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Letter from Stockholm: 2010 is Sweden's
Alex Steffen, 26 Oct 08


If you want to know where the worldchanging action will be in the summer of 2010, look north.

Stockholm already rumbles as one of the global epicenters of bright green innovation. It's a small city -- only about two million people in the entire metropolitan area (less than, say, greater Seattle) -- but it hosts an impressive array of groups and people honing the cutting edge, and many of them are gearing up to play major international roles in the next two years.

I've spent four days here this trip. Later today I'm going down to Malmo for the Sustainable Innovation 08 conference. But now, on a blustery, wet October day, I'll grabbing this bit of free time in between meetings (with Worldchanger Alan AtKisson and ally Andre Heinz), and jotting down my impressions of this leg of the trip.

My main event here was the talk Friday night at Fargfabriken. It was a great crowd, including scads of young multicultural Swedes who are involved with the 2010 Stockholm Exhibition, an attempt to bring the best in bright green thinking to Sweden summer after next, by building a major collection of pavilions (along the bienalle model) highlighting various aspects of the sorts of systems changes (water, energy, communications, etc.) that our new cities will employ. It's the first time Stockholm has hosted such an exhibition since 1930. I was honored to be the kick-off event.

I also had the opportunity to talk with the good people at the Tallberg Foundation, who are planning their own major global youth event in Sweden for that summer. They're working with the venerable Stockholm Environment Institutute to articulate how sharply our understanding of the planet's limits is resolving itself in our view, and, how desperately we need to, as Carl Mossfeldt, Tallberg's Executive Director, put it, answer the question "What should we be doing now to thrive within these boundary conditions?"

I spent part of a day with a film crew working on the documentary The Plan, a sequel to the European in-crowd hit, The Planet. They asked good and tough questions, which makes me think that their new film (scheduled to premier in Copenhagen next winter) might actually break some new ground. Keep an eye out for it...


But the real highlight of the trip: all the amazing people. In particular, I met dozens of really awesome youngsters over the last couple days (now that I'm 40, I'm allowed to call people in their early 20s youngsters, even whippersnappers). Many are working here in planning, design and policy circles, and are particularly interested in leveraging Sweden's over-sized public presence, by revving up for COP-15; pushing Sweden to use its E.U. presidency to advocate for rapid environmental and economic change; and trying to mobilize Scandinavian government and business funding for leadership work in the global student sustainability movement. It was especially fun getting to talk with so many young Swedish and Norwegian journalists and bloggers.

One of the weirdest things about being here, actually, is the extent to which young Swedish and Norwegian people actually believe in the capacity of their governments and business/ labor leaders to make good decisions, work out strong international agreements and support dramatic change. As an American who's just lived through a nearly-successful attempt to destroy my Federal government, it's downright shocking to meet young idealists who fundamentally believe in the effectiveness of their own governments and elites, and trust their elders to change if presented with better visions.

Things work here. It is, again, one of those shocking things, coming from America, to confront yet again how much of a backwater the States has become in many matters of design, technology and city life.

There are the obvious things, of course: the roads here don't have potholes; the trains are clean and prompt and have wifi; no one seems afraid of crime (at least in Stockholm); people drink the tap water and talk on futuristic and complex mobile phones; they don't care if gay people get married or not; the newspapers and television shows tackle actual issues with depth and intelligence; you don't see anyone sleeping on the streets; everyone seems to speak three or four languages, and many folks use English grammar better than me.

But there are more subtle touches as well. My hotel room -- though possibly the smallest room I've slept in since I left Japan -- is incredibly comfortable, designed with a gracious logic that makes a very small space more livable than a bunch of apartments I've known:


This paper, I'm told, is for wrapping chewing gum so people don't have to waste energy scraping it off the sidewalk:


Even the fast food has carbon labels:


It's just plain jarring. In my daily life, I feel comfortable (if disappointed) with the gap between how people in my country live and how we all might live; but the gap between how most Americans live and how people in Scandinavia already live is a harsh one. It's hard not to think that the last eight years of utterly disastrous leadership aren't mostly to blame. After all, it takes real stupidity to turn the world's most powerful and wealthiest nation into a rusting, bankrupt hulk in less than a decade -- though Sweden's most famous statesman, Axel Oxenstierna, who helped forge their empire during the 30 Years War, would probably not have been too surprised at how incompetent the powerful can be, when left to their own devices. After all, his most famous quote is "Do you not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed?"

I could go on, with my own limited wisdom, but luckily for all of us, I need to catch a (no doubt stylish, quick and comfy) train.

(Thanks to the great people at Fargfabriken, and especially Jan Aman and Karin Englund, for just being kick-ass hosts in every way, and to John Manoochehri for beers and perspective; and Kristina Anderson (excuse me if that's misspelled) for the unexpected and brilliant insights -- good luck with the thesis!)

(photo credits: All photos by Alex Steffen)

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I have spent several years in Sweden and find that it is not the utopia that you speak of. The main reason they are able to be so "green" is that they have such a small population. The supermarkets there are filled with the same crap we have in the US, and just the fact that they have McDonalds says something - I can not see any way that McDonalds can be sustainable just by changing their ads to show the carbon footprint. First, they have to LOWER the footprint (drastically) not just advertise what it is.

As for the paper for chewing gum - I wonder how much energy is spent on making the paper compared to scraping it off of the sidewalk. Instead, maybe it is best not to have chewing gum!

Posted by: Thomas on 27 Oct 08

Actually, Thomas, they do need to show the carbon footprint first so that the need to lower it becomes all the more clear.

History will have to decide whether it was monumental stupidity or something else.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 27 Oct 08

I don't think Sweden is a utopia, by any means. But it is a country that works comparatively well.

And I agree with Tony.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 27 Oct 08

Just sorting things out.

The photo was not taken at Mac Donalds but at a Swedish alternative called Max. The thing with the carbon levels is that they compensate for the carbon emissions by planting trees in the same amount. The prices however is at the same level as Mac Donalds. It´s not the final solution but a small step in the right direction

Posted by: Erik Bjork on 31 Oct 08

could I be cheeky and ask the name of this incredibly comfortable hotel please? I am heading there for work in December.

Posted by: Kimberley Crofts on 31 Oct 08

Interesting post, I visited Stockholm when they had the Water Festival back in the 90's when many of the issues that fill the headlines now first appeared in wide ranging and well attended public debates - a major difference from the UK

As for Farbfabriken, the development of their 'Urban Turntable' approach was also very interesting from a few years back

did you make it to /or hear about Farbfabriken's sister building in the north of Sweden?


Posted by: Phil Denning on 31 Oct 08

Great article, Alex S., although (forgivably) prone to some of the stunned gushing that affects American visitors to Sweden. Let's admit it: America now lags the EU significantly in numerous aspects of life, and many are very visible to the visitor. Sweden is one of the four or five countries at the top of the EU league. I spent 14 years in Sweden, and since moving back to the US 6 years ago I've thought a great deal about the differences. Sweden's certainly not utopia, especially if you are an immigrant. But in technology, design, urban planning, health care, mass transit, and quality of the public sector, Sweden outclasses the US by a wide margin. It's a treasure trove of things to learn, facilitated by the openness of information, good documentation, and English-friendliness.

This is why the State of Vermont, in partnership with the MBA program I direct, is sponsoring a "sustainable business" trade mission to Sweden this December, focusing on such things as renewable energy, green building, and agriculture. Email me at if you want to learn more.

Posted by: Ralph Meima on 3 Nov 08

I've been living in Sweden for 18 years ( just turned 18! ) and its interesting how you compare Sweden to the US since there's a huge difference in population. The main reason to why and how we can live like we do up here is the small amount of people, if we had the same population as the US we would probably not has come this far in languages, healthcare, fighting crime and so on. Not to forget, we have not been in war or even close for like 200 years, which of course is a major factor. Anyways, moving to Santa Barbara ,CA next year for some studies, really looking forward to it, its kinda weird that I've never been to an english speaking country since we learn english from the year we turn six..but then again maybe the whole idea is that all swedes eventually starts speaking english with each other instead of swedish i dunno xD

Posted by: Maxi on 6 Nov 08

Dear people,

Could you people give me some tips to get into this Swedish innovative group/ projects. I want to do a training in this area next year, but I don't want to go to this boring 'big' and 'cool' companies the school wants me to go!

Please tips for Sweden!

please mail tips!



Posted by: Rik Wagemans on 7 Nov 08



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