Although the Swedish population is not much bigger than that of the greater London area, proud Swedes are to thank for a remarkable number of inventions that make our lives easier, safer or simply more aesthetically pleasing.
Swedish ingenuity is behind the creation of the pacemaker, the zipper, the flat screen monitor and dynamite, to name but a few. Such important and even life-saving innovations assist us in our everyday life, and technical developments are continuing to emerge from inventors around the country. But is such innovative zeal common in most countries? Or is it something particular to Sweden?
“Definitely! Every year Sweden is among one of the three most innovative countries in the world when we look at number of innovations per capita,” says Herman Phalén at the national Patent and Registration Office (PRV).
“Sweden has produced a remarkable number of groundbreaking innovations throughout history, and we were very early in developing a national patent system – a grant made by a government that gives the inventor the exclusive rights to make, use and sell that invention for a certain period.”
When asked why this is the case, Phalén gives a somewhat philosophical explanation: “The Swedish infrastructure for supporting the innovation process might not always work 100 percent, but we here in the Nordic countries have always had tough conditions to survive, which I think has worked as a catalyst for our inventiveness.
“Look at our Finnish and Norwegian neighbours for other examples of this. Naturally, the absence of widespread corruption, or any greater catastrophe and such factors have played a part, but this isn’t the whole explanation.”
Last year, PRV processed 2,000 national patent applications, of which 950 were approved. To be given exclusive rights, an innovation needs to fulfil certain criteria. To begin with, it must pass an examination where it has to display novelty and inventiveness, while also providing a technical solution to a given problem.
By presenting formerly unknown techniques and developing a non-obvious solution, for example a specific “surprising” effect, an innovation can be regarded as fulfilling the criteria for inventiveness and will be granted legal protection.
However, the PRV’s annual statistics show a falling trend in the number of applications received. In the year 2000, the Office received 5,000 requests, compared to just 2,900 last year.
Is this an indication of a downfall in Swedish innovation? Phalén doesn’t think so: “These numbers might suggest the opposite, but Swedish innovation is actually on the up. Many inventors go directly to larger arenas, such as the European Patent Office and the USPTO in the US, or they don’t apply at all.
“It is a rather costly and a long process, which might hold people back. Plenty of technical solutions are produced in Swedish companies, but they are never submitted for a patent, although they most probably would be granted one.”
Wanja Bellander, head of the Swedish Inventors’ Association, gives a similar view. But when describing the current state of Swedish innovation, she stresses that inventors must always be on their guard:
“We are very good at coming up with new ideas, but we are not so good at defending our innovations. There is nothing wrong with our wealth of ideas, none at all, but the risk for patent infringement is large due to inventors not having the means to defend their creations.
“We could definitely do with some more ‘business angels’ that can help with tax reductions, introduce the innovator into a network, assist with advice and competence and so on.”
Another problem is that inventors do not get the attention and reward that they have rightfully earned. Technical solutions are easily taken for granted and inventors are often viewed as boffins.
Bellander says: “To be an inventor had a completely different status by the beginning of the 1900s. There was a different attitude towards this among big industries and it encouraged inventive people to go ahead and create.”
In relation to this, she mentions the predominating Law of Jante. Great ideas are often pulled back down to earth and a potential invention never makes it to the surface.
At the same time, Bellander agrees with Phalén’s view of the remarkable wealth of Swedish inventions throughout history:
“I think it is in our genes somehow. Sweden has always been sparsely populated. It is dark, cold, and you’re far from your nearest neighbour. When you have a problem you simply have to solve it yourself… Indeed, we are unusually creative. Perhaps we have a very open disposition, which encourages an innovative mind.”
When asked about their favourite inventions in recent years, both mention creations with an ecological aspect.
Bellander says: “I find the ones with a clear environmental link really interesting. They are very problem-orientated and aim at preserving what we have. But, it is very difficult to mention one particular invention – there are absolutely loads”.