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Mojang_Natalia_B_webb.jpg

The Stockholm headquarter of Mojang, the Swedish company behind the the widely popular computer game Minecraft. Photo: Melker Dahlstrand/imagebank.sweden.se. Inset: Natalia Brzezinski, CEO of Symposium Stockholm

Ikea and Volvo? No, Sweden’s brand is The Future

Sweden is in many ways like a rocketing startup, embracing data, science and new ideas in an almost entrepreneurial fashion, writes Natalia Brzezinski, CEO of Symposium Stockholm and wife of former US Ambassador to Sweden, Mark Brzezinski, in a response to Jan Kallberg’s op-ed.

What if Ikea no longer wanted to be Swedish? This is a question posed by a previous author on Realtid.se Debatt this week, in the op-ed article “Vad händer om Ikea inte längre vill vara svenskt?”

To me the better question to be posed; Is Ikea really the symbol for what it means to be Swedish anymore? 

There is a tension between the old and the new, between generations and generational change that is pervading society, work and politics. 

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Old industrial Sweden – like old industrial America – is defined by big companies doing big physical industrial business in big factories with big pools of employees that generally looked the same and came from the same backgrounds. 

New Sweden, the Sweden I lived in for nearly four years, raised a daughter in, matured professionally in, truly fell in love with and continue to promote as a thought leader and standard-bearer for work culture and humanitarian values today, looks and feels very, very different than the land of meatballs and white-blonde hair. 

It’s not the Sweden of Volvo and Ikea alone anymore – it’s the Sweden of Spotify, Skype, Klarna and Mojang. It’s the Sweden that embraces community, equality, diversity and inclusion as the highest form of innovation, and understands that it’s not the size of the population but the ability to leverage its creativity that creates a global leader. 

The problem we saw last month with the news stories fluttering around about Sweden was that they were based on a human interest story propagated randomly by the U.S. President, which turned out to be utterly false. This triggered a big discussion about Sweden, bringing Sweden and “Swedish immigration” in to America’s intensively divisive and ugly domestic immigration debate.  A parallel which has no logical basis for comparison politically or socially. 

To draw conclusions from that baseless social media noise about the contemporary global perception of Sweden is intellectually un-anchored and patently without empirical evidence. 

Some people “heard” online and on cable news about Sweden not being able to integrate the massive amount of political refugees it has accepted over the years – more than any other European country per capita and certainly more than the United States – or about hugely exaggerated rape and crime rates. But what I saw and heard online and offline was an outcry of support from my generation to Sweden and even more so to what Sweden stands for – hope.

Yes, hope, that a nation can actually articulate and act upon values that are higher than the individual, values that celebrate the collective, that are global in the best sense of the word, and yes, values that “open their heart” to people that are different than us and that need our help.  

What many see is a country that has embraced its moral obligation and stood by its word to open its borders to hundreds of thousands of people escaping death, turmoil, rape and horror in their home countries to get a better life. It’s a country that sticks to its word and shows other countries that you can be profitable, innovative, yet also open and supportive to marginalized people through government policies at the same time. 

Sweden’s brand is the future. And it’s an extremely strong brand in America. 

Thanks to the story of Raoul Wallenberg, the spectacular success of companies like Mojang, King, H&M, Acne and Spotify, the intellectual scrum in areas like Kista or innovative hubs of immigrant-rich Södertälje, the focus on data and science as the highest form of giving back – set by every institution from the Nobel Prize committee to global thought leaders like the late Hans Rosling – to private families like the Wallenberg family who donate so generously to science, I cannot go anywhere in the United States without people asking me about “How cool Sweden is”. 

The stories that went viral through America recently were not about immigration policies but about those on International Women’s Day last week naming Sweden the best country in the world for women to live, according to US News & World Reports' Best Countries, or the Swedish passport being ranked the best and “most powerful” passport to have in the world by Nomad Capitalist, or the photo of Swedish Deputy Prime Minister Isabella Lövin trolling President Trump with an all-female photo of government officials signing a progressive climate bill. 

It’s stories of tech founders like Daniel Ek of Spotify, recently named the most powerful person in the world in the music business by Billboard Magazine, publicly advocating for the safeguarding and inclusion of immigrant talent in Sweden, or the bold leadership of the Swedish government around feminist foreign policy. 

This is the Sweden I know, and the Sweden the world can’t get enough of. 

I personally believe that in the future nations will compete like companies do for top talent, and smaller nations may in fact do better than big countries with big economies because they are nimble, fluid, fast and outward-looking. For me, Sweden is in many ways like a rocketing startup embracing data, science and new ideas in an almost entrepreneurial fashion. 

For data and science to work, you also need a great and receptive culture. Stockholm symbolizes this marriage of humanity and technology, and I think their rise as a “culture of the future” is just beginning. 

This future will be rooted in transparency, openness, global citizenship, sustainability, equality in all forms and most importantly a feeling that “no man is an island” and that we must collaborate and strive for consensus to reach creativity and harmony in society.

But creativity can only flower when social norms allow for inclusion, egalitarianism and flat business structures. Here again Swedish cultural norms of humility and “not standing out” allow for work cultures where employees are not afraid to question and challenge leadership to create a better result.

Yes, perhaps Ikea has replaced its lingonberry juice with Coke Light, signifying some type of “rejection” of the old Swedish way, but at the same time Spotify has brought Swedish “Pappaledighet” to America and showed that all parents, adopting couples, gay couples, mothers and fathers deserve to have both work and family. 

In fact, one of the most powerful people in the Trump White House, Ivanka Trump, is taking up the mantle of parental leave as her core issue for the next four years.  I strongly advise her to look to the high North for some guidance.

Natalia Brzezinski
CEO, Symposium Stockholm

Note: This op-ed article is also published in Swedish.

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