Hans Rosling is a man on the move. And on a mission.
When The Local catches up with him in Stockholm he’s fresh off a train from his home in Uppsala, travel bag in tow, on his way to Arlanda to board a plane to London for a speaking engagement.
“I get about a thousand invitations a year,” the 66-year-old public health expert mentions casually.
And while Rosling would rather spend more time with his colleagues at Gapminder, the foundation he set up a decade ago with his son and daughter-in-law to promote a “fact-based worldview”, the hundred or so talks he gives each year (roughly half free of charge), provide a much-needed source of income – and publicity – for the foundation.
Prior to sitting down for a chat in early February, Rosling has had a hectic few weeks – even for a seasoned traveller like him – as he works through a backlog of engagements due to his decision last autumn to hop off the speaking circuit to spend three months in Liberia battling Ebola.
Milan. Davos. Edinburgh. London. Dubai. Stockholm. And soon off to London again.
“When you do these high-level lectures if you cancel, you pay half the fee. And if you have really high fees that finance the organization, you can’t afford to cancel,” he explained, adding his hosts nevertheless “accepted graciously” when informed of Rosling’s plans.
“You always have to go where the money is, even if that’s not really where I’d like to go.”
Hans Rosling working hard in his office in Stockholm. Photo: Jörgen Hildebrandt
And where does Rosling, who has become a highly sought-after international celebrity known for giving entertaining and informative presentations about global trends, prefer to go?
“I would rather go to places where we can also learn; the idea is also to learn through the presentations,” he explains.
“So when I get an invitation from Indonesia I go to Indonesia because other language groups and other sociopolitical contexts are more interesting.”
Despite all his time in airports, however, the respected public health expert remains bothered by the prominent placement of alcohol and tobacco at airport duty-free shops in Sweden and elsewhere.
“Our public health problem beyond everything is alcoholism,” he explains, noting that chronic alcoholism was first described at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institutet, where Rosling is also a Professor of International Health.
“If anything is Swedish it’s alcoholism.”
While he acknowledges the commercial forces behind airport duty-free shops, he believes it’s important to “adapt the pleasure of the majority at the cost of the suffering of the minority”.
Zipping through airports may take up a large chunk of Rosling’s time, but he nevertheless describes his globetrotting as a “side activity”. And despite a surge in international travel and connectivity in recent years, Rosling laments that many people still don’t properly understand the world around them.
“Travelling does help, but one of the struggles we have is that in spite of travelling, many people still don’t get it,” he continues.
Which brings us back to Rosling’s mission; a mission to combat what he dubs the “toxic combination of ignorance and arrogance” that plagues many of the world’s wealthier countries.
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Enter Gapminder, and specifically its Trendalyzer software, which helps bring to life and make accessible statistical information that for most people would otherwise be little more than a mind-numbing mountain of data and numbers.
By plugging different numbers into the software – and employing the skills of top-notch animators and designers – Trendalyzer helps Rosling and the team at Gapminder produce eye-catching, animated graphics that illustrate trends in global development (Google was so impressed it bought Trendalyzer back in 2007).
Rosling hopes Gapminder’s next major initiative, a “systematic study of misconceptions about the world” set to kick off in 2016.
Dubbed the Global Ignorance Project, the initiative stemmed from a 2013 survey Gapminder conducted in the US, UK, Norway, and Sweden where respondents were asked a number of questions, including whether the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has doubled, halved, or remained the same in the last 20 years.
'Worse than chimpanzees'
Photo: Stefan Nilsson/Gapminder
The percentage of respondents who answered correctly (that poverty has halved) left Rosling appalled at the level of ignorance about the degree of progress toward the first UN Millennium Development Goal of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger.
“It was worse than random; worse than if you’d asked the question to chimpanzees,” he explains.
While Rosling emphasizes the importance of facts and statistics for forming an accurate worldview, his own experiences confirm how directly connecting with other countries also goes a long way toward helping people discover and better understand the world.
Rosling brings up an episode from when he was an exchange student in India in 1972. A slide was shown in the classroom clearly depicting kidney cancer. At first he assumed was the only one in the room able to make such a diagnosis.
“I shut my mouth and thought, ‘Well, I’ll let them try first and then I’ll tell them what it is.’ But 20 minutes later they had exhausted all my knowledge about kidney cancer,” he recalls. “They studied harder; they knew more. For me to understand that these Indian students knew more than I did took more than simply visiting Bangalore.”
When working in Mozambique in the 1980s, Rosling witnessed the outbreak of a rare neurological disease that lead to research for his PhD. And for the course he taught on global health at Karolinska, Rosling made of point of conducting a portion of the class in the field in countries like Tanzania, Uganda, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Vietnam.
In many ways, with a home in one city, an office in another, and a job that takes him around the world, Rosling exemplifies the globalized existence of today’s modern world; a world marked by ever increasing international connectivity where people and ideas continually crisscross boundaries.
Nevertheless, Rosling, who also set up the Swedish branch of Doctors Without Borders, frets over what he labels “irrational nationalism”: people’s tendency to ascribe achievements or values with a particular national identity.
“The whole idea that it’s a place we belong to – that place is so important, that the nation is so important – is a dangerous concept,” he warns, again referring again to that “toxic combination of arrogance and ignorance” he’s working so hard to correct.
“It makes people think that the sheer luck of the place where they happen to exist makes them different as human beings.
“Time is our home”
Discussions of what constitutes “Swedishness”, therefore, leave Rosling uneasy.
“We don’t live in Sweden. Tiden är vårt hem. Time is our home,” he proclaims, citing the title of a 1991 play by Swedish playwright Lars Norén.
“We live in this time. Time is more important than place. Our values are not place-based, they are time-based.”
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While values like equality, tolerance, and transparency may often be associated with Sweden’s reputation abroad, Rosling argues such values aren’t actually Swedish.
“There is no such thing as Swedish values. Those are modern values,” he says.
So how did Sweden make the leap to modernity from what Rosling characterizes as an “ugly” past?
“We were lucky,” says Rosling.
“Good economic growth, good public governance systems, and a strong civil society interacting with each other, all doing their part. That’s what made the difference.”
Part of the luck, Rosling explains, was having far-sighted business leaders who managed capital responsibly and were not “speculative”.
“They were industrialists who modernized Ericsson and Electrolux and the big companies in ways that fit the demands of the labour movement and people who wanted high salaries and high taxes,” he explains.
'We stopped being Swedes'
Photo: Jörgen Hildebrandt
Expanding to markets abroad was important too, as it allowed Sweden’s manufacturing behemoths to amass export-driven profits that made it easier to meet workers’ demands back home.
“There was no contradiction between the strong labour movement and successful capitalists,” says Rosling.
Staying out of World War II didn’t hurt either.
“You find values distinctly different from all other countries in northern Europe because we never had to step back ten years,” he explains. “We could advance in the same direction faster and get rid of the ugly values of the past that were Swedish values. We stopped being Swedes; we became modern.”
Gapminder’s Stockholm offices are an expression such modern values and the benefits of Sweden’s international connections, boasting a dynamic mix of talents and backgrounds from around the world.
Many on the Gapminder team arrived to study at Swedish universities; others came for love. But they all decided to stay and join Rosling on his mission. A visitor is just as likely to hear Portuguese as English – and maybe even a little Swedish.
“If you want to find a good person for something here you need to look among the young, women, or immigrants,” he says, adding it’s a “blessing” that Sweden has so many immigrants.
But the self-proclaimed “Edutainer” doesn’t make much of the fact that he happens to be from Sweden when he’s traveling to any one of the dozens of faraway places he visits during a given year.
“They often think I’m from Switzerland; they often don’t know where Sweden is,” he quips. “It’s a rich country in Europe.”
And while he may spend a great deal of time abroad, Rosling sees his role in connecting Sweden with the world as somewhat different than that a traditional diplomat.
“I’m an ambassador for the world in Sweden,” he explains. “I don’t represent Sweden in the world; I represent the world in Sweden.”