The Fourth Nordic Challenges Conference: Reconsidering the Nordic Models in an age of polarization

November 5-6, 2021, Boston University, Boston, MA

In 2013, The Economist proclaimed the Nordic countries to be “The Next Supermodel,” citing their unique blend of competitiveness and innovation, equality and wellbeing. Pundits again applied the “model” nomenclature to these nations during the 2016 US election, the Brexit and Scottish independence referenda, and discussions on gender policy and “social investment” in the EU. In Asia, Nordic welfare states have attracted interest for their stability, functionality and ability to facilitate regional and international cooperation.

The Nordic states continue to score high on global indexes of happiness, equality and welfare, transparency and economic competitiveness, environmental policies, trust, associational life, and government effectiveness. Yet recent developments challenge the utopian vision of Nordic economic and social democracy. Particularly distressing are the impacts of neoliberal reforms, the rise of populism and the heightened instability associated with the withdrawal of the United States in many areas of global policymaking.

First, waves of neoliberal reforms in recent years make it difficult to determine whether the Nordic model endures. To what extent does the Nordic model today reflect the social and democratic ideas associated with the model in the 1970s and 1980s? Should we consider Sweden, the Scandinavian frontrunner in neoliberal adjustment, as the foremost exemplar of the model or should the focus be on countries that have been more hesitant to depart from the past? The reforms of the past three decades have been justified as necessary to save the Nordic models, but these reforms may also represent a departure from the Nordic brand of governance, welfare and democracy.

Second, populist movements on the right (and some on the left) call into question the Nordic utopia. Populists rebel against neoliberal reforms and seek to resurrect visions of the past, such as the 1970s people’s home (folkhemmet) model, the old Norwegian/Finish tradition of dugnad/talkoot, and Danish farmer cooperatives. In contrast, neoliberals encourage adaptation to potential crises with Danish flexicurity, Finnish post-Nokia entrepreneurialism and Norwegian resource management in preparation for a post-oil future. Modernizers express pride in the development of the modern Nordic competition states. The popularity of the Nordic model is confounded by its multiple and often contradictory interpretations.

Third, the withdrawal of the U.S. from many joint global arenas – together with climate crisis, new trade regimes and increased international interest in the arctic – indicate a shift in geopolitical positioning of the Nordic countries. Will increasing protectionism by the United States and other countries turn the Nordics into protectors of a fading liberal world order of free trade? The Nordic countries announced a plan to implement a “green shift” and to undergo yet another round of reinvention. Yet unstable geopolitics and the need for new governance models to cope with global warming complicate the way forward.

Questions about the future of the Nordic model play out in a number of policy areas. These issues have bearing on the project of “green reinvention,” on trust in institutions and on the renewal of the social contract. Moreover, the Nordic states score highly on measures of wellbeing and happiness (books celebrating “hygge” and “lagom” have become international bestsellers); yet, an increase in stress and mental problems plague young people, as they face high performance expectations in school and work. These contradictions motivate some to advocate for a return to a more slow-paced golden age of the Nordics and to an earlier version of Nordic governance in greater alignment with conceptions of democracy and welfare. The conference will explore the multiple imaginaries and paradoxes associated with Nordic governance, particularly with respect to shifting conceptualizations of democracy, public vs private governance, immigration policy and welfare.

Featured plenary panels

Reconsidering the Nordic Model

Friday, November 5

The conference will open with a plenary panel considering the impact of neoliberalism and the endurance of the Nordic model. 

  • Torben Iversen (Harvard University)
  • Chris Howell (Oberlin College)
  • Cathie Jo Martin (Boston University)

The Nordic model in a Global Context

Saturday, November 6

The conference will also include a second plenary panel considering the role of the Nordic model in a globalizing world.

  • Herman Mark Schwartz (University of Virginia)
  • Jette Steen Knudsen (Tufts University)
  • John Campbell (Dartmouth College)
  • Haldor Byrkjeflot (University of Oslo)

Organizing committee

Cathie Jo Martin, Boston University

Haldor Byrkjeflot, University of Oslo

Erik Olsson, Boston University


The Center for the Study of Europe at Boston University, a strategic partner of ReNEW, serve as host for the 2020 Nordic Challenges Conference. Other strategic partners are  the Weatherhead Center at Harvard University (, SCANCOR at Harvard University  (, as well as the European University Institute ( and Sciences Po (

This conference is sponsored by ReNEW and the Nordic Council of Ministers.

Conference homepage: The Fourth Nordic Challenges Conference: Reconsidering the Nordic Models in an age of polarization.


Nordic Challenges Conference

ReNEW organizes annually Nordic Challenges Conference, an international  cross-disciplinary conference, gathering scholars from the humanities, social sciences and beyond under a wide umbrella of Norden related study and research. The conference is also a response to the articulated need for new research on the Nordic region aad its global relations and, to promote debate on current challenges facing the Nordic societies.

Each year the conference announces ReNEW Early Career Prize winners. ReNEW Early Career Paper Prize recognizes outstanding early career papers in research about the Nordic region. To be eligible, candidates have to be PhD students or have completed a PhD within the last three years, and have to present written work at any ReNEW event between annual conferences.

Previous Nordic Challenges Conferences

The First Nordic Challenges Conference: Global Challenges - Nordic Experiences, Oslo in 20-21 March 2017.

The Second Nor­dic Chal­lenges Conference: Nar­rat­ives of uni­form­ity and di­versity, Helsinki 7‒9 March 2018​​​.

3rd Annual Nordic Challenges Conference: Global challenges and Nordic responses, Copenhagen, 6–8 March 2019

Upcoming Nordic Challenges Conferences 

The Fourth Nordic Challenges Conference: Reconsidering the Nordic Models in an age of polarization, Boston, 5–6 November, 2021

The Fifth Nordic Challenges Conference: Nordic  Neighborhoods. Affinity and Distinction in the Baltic Sea Region and Beyond, Stockholm, 1–3 June 2022. More information will follow.