Sweden retained its position as number one Innovation Leader on this year's European Innovation Scoreboard, with a performance at 135.7%/150% of the EU average. It has also been named the third most innovative country in the world.
With a performance in innovation increasing at 10.5% higher rate than that of the general EU and an increasingly active startup ecosystem, is it enough for Sweden to stay the most innovative in 2023?
Annie Lindmark from Vinnova, Sweden’s government innovation agency, describes innovation as “bold thinking and doing things differently to improve people’s lives and our planet”.
The European Innovation Scoreboard found one of Sweden’s notable strengths to be both public-private co-publications as well as international scientific co-publications
“The challenges we face today are global and complex,” she says. “Whether they are about poverty, climate change or inequalities in health, individual efforts are not enough. Change must be systemic, which requires cooperation.” Given this, it’s no coincidence that Sweden is not short of collaborative hubs, incubators and consortiums.
One example is Husqvarna Group’s AI Innovation Lab. Husqvarna Group is a producer of outdoor power products for forest, park and garden care.
Johan Simonsson, director ideation and research at Ai Labs, says innovation is built into Husqvarna Group’s DNA. He says that value is determined on a client-to-client basis, but it largely prioritises areas relating to robotics, batteries, smart and connected solutions and sustainability. The AI Innovation Lab helps do this by drawing together internal competencies like business developers, data scientists and data engineers with external startups from Sweden’s fast-growing startup sector.
“The lab is a good place to bring these competencies into one place. It is also a good way to democratise AI, building knowledge and letting it disseminate into the organisation and generate value for different stakeholders,” says Simonsson.
Husqvarna Group also benefits from the help of university students. “We value the new perspectives students bring, but also we see it as a way of helping the university work on the challenges and opportunities that we as a company have. And then in turn, we hope it makes us an attractive company to work for,” says Simonsson. The European Innovation Scoreboard found one of Sweden’s notable strengths to be both public-private co-publications as well as international scientific co-publications.
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Accelerating global innovation
Sweden’s proclivity for collaboration may stem from its own geography. Far from its Achilles' heel, the fact that Sweden is a large country with a small population of 10.4m has propelled the need for innovative communication and transportation — evident in its pioneering automotive, telecommunications and digital infrastructure.
Crucially, cities like Stockholm and Gothenburg are big enough to house influential universities but small enough to oil well-connected communities. It is against this backdrop, with the addition of “several world-leading industrial companies investing heavily in R&D” that “informed and tech-savvy entrepreneurs” have been able to flourish, says Lindmark.
Our three values are openness, trust and collaboration, which are essences deeply embedded in Swedish culture
For Katarina Brud, director of MobilityXlab, a collaboration hub within mobility, being a small nation breeds curiosity. “Swedes love to travel, we all speak English and value lifelong learning,” she tells Sifted.
Brud’s ambition for the hub “is to pioneer the future of mobility together with our partners”, and in doing so, “accelerate global innovation”. Its seven partners work closely together — and with startups and scaleups around the world via MobilityXlab’s accelerator programme.
“Our three values are openness, trust and collaboration, which are essences deeply embedded in Swedish culture,” Brud says. “What I love about my job is that with seven different corporate partners comes seven different perspectives. We all have something to contribute, and with all this raw material you can pick and choose and then make a kind of stew.”
Innovation = sustainability
As the world’s priorities shift, not least highlighted by the fuel crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, sustainability is at the heart of what it means to be innovative.
Lindmark points out that the shift towards carbon neutrality creates “massive business opportunities for companies”. But a long-standing cultural reverence for nature means this is already built into the thinking of Sweden’s leading innovators, reflected in the fact that 158 of Sweden’s impact startups already met the UN’s “Climate Action'' Sustainable Development Goals this year.
For Brud, a future challenge is to consider sustainability throughout the whole value chain, “from raw materials to the way we handle the usage of data, as data centres and quantum computers are energy intensive. Thinking about the security of data will become increasingly pressing too.”
Brud believes that ambitious sustainability goals help spur innovation, much like MobilityXlab’s partner company Polestar which makes electric cars, whose ‘moonshot’ goal is to build the first climate-neutral car by 2030.
Staying on top
To stay on top of the leadership boards, Lindmark highlights Sweden’s need to prevent a stale labour market affected by inhibitive immigration rules around skilled labour. She is optimistic, however, reflecting on Sweden’s history at successfully re-skilling during big shifts in the economy, but emphasises the importance of being able to increase spending in publicly funded R&D — especially to build and scale research intensive deeptech companies.
How well innovation processes include people with different backgrounds and skills and integrate sex and gender dimensions will determine the outcome of tomorrow's innovative solutions
But as the opportunity of remote working grows, the competition in attracting overseas talent stiffens. Organisations like the International House of Gothenburg are innovating ways to help expats integrate into Swedish life.
“International House is what we call ‘all in one place’ as we help people moving here with all sorts of matters. From questions of housing, schooling, work permits to helping spouses find work. We have collated all this expertise under one roof,” says manager Lovisa Bohlin. Having fully opened its door this February, Bohlin says it has helped 600 people and had 1,000 participate in activities and events.
“Sweden can be a closed society so it can be hard to make friends and learn the language. There is also a real shortage of accommodation,” she says. “It can also take a very long time for people to secure work permits here, which is something we need to fight harder for.”
But on the flipside, Sweden offers newcomers a lot. “Work-life balance here is brilliant. We are often considered the best country to raise a family in,” says Bohlin. “Benefits like maternity and paternity leave, annual leave and childcare are second to none.”
These benefits don’t just make for better balanced lives but better gender equity too. While Sweden is still lagging, Lindmark points out: “innovation projects where men, women and underrepresented groups have equal power to influence, develop and create are more successful and result in more qualitative innovations for everyone.”
“How well innovation processes include people with different backgrounds and skills and integrate sex and gender dimensions will determine the outcome of tomorrow's innovative solutions,” she says.
Corporate innovation platforms MobilityXlab, ABB’s SynerLeap and the Astra Zeneca BioVentureHub are actively contributing and inviting international startups to co-lab and scale globally via Sweden. In addition, the Nordic Innovation House has open doors in five locations globally for those seeking to partner with the region.
At the upcoming Consumer and Electronics (CES) fair in Las Vegas, Business Sweden will be on site to scout for new ideas.