Måns Adler doesn’t really know what he’s doing.
When the Malmö entrepreneur meets me in the foyer of his new offices at the city council, clad in a beanie hat and hooded parka, it turns out he hasn’t yet worked how to let visitors into the building. So we retreat to a nearby café.
The co-founder of the streaming app Bambuser last week started work as head of the Malmö Tech Team, a three-person prototyping unit created with the aim of bringing a start-up mentality to the city’s digital strategy.
“It's not really set,” Adler says of his mission. “There's maybe two, three or four prototypes that we need to develop, but what and when and where is open.”
The city announced the plan at the start of September, promoting it as the next step of its “Digital Malmö” strategy, which aims to use technology — and entrepreneur expertise — to help the city liaise better with its citizens and make welfare administration smoother.
The team working on making Malmö more digital: Anna Werntoft, Charlotta Algeria Ursing, Måns Adler, Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh, Hampus Jakobsson, Maria Stellinger Ernblad. Foto: Karolina Mecklint
“Within a year I expect to make a difference,” Adler declares. “We have internally set a goal of producing tools that will cut costs equal at least to what we cost during the period. There will be some good stories to tell by the summer.”
Funding the team is a bold move for the city. For all the buzz around ‘Gov Tech’ startups, a glance at the speakers at the recent Paris conference for the sector demonstrates that the government side remains dominated by career civil servants and former management consultants.
“I think my profile is very different,” Adler says, pointing to his time at Bambuser, an ultra-low latency video streaming app which is used by broadcasters such as Associated Press and Sky News and listed its shares on the Nasdaq First North exchange last year.
“The beauty of our little tech team is that we are freer, and I think we are allowed to go outside the city and still do the work.”
Adler aims to spend the time between now and Christmas talking to as many people in the city government as possible, whether they work on welfare, education, or urban planning, before drawing up a list of two of three ideas to prototype.
“We will work on those during the spring, and then I think as we come into the summer, me and the team will get a good feel for whether we are going to be able to achieve the things that at least I personally want to achieve. I will then take a decision on whether I want to continue or not by the end of the year.”
Adler was approached or the role by Hampus Jakobsson, Malmö’s leading venture capitalist and tech entrepreneur, who had earlier proposed the project to Malmö mayor Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh.
“You just get this feeling that ‘this is what I need to do now’, Adler explains of his decision to leave Ustwo Nordics, the digital product studio where he had been working as tech director since stepping away from Bambuser five years ago.
“And very personally there's also this thing that I'm born and raised in Malmö, my mum used to be a politician, and at the end of the day I feel I need to give back.”
Adler and Maria Stellinger Ernblad, the city’s digitalization chief, have also hired Timo Engelhardt, a computer programmer who spent three years working for Jakobsson’s sales startup Brisk. And they are now looking for a designer to complete the team.
What most excites Adler about the project is how untouched municipalities are by technology. He has been studying pioneers in the field, like the Obama Administration in the US, and the cities of New York and London.
“It's super interesting. If I look at society, I think the most underdeveloped areas in digitalization are how we do education, and how we do government,” he argues.
“These areas are completely under-digitalized. If a teacher from 1918 walked into a classroom in 2018, he would be able to do his job OK. Nothing's changed basically. Governments are a little bit the same.”
He says he is only starting to get a feel for why this might be the case.
“Seven days in, I would say that the problem they have is not the funds, it's not the technology. It's a design issue,” he argues.
“They build things before they know whether they need them or not, and then no-one’s using it because it's not the right thing. Or they end up buying five fully-fledged systems when 95 percent of what those systems do is exactly the same, and then they end up having five different log-in systems, so it's just complete meltdown.”
He suspects that the most important thing his team achieves might not be the software prototypes it builds, but instead helping the city improve its IT procurement. This includes for example advising it on when to take something off the shelf or just rely on standard products supplied by big tech giants like Google, Apple, or Microsoft.
“It might even be to say 'this is what you should use instead. This already exists. Why are you building this?’”
He also hopes to open up the city’s IT delivery, making it more open source so that people in the city’s tech scene can voluntarily help develop tools, and so that the city can collaborate more easily with other municipalities.
“Software is quite expensive to develop, and at the municipality level, in Sweden at least, it doesn't really make sense. It's too expensive,” he says. “But if we can join forces across the country, I could see Malmö taking care of education, Stockholm building healthcare, and Gothenburg doing elderly care.”
Software developers in Malmö could spend a few hours on the weekend helping code something which will improve the city they live in.
But Adler has few illusions about how difficult the task ahead of him is likely be, and what sort of barriers there might be in such a huge organization.
“The fear of failing they have internally doesn't really resonate very well with building things quickly,” he argues.
“And I understand it. They are a very responsible organization that has massive privacy concerns that they need to take really good care of, and they have a big audience that is watching over their shoulders, just waiting for something to go wrong.”
While his team is freer than most in the organisation, he is nonetheless just part of a much larger digitalization team, and the city has also hired five “digital change executives” to help work on digitizing the city’s processes.
“I'm so scared,” he admits as we walk down the street between Malmö’s municipal offices and the café. “Because I'm not sure that my personality and way of doing things fits with such a heavy organization.”