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The Nordic Models

Making an Art of the 'Simple Life'


Making an Art of the 'Simple Life'


Healing diets, a comfortable home, the simple pleasures of life – Taiwanese are gravitating more than ever to this "simple life." To figure out how to get there, their best bet is to look at Scandinavia.



Making an Art of the 'Simple Life'

By Yi-shan Chen, Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 526 )

A short distance from the most bustling part of downtown Copenhagen, Rasmus Gjesing trundles his damaged bicycle into a completely white shop with a boutique feel.

Through two huge glass windows, one sees the word Cykelmageren written above tiffany blue and light yellow bike racks. This is Gjesing's DIY bicycle brand and his shop, where customers select components to create their own customized ride.

The store's huge tool chest, which uses screw drivers, wrenches and scissors for its drawer handles, contains handmade components, such as drive trains, built by Gjesing and his three partners.      

His coarse hands and grease-speckled skin give away his identity as a bike mechanic. "My major was bicycle mechanics. I wanted to make them and make them unique," Gjesing says in a slightly raspy but energetic voice.

The entrepreneur launched his business in 1994, and he sells about 1,000 to 1,500 handmade bikes a year that start at about NT$60,000 to customers from as far away as the United States and South Korea. Though the business has not made him rich, it has given him a real sense of accomplishment.

"We are educated to make the things we want," says Gjesing, who has been to Taiwan many times.

Pursuing Beauty, Sustainability, Balance

Gjesing's approach to life typifies the "simple life craze" that has people using their hands to fulfill their dreams and pursuing a lifestyle that values aesthetics, sustainability, greenery and a true balance between working and living. The craze has just begun to take hold in Taiwan, but Scandinavians have long mastered this approach.

Cheng Lu-lin, an associate research fellow at Academia Sinica's Institute of Sociology and an expert on creative businesses, defines this "simple life" as the pursuit of quality living and happiness in everyday life, involving, at its most basic level, having the absolute basics such as food and health care taken care of.

This "simple life" craze was pioneered in the Nordic countries, where inhabitants do not have to worry about the costs of education, aging, falling ill or dying, and lifestyles are based on values.

Denmark is expected to have nominal per capita income this year of US$58,000, about 2.8 times that of Taiwan. To maintain a sustainable environment, 44 percent of the country's households do not have cars. But nine of every 10 people have bicycles, and the most traffic-congested areas of Copenhagen during the morning and afternoon rush hours are the city's dedicated bicycle lanes.

The Nordic countries offer empirical evidence debunking several economic myths propagated by conservative economists in the United States – that high taxes undermine people's willingness to work and that a strong social welfare system encourages laziness.

Sweden and Denmark have among the world's highest marginal income tax rates at 57 percent and 51.5 percent, respectively, but the labor participation rate in the two countries is roughly 64 percent, surpassing Taiwan's 58 percent. Between 60-70 percent of their working-age female population is gainfully employed, but the birth rate in both countries is over 10 per 1,000 women, higher than in Taiwan, which averaged under 9 per 1,000 women between 2007 and 2011.

In a special issue published in early February, the Economist went so far as to call the Nordic countries "the next supermodel."

The question for other societies then is how can this model, with its emphasis on quality of life, aesthetics, sustainability and work/life balance, be converted into national competitiveness. To find the answer to this riddle, a CommonWealth Magazine team visited Denmark and Sweden in early June and observed everything from creative industries to the national soul to pinpoint the path to success these small countries have followed.

A Worldwide Craze

In fact, "the whole world is catching the 'simple life' fever," Cheng says.

Globalization has only added to the sense of uncertainty people everywhere are feeling, exacerbating their anxiety, he says, but that has only steeled their will to take control of their own lives and hope for a better balance between work and home, even if it means a lower pay check. Because everybody wants a decent quality of life, the simple life wave often gets it impetus from creative living concepts and businesses.

In Denmark, more than 85,000 people, or 6 percent of all businesses, are involved in creative industries, according to official statistics. Every year, these businesses contribute NT$250 billion in exports, or about 7 percent of the country's total.

In autumn 2009, the Swedish government also initiated a three-year, 73 million krona (NT$330 million) plan to invigorate and drive the entrepreneurial spirit and commercial operations in creative industries while also getting the average citizen to take the sector more seriously.

For simple life language to translate into national competitiveness, the keys are ambition and vision. The broader the vision of entrepreneurs, designers and consumers involved in creative living and the greater the ambition for a decent quality of life, the more society can be transformed.

Using Design to Sustain the Welfare State

Scandinavia has a distinctive design language derived from its harsh natural environment and lack of resources and sunlight. The emphasis is on functionality, simplicity and minimalism, generating designs that can co-exist with nature and minimize resource waste. What struck CommonWealth Magazine reporters, however, was that designers and architects in Denmark were as preoccupied with "making the welfare society model sustainable by design" as they were with the pursuit of design aesthetics.

Evidence of this mindset can be seen almost anywhere, but no more so than at a construction site near a science park not far from Hans Christian Andersen's birthplace of Odense on the island of Funen. The site will soon be home to the biggest university hospital in Southern Denmark, part of a 70 billion euro campaign to develop the country's medical infrastructure. To identify the design delivering the best medical benefits at the lowest cost, the regional government has set up an organization called Health Innovation of Southern Denmark.

The center's enthusiastic and able director, Diana Arsovic Nielsen, has a background in both architecture and design, but she has more than just design on her mind in her current position because she's also responsible for developing the health care sector.

Donning a hard hat, she shows CommonWealth reporters and project partner Jens Ole Pederson, the business development manager at Philips Healthcare, around the new hospital's construction lot. The partnership with Philips is focused on a simple question: how to develop lighting that brightens patients' moods. Philips plans to replace strong white lighting with a softer color and install screens on the hospital rooms' white walls to give patients access to the outside world with a touch of the display.

Another key part of the collaboration between Philips and the innovation center is developing a hospital with spaces that can be flexibly adjusted. One of the ideas on the drawing board: using a container module concept. 

Using Design to Solve Public Dilemmas

"The biggest challenges are that the budget in health is down and the aging population. We need to think completely differently in order to maintain our social welfare system," Nielsen says with a sense of mission. "Aging and rising health costs are not unique issues. We can create a new industry by solving problems."

In its Spring 2013 issue, the Stanford Social Innovation Review described the pervasiveness of design throughout Danish society.

"In Denmark, design has already been applied in a wide range of public sector settings, from rethinking waste management to reducing tensions between inmates and guards in prisons," the journal said.

Back in the Danish capital, behind the modernistic Copenhagen Opera House, stands an old, grayish brown military barracks dating back to the 19th century. This structure houses the 259 year-old Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, where famed designer Arne Jacobsen was trained. Here, the Academy of Fine Arts has adopted the most trendy of green building concepts – developing a new use for an old structure.

Peter Thule Kristensen, the head of the School of Architecture, says that the green building focus in developed countries where population growth is relatively flat has evolved from inventing green technology to sustaining cultural and social meaning. As a result, architects today are less interested in designing new buildings than they are in converting old buildings into functional structures.

"The welfare society model is being challenged by aging and the inequality generated by globalization," Kristensen says, hinting that once Denmark can solve its own problems, it will be able to solve the world's problems.    

In contrast with Denmark, Taiwan and its business involved in promoting the "simple life" are causes for concern because of the "lack of a meaningful communality," Academia Sinica's Cheng contends.

What was most shocking in Scandinavia to CommonWealth Magazine photographer Domingo Chung, who lives in a newly developed community in Danhai on Taiwan's northern coast, was the sight of Ørestad, a new development in the southern part of Copenhagen already  known for its bold and innovative architecture. During his 10 days in Denmark, Chung could not stop asking himself, "Why can't Taiwan have this kind of new development?"

In Danish, Øre sounds similar to the word for "neglected," an appropriate connection because Ørestad was once a remote, lifeless part of the city. Today, the Ørestad metro station has the fifth highest passenger traffic of any station in the city.

It was here that 39-year-old architect Bjarke Ingels, described as a genius by veteran Taiwanese architect J.J. Pan, made his name with his revolutionary mixed-use development known as the "8 House." Walking into a residential part of the complex, which was completed in 2010 and is nearly fully inhabited, one immediately is assailed by the smell of barbecued meat.

Seen from the sky, the community is shaped like the figure eight. Although it stands 10 stories high, every unit has a garden bordered by small paths, and residents can bike from street level all the way to the 10th floor level.

"It makes living functions three-dimensional," says Pan, who has closely followed Danish architecture in recent years because it is "bold and innovative."

Unlike Taiwan's new community developments, where the government races to sell land to private developers after its zoning has been changed, Denmark has followed a more measured approach to urban renewal. On the Ørestad project, the central government and city government joined together in 1993 to form the nonprofit Ørestad Development Corporation to oversee the area's revival. Its first order of business was to hold an international design competition for development concepts, and its second was to extend the city's metro network into this long neglected part of the city.

"This project put the light in the wood and gave the younger generation opportunities," says Nille Juul-Sørensen, an architect who is currently director of the Danish Design Centre.

One sentence in the competition's guidelines clearly highlights why Ørestad eventually became a source of pride for Copenhagen. In a rather daring statement, it said, "It is the intention to give full artistic freedom concerning architectural form, so that the new city quarter of Ørestad will boast state-of-the-art within architecture and art during the building years."

When images of the "VM House" – the first structure designed by Ingels in an Ørestad trilogy that concluded with "8 House" – appeared, "everyone was inspired and felt we needed to be more innovative," says Juul-Sørensen, capturing the sense of shock at the time. The building's design, featuring diagonal lines, smashed the conceptual bottlenecks faced by conventional residential buildings in protecting privacy and unobstructed sight lines and view.     

The ambitious competition reflected the depth of assets held in Nordic societies.

Juul-Sørensen says that while all innovative designs in Denmark must meet architectural regulations, another positive is that there is communication between architects, designers and the government. If you can explain why you need to do something in a certain way and why an existing law is foolish, the law and legal interpretations are not set in stone. In just one example, technological advances have enabled clauses in Denmark's fire service law to be considerably eased.

Architect Pan says admiringly that Scandinavian governments only set the most basic of norms and standards so that architects and designers are not straitjacketed by restrictions, leaving plenty of room for innovation. Under this flexible system, developers are also willing to support creativity. But he also admits that it would be hard to allow that much freedom in Taiwan, because developers here are prone to manipulating the market for their personal gain and residents try to get an edge for themselves, whether or not it's to the detriment of others.

Raising the 'Simple Life' Profile 

Improving public agencies and reshaping the political atmosphere requires boldness and charisma from government leaders.

But when it comes to "simple life" businesses in Taiwan, the onus is on the entrepreneurs and consumers with a stake in the model to deepen its roots in society. Everybody can exert more effort in the pursuit of a good quality of life, Academia Sinica's Cheng asserts.

"In yearning for a good life, people can absolutely transcend their own personal interests and translate that desire into a collective concern on a public issue," Cheng contends. "The key is that both the creators and consumers of the 'simple life' concept must gain awareness of their communality and understand their power."

As the Nordic countries have shown, that collective power is plenty strong enough to change lives and societies.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier