asked what he believes civilization is, the researcher uses his finger to draw three circles on the table. These circles represent civilization, economy and society. Aaltonen explains that these three are all dependent on one another, so the focus shouldn’t be on any individual “silo”

This explanation is then followed by a lengthy statement about the downhill slide of the Finnish economy: the weakening of the dependency ratio, indebtedness and the old-fashioned structure of the export industry.

In Aaltonen’s opinion, poor economic development is partly the result of formal structures; institutions and interest groups that hold tight to their own interests, thereby preventing necessary changes. Now we get to the heart of the discussion: civilization. The intelligentsia is precisely the engine that will advance societal change.

“In order to change the type of system we have, we need external sources of information and independent critical thinkers,” Aaltonen sums up.

He states that it is, however, very difficult for the intelligentsia to change things as well. This is a phenomenon that has been duly noted by researchers and the academic community both in Finland and abroad.

“The positions of some institutions, unions and families are sometimes rooted so deeply in history, that it is not always possible to find an argument that will change their opinions.”

A civilized society involves the input of its citizens

So what would the civilized society of Aaltonen’s dreams be, if he were able to realize all the desired changes? Aaltonen says that it would be based, above all, on honesty, openness and criticalness. In a civilized society, it should also be possible to discuss the difficult issues.

“As Locke said, openness and justice are the values upon which a society can develop. When you begin with honesty and openness, well-being will follow. Well-being is not the outcome that follows endeavours to achieve growth and profit.”

Aaltonen also states that there is much work to be done in terms of decision-making.

“We have, by way of representative democratic mandates, established institutions that are making decisions, rather than allowing people to make their own decisions about their lives. This creates somewhat of an illusion of democracy. It has also brought about a situation in which people no longer feel any connection to politics.”

Aaltonen states that in order to reform any society, it is vital to get all the people on board and involved as well.

“I think people could be asked something other than who is the best dancer or singer. They could be asked topical questions about their own lives.”

Aaltonen has worked for a long time with German Stefan Berghaim, who heads up a think tank aimed at improving the quality of human life. Among other issues, they have discussed the structure of a good society. This has led to the term “seldom heard voices”, which refers to people whose voices are not generally heard in the course of the decision-making process. In Germany, these individuals have already been included in decision-making, but in Finland, there is still work to be done on this front.

“Let's take, for example, the Finnish pension system, in which all the decision-makers are men over the age of 50, despite the fact that the system encompasses both men and women of different generations. The system is not in place only for pensioners. A sustainable solution is one that would involve a wide variety of people.”

Then he puts the matter into context. Aaltonen points out that an ideal civilized society is a socially and morally just society, whose primary objective is not economic growth, but growth based on a sustainable platform.

“Only then can we approach the ideal civilized society.”

Radical visions of the future are needed

We finish our interview with a discussion about what things will be like in one hundred years. What will the Finnish civilized society look like then? Aaltonen states that it’s hard to predict how things will be that far in the future, even for a futurist, since the number of variables will increase dramatically.

“It is, however, important to truly consider long-term outlooks. If we only think in terms of a quarter, a year or a political term, we simply push our current state forward as it is. If we want something to be different, we have to first figure out what type of differences there should be.”

As an example, Aaltonen talks about science fiction, which has moulded people’s imaginations with its fictitious visions of the future. These visions have led to actual inventions. Cars may not yet be able to fly, but nearly everyone already carries a telephone with video conferencing capabilities.

Another viable vision of the future that he refers to is the Communist Manifesto.

“It defined the daily lives of the masses and, for that reason, was an influential work. It showed how a pertinent, profound and factual presentation can influence how we live our lives at present and how we should live them in the future.”

Mika Aaltonen_Kaisa-talossa
Aaltonen feels that each generation should meet its challenges using whatever resources it has available rather than shifting the problems onto their children and grandchildren.

The adversary in the mirror

What type of visions do we need as we move towards the civilized society of 2117? What issue should our manifesto reflect? Aaltonen believes that the greatest challenge for our future society is sustainable development.

“For the first time in human history, our toughest adversary is the one who looks back at us from the mirror every morning. We have fought against disease and predators, but now we should be able to live, consume and work in a way that sustains our planet. All organisms that destroy their surroundings will end up destroying themselves as well.”

Aaltonen states that it is precisely civilization that will enable us to avoid destruction. In order to enact any reforms, we will need informed and educated citizens.  

“Information helps individuals make decisions that are more justifiable and sustainable, both in terms of the individual and the society.”

Aaltonen also believes that we will still see some wild leaps in development as we become more civilized.

“In the future, learning will be as natural as breathing, and people’s abilities will derive from the life that they live. Studying will no longer be confined to schools and institutions, but will be rooted in everyday life,” Aaltonen predicts.

  • Text: Valtteri Väkevä
  • Photos and video: Liisa Takala


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