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'The tech sector should lead the move away from cities'

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'The tech sector should lead the move away from cities'
The road to the future has to go through rural Sweden, argues Paul Connolly. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT
14:14 CEST+02:00
It's time for the urban tech sector to wake up and realize that the future of provincial Sweden is central to the future of Sweden, argues Paul Connolly of Skellefteå-based Hello Future.

The Swedish tech industry likes to think of itself as being at the vanguard of Swedish society.

So why does it often seem just as conservative, and lacking in ideas, as the more traditional sectors of Swedish industry?

As telecoms giant Ericsson was announcing that it may be cutting 3,000 jobs across Sweden, with the threat of a complete closure looming over its Borås plant in the west of the country, the Swedish tech sector was joining in the countryside-bashing, with a rather poorly-timed attack on the 'dark junkspace' of rural Sweden.

Swedish economist Kjell Nordström spoke at a series of events organized by Telia in Stockholm, Gothenburg or Malmö, suggesting that anyone with talent should move to Sweden's three biggest cities. Articles repeating this message were published in several Swedish newspapers.

Of course, they are entitled to their opinion.

There is a discussion to be had about Sweden's rural areas and their relationship to the larger urban centres such as Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö.

And it's a debate that has been picking up steam of late.

In the summer, Johan Hakelius in Aftonbladet made the frankly preposterous suggestion that the Swedish government should simply abandon the countryside to trees and wildlife and make everyone live in cities.

Such calls have been made on a depressingly regular basis in recent years.

As well as the crass, anti-democratic nature of these suggestions, their lack of seriousness is a problem. At best they add nothing new to the discussion and, at worst, they poison the well of public discourse with their cynicism.

Those who make these suggestions clearly have no interest in the welfare of rural residents. And herein lies the nub of the problem. Because this debate has another dimension.

The future of provincial Sweden is central to the future of Sweden.

Some will laugh at this statement. But Sweden, for all its social progressivism and tradition of being forward-thinking, is not immune from political outbreaks of populism, as evidenced by the far-right Sweden Democrats leading some of the past year's opinion polls.

Many will just blame the refugee crisis. But there is another issue festering in the background driving people to populist parties.

That issue is the digital divide.

The digital divide these days is something more profound than just a question of whether or not you have access to the internet. It is now a question of whether you can benefit from digital technology.

The regions that are most affected by the digital divide are those provincial areas whose workforce and communities are most impacted by automation and e-commerce.

People might have lost their jobs to automation and their local community may have seen its downtown decimated by e-commerce.

They're being left behind.

And, as we have seen with Brexit and the Donald Trump campaign, people that feel excluded turn to extreme politics.

And what seems to be the tech industry's answer to these people and these communities' troubles?

Move to a city.

That could hardly be less imaginative.

Such elitism feeds the narrative, driven by the populist parties, that metropolitan professionals don't care about the rest of the country.

Is this what the tech sector wants? To be perceived as a conservative elite which does not care about those less well-off? To stoke and encourage class hatred?

Instead, the tech industry should be leading the move away from the cities to rural areas.

Thanks to the development of cloud computing, more people are taking advantage of living and working in the countryside, away from the stress and hassle of the big cities (and with much more affordable housing).

They're not bound by geography. This piece, for example, is being written in an old farmhouse, overlooking a lake, that cost a tenth of a one-room flat in Stockholm.

The tech industry should be a progressive industry looking to benefit the whole of Sweden, not just small enclaves in big urban areas.

And we need to be educating people in the digital economy, not abandoning them.

Rural Sweden is fighting back – the recent opening of The Great Northern tech house in Skellefteå in northern Sweden, described by a visiting Facebook executive as "the most incredible start-up space I have ever seen", is proof of that.

And, here at Hello Future in Norrland, we are embarking on an outreach programme to try to bridge the digital divide, by trying to ensure that as few people and organizations as possible are left behind by digitalization.

But the urban tech sector has to do more. For a start it needs to disavow itself of the anti-countryside nonsense being perpetuated by those who clearly do not care about those who live outside the major urban centres.

These people represent the past – we should all be looking to the future.

This article was written by Paul Connolly, Head of Outreach for Hello Future and former columnist for The Local.

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