Blog

Dog reveals what government must do next

We talk a lot at the Opinion Festival about the need to be inclusive and open, and to allow all views from all sides of the debate. But what about dogs?

Pets represent one area of society that frequently goes unheard. Maybe it’s because we don’t speak their language as well as we should, but they demand to be treated as an equal part of discussions.

We have covered in previous years how the pets of the Opinion Festival turn out in style and often look better-dressed than their owners. This time, the stakes got raised. James, you see, is a dalmatian whose reputation goes before him. His story is the stuff of legend. Having escaped the clutches of Cruella de Vil, along with his 100 siblings, James decided to strike out solo, and emigrated to Estonia, where he is owned by Kelly.

Here, it would appear the debonair canine has become something of a celebrity, having, like all the most famous people, his own social media hashtag, #DalmatianJames . It’s for this reason that the Opinion Festival blog decided to catch up with the dog of the moment, to find out what he had enjoyed most about the Opinion Festival, and what could be improved.

“I’d say it’s all been really well organised,” James told us, “especially the street food. I shouldn’t eat hamburgers – they’re bad for my digestive system in big portions – but I took my chance to try a bit from Hungry Karl, and I wasn’t disappointed. I also took the opportunity to let Jevgeni Ossinovski and Hanno Pevkur know my views on the need for the state to subsidise doggy-treats. Ossinovski said it wasn’t part of the present government programme, but both politicians seemed to understand my point of view, which was good.”

James was equally forthright on his favourite festival stand from the Opinion Festival 2017. “I have to give full marks to the designers of the stand made from sustainable mushrooms (below). It was incredibly well-made, and I love hunting for mushrooms, so it felt like I was running round the forest, while watching a debate take place.”

Festival stand made from mushrooms

At the time of writing, James was barking loudly at the sky, seemingly angry that an act of force majeure had caused his favourite part of the Opinion Festival, the party leaders’ debate, to be delayed and then acted out under a thunderstorm. Storms aren’t his thing, frankly. Still, with the profile he is swiftly building, a position in the cabinet after the next reshuffle looks to be a formality.

How diverse is Estonia?

A talk taking place at the Opinion Festival on Saturday, ‘Diversity in the Estonian workplace and society: the good, the bad and the ugly’, examined issues of culture, race, identity, and discussed both what foreigners can do to feel more part of Estonian life, and also what Estonia as a whole can do to be as welcoming as possible.

The Opinion Festival throws up annual surprises, but one regular topic is foreigners and their integration into Estonian life. This is perhaps understandable – with the rapid expansion of Estonia-based companies like Transferwise, along with increased international investment in the country, has come a shift in the population demographic. This has not been without friction, as the discussion, in the shadow of Paide’s Holy Cross Church, showed. Nonetheless, there were anecdotes that showed how much has changed for the better for residents of other nationalities.

A lot of the discussion revolved around learning the Estonian language; many adult learners say that they find it difficult to pick up. There was also some talk about whether the problem is that, for the majority of incomers, at least those based in Tallinn, there is a lack of immersion culture – in other words, most Estonians in the capital are happy to speak English, and so it is rare for there to be a definite need for the Tallinn-based foreigner to converse in Estonian. For this reason, the idea of making it compulsory for all foreigners living in Estonia to learn the language was raised. However, although there was some support for the idea, in general the audience, which was quite evenly split between Estonians and foreigners, preferred encouragement of language learning to compulsion.

In general the discussion was calm and measured, but there was more passion shown when an African-American audience member brought up a word often used in the Estonian language to describe a person of colour, which sounds very similar to a term which has become known as very abusive and racist in the UK and US. She said that hearing that word used made her feel uncomfortable.

There was then debate over the perceived historical context of the word in the Estonian language, and whether the requirement to change should be upon the individual who heard the word and was offended, or upon Estonian society not to use the word (there being plenty of other, synonymous, terms that could be used that would not offend anyone). Although no definitive decision was reached, there seemed to be a consensus that increased care over not offending people with any language used would make the world of work more comfortable for many.

A Latin American living in Estonia described how he had, initially, greeted his colleagues in the office each day by shaking their hands, and had regularly hugged people who he knew well, until being told it was not a common thing to do in an Estonian workplace. He explained his personal dilemma, before saying that he decided to “embrace” the fact that he did not look, sound or act “like an Estonian”, and that he was proud of his cultural identity. Two young Russian-Estonian siblings also talked about their positive experiences learning Estonian at a Russian school.

From there, the talk moved onto the ways in which foreigners can get to know Estonian culture. The theatre was cited as a great way to learn the language and to gain a greater cultural understanding; many high-profile productions are subtitled in English, while another idea raised was to hold performances written specially in easy-to-understand Estonian, for adult language-learners. The talk was held in the ‘world cafe’ format, meaning that microphones were passed throughout the audience, and participation ‘in the round’ was encouraged, rather than set speakers taking part in a more conventional forum.

This Danish man just came up with an awesome idea to bring people together

Why have festivals like the Opinion Festival become popular with so many people, what can be done to attract more people to take part in the discourse, and what can the festival do better? There was also a great idea on how to get divided people to talk more freely.

A discussion, ‘The power of democracy festivals’, explored these questions on Friday, with a twist on the conventional format of discussion allowing the panel and audience to split into small groups and discuss various questions in circles.

Visitors from Finland, Denmark, Latvia and Lithuania came to Paide to talk about their experiences of organising or taking part in what are known as ‘democracy festivals’ – events encouraging public participation in discussions on a variety of topics. One of the things mentioned, in the debate moderated by journalist Liis Kängsepp, was that there is no one right way of encouraging good discussion and a closer community. Mads Akselbo Holm, the organiser of Folkemodet in Denmark, came up with perhaps the most intriguing idea in terms of getting people from two sides of a divide to come together.

Holm said it could be as simple as getting two opposing politicians, for example, to cook a meal together. Explaining the idea, he said, “maybe they don’t agree on matters of policy, but they can both agree that they like the country they live in, they can both agree they were born in that country, and maybe they both share a favourite dish.” The tantalising prospect of battling members of government and opposition putting down their briefing notes and picking up spatulas and frying pans is certainly unconventional, but could it work?

Mari Haavisto, organiser of SuomiAreena, the Finnish equivalent of the Opinion Festival, felt it was important that the city of Pori, around three hours’ travel from Helsinki, was the host of the event. It comes in the same space of time as the city’s jazz festival, and the two combine to bring a pleasant party atmosphere to an otherwise relatively quiet area every summer, something that might be lost if SuomiAreena were relocated to the Finnish capital. The Opinion Festival has become synonymous with Paide, and it is also true that Järve county, in which Paide is situated, is proud and happy to host the festival. Something of the close community spirit could be lost if it were held in Tallinn or Tartu, contributors felt.

One commenter added that he felt that the Opinion Festival was at least as much about meeting new people, and getting a new perspective on life, as it was about the open discussion that takes place every year. The principle of inviting and accepting all forms of debate, as long as they do not cause violence, was also mentioned, as part of the spirit of a truly open festival of ideas.

Ukraine will hold its first democracy festival this year, and the concept seems to be going viral all around Europe. What is true in every case is that changes can be made, in the interactivity of the events, and how they reach out to people. That’s part of a journey of constant improvement.

Opinion Festival panel debates perfect user experience

How to humanise the user experience, and make the functions of software better reflect users’ needs, was the topic being discussed in English at a lunchtime debate during the Opinion Festival on Friday. Each of the panellists came from a technology-related background, although looking at its use and application in differing ways.

Genia Trofimova is the Product and Project Manager for Mooncascade, a software development agency with a number of high-profile clients. A story she told illustrated a company working closely with its client for an optimal user experience. “A customer from Wall Street said he wanted ‘Tinder for Wall Street’ and asked if we could make it, and I said ‘sure’, and all of our team installed Tinder – it was fun. We explored what ‘Tinder for Wall Street’ meant, and then, three months into development and design, we went into very intense user testing. We built this trust, and the client in New York, the team in Seattle, everybody listened to what our team has to say; we want to keep our team happy, and people want to participate and show their talents.”

Ede Schank Tamkivi, from the Eesti 2.0 non-governmental organisation, was moderating the discussion, and began a discussion of good and bad user experiences with an awkward encounter with an Estonian state portal. “I had the experience when registering the birth of my child – I went to rik.ee [an Estonian government website], clicked on the drop-down menu, and the first option displayed was stillbirth, which is not a great thing for a new mother to have to see or think about.”

Jaanus Kase, Head of Product Design at Pipedrive, continued the subject of childcare. “When you have a child, there are about seven or eight different kinds of support you can apply for, depending on whether the child is disabled, or you’re a foster parent, or other things. Your day is full of things not related to filling out these forms, then at night you have maybe ten minutes to fill out the forms, and you get this long list of options.”

“Some kind of easy option would be great, but you get a long list. I would diminish the [list of] options, say if it’s my own child or a foster child, then in Estonia the system can tell where you’re living, so it could give me the options related to my local government. More to the point: why do I even have to do any activity myself? Why can it not be done for me?”

Trofimova responded to an audience question about whether users of apps that change their user interface, and are unhappy about this, are somehow too picky. “It’s still information,” Trofimova said, “and it brings a lot of information about comfort zone, and how far we can go with changes. There is no such thing as too picky – we just need to be picky how we take that information into account.”

Markus Villig, CEO of Taxify, an Estonian-founded driver-requesting app that uses both private drivers and licensed taxi companies, found that his product was mentioned by many panellists and audience members over the course of the 90-minute discussion, primarily because the app has become an integral part of the lives of many people in Estonia and other countries in which it has been rolled-out. While several people said they used Taxify every day, and praised its user experience, others pointed out the recent update that took away the user’s choice of specific taxi operator and car. For Villig, this was an example of making the user experience better in the long term by taking away a choice.

“This is a question we debated internally for one to two years. We have power-users who want to see all the information about a car before they pick it, and they run a sort of internal algorithm to decide which one to take. There’s always a question how much information you include. But people get out of the club, and most people in that situation just want the nearest car, as cheap and as fast in arriving as it can be. Those sorts of people are not usually so interested in picking from a long list of cars.”

“Then we started to look at whether we could fundamentally make the service better. If we can make the pickup shorter, drivers can waste less fuel, waste less time and make more pickups per hour. That’s why when you choose a car, which might be the same kind of car at the same price, but might be two kilometres further away, it creates a waste of fuel and mileage. We need to simplify it so that people cannot make sub-optimal choices. Ultimately this means that the driver earns more, it means the whole platform’s quality goes up, and so on.”

Kase added, “it’s about testing and data. There is no good design that can be isolated from the impact it has on its business. There is a difference between what people say they will do and what they do in reality. A great example of that is in politics – a lot of Americans said they would move to Canada after Trump got elected, but how many have done that?”

“If it looks good but doesn’t produce results, it’s not good design. The other thing to think about regarding whether or not people are too picky is to look at where this discussion is happening. It’s happening online, on platforms like Facebook and Twitter; these are not public services, they are commercial enterprises, pushing us around, actively enticing us to have a discussion there, so they can make more money off us. Most people don’t think about that. The noise surrounding the things versus what actually happens are two different things.”

Villig, like many tech CEOs an admirer of Apple legend Steve Jobs, cited a remark he made. “Steve Jobs was right when he said ‘people don’t know what they really want.’ People make a lot of noise, and it’s important to listen to that, but you won’t see how people really react until the product is actually launched.”

Opinion Festival entertainment for all tastes

As if to prove that the Opinion Festival isn’t only about deep, serious discussions, there are many ways to have fun with festival entertainment, if you take a few steps from the main action on Vallimägi. One of these is a beach volleyball court, in the middle of host town Paide, a usually sleepy place that is, the last time anyone checked, landlocked.

Check out the Opinion Festival programme for the full list of entertainment throughout the weekend

The vast expanse of sand, which can be found on the edge of Keskväljak (Central Square), is proof that Pärnu might have the Weekend Festival, and mile upon mile of perfect golden sand, and Haapsalu might have its own blues festival along with some of the best spas in Estonia, but Paide has its fair share of fun in the sun.

Foodies’ delight

If you’re, like many people, a hit-and-miss beach volleyball player, Keskväljak and the adjoining section of Tallinna mnt (Tallinn street) offer enough street food to keep you going through a long day of walking and talking. Our early tips are Hungry Karl, who offer excellent-quality hamburgers and goat’s cheese burgers, or, for a lower price, you can get a taste of Sri Lanka, with authentic chicken curry that is being made all weekend by expert cooks from the island.

More fun!

Following the discussions on both days, there is a selection of entertainment to take your pick from. Over in the Wittenstein/Järvamaa museum there is a video disco between 9pm and 2am on Friday, and on Keskväljak, Tallinn’s longest-established hipster hangout Must Puudel is taking over, on Friday and Saturday, with banging tunes and DJ sets, along with captivating live performances. Back on Vallimägi from 10pm to midnight on Friday, Tallinn’s coolest coworking space, LIFT99, hosts one of its regular get-togethers.

Perhaps the standout entertainment events take place in the yard of Vabalinna Maja (Free Town House, literally), the festival club. There, between 10pm and 11pm on Friday, the beloved musical innovator, singer-songwriter Vaiko Eplik, will play some of his most popular songs from down the years.

There’s also a series of must-see installations from lighting artist Jari Matsi, who is bringing innovation and beauty to Tallinna mnt 24, 32, and 34. You can see what he’s done with these lovingly-renovated townhouses between midnight and 2am after the festival concludes for the day on both Friday and Saturday.

Opinion Festival: why we’re all here

The Opinion Festival is back, with added vigour, fun, and purpose. What is that purpose, though? We’ve got some thoughts – and in the spirit of the event, we’d love to hear yours too.

The festival has been running since 2013, and each iteration has had its standout moments. There is something in the greenery of the heart of Estonia, Paide, for most tastes and mindsets. Even so, sometimes it’s worth taking a step back and asking, ‘what is all this for?’, and why we have this annual gathering.

The genesis of the Opinion Festival was in the events that had been taking place beforehand, on a similar structure, around Northern Europe. It was felt that public debate in Estonia could be bolstered with a festival where discussions, on a variety of pre-agreed topics, could take place in a comfortable environment and an atmosphere of openness.

The festival, at its established home up on Vallimägi in Paide, brings the opportunity to get to the centre of all the discussions affecting everyday life.  Gradually, the debates, forums and talks in the Estonian language were complimented by more and more discussions in English and Russian, showing that the Opinion Festival could include all areas of society within Estonia. While the focus in 2017 is on high-quality conversations, rather than a simple target of being the biggest ever, the breadth of debate still requires visitors to don a pair of quality shoes, and plan carefully where to go and when – or just randomly go from place to place, which can be just as much fun.

People need to know that, though there is political debate, it’s not just about politics. As our earlier blog post illustrates, everything from IT user experience to the pros and cons of veganism will be broached. There are parallels here with music festivals, in that many visitors may come with the aim of hearing one thing, but might go home having derived more enjoyment from surprising sources. It’s never been more important to listen without prejudice, and this is another reason why the Opinion Festival is a necessary part of the Estonian calendar.

There is a strand of discourse, particularly online, that takes the view that not only do actions speak louder than words, but that words no longer matter. Terms such as ‘alt-right’, ‘post-truth’, ‘alternative facts’, and, yes, ‘covfefe’ have elbowed their way into the public eye. The Opinion Festival takes no political standpoint, preferring to let the discussions speak for themselves, but the rapid changes all around us necessitate clarity of thought and of discussion.

We see this when the lies of people in power are spun, or when there is an attempt to move on from promises made by corporations or elected officials. The way to hold people to account is through organised discussion, in an environment where everyone can feel their thoughts are heard and acknowledged. The Opinion Festival offers that, and much more.

Sure, visitors get the chance to (sometimes literally) sit on a picnic blanket next to a Member of the European Parliament and ask about the future of the Single Market, or to quiz the Prime Minister on policy. It’s more than that, though. It’s the best chance of the year to meet people with matching, or contrasting, views to your own.

The Opinion Festival is a social network in the original sense – and you don’t even need a computer to get involved. Half of the fun comes from meeting and talking to new people, both during and also after the debates. You’ll find a discussion topic that interests you from the start – and you’re strongly encouraged to seek them out.

While you do that, it’s also worth looking through the programme for some of the topics you might not have considered checking in on. With talks in Estonia, Russian and English, this festival represents the biggest of tents, and will keep you thinking about any preconceived viewpoints you had on issues, while informing, entertaining and educating on a multitude of subject areas which, who knows, might interest you enough for you to find out more, or get involved, after the festival is over.

The 2017 Opinion Festival boosts English-language discussions in number and diversity

In the spirit of opening up one of Estonia’s foremost civic events to people of all creeds and backgrounds, the Opinion Festival (Arvamusfestival) will this year host a raft of discussions in English.

The ten discussions and one theatre performance will be tackling a diverse range of topics, from the sustainability of Estonia’s start-up scene, to the growing popularity of veganism, to changes afoot in the European Union. Befittingly for its fifth anniversary, this marks the highest concentration of English-language discussions in the festival’s history.

While this year’s festival has consciously trimmed the number of discussions to 162 overall, English emerges as the exception here. This is not just a mere numbers’ game. The diversity of issues under discussion shows English truly cementing itself as an essential festival language, alongside Estonian and Russian, and displays a growing interest from discussion organisers to tap into the full expertise available in Estonia and nearby countries.

The discussions are dispersed across all of the festival’s six core themes — technology, labour and markets, education, the living environment, the individual, and community —  but there are common threads running through all eleven English-language events.

A case in point are two discussions on Friday which attempt to offer a different outlook on Estonia’s technology sector. The first, bringing together an anthropologist with local tech scene sweethearts Taxify, Pipedrive and Mooncascade, aims to humanise User Experience (or, to use its more techie moniker, UX) and unravel the value of putting human experience at the centre of product design from the get-go, a still largely new concept in Estonian start-ups.

A separate discussion turns its back on ready-made assumptions and looks to ask honest, if uncomfortable, questions about the state of Estonia’s start-up ecosystem and whether the “yippee-rhetoric attitude” it sometimes attracts could be counterproductive to its success.

There are also a wealth of other discussions tackling market-related questions. Notably, as more and more companies in Estonia are adopting, or at least involving to some degree, English as a working language, it has never been timelier to consider diversity in the Estonian workplace and build awareness of expats and people from different cultural backgrounds already enriching Estonian society. Pushing Opinion Festival’s philosophy of inclusivity one step further, a discussion on Saturday will not have “speakers” in the traditional sense but will follow the “World Cafe” method where small groups of people move from table to table to discuss different issues related to the topic of diversity.

Other discussions on Saturday give participants the chance to delve into wider questions about social responsibility and consumer education. In this vein, development charity NGO Mondo is holding an extensive discussion on the reality of palm oil production to consider what improvements can be made to the supply chain to eliminate environmental damage and human rights violations. To keep it solutions-focused, the discussion will draw in research and practical tips from Finland and Estonia.

The experiences of Estonia’s northern neighbours will likely also feed in heavily into a discussion about veganism. While veganism has flourished in Estonia over the past few years and become the chosen diet for many, there is still social stigma attached to it and official nutritional guidelines continue to regard it as a potentially dangerous self-restricted diet — unlike Finland and Sweden where it by and large enjoys the backing of the medical community.

This is just a taste of the discussions available in English over the two days. Coinciding with Estonia’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union, it is only appropriate that other topics involve the issues shaping Europe today and which Estonia will be trying to co-ordinate at an EU-wide level during the latter part of 2017 — such as the impact of Brexit, involving speakers from England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Likewise, a discussion on Catalan independence can cast an interesting light on the way Estonia thinks about self-determination, especially as the country’s own long-anticipated 100th anniversary in February 2018 draws near.

The Opinion Festival is also constantly evolving and responding to its participants — who, given that the festival is free and open to all, could be anyone from Estonia and beyond. It is hardly surprising that in its fifth year, the festival should include a self-reflexive discussion about the role and impact of democracy festivals, born in collaboration with other similar events in the Nordic and Baltic region.

If we were to see the Opinion Festival as both reflecting and catalysing the state of democratic debate in Estonia, the boom in English-language discussions should be seen part and parcel of Estonia becoming at once more outward-facing and not afraid to open up its inward-facing reflections to a wider audience.

The full programme is available here.

 

All English-language discussions at the Opinion Festival

Friday, 11th August

14:00-15:30
Humanizing IT – UX for the future
Discoveries area (Avastuste ala)

User experience (UX) design has been declared to be one of the keys in order to succeed in innovation. However, in Estonia it is still a rather new course. In the discussion we would like to find answers to questions such as what is the purpose of participatory design and how to find out as quickly as possible what one’s target group really needs and wants. We are bringing programmers, designers and anthropologists together to collaborate and find out the best ways to create something new and useful. This enables the ICT specialists and designers to figure out the niche of their products. At the same time anthropologists and other people from social and human sciences can rediscover the potential of using their skills in the job market on somewhat surprising fields like ICT and design.
Moderator: Ede Schank Tamkivi (NGO Eesti 2.0 CEO)
Participants: Jaanus Kase (Pipedrive, Head of Product Design) Markus Villig (Taxify, CEO) Genia Trofimova (Mooncascade, Product and Project Manager) Keiu Telve (Center for Applied Anthropology of Estonia, anthropologist)
Organiser: Center for Applied Anthropology of Estonia
Category: Technology

16.00-17.30
Unlocking the new economic development – the prospect of bioeconomy
Discoveries area (Avastuste ala)

Why countries and companies invest increasingly in bioeconomy? Because this is the next economic wave. Bioeconomy shall also mitigate the climate change and environmental impact and make sustainable use of natural resources. This is the only way to do business today! The bioeconomy means the smart, circular use of renewable natural resources for food, feed, bio-products and energy. During the debate we shall look into how the bioeconomy reconciles environment and economy and bolster rural employment. We investigate the new bioeconomy business model and describe what is in it for everybody. We have invited Nordic entrepreneurs to share their experiences about opportunities and challenges of bioeconomy. Estonian panelists contemplate on how Estonia could step up the developments towards bioeconomy – what will this demand of society, communities and the government? Come along, listen in and have your say on how to do business in the future, where current trends are pointing us and why certain countries are dedicated to promoting the bioeconomy.
Moderator: Madis Tilga (Nordic Council of Ministers)
Participants: Stefan Sundman (Vice-President, UPM Biofore), Tanja Häyrynen (Project manager, Arctic Bioeconomy), Toomas Kevvai (Vice-chancellor of Estonian Ministry of Rural Affairs), Kristjan Piirimäe (sustainability expert)
Organiser: Nordic Concil of Ministers’ Office in Estonia

16.00-17.30
Self-determination of nations in the European Union: Case of Catalonia
Estonian Free Party area (Eesti Vabaerakonna ala)

Self-determination of nations in today’s European Union. The Catalans wish to hold a referendum to determine the opinion of their people about independence. So far, Spain has avoided the issue, and the official position has been not favourable. How the Spaniards and the Catalans themselves see it. This program and debate is organised in cooperation with the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia.
Moderator: Artur Talvik
Participants: Mr. Jaume Clotet Planas, Communications Manager at the Government of Catalonia and Mr. Rafael Arenas, law professor and former President of anti-Catalan Independence organization “Societat Civil Catalana”
Organiser: Estonian Free Party
Category: Living environment

18:00-19:30
Let’s get real about start-ups: Signal vs. Noise
Inclusive Society area (Kaasava ühiskonna ala)

Estonia produces the biggest number of startups and seed stage investments per capita than any other country in Europe. Estonian startup ecosystem is packed with business plan competitions, pitching workshops, hubs, conferences and events and the confidence of young Estonian entrepreneurs is backed up by start-up accelerators and venture capitalists in London and Silicon Valley. At the same time there are questions about their success-stories and criticism towards the yippee-rhetoric attitude. Is this a confrontation between the new and the old economy or is it something else? We are exchanging thoughts and debate the issue to better understand what’s behind the criticism.
Moderator: Jüri Muttika
Participants: Martin Henk (Co-Founder at Pipedrive), Gleb Maltsev (Co-Founder at Fundwise)
Organiser: Pipedrive
Category: Technology

18.00-19.30
What will the future of Great Britain and the EU be like after Brexit?
Estonian Free Party area (Eesti Vabaerakonna ala)


Brexit and its impact on Europe, Great Britain and Estonia. Estonia has just assumed the Presidency of the EU Council, and this topic is a daily relevant issue also during our Presidency. What can we and the European Union learn from it, and what do the people from different parts of Great Britain think of it.
Moderator: Andres Herkel
Participants: Representatives of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Britain
Organiser: Estonian Free Party
Category: Living environment

18.00-19.30
The power of democracy festivals
Participatory democracy area (Osalusdemokraatia ala)

In 1968 Olof Palme, Sweden’s minister of education at the time, held a speech, standing in the back of a flatbed truck. The truck was parked by Almedalen park and a couple of hundred people gathered to listen to what he had to say. 50 years later, democracy festivals throughout the Nordic region have gone viral. Why is that? Is it because we’ve noticed lately how fragile democracy actually is? We invite you to have a conversation with us over what has been the societal impact of democracy festivals in our region and why do we need them.
Moderator: Liis Kängsepp (The Opinion Festival’s coordinator of international cooperation)
Participants: Mari Haavisto (SuomiAreena organiser), Ieva Morica (LAMPA organiser), Mads Randbøll Wolff (independent senior adviser at Spark)
Organiser: The Opinion Festival
Category: Community

Saturday, 12th August

11:30-13:00
Diversity in the Estonian workplace and society: The good, the bad and the ugly
Education area (Hariduse ala)

The aim of this discussion is to increase the awareness towards foreigners and people from different cultural backgrounds working and living in Estonia as an already existing part of society. We wish to encourage a lively discussion where we exchange views on the benefits and challenges of cultural diversity at the workplace and what it means to society in broader terms, hopefully resulting in new ideas and proposals for the discussed issues. All this with the help of a diverse audience.
Moderator: Cornelia Godfrey (Austrian Embassy)
Participants: Instead of a panel, we opted to have a lively and constructive discussion in small groups, based on the World Café method. We hope to hear the views, concerns and proposals that the audience has about the different questions and topics, with Dennis Kristensen (Sindi Lanka, Danspin) making a brief introduction.
Organisers: Enterprise Estonia, Estonian Ministry of Culture
Category: Labour and markets

13.00-14.30
Veganism: a self-restricted or a healthy diet?
Health area (Tervise ala)

Veganism is growing in popularity both globally and in Estonia but opinions about the healthfulness of vegan diets vary to the extreme between specialists and countries. Overseas in Finland and Sweden, veganism in considered appropriate throughout all stages of life and the national nutritional guidelines give advice on balanced nutrition for vegans. Estonian nutritional guidelines, on the other hand, regard veganism as a self-restricted diet that will lead to long-term health complications. What does the science tell? Should vegans be supported and how?
Moderator: Marta Velgan (Estonian Junior Doctors’ Association)
Participants: David Stenhholtz (oncologist at Stockholm’s Södersjukhuset hospital​),​ Mikael Fogelholm (Professor of Nutrition at Helsinki University),​ Ülle Einberg (president of the Estonian Association of Paediatricians),  Karmen Joller (general practitioner)
Organiser: Eesti Vegan Selts (Estonian Vegan Society); sponsored by Swedish Institute and the National Foundation of Civil Society
Category: The individual

14:00-15:30
The pain and glory of PhD degree: do you and the society need it?
Science area (Teadusala)

The movement March For Science started in 2017 indicates that science aims for more impact in society. Is the role of PhD degree also changing? What are the risks and gains of PhD degree in Estonia? These questions will be discussed with the professionals representing different views. We will inform the audience about PhD studies, possible carrier choices and the current drawbacks of science funding system aiming. We aim to come up with the new ideas improving perspectives of the doctorates.
Moderator: Dr Martin Aher
Participants: Prof. Andres Taklaja (CEO of OÜ Rantelon, private sector member), Prof. Anne Kahru (professor at National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics – independent research institute), Prof. Erkki Truve (former vice-rector of Tallinn University of Technology), Dr. Ulla Preeden (Rector of Tartu Health Care College and politician)
Organiser: National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics
Category: Education

14:45-16:15
Under the palm tree
Inclusive Society area (Kaasava ühiskonna ala)

Under the palm tree”  Palm oil is one of the most used and consumed vegetable oils that is found in approximately 40-50% of household products and fuel in many developed countries including Estonia. Palm oil can be present in a wide variety of products, including baked goods, confectionery, shampoo, cosmetics, cleaning agents, washing detergents and toothpaste. The truth, however, is that palm oil industry is linked to issues such as deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty and indigenous rights abuses in the countries where it is produced. Let’s talk about the real life under the palm tree but also let’s look at the solutions: how can we make good palm oil? How can we produce, supply and consume without damaging the environment and abusing people’s rights? What is the role of the producers? What can Estonian supermarkets do? With the stories, facts, research and practices from Finland and Estonia, we will engage the participants to think about their choices and consumption patterns to reduce poverty and contribute to economic sustainability also for the farmers and producers in the Global South. The discussion takes place within a pan-European project “Supply Cha!nge. Let’s Make Supermarkets Fair” that is funded by the European Commission and the Republic of Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs development and humanitarian aid resources. The contents of the discussion are the sole responsibility of NGO Mondo and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Union.
Moderator: Kristina Mänd (NGO Mondo)
Participants: Anu Kultalahti (researcher in the Finnish NGO Finnwatch), Märt Miljan (co-founder of Estonian cosmetics producer Lumi) and Kaire Roosi (Meal Category Group Manager from Rimi supermarket chain)
Organiser: NGO Mondo
Category: Category: Living environment

18.00-19.30
Youth Democracy Theatre
Participatory Democracy area (Osalusdemokraatia ala)

In cooperation with NGO Forum Theatre in Estonia, the Danish documentary theatre C:NTACT and NGO Palidzesim from Latvia the Danish Cultural Institute in EST, LV and LT presents a youth theatre production on democracy at Opinion Festival 2017.
The performance engages youngsters from Estonia, Latvia and Denmark in a joint performance with a point of departure in the young people’s experiences of democracy in everyday life and the society they wish for in their future. Enjoy the performance and take part in the discussion afterwards: How does YOUR democratic society look like and where do YOU take part?
Moderator: Didzis Jonovs
Participants: Youngsters from Estonia, Latvia and Denmark
Organiser: The Danish Cultural Institute in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

Why I’m investing about 200 hours yearly into volunteering

Maarit Cimolonskas
Employee experience @Bigbank, volunteer @Arvamusfestival

Some time ago, we hosted a workshop in our office where about 20 people joined from the Government Office of EstoniaEuropean Innovation AcademyEstonian Unemployment Insurance Fund, the digital agency Optimist DigitalEstonian Ministry of the InteriorEstonian Green Movement, an educational independent body ArchimedesEstonian Patients Association and some other organisations.

All of these people are among the organisers of the Opinion festival. Together, we had a communications and marketing workshop since they are leading the communication initiatives for the upcoming 5th Opinion Festival in Estonia.

Opinion what?

Once a year, on the second weekend in August, a tiny city in Estonia called Paide changes into a festival ground which brings about 10,000 people together. It’s not a regular festival but one of a kind, called the Opinion Festival — https://www.arvamusfestival.ee/en/. It provides an open platform for alert and active people who can discuss issues which are important to them and relevant topics on society. We call it a self-evolving community-wide festival open to everyone.

‘Community-wide’ means that the festival welcomes representatives and interest groups from all walks of life. ‘Self-evolving’ refers to organisations and associations bringing issues to the table with using their own resources. ‘Open to everyone’ means that anyone interested in sharing his or her ideas is welcome to take part. It also means that the festival is free of charge for participants.

What it means in reality is that during those two days in Paide, more than 170 discussions will be held. Think of it as organising 170 internal trainings.

Different NGOs, public & private organisations come together, think and work together to make all of these discussions happen. Everyone in Estonia can propose topics they would like to discuss about and the preparation phase starts from February already. The festival happens for the fifth time this year, and we have more and more experienced organisations, who think beyond panel discussions and are eager to engage the audience through various fun, weird, serious, difficult and completely out-of-box-like methods.

Another thing, we neither think nor talk of the festival audience but the discourse has evolved into festival participants. The people who attend are participating more and more and have given feedback that this is how they want it to be as well. People join the Opinion Festival to exchange opinions, gain new knowledge and fresh ideas, meet new people and enjoy the vibe. Below is a little example of how it all comes together with hundreds of volunteers.

What’s in it for me

I have been a volunteer since 2002, so I like to call myself a senior volunteer already. Back in high school it just started out as a way to attend to events I didn’t have money to attend otherwise. I used to volunteer for years for the Black Nights Film festival PÖFF and for the yearly jazz music festival Jazzkaar. The tickets were expensive and my family didn’t have the means to send me on concert after concert, so I found another way.

Years went by and I started getting knowledge in other topics than smiling and checking the tickets, so while at my Erasmus year in Paris, I helped to organise a summer theatre festival. Later, back in Estonia, I decided to put my social media skills into practice and helped out a Pelgulinna maternity hospital’s support foundation in their social media marketing.

After some time in Bigbank with internal communications, I decided that it’s time to put the skills I have learned here, into practice somewhere else too. This is how I ended up with the Opinion festival last year, helping their team of about 300 people with managing internal communications.

I was just thinking the other day, that voting is very natural for me, but I want to do more. I want to feel good about myself that I have taken steps to improve the Estonian society. Today, I can’t be sure that something changes because of it, but I’m at least trying and might see the results in the future.

Thus, being a volunteer is a question of mindset for me. If I have something to share and I see that there is a place that needs it, then why not to share it?

I gave an interview once about being a volunteer and the first question I was asked was: “Why don’t you ask money for sharing your knowledge?”. Well, I don’t believe in asking money about everything you have. By sharing, you are actually learning and this way the learning never stops.

I have developed so much because of these broad experiences with different people from different fields, with different knowledge and experiences. I decided that while volunteering at the Opinion festival, I would like to change the field annually. So last year I was dealing with coaching the team leaders and sharing information to all volunteers last year. This year, I’m helping to curate three areas at the festival, which means I dig deeper with the organisations who organise these discussions:

  • The area of science which tackles on topics like Industry 4.0, biologic city, the role of future technologies in improving societies and other cool stuff
  • The area of prejudices which covers topics like why don’t people dance in the church, why Estonians are afraid of feminism, if the soviet people have space in Estonia and other cool stuff
  • The area of Müürileht and Vikerkaar which broadens minds about if there is life after capitalism, the Estonian protest culture, what is the Estonian conservative culture about and other cool stuff

I feel how dealing with the people, the organisations, the topics I’m regularly not dealing with really broadens my mindset. This is my goal, I love it and it’s fun too!

Other similar festivals around Europe

Actually, the Opinion Festival was inspired by the 49-year-old Almedalsveckan festival in Sweden, as well as other similar events in Finland, Norway and Denmark and was held for the first time in Estonia in 2013. We, in turn, have inspired Latvia too, who organised a similar festival this year for the third time this year. Below is a little guide about these festivals around Northern Europe.

Folkemødet — Denmark

Danish Folkemødet started in 2011 with a goal to strengthen democracy and dialogue in Denmark, and soon became one of the landmark events in Danish society. Over the last six years, the number of events and participants has grown by more than ten times. Last year’s festival featured 3000 events and gathered 100 000 participants, and this is not the limit. This year, it happened on June 15–18.

Lampa – Latvia

LAMPA (Sarunu festivāls LAMPA) is organised in the picturesque city of Cesis since 2015. LAMPA celebrates democratic culture and calls for active citizenship. It is a place to broaden one’s mind in an ever-changing world. This year it took place on June 30-July 1.

Arendalsuka — Norway

Arendalsuka is organised since 2012 and has so far been a huge and it is considered as the most important meeting place between leaders in politics and business, the media and the public. This forum strengthens the belief in poltical debate. This year it will take place on August 14–19.

Almedalen — Sweden

The history of Almedalen goes back to 1968, when the Swedish politician Olof Palme held speeches in Almedalen during the summertime. The first official Almedalen Week took place in 1982. With over 30 000 participants, this has now grown to one of the most important forums in Sweden to debate and discuss on current social issues. This year it took place on July 02–09.

SuomiAreena — Finland

SuomiAreena week in Pori started back in 2006 and now welcomes about 60 000 participants to discuss on politics, society, culture and sports. This year it took place on July 10–14. http://suomiareena.fi/in-english (you can find the video on the link)

Fundur fólksins — Iceland

Held since 2015, Fundur fólksins brings together people who wish to discuss issues of society and ensures that all voices are heard. This year it will take place on September 8–9.

For now, I invite you all to check the Opinion festival out on August 11–12 — just come with an open mind and see where it takes you!

Check here to see all discussions held in English: https://www.facebook.com/events/1759788734318427

This year’s Opinion Festival will ask whether there could be dancing at church

The 162 discussions taking place at this summer’s Opinion Festival range in topic from the digital revolution (or the inability to keep up with it) to radicalization. As befits a year dedicated to celebrating children’s and youth culture in Estonia, a selection of discussions at the Festival will also be organized by children. The full programme is available on our website from today onwards.

Ott Karulin, head organizer of the Opinion Festival, explains that the range of discussions reflects the current prevailing mood in society and tackles some of the year’s most important societal changes. For instance, the consequences of the administrative reform and any opportunities it brings for further cooperation will be up for discussion at the Periphery Area, while the European Area will examine the future of the European Union and NATO and Estonia’s options as a member of both. Following feedback from previous years, there will be fewer discussions and themed areas at this year’s event. In total, there will be 25 different themed areas where, over two days, the more than 500 invited participants will be given a platform to speak.

Opinion Festival 2016. Photo author: Anna Markova

According to Karulin, participants will be spoilt for choice when it comes to finding topics to pique their interest — discussions will touch upon a broad range of subjects, from health to stereotypes to social innovation. “In addition to topical issues, there will be no shortage of timeless, ethical questions to explore. This year will also raise some slightly more provocative questions – for example, why could there not be dancing at church when singing and music are seen as artistic expression and therefore permitted? Or whether elderly women should be applauded for reaching an old age or be scorned instead,” notes Karulin. He adds that the programme also includes topics that still tend to be seen as taboo in society — one such discussions is “12 years old and consuming porn — whose concern and responsibility?”.

For the first time in its history, the Festival will have a children’s area where students from Years 5 to 7 will together organize eight discussions. The discussions they have in store will focus not just on issues like children’s happiness (at school) or ways to spend spare time more actively but also questions like environmental protection or addiction to the virtual world. To help find solutions, they plan to invite external participants such as scientists and young athletes to speak, but participants in the discussions will, of course, also include young people themselves.

Explore the programme here: www.arvamusfestival.ee/kava

The Opinion Festival programme has been created as a result of a public call for ideas and is a place where people can exchange thoughts about the social order, gain fresh ideas and acquire new knowledge. Taking place for the fifth year running, this year’s Festival will be from 11 to 12 August in Paide. The Hiiumaa [pre-]opinion festival will take place on 10 June in Suursadama and the Southeastern Estonia festival on 14 July at the Estonian Road Museum.

The Opinion Festival is supported by Paide Town Government, the Union of Järvamaa Regional Governments, Swedbank, the Representation of the European Commission in Estonia, the National Foundation of Civil Society, the Information Office of the European Parliament, the Estonian Cooperation Assembly, SpeakSmart and many others. One of the themed areas at the Festival is sponsored by the Archimedes Foundation and the Center for Applied Anthropology of Estonia.

Ask Not What Your Country…

Estonia is in an interesting place at the moment, seen increasingly as a great spot in which to do business, and as such accommodating increasing numbers of international workers. This, and Estonia’s corporate social responsibility agenda, were covered in two entertaining and informative English-language talks at the Opinion Festival.

The growing number of Erasmus courses offered by Estonian universities is also helping to change the complexion of Estonia. How are foreigners finding life in Estonia, and how good are relations with local people? This was one of the questions considered by the talk on Saturday, ‘Do Non-Native Residents Feel Like Hosts or Guests?’, presented by Estonian World and the Estonia 100 Celebration team.

The panel was moderated by Stewart Johnson, an American long-time Tartu resident who is also one of the stalwarts of English stand-up comedy troupe Comedy Estonia. He raised a point which seemed to elicit several different answers from different people, about the supposed need for children born with two passports to choose if they wish to keep their Estonian passport or another one at the age of 18.

Although Johnson, the guests and the audience discussed the constitutional need for a child to choose, the Estonian state is prevented from taking away a passport, which, if taken literally, means that if an 18 year-old makes no decision, he or she keeps both passports. It was an intriguing point, and one that perhaps ought to be clarified now that more and more children are being born to one Estonian and one foreign parent.

Otherwise, the talk was mostly about cultural difference, race, and understanding of others. There was a discussion of what needs to be done to make foreigners feel more welcome in the cities in which they have settled, with Joao Rey, a Portuguese living in Tallinn, making the point that there appear to be far fewer negative incidents related to a person’s race or nationality in the capital than in a city like Tartu, for example.

Although most of the panellists spoke of at least one racist incident, the talk was generally framed in a positive way, with Johnson, a fluent Estonian-speaker who sometimes performs his comedy acts in the language, closing by reassuring the audience that he and the panel understood the need for Estonian language learning in order for a person to contribute fully to society.

Another English-language talk followed, down in the centre of Paide. ‘Whose Business is Social Responsibility?’ was moderated by Mart Soonik, with contributions from Kristiina Esop, Annika Migur, civil servant Liisa Oviir and outgoing British Ambassador to Estonia Chris Holtby. Ambassador Holtby has only nine days to go on his posting in Estonia, but can be said to have made huge steps to influence positively the international perception of Estonia.

Asked about the challenges of giving his staff a corporate social responsibility requirement, Holtby said how he had made it a requirement in staff’s annual review that they complete a CSR task. He experienced some push-back to that requirement at first, but according to the Ambassador, the response after staff completed tasks in the local community was overwhelmingly positive. He also talked about how there are plans in the Estonian government to axe the need for supermarkets to pay tax if they give away more than 3% of their stock for free. Rimi was alone among Estonian supermarkets in having given away stock to soup kitchens in spite of having to pay tax on it.

There was also discussion of the gender pay gap. Currently recruiters are not required by Estonian law to list a salary in job advertisements, meaning interviewees usually need to name their salary. There is some evidence that women generally ask for a lower salary than men would in the same situation. In response to an audience suggestion that the requirement by law for a listing of salary in the advert might close the largest gender pay-gap in the European Union, Oviir said, “yes, we did suggest it, but we have a coalition government, so it’s not currently an option. We hope it will be back on the table after the next election.”

Motherhood – burden or privilege?

Photo: Kärt Vajakas

There are moments when debate feels like luxury. Nowhere did this seem to be more the case than when sat on a bunch of haystacks-turned-sofas in the afternoon sun in Paide, listening to a discussion on motherhood across the world. Considering that in many countries there is still little choice or discussion about whether to be or not be a mother, the NGO Mondo-organised panel felt almost outer-worldly.

Why is motherhood, experienced by nearly half of the world’s population at some point in their lives, still a contested issue? How do concepts of maternity differ from culture to culture? Could a globally-minded approach to motherhood be key to solving other global development issues?

The debate, entitled “Motherhood: a burden or a privilege?”, saw speakers from Afganistan, Finland, Somalia and Norway try to crack how to make motherhood a more fulfilling experience across cultures.

While there were no Estonian speakers in the panel, it felt highly timely to listen to a debate on motherhood at a time when the Estonian Ministry of Social Affairs is proposing an elongated parenthood leave, stretching the current period of 1,5 years to 3 years. This is a world removed from the discussion’s opening remarks by Zahra Akbari, an Afghan midwife now living in Estonia. Akbari, who has delivered 6000 babies into the world, noted that in a country torn by war and conflict, any desire to become a mother is always shaded by the constant fear for safety. In such an unstable environment, questions of family planning simply cannot exist in a way similar to the Nordics or even Estonia.

The above thought was later built upon by Wali Hashi, a Finnish-Somalian journalist, suggesting that differences in political and economic system of a country determine motherhood more than any specific cultural beliefs. Even so, cultural relativity must remain part of the discussion in global development goals around motherhood. As noted by Gro Lindstad, heading the Norway-based FOKUS (Forum for Women and Development), actions to ensure sexual reproduction rights on a global scale are tied up with post-colonialism and can face lash-back if Western values are imposed too rigidly.   

Increasing women’s economic self-sufficiency is at the heart of giving women the choice to become, or not to become, mothers. The panelists scrutinised the Bangladesh micro-loan example which has allowed more women to make their own living. As a result, fertility figures in the country, once among the highest in the world, have dropped rapidly. Could a social innovation scheme across developing economies be part of a solution?

It is easy to invent master plans for world peace and equality, but implementation can be tricky. Tapping into the problematic of global ambitions and local realities, I was struck by one question by an audience member: ”How to develop a global solution rather than localised solutions?”. For Lindstad, this is something addressed in the UN’s seven new sustainable development goals. Rather than placing responsibility on certain developed economies, tainted by the spectre of post-colonialism, Lindstad opined the new goals mean that “all of us are accountable.” As for an integrated solution, comprehensive sexual education across cultures could be the answer.

Yet, as with any debate, and particularly with global development, there are no easy answers. Zainab Homam from the London-based organisation Afghan Action stressed the difficulty of bringing sexual education to her country of origin Afganistan, which could take many years before it is publicly accepted. Instead, she suggested that the emphasis should be on individual parents, rather than state or global organisations, who can teach their children about reproduction in accordance with social mores. 

But there is a global medium already shaping understandings about motherhood: social media. An increasing part of the global population now has access to mobile phones, and this number is only set to rise, particularly across developing economies. Is this what will make motherhood into a more uniform experience globally? While I ultimately remain sceptical on whether social media is the saving grace, it may indeed alleviate some of the issues around cross-cultural sexual education. Thinking about motherhood on a prickly haystack in Paide was great, but we need new versatile mediums to truly make this into a global conversation.

The panel was sponsored by the Nordic Embassies in Estonia.

World Peace Just Happened

‘What Can We Do For World Peace?’ is possibly the biggest question on the planet, and at the Opinion Festival on Saturday morning, an intrepid group of academics, educators and activists attempted to answer it.

Although it is fair to say that, over the course of 90 minutes, it was not possible to reach a consensus on how to achieve world peace, or even if it is possible, the most interesting part of the discussion was, as is often the case in such theoretical talks, the individual stories of the speakers.

Piet Boerefijn is the Director of the Estonian Food Bank, which has set up food relief in towns and cities all over Estonia to help the people who cannot afford to feed their families. However, at first, this was not a personal mission of his – the Dutchman came to Estonia shortly after the restoration of independence for a totally different reason.

“When I first came, it wasn’t with the idea of helping Estonia. Actually, I read ‘The Czar’s Madman’ by Jaan Kross and wanted to see the house from that book, a manor house close to Põltsamaa. The manor had a big wall around it, and a small fence. I looked through the fence, and it came out that the house had been turned into a home for mentally-disturbed people. It was like a zoo, it was awful inside, it was 1992 or 1993.”

“I thought it would be revolutionary if only someone could bring some new beds, or install some extra toilets. We took some mattresses from hospitals in the Netherlands for free.” Estonia was a far different country to the one that foreigners in 2016 experience, Boerefijn explained. “At that time Estonia was extremely poor. It was still the Soviet Army there. Often they would get their salary in roubles, not the Estonian kroon, and that meant they couldn’t buy anything. So what did they do? They sold their weapons, so you could buy your weapons from the Russian Army in Estonia.”The recollections of Ekke Nõmm, Director of the Estonian School of Diplomacy, were, as you might expect, more moderated and mild. Nõmm, a fuzzy-haired man who seems permanently calm, talked about his experiences running a private university that receives international funding to train global diplomats.

Nõmm believes that accord can be found between people of most nationalities if they can learn to relate to each other on a personal level. “After a year [studying together], they’re friends, they understand each other better.” There are still tensions, mostly due to pressure from the students’ parent countries. “There was one group, with whom we went for a discussion in Kadriorg with the President. We had a photo taken with the him, and I arranged it that on one side were two Armenian women, on the other two Azeri men.”

“We had the photos taken, it all went well, we went back to school, and then after an hour, the Azeris called me and said, ‘please don’t use this photo in a professional capacity,’ because it might mean trouble for them. They were worried about going back to Baku, and their superiors perhaps saying, ‘you’re becoming too friendsly with the Armenians.’ So this shows the divisions that are there, but by bringing these people together I think we can somehow do something for world peace.”

In attempting to explain the still-existent divisions between first-language Estonian- and Russian-speakers in Estonia, Nõmm had a theory. “A lot of this had to do with the fact that the Russians in Estonia had to do a tremendous mental switch, from being masters of the universe, rulers of the empire, and from there, they had to change to a minority in a small country. I agree that Estonians are typically quiet and modest, and Russians are more outgoing. I suppose a Russian by nature would expect a friend to be outgoing, but Estonians aren’t like that in their nature. So when Estonians say, ‘ok, learn the language, do your job, and we’ll all be happy,’ because embracing and hugging is not in their nature, Russians might interpret it as unwelcoming. Also, the fact that the Russians live in their own media-sphere: I would consider that to be the greatest problem.”

Liga Rudzite is a Marie Curie Fellow at the Tallinn School of Economics and Business Administration, Tallinn University of Technology, and media falls into her research. She said it is not only Russian media that is biased. “I think we are biased – even our free media. We speak about Latvia always on Latvian terms, and if I were a Russian of course I wouldn’t use Latvian media because I would use what spoke more personally to me.”

Discussions continued, with world peace still some way off at the time of writing.

How to prepare for a robot attack (on work)

Photo: Anna Markova

Robots are advancing and they are hungry for our jobs. While the narrative of man vs. machine is centuries-old, the advent of artificial intelligence has made it trendy to talk about work again and picture how it will look in the future — or if work will exist at all.

Little surprise, then, that one of the first discussions of this year’s Opinion Festival, exploring attitudes towards employment in Estonia, would attract a huge crowd. The discussion, moderated by Urmas Vaino, saw a panel of four explore a wide spectrum of issues related to work now and in the future, youth unemployment, responsibility, automatisation, and rural development as intrinsically tied up with employment.

As much as the daily drudgery (or joy) of work can feel like a constant, the way we work and think about work is ever evolving. This inevitability of change was acknowledged straight away, with the panelists offering their take on the biggest change in employment over the last thirty years. Needless to say, this has been a period of phenomenal change in Estonia as the country went from communism to full-blown capitalism following the restoration of independence. According to Toomas Tansar, head of the Estonian Employers’ Confederation, work used to be perceived as something singular, something everyone had to do no matter what. Attitudes towards work are now far more diverse, with more and more people deciding just how and how much they want to work. But with more flexibility comes more responsibility.

One train of thought running through the whole discussion is the need to prepare society and individuals for the changing landscape of work. Jevgeni Ossinovski, Estonia’s Minister of Health and Labour, argued that change is neither good nor bad, but boils down to society’s level of preparation. The introduction of self-service machines to supermarkets, for example, is part of the process of automatisation, and can ultimately free up citizens to do more creative, more fulfilling jobs. “A person’s work life ought to be fruitful and offer satisfaction to those who work,” suggested Ossinovski.

For Peep Peterson, who represents trade unions, this responsibility to prepare and reconsider is not merely societal but personal. It is “essential to rewire yourself” and be agile. However, Peterson stressed that the choice where and how to work remains a privilege for certain fractions of society. On the flip side of privilege is what Meelis Paavel, manager of Eesti Töötukassa, suggests is a more “fun”-centric approach to work, particularly among younger people entering the workforce. Paavel has increasingly encountered the attitude whereby “work should not interfere with life”, that is, workers desire less dependability on their employers and crave more freedom.

This desire for freedom and flexibility sits uneasily with Estonia’s youth unemployment: currently 39,000 young people neither work nor study. Low-paid jobs remain vacant while, as Ossinovski pointed out, the interest to work even summer jobs is on the wane. If the education system does not ramp up entrepreneurial education or vocational learning that does not ignore the looming spectre of automation, it is not nurturing the employees future economic models will desperately need. This situation intensifies in rural areas where opportunities are more sparse. Toomas Tansar argued that rather than forcing industry and vocations to rural areas, rethinking workforce mobility to urban hubs could be the solution.

Tansar also urged a poignant word of caution when acting on the changing face of work, either as state or employer. The transition to a smart, knowledge-based economic system cannot simply be willed into existence: “Let’s just do away with easy jobs and then somehow, more of those smart jobs will follow. But where will they come from?” This question, in essence global, needs to co-exist with more local and transient considerations, such as battling unemployment in former industrial powerhouses such as Ida-Virumaa or youth demotivation. 

Aarhus is a Very Fine House: Why be Nordic?

Why do so many countries want to be like Nordic countries? Are they really as “happy” as they seem? Can Estonia ever be a Nordic country? These were some of the questions considered by the panel at the Opinion Festival’s talk, ‘How Strong Are the Nordic Countries? Strong Enough to Be Happy?!’ (punctuation as written in the brochure) which took place on Friday afternoon and was organised in association with the Norden Nordic Council of Ministers.

Helen Russell is a freelance journalist whose book, Living Danishly, describes the many social and cultural adaptations that have to be made by a British immigrant to the place ranked by the United Nations as the happiest in the world. Moderator Villu Arak asked why there was such an appetite in Denmark for dark, noirish crime fiction. Russell replied that it was possibly because life was comfortable enough to want to read or see a struggle. “There’s definitely something to be said for taking things for granted.” She then turned to the topic of what makes Denmark special to international workers.

“I speak to a lot of businesses who are trying to attract more international talent. The kind of international talent that would be drawn to Scandinavia are the more liberal people on the left, who don’t mind paying such high taxes. What’s special about Scandinavia is this welfare state, is this equality. It’s about recognising that, and preserving it a bit more, and not taking it for granted, whilst also trying to celebrate diversity. In a typically-homogeneous country such as Denmark, and also Norway and Sweden, it’s about trying to welcome in new people, and realising that could be a good thing.”

Joar Vitterso is a Psychology professor from the University of Tromso in Norway. He cautioned against expecting all nations to join a neoliberal consensus based on the European austerity-driven model. What he said could be considered a message to Estonia, seen by some as a kind of test-bed for Friedman School economics. “I’m very sceptical when people say the development forces us to replace something that is working well with something that is working not so well. Why is that? Why should we accept that development means pensions go down, that unhealthy [unwell] people don’t get the treatment they used to get?”

“The next generation is the first for hundreds of years that has fewer prospects than their parents had. Why must we accept that this has to happen because of development? For me, development is something that gets better, and I can’t accept these people who say ‘this can’t go on because so and so.'”

Third panellist Bengt Lindroth, a Swedish author and musician, was concerned that Sweden look now at the kind of society it wants in the future. This is a country whose most famous modern citizen is footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who came to the country with his Bosnian/Croatian family as a youngster, and it could be argued ‘Ibra’ has changed forever the perception of a Swede. “Sweden is, I think, the only country with a paragraph in its constitution saying the country should aim to become a multicultural society. We need to think what that means, today, in practice, and what policies should be enacted. That is a very important question for Sweden to handle today.”

Vitterso voiced his hopes for the future of the Nordic nations and their neighbours. “I like utopias, because they’re irresponsible, and just throw out ideas and say, ‘hey, isn’t this a good way of living?’ I hope in ten years we will talk more about things that matter, like good lives and good societies. I hope we will have developed a better way of talking about what we want, and not just measuring it in terms of economies, but what we really want our kids to experience in this society. I hope that governments will take the pursuit of a good life seriously enough to discuss it every day.”

Russell said she was happy to see sustainability taught in Danish schools. “Aarhus is the European Capital of Culture next year, and they’re running a campaign about sustainability in childcare and schools and what a difference that could make. However, she noticed that although Denmark is commonly felt to be such a contented nation, there were many users of antidepressants – Denmark is felt by some measures to be among the highest users of ‘happy pills’ in the world.

“I thought, ‘how can you be the happiest nation, with such high antidepressant use?’ I have spoken to many Danes about this, and I think because they expect Arbejdsglæde, which means happiness at work; if they’re not getting it, they do something about it. There’s a lot of stress leave, and doctors are very receptive, if someone says they’re not feeling great, antidepressants are handed out fairly liberally, from my experience in my research. In the UK and US there’s a culture of soldiering on, for fear that any admission of weakness will impact negatively on your career.”

Although there seems a darkness below the Danish facade of complete contentment, it could be said that the high rates of cancer in the country were, in some way, due to happiness, according to Russell. “Danes are libertarians, they love to eat pork, eat ice cream and smoke – sometimes all at the same time. All around me I see people having a hoot – perhaps not looking so good, but knowing the system is there to help them.”

The last word went to Estonia’s Swedish Ambassador, Anders Ljunggren, who was in the audience. He had an opinion on one of the most popular questions of the day, why some countries are considered ‘Nordic’ and others  are not. His words may not go down well with Estonians. “Being here in Estonia, I should say that Finland was successful, they made very big sacrifices, they kept their freedom during the Second World War, they had the ability to choose to be a Nordic country, and they were welcomed.”

“That’s also the situation today. You have to wish to be a Nordic country, you have to fulfil some criteria, with geography and so on, and you have to be welcomed. The political construction [of Norden] is not forever – it depends on the will of the people in Norden and the neighbouring countries.” It could be said that Estonia has already made more than enough sacrifices. Maybe now is the time for some international recognition of them.