From Silicon Valley to Stockholm: Meeting the US Ambassador, Part 2

In Part 2 of a two-part interview, US Ambassador Matthew Barzun talks to The Local's David Landes about succeeding President Bush's envoy, eco-friendly former Ambassador Michael Wood; the significance of The Pirate Bay; and, introducing TED.

From Silicon Valley to Stockholm: Meeting the US Ambassador, Part 2

Considering the constructive role he can play as the US ambassador to Sweden, Matthew Barzun remains fully aware of the long shadow cast by his predecessor, Michael Wood, who served as President George W. Bush’s last envoy to Sweden from 2006 until his departure in January of this year.

Wood’s tenure was marked by his efforts to establish collaboration between the US and Sweden on alternative energy in the hopes of achieving a breakthrough that would be a win-win for both countries.

Dubbed the One Big Thing (OBT), the programme is now a firmly established part of how the embassy conducts bilateral relations with Sweden – and it’s something Barzun is keen to continue, even if it was started by someone from the opposing political camp.

“We’ve had wonderful success in the alternative energy partnerships and that remains a crucial part of our relationship with Sweden,” says Barzun, adding that it’s important not to be complacent about OBT simply because of its past success.

“It is bearing fruit, but we can’t just stand there and look at it. We have to plant new seeds because there are a lot of new ideas that can also grow and bear fruit.”

In addition to fostering more green partnerships between the US and Sweden, Barzun is also keen to look for new areas for the two countries to cooperate.

“Take development, for example, just look at the numbers,” he says, rattling off several rankings which place Sweden at or near the top in terms of foreign aid given relative to population size and GDP, before noting that the United States gives more development assistance in terms of total dollars than any other country.

“You have these two leading countries when it comes to development,” he explains.

“It’s an area that’s ripe for further cooperation, partnership and exploration, not least in terms of how technology can play a role,” he adds, pointing out, however, that nothing specific is in the works just yet.

Returning to the subject of innovation and breaking down barriers, discussion moves to file sharing and The Pirate Bay, considered by its advocates to be the ultimate form of removing barriers to entry, while detractors in the entertainment industry view the site as one of the biggest threats to their businesses.

Barzun, a veteran of internet publishing, is circumspect when asked whether the founders of The Pirate Bay should be celebrated for their innovation or treated as villains who deserve to be jailed.

“In the beginning of a new technology it’s always humbling to look back and see what dominated,” Barzun explains, reflecting on some of the early debates of the IT industry in the early- to mid-1990s.

The IT industry veteran explains that the advent of new – and often disruptive – technologies is never a smooth process.

He tells the story of how CNET, the internet publishing giant he helped found and grow into a multi-billion dollar business, would receive “angry letters” from businesses upset with CNET linking to their websites.

“These were smart people trying to play by the rules,” he says of the lawyers who wrote the threatening correspondence.

He points out that his colleagues at CNET generally abided by the requests, even if they thought the lawyers’ demands were shortsighted.

“It just makes us laugh now,” he says.

“I mean, this stuff gets worked out in a very messy but ultimately very practical way.”

In Barzun’s eyes, technology breeds change, even to deeply rooted systems and paradigms like intellectual property rights – changes which he believes are already underway.

“This thing has been fluid and will continue to be,” he says, arguing that artists and content creators need to be front and centre when dust settles.

“It’s obviously important to go back to the artists and the people creating material,” Barzun says.

“If there’s no mechanism for them to be compensated, however you define compensation, money, fame, something, it’s not a good model.”

Moving on to how innovation and technology may shape his role as ambassador, Barzun is quick to throw out a three-letter acronym of the sort common in US government parlance.

And while his predecessor’s legacy may be OBT, Barzun hopes TED can help make his tenure in Stockholm more effective.

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design – not exactly three words one typically associates with traditional diplomacy.

But TED didn’t originate in some nondescript government conference room. Rather it comes from an annual conference started in 1984 dedicated to “ideas worth spreading”.

“I was really inspired by their tagline. I think it shows how to tap the diversity of ideas out there,” says Barzun

He then rattles off a number of his favourite “TED Talks”, including one by Swedish international health and statistics expert Hans Rosling, who was recently named by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2009.

Hundreds of TED Talks, most of which are purposely shorter than 20 minutes, have been recorded over the years and are available for viewing online free of charge.

According to Barzun, the embassy is already experimenting with various ways to apply the TED model.

For example, the embassy’s Facebook page features short video clips with the 2009 American Nobel Laureates, who were asked during a luncheon hosted by Barzun on the day before they received their prizes to answer the following question: What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self on making a real difference in the world, knowing what you know today?

“Storytelling is such an important and powerful tool; that’s how ideas spread,” says Barzun.

“What we’re trying to do is connect people, connect, catalyze, and celebrate: connect networks, catalyze interactions around alternative energy, and celebrate the success stories.”

Barzun is also encouraging embassy staff to give TED Talks to one another at staff meetings in order to get more acclimated with the format.

“I’m a big believer in the notion that the little thing you do every day better look like the big thing you want to be one day,” he says.

Despite his confidence in where the embassy is heading in its efforts to engage, Barzun remains humble in what remains the start of a new career.

“It’s all about admitting that you don’t have all the answers and really wanting and needing other people’s ideas… I have lots to learn” he said.

Nevertheless, Barzun remains buoyant about what he and his colleagues may be able to accomplish in the year ahead.

“I hope a year from now we will have success stories to talk about,” he says.

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‘When I leave Sweden, my fairy tale becomes fake’

Alexandra 'Austin' Muirhead, 31, is about to run her first ever music festival, in Gothenburg. It comes at a hectic time for the Canadian, who is sleeping in a rehearsal studio as her working holiday visa is close to expiring.

'When I leave Sweden, my fairy tale becomes fake'
Alexandra Muirhead is launching her own music festival in Gothenburg. Photo: Lovisa Wallin

This article is part of The Local's My Swedish Career series. Read more interviews with international professionals and entrepreneurs in Sweden here.

“To get out of devastation, I just do stuff, I just do more,” she explains to The Local. We meet her at a Gothenburg art gallery  a few hours before a cozy acoustic concert she has organized herself.

While we talk backstage about her work and experiences in Sweden, her friends cut in to tease Muirhead about how little she sleeps.

An Arts & Entertainment Management graduate, she has co-organized multiple film and music festivals before but always hoped to run her own.

Muirhead's work and love of travel have taken her around the world and she has lived in Vancouver, Galiano Island, Montreal, Toronto, London, Edinburgh, Liverpool, and Glasgow – but it’s Gothenburg where she first felt able to fulfil this dream.

“I don’t think I could have done this outside Sweden,” Muirhead says. She feels that very few major bands play in Gothenburg, only passing through it between tour dates in Oslo and Stockholm, but at the same time local musicians have limited access to the stages, so they don't perform often either.  

It’s that untapped potential that inspired Muirhead to implement her ideas here one year ago.

Before arriving in Gothenburg in August 2017, she contacted the newly created local team for Sofar Sounds, an international startup that runs secret concerts in unconventional places ranging from living rooms to retail shops. She was only the third member of the team, which in two months set up the first show in Gothenburg. Now the events take place regularly.

In March Muirhead becaume part of a production group, Flocken Media, and decided to organize her first festival, called Waves Rolling.

Included in the lineup are bands from Gothenburg, Oslo, Stockholm and even Canada, which she warns “may not play here on another occasion”.

The musicians will also be part of the audience, which is unique, she says, but admits: “I’m scared of whether the people will show up and whether it will sound good”.

Flocken Media. Photo: Achen Jim Liu

Muirhead has always thrown herself into establishing new projects when she has moved to a new area. “If there’s a local problem that you could contribute to fixing, it’s very rewarding,” she explains.

And it's a two-way street: she also believes that staying active helps to solve the problems most expats find themselves facing, from loneliness to trouble adjusting to a new culture. 

“When I feel sad, I make a video. Or start a new project. I would probably recommend the same approach to others, especially if their sadness is because of finances. Some of that stuff will get you money.”

She arrived to Gothenburg without a solid plan as she believed it would be possible to find a job within two weeks, like in other places she had moved to. Today Muirhead says that was a crazy idea.

“It was pretty hard when I came here. Nobody tells you there’s a housing crisis and you won’t get a job. And please bring 2000 dollars that should cover you for three months,” she says, highlighting the high living cost and shortage of affordable housing in Sweden's major cities.

Photo: Ana Paula Lafaire

Like many new arrivals in Sweden, finding accommodation was another challenge. After staying with a couchsurfer when she first arrived, she found her first accommodation for a one-month period, then another that was similarly short-term. The third one was available for five months. In between contracts, she stayed on couches, took bands on tours, and at one point worked at a music festival in Norway. She now lives in a rehearsal studio because it’s the cheapest option.

Despite getting involved in a mix of cultural initiatives, Muirhead has struggled when it comes to finding a stable job in Gothenburg. Alongside her creative projects, she has worked in substitute positions including as a restaurant assistant, a babysitter, and an English teacher at a summer camp

“I’m still trying to get a job in Sweden,” says the Canadian, who estimates she has sent out “hundreds” of application emails as well as knocking on doors.

Each time the effort doesn't pay off, “you get a big heartbreak, it’s devastating and terrible”, she explains. The creative has now applied for a working holiday visa in Denmark as a way to stay in Scandinavia while she continues to hunt for the right role. 

But for her, it's worth it. The region has everything she wants to do, her favourite bands, and friendships that she says are stronger than anywhere else.

“When I go anywhere else, all my friends from here become a story, a fairy tale. No one else gets to touch it or see it – they only hear about it. When I live here, it’s real but when I leave – this fairy tale becomes fake,” is how she sums it up.

Something about the area has kept her coming back, ever since she first travelled to Norway for a concert in 2013. After that, she began to visit every six months, and that soon became every three months. Eventually, she moved to the UK to be closer to Scandinavia, and when that visa ran out,  she moved to Gothenburg and “fell completely in love all over again”.

Despite the challenges she's facing, Muirhead is sure her future is in Scandinavia. She says: “It’s not my style to give up so I probably have to die here trying. I’ve chosen to.”