Swedish leaders need to be prepared for tech challenges

Swedish politicians should be trained in how to face the challenges that come with a rapid technological paradigm shift, write Danica Kragic Jensfelt, Mats Lewan, and Robin Teigland.

Swedish leaders need to be prepared for tech challenges
Will robots take over your jobs? Photo: Eric Piermont/AP

We are living in a period of global change that is probably the most momentous in human history. Within digitalization – perhaps the most visible driver of change – Sweden has performed well, thanks to forward-looking policy reforms and to a favourable innovation climate. It is no coincidence that Stockholm, after Silicon Valley, is the city with the measured highest per-capita number of 'unicorns' – innovation startups valued at more than one billion US dollars.

But we believe that Sweden can reach further and become a world leader in an even more important arena: building reliable, long-term visions for a future with significantly greater challenges – visions that are especially important at a time when people are greatly concerned about the future and are easily attracted to simplistic policy solutions.

We can't turn back time. Today's digitalization is only the beginning. Services, products and ideas travel at the speed of light worldwide via the internet in the form of digital information. The power of change lies in the fact that a digital copy costs almost nothing, reaching the entire world with one click. It destroys existing business models – as in the music industry, where services like Spotify and Apple Music are replacing the sale of both CDs and digital downloads. These drivers are reinforced by the blurring of boundaries between different digital businesses, where services can be freely mixed and combined.

The digital revolution is upending all sectors and industries. Companies that fail to reinvent themselves will fail. Consider, for example, what could occur to the finance industry via block-chain technology – the basis of the crypto-currency Bitcoin that eliminates the need for banks and card companies for guaranteeing transactions.

People: the critical element

Even more interesting is what happens when people are added to the equation. Connecting via informal networks with global reach, people can build large entities such as Wikipedia and open-source code – for example Bitcoin and the operating system Linux – simply because they want to. Free. Previously this could be accomplished only by states or global corporations, at immense cost.

The sharing economy is also built by people who exploit digital opportunities to share resources that cannot be copied digitally – everything from travels, cars, accommodations and pet-sitters to funding and loans.

When people communicate through their own networks, organizations and companies also change. The once-clear boundaries of organizations are becoming porous, knowledge flows in and out, and more people are becoming self-employed. Many firms will have to get used to considering employees as many parents think of their teenagers – they have them on loan. If they have employees, that is.

Automation, robototics and AI (Artificial Ingelligence)

The next step, linked closely to digitalization, is automation. Google's self-driving cars have travelled more than 1.5 million miles on public roads; next year Volvo will be the first carmaker to put 100 self-driving cars with ordinary users into everyday traffic.

Automation is becoming commonplace in areas such as sales, finance, services, office administration, and of course industrial production across many sectors, as noted above. But it won't stop there – automation is taking over more and more advanced tasks when combined with artificial intelligence, AI.

This technology is evolving rapidly. Current AI systems not only beat human masters in Jeopardy and in the world's most advanced board game, Go, but also diagnose cancer, solve legal problems and handle customer service over the phone faster and better than humans.

Despite this, it will be a while until we have human-like robots, partly due to effective robot bodies still being much clumsier and heavier than human bodies. But we should prepare for them.

Additionally, 3D-printer technology may radically change large parts of the manufacturing industry, in combination with Industry 4.0 – industrial production that is controlled in real time through continuous analysis of large amounts of sensor data.

What happens when we add people to the equation? Research has shown that about half of today's jobs may be taken over by machines within one or two decades. We therefore need to help people to find new, hopefully more interesting, jobs, in many cases in collaboration with automated systems. Some of these jobs could for example be within Industry 5.0 – the quest to add human feeling, even in highly automated production.

But the challenges are most probably even greater – we will likely have to fundamentally change our view on work. It is possible, for example, that many people will not need to have a traditional job.

This presents opportunities as well as challenges. How do we encourage people to pursue education if they don't need to? How can we design an educational system that can last a lifetime, given the ever-faster rate of change?

Nothing suggests that the accelerating technological pace can be stopped or slowed. Clearly, society faces major ethical, economic and political challenges.

Already, worries about the future are giving rise to fear, the concern about basic cultural shifts. And the only effective answer to populist and simplistic political solutions are credible long-term visions for the future.

Sweden has a long technology tradition, and a strong ability for mutual understanding and dialogue. That is a good foundation for wide-ranging discussions, essential in dealing with the challenges we are facing, and to build realistic visions. But political awareness will also be required.

Our suggestion is that all elected policy makers in Sweden be informed about how far today's most advanced technology has reached and where it is heading, through a day's training with content designed by people who have insight into what is likely technologically possible within a decade. We offer to help initiate such a programme, which could also lay the groundwork for a model for education fit for the future.

Article written by Danica Kragic Jensfelt, Professor in Computer Science, Royal Institute of Technology; Mats Lewan, Science and Technology Journalist, author, M. Sc. in Engingeering Physics; Robin Teigland, Professor in Business Administration, Stockholm School of Economics.

It was first published in Swedish by Dagens Nyheter and translated by The Local's intern, Jack Schofield.

For members


Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Sweden’s second city is the site of Scandinavia’s largest urban development project. But there is rising concern that the costs outweigh the benefits, says David Crouch

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Last week, residents in the area of Fågelsången (birdsong), a quiet street at the very heart of Sweden’s second city, woke up to read the following news: “Explosions at Fågelsången: On August 8, week 32, we start blasting around Fågelsången and are expected to be done by week 40. When blasting, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to go out, open their windows or be within the blasting area. We will work weekdays 7am to 5pm.” 

Blasting deep holes in the granite – along with sprawling roadworks – has been the reality for central Gothenburgers for the past four years, as a vast rail tunnel is being dug to link the current terminus with other parts of the city and enable smoother connections with other routes. The aim is to triple rail passenger numbers and eliminate traffic jams on the main road through the city, at a cost of 20 billion crowns (€1.9 billion).

This railway, known as Västlänken (the West Link), is not the only big construction project in the city centre. It is just the largest element in a gigantic scheme to revive the docks area along the river, which was destroyed by a global shipping crisis in the 1970s. The great rusting cranes opposite the opera house and the disused Eriksberg gantry are an important aspect of Gothenburg’s skyline and self-image. The areas on the north bank were also home to many recent immigrants and a byword for poverty. The city’s mayor famously, and shamefully, referred to it as “the Gaza strip”.

So in 2012 the city launched an ambitious plan. Christened Älvstaden, the RiverCity, municipal investment aimed to build an attractive, modern waterfront while creating tens of thousands of homes and jobs. It is by far the Nordic region’s biggest urban regeneration project. A YouTube video commissioned by the city authorities a few years later neatly sums up both the breathtaking scope of this vision and the exciting / brutal (choose your own adjective here) nature of the transformation it would bring: 

The RiverCity revolved around two flagship projects: a new bridge over the river, the Hisingsbron (Hisingen Bridge), combined with major new office developments right in the centre; and Karlatornet, Sweden’s tallest skyscraper, which would literally tower over Gothenburg like a beacon of modernity in a city that traditionally has had strict rules against high-rise buildings. 

Add to all this a proposed high-speed rail link with Stockholm, and you have a recipe for quite spectacular urban upheaval involving billions of tons of steel and concrete. Visit Gothenburg today and much of the city seems to have been turned into a building site. There is a forest of cranes, while smart new office blocks puncture the skyline – a genuine metamorphosis is under way.

But many Gothenburgers are either uneasy or downright unhappy. The RiverCity is a vanity project to gentrify the docklands, they say. Karlatornet’s 73 stories of luxury apartments will be a scar on the landscape and a symbol of Gothenburg’s new love affair with finance and real estate, a slap in the face for the city’s proud industrial values. Västlänken is a vit elefant, a costly project that will deliver questionable benefits, many believe.  

Opposition to Västlänken was such that a new political party, the Democrats, took 17 percent of the vote in 2018 with its headline demand to stop the project immediately. This caused a revolution in local politics, overturning decades of Social Democrat rule. 

And now the gloss on these big-ticket construction projects is starting to fade. Karlatornet was the first to run into trouble. For most of 2020 building work was at a standstill, raising the threat that this flagship of regeneration would be nothing more than an unfinished stump, after American financiers pulled out of the project. The new Hisingen Bridge is open to traffic, but its construction was fraught with setbacks and the final cost to the taxpayer is still unknown. “There has been an awareness from the start that this was a high-risk project,” one of the project’s bosses said ominously this spring.

RiverCity is more than two billion kronor over budget, and facing accusations of mismanagement that evoke Gothenburg’s old nickname of Muteborg, or Bribetown, after a proliferation of municipal companies in the 1970s led to conflicts of interest, with politicians sitting on company boards. Opponents of the scheme argue that in any case it is unlikely to solve any of the city’s fundamental problems, such as the ethnic segregation that has created immigrant ghettos in outlying suburbs.  

In May, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published leaked minutes from Västlänken management meetings in which one of the main contractors on the project said it would be delivered billions over budget and four years later than its official 2026 deadline – in other words, four more years of earth-shattering explosions, roadblocks and associated upheaval. With local elections only months away, the Democrats have taken out advertisements on billboards and in local media demanding that top politicians tell the truth about what is going on. For opponents of the scheme, this is exactly what they have warned of all along

Next June, Gothenburg will officially celebrate its 400th anniversary, postponed from 2021 because of the pandemic. Visitors will experience a city on the move, with pristine new motorways and sparkling office blocks. So for Gothenburg’s urban planners, there is light at the end of the development tunnel. In the case of Västlänken, however, they will be hoping that the light is indeed that of an oncoming train. 

David Crouch has lived in Gothenburg for nine years. He is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It, a freelance journalist and lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.