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The Diplomatic Dispatch

The British Ambassador to Sweden blogs on The Local

Skype and packaging milk

I often think that the most impressive thing about Sweden today is its capacity for innovation.  And it’s not just me that thinks so.  Sweden finished second in this year’s Global Competitiveness Report – just behind Switzerland, which topped the rankings for the second year in a row.  The report – produced by the World Economic Forum – measures the quality of a country’s institutions and infrastructure as well as health, education and training, the efficiency of markets, effectiveness of finance, technology, business sophistication and general capacity for innovation.  In effect, this is a snapshot of how easy it is to start and grow a successful business in the major economies of the world today.

Surveys of this kind can have a tendency to over-simplify issues, of course.  And there are plenty of people in Sweden would point to issues such as the scale and shape of business taxation as evidence that the survey is focussed on too narrow a range of factors.  But the truth is that Sweden is a country that has excelled at innovation for decades.  Think only of the brilliance of the invention of the zip fastener or the car seat belt, the transformation that the Tetra-Pak brought to packaging or the modern genius behind Skype or Spotify.  You need only visit a town in central-southern Sweden to see an entire public transport loop powered by biogas, a climate neutral by-product of agricultural manure.  Or here in Stockholm you can visit the low carbon housing development at Hammarby Sjöstad to see brilliant solutions to energy, waste disposal and transport issues created by a single, dynamic approach to planning.  Innovation is, it seems, part of the Swedish gene pool.

Part of this is about great science in great scientific institutions.  Part of it is about smart financing.  But I think there’s also a dimension associated with Sweden’s apparent ability and willingness to think long term in planning decisions.  It was the decision to abandon fossil fuels after the 1970s oil crisis that made the biogas loop cost-effective.  It was the decsion of the local government to take responsibility and plan low carbon housing for the long term wellbeing of Stockholmers that buildt Hammarby.  Just as importantly, all of this is in tune with public sentiment about what matters in society, a product of a consensus led by public discussion.

This is what Sweden does well.  And innovation is something we’ll all need to be good at if we’re to build the effective low carbon economies of the future.

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