The Diplomatic Dispatch

The British Ambassador to Sweden blogs on The Local

Archive for September, 2010

A system that really sucks

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

When I first came to Sweden in the early 90s I visited a friend in his apartment block in Stockholm.  As we walked up the stairs a woman emerged from her apartment, walked across the landing and opened what looked like a submarine hatch in the wall.  She then deposited a bag of rubbish through the hole and returned to her flat, wishing us a cheery “God kväll!”

I was more than a little intrigued.  My friend explained that this was a rubbish disposal system.  The crafty Swedes had designed a system that obviated the need for householders in apartment blocks to traipse down flights of stairs with their rubbish.  Nor did they need to go outside in the Arctic chill of a Stockholm winter night.  Instead, the rubbish was dropped via hatches into tubes that transported the bagged-up detritus to the basement with the help of our old friend gravity.  (I also remember speculating at the time what else the mischievous might drop into the system, but let’s leave that to one side for now).

When I returned to Sweden in 2007 I found that many aspects of life here had undergone a rapid progression to middle age.  The rubbish system was no different.  Now we have the super-green version, powered by hydraulics.  This system is built into new housing developments and comprises separate systems for different kinds of waste – for example metals, cardboard and food waste – allowing the separated rubbish to travel via underground pipes to a single collection point away from the housing development.  This reduces the need for the bin lorry to chug around the housing development, cutting this process by 90%. This in turn leads to fewer traffic jams, less vehicle noise and a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. The road traffic environment around people’s homes is safer. And as the system is hermetically sealed it avoids pests and other nasties as well as the noxious odours redolent from our familiar local bins.

I suspect that if we’re to crack the green code we need to make it simple for people to use.  And this is simple.  We also need to find neat ideas that are green – yes – but that also deliver improvements in our lives and livelihoods.  So this is a system that really sucks, but in a good way. Check out Envac.

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Vote, de-vote and re-vote

Monday, September 27th, 2010

There’s a lot been written about the Swedish elections.  For those of you that missed it, the election took place last week.  The government was re-elected and the far right entered parliament.  Over here that’s consumed mega column inches.

What no one wrote about, though, was the level of participation in the election.  Get this.  It’s 82%.  And this is not some frightening dictatorship.  This is Sweden and voting is voluntary.

So how do you get more than 4 in 5 of the electorate to vote in a general election?

Part of the answer is cultural.  One friend told me that election day always followed the same pattern in her household.  A special local cake for breakfast to celebrate democracy.  Then the whole family went out – kids, dogs and all – for the vote.  Someone this year had started a football match for the kids next to the polling station.  And there was coffee and buns.  But the key was the family tradition.  “My father did it like this and we went when we were kids.  It’s important that my kids grow up taking their rights seriously”. So far, so Swedish.

But part of the answer is also very practical.  In Sweden you can pre-vote.  That means that the polling stations open a month before election day and you can vote any time in that month.  And the polling stations are in libraries and post offices.  And you can vote in any polling station you choose, from Kiruna to Malmö.  So if you happen to be passing a library in the month before the election you can pop in vote.  And that’s not all.  If you vote early and then change your mind you can wander back some time later and correct your vote.  And again, if you choose.

82%?  I’m surprised it’s not 90!

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How to make a scarf from a tree…

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

I yesterday visited one of the more extraordinary businesses I have come across in Sweden.  Located in Örnsköldsvik in north-east Sweden, Domsjö tries to do something genuinely different.

The first thing to know about Örnsköldsvik is that it’s surrounded by trees.  And more trees.  And then some more trees.  75% of the county, in fact, is, well, tree.  Meantime as those of you that read my blog yesterday will know, the traditional business here – paper for newsprint – is on the decline as more of us source our news from the web.  So the clever people at Domsjö have taken a fresh look at their best natural resource and thought about the other potential uses of wood.  The upshot of all this is a biorefinery, integrated with a combined heat and power plant that provides district heating for the town.  The biorefinery produces bioethanol, a key non-fossil fuel for use in the transport sector, and it produces it, of course, in a way that meets all the important sustainability goals that are not met by biofuels in other parts of the world.  But the biorefinery also produces viscose, the super-flexible material that you would probably recognise from the smooth inner lining of a jacket.  Why does this matter?  Because viscose is an alternative to cotton, which consumes huge quantities of water and is grown in traditionally dry areas of the world – indeed it is exploitation of river water for cotton production that is turning the Aral Sea into an inland desert.  Viscose is much more flexible than you might think.  And it’s sustainable.  And it makes a very smart scarf. Check out what Domsjö are doing under the leadership of their dynamic CEO Ola Hindingsson.

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Lessons in ambition and innovation

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

I spent the day today in mid-Sweden – Sundsvall and Härnösand to be precise. Aside from the stunning beauty of the High Coast and placid serenity of the lakes along the coast, a day here is most notable for the insight it offers into the challenges Europe faces in adapting to the challenges of the modern economy. A traditionally industrial area that grew rapidly in the 19th Century from the products of the wood industry, the Swedish north now faces falling populations, particularly among the young, and a struggle to adapt the heavy industry of the 20th Century to the new age of globalisation. There are lots of lessons here. Although this region is still 75 per cent forest and the biggest employer here – the paper giant SCA – remains Europe’s largest private owner of forest land, the truth is that declining newspaper production is putting real pressure on the industry. But here’s the interesting aspect. Rather than renounce all hope the forestry industry here is adapting. New university programmes are growing from the super-high technologies that were developed to run print mills while new and very practical uses are being found for wood products – from viscose to ethanol, with high future potential. At the same time the skills level of the workforce is rising to adapt to the need for new workforce capabilities. Swedish ambition and innovation really is an example.

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Probably the bravest new windows in Sweden…

Friday, September 10th, 2010

I travelled to Linköping on Sunday evening to attend the inauguration of two new windows in Linköping cathedral.  This may sound a rather odd thing to do until I say that the windows were stained glass and that they were creations of the brilliant British artist Brian Clarke.  This was no ordinary artistic undertaking.  Linköping Cathedral is the most impressive Swedish church building of the Middle Ages.  Work on the Cathedral was started in 1230, with the main building works completed in 1520. So finding the right balance of visual impact, tone and intellectual and religious expression for a modern work in an ancient setting required a degree of brilliance.  Those of us that witnessed the inauguration of the windows last evening were in no doubt that Brian Clarke had achieved precisely what he set out to do.  As, indeed, had the project team at the Cathedral, led by Bishop Martin Lind.  It takes a particular kind of bravery to put a modern art work in a Gothic church but that bravery has paid off.

Brian was also there to witness the event.  He has a number of projects under way at the moment, perhaps the most high profile just now is a stained glass window for the chapel at the Papal Nunciature in London that will be blessed by the Pope during his visit later this month.  You can find out more about Brian Clarke’s work at

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