I Have Seen the Future — And It Has a Swedish Accent

Here at the Coaching Blog- one of the world’s leading blogs on the subject of Leadership and Coaching we quite often post articles by leading authors and authorities- today we are delighted to post an article from Backchannel.com by Susan Crawford.

Stockholm’s secret sauce is the accessible fiber connectivity that the US lacks

Over spring break I went to Stockholm to visit the future. I’m not sure other people in the U.S. think of Stockholm as the future; I’m not sure people here think about Stockholm at all. But I had an inkling that the city’s ubiquitous and cheap fiber Internet access would be making a difference right about now. And what I found in the course of my recent week of interviews was both disturbing and comforting.

The troubling part is that Stockholm has become an experimental sandbox for 21st century life-changing technologies because it has something we don’t: a wholesale, passive municipal fiber-optic network. Because it took the step to install this facility more than twenty years, ago, Stockholm is already planning to implement at scale new ideas in energy management, eldercare, responsive city service delivery, and transportation. By being able to ship around enormous amounts of data with ease to everyone in the city, they’re ahead of us in many ways. (Here’s something to ponder: 67% of Stockholm’s two-year-olds are online.) And they’re using their well-developed design sense to enhance what they’re up to — I’ll have more about this part of the story in a later column.

The comforting part: When it comes to agility, collaboration (at least across the private sector), and risk-taking, American culture leads the way. But invigorating cold winds of change are blowing in Stockholm (both literally and figuratively — it was very cold while I was visiting, making me wish I’d brought one of those enormous puffy coats with me), and those low-ego, sensible Swedes seem to be catching up on the Silicon Valley ethos as well.


I saw this in Kista Science City, an innovation cluster outside Stockholm that brings together thousands of university students, major corporations like Ericsson and IBM, about a thousand companies of all sizes, and data researchers in a giant flowering of shiny office buildings. A subway from downtown Stockholm deposits you in the Kista Galleria, a jarringly Century City-esque shopping mall; after you walk past a food court and winter coat displays, you’re at work.

In Kista, Markus Bylund guided me through his People Technologies research lab, showing me a remote rehabilitation system designed to help stroke victims continue their recovery at home. Using commodity hardware (Kinect controllers, small media PC, large monitor), a patient stands in front of a screen displaying his or her physical movements as those of an avatar in a soothing animated environment — a forest glade, say. A physiotherapist seated in a distant office appears in a window on the screen, guiding and encouraging the exercise in real time. No mouse or keyboard needed; all the patient has to do is stand or sit in front of the monitor and start moving.

The resulting two-way session, developed in collaboration with Swedish physical therapists, involves multiple symmetrical video streams that generate an enormous amount of data. The researchers on the project told me that they had started off by relying on 4G cellular communications but are moving to fiber in order to have high-quality interactions. The off-the-shelf hardware cost of the system? About $1500, which will be far less than the cost of multiple doctor visits — particularly for patients in remote locations like the Swedish Archipelago, which is well-served by fiber but not by physicians. Additional benefits: Increased quality in rehabilitation, as compared to rehabilitation without supervision or feedback, as well as increased frequency of therapy and far greater compliance.

Ericsson, whose head office is in Kista Science City, is collaborating with the City of Stockholm, IBM, and Stokab, Stockholm’s dark fiber leasing company, to launch a testbed for responsive city applications that they’re calling the “Urban ICT Arena.” Petra Dalunde, the COO of the Arena, told me that the goal is to make Sweden “future-proof” and ensure that Stockholm is the “Smartest City in the World” as of 2040.

The testbed is a two-kilometer stretch of light posts, physical buses, bus stops, roofs, benches, and other physical facilities that will be served by fiber. The plan is to allow companies to test out how driverless vehicles, cellular communications, low-Fi sensors, and a wide range of physical infrastructure could be platforms for new products and applications — at a cost to each company of only about $2,000 a year for access to the testbed. Pilots will be running by August of this year.

Ericsson representatives told me that their 5G plans (which they say will be rolled out in Stockholm even before a global standard emerges in 2020) will require 100 or 200 gigabit fiber connections every thousand feet or so in cities. They’re delighted to have access to open, nondiscriminatory fiber everywhere in Stockholm, which was the first city to have four competing LTE providers. Stockholm has 150% smartphone penetration.

(Americans used to AT&T’s silence when it comes to the need for high-capacity symmetrical fiber-to-the-home connections will be surprised to learn that it it is indeed possible for mobile cellular providers to be strong allies of fiber installations. At the end of last year, Vodafone pushed publicly, and strongly, for widespread FTTH infrastructure in Europe.)


In Stockholm, I heard from Daniel Forslund, the County of Stockholm’s Commissioner for Innovation and eHealth (the first person to hold such a title in Sweden), about a pilot studying whether elderly or chronically ill people can effectively visit a doctor from home. Because of fiber connectivity, the theory is that they’ll be able to make eye contact with an empathetic, compassionate physician. That same eye contact is vital to the future of the Stockholm virtual reality industry, which is hard at work on eye tracking technology that will make human interactions with digital interfaces even more realistic.

But as I said earlier, there’s a gap between Stockholm and San Francisco as a tech company generator. Here’s what’s not easily available in Stockholm: the kind of generous, well-connected venture capital industry that operates in Silicon Valley; readily affordable housing for young people and immigrants; work permits for non-EU citizens; the ability to effectively use stock options to lure senior people to help young companies; or an agile city government that works effectively behind the walls of city hall — not just through sensors on lightpoles. And, other than in high summer, sunlight.

Between my last extended visit to Stockholm two years ago and now, however, I could tell that things are changing. Stockholm city leaders weren’t eventalking about being a digital city two years ago, and now it’s at the top of the city’s agenda. There’s a new, chic, crowded startup incubator called Epicenterthat is very successfully luring major Nordic corporations to participate in new ventures. Many more people are leaving the U.S. for Stockholm than the other way around, and “programmer” is the most popular job title in the city.

So while I’m not saying that Stockholm has all the answers, and I recognize that the Swedish tax structure would not fly in the U.S., I do see that their approach to fiber infrastructure has readied the city for the decades to come. It’s no joke: Stockholm feels prosperous, energetic, and futuristic. Just think how cities in the U.S. would feel if we had that fiber, too.


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