Finland ranks at or near the top of many enviable lists — economic competitiveness, political transparency, environmental sustainability...

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Finland ranks at or near the top of many enviable lists — economic competitiveness, political transparency, environmental sustainability, technology achievement and even happiness.

What’s the secret?

It starts with a high-quality education and follows with strong support for innovation, said Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, in an interview during his visit to Seattle Thursday.

“Very close and good cooperation between universities and corporations” is important too, he said. “Both companies and the state are investing a lot into research and development.”

The home of mobile-phone giant Nokia, Finland spends 3.5 percent of its GDP on research, while the U.S. spends 2.7 percent. Education in Finland, including university study, is free.

In his first visit to the U.S. as prime minister, Vanhanen focused on energy and climate change and promoted his nation of 5 million people as a center of innovation. Earlier in the week he met with Vice President Dick Cheney, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

On Thursday, he met with Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, toured the University of Washington and Boeing and gave a speech to a Seattle business group.

He was too busy to visit Ballard, home of Seattle’s Scandinavian roots, but he did visit the UW, where he was impressed to learn the university offers classes in Finnish language and culture through its Department of Scandinavian Studies.

A delegation from the Seattle area plans to travel to Helsinki in May to learn about the country’s approach to technology, climate change, education and other issues.

“It’s natural to have this cooperation between Finland and the West Coast,” he said. “We are both very advanced, especially related to an information society.”

Finland is taking a lead on energy issues. While the country uses just as much energy per capita as the U.S., it produces less carbon-dioxide emissions because it gets almost 30 percent of its energy from renewable sources, such as hydropower and biomass, converting waste from paper mills and the forestry industry into electricity and heat, Vanhanen said.

Large industries such as steel and paper manufacturing use advanced technology to improve energy efficiency and reduce waste, he said.

To cut emissions from cars, Finland is proposing to base its annual registration and vehicle taxes on a vehicle’s carbon-dioxide emissions. The move would encourage production and consumption of low-emission cars, which would be taxed at a much lower rate, he said.

Vanhanen made a pitch for U.S. cooperation toward a global treaty on climate change. Countries have less than two years to negotiate the treaty before the U.N. Conference on Climate Change in Denmark in 2009. Working out an effective pact will take cooperation from the current U.S. administration and the next. “There are big differences, but I believe we can learn from each other,” he said. “In the U.S., you have much more potential for solar power and wind energy.”

Finland’s weather apparently is not dampening the mood — a U.K. study pronounced it the sixth happiest nation in the world, despite a winter that includes 51 days without sun.

With 96 percent of the tech-savvy population using mobile phones, what kind of phone does its 52-year-old prime minister use? Nokia’s latest smartphone, the E90. Does it beam him up? “Not yet,” said his press secretary. “It’s in the works.”

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com