Instagram Diary from Almedalen 2017

Here are the texts from all my Instagram posts from “Almedalsveckan”, the famous Swedish week of political and (increasingly) marketing activity focused on current social issues — a “festival of opinion” as some call it. For the pictures, visit my Instagram page.

In fact, Almedalen reminds me of the New Orleans Jazz Festival, with talk instead of music as the focus. One wanders from hotel seminar room, to theater ship parked in the harbor, to outdoor stage. Famous faces are everywhere, talking live from outdoor TV studios, passing by on the street. People stage “pop-up” seminars, the offerings are overwhelming in their diversity. “Almedalen” is a park in the tiny city of Visby, on the island of Gotland, in the middle of the Baltic Sea — an idyllic spot famed as a pearl of medieval architecture, with an ancient wall, ruins, cobbled streets, the works. A series of annual summer political speeches delivered here by Olof Palme in the 1960s has grown into this mega-happening of over 4,000 events, generating complaints by some that it has turned the first week of summer vacation in July into a working week. But a pleasant one.

My original Instagram posts are sometimes augmented with later commentary in brackets.

*  *  *

Almedalen! I’m attending Sweden’s famous “political festival” – thousands (literally) of seminars etc. this week. I’m on vacation, here purely out of personal interest, no “assignments”.

Starting the day with a topic close to my heart: water. Lots of friends and colleagues at this opening event, including my wife Kristina. (As head of NMC, Sweden’s leading network for sustainable businesses, she’s working. Note: website mostly in Swedish.) Ingrid Pettersson, who runs one of Sweden’s largest research organizations, FORMAS, has just noted that according to the SDG indicators, Sweden has achieved the goals. But dig just a little deeper, and the light is not green, but blinking red. Action on water = essential for the future, even here in Sweden.

*  *  *

Listening to a debate on Sweden’s cultural politics – always a hot issue, and always guaranteed to be discussed in sophisticated terms, supported by rhetorical gifts. “Grab art by the bleep” is the name of this session. [It turns out that this title was the invention of moderator Alexandra Pascalidou, and a reference to Donald Trump’s recorded boast about being able to grab women by the bleep without negative consequence.]

A worry expressed here: when politicians can’t or won’t talk honestly or deeply about serious issues – growing social problems, climate, etc – then “culture” is expected to deal with it. If you don’t include “social sustainability” in your grant application, you don’t get the money. Real dialogue is outsourced to theater, dance etc. But art should be free to lift the universal, not be expected to function as an opinion article in the newspaper.

Then the conversation gets tougher. Culture should be like the stand-up comedy branch, says actor-comedian Öz Nujen: if you’re not funny you disappear.

Another voice: art – expression of oneself – is a human right, the state must pay for it, and only when marginalized voices start to (finally) find a place and a voice, that is when other political forces start arguing against state support.

Tough debate. Laughter, and anger. But the best, most lively and “real” conversation I’ve heard so far. #riksteatern

*  *  *

Ministers in blue jeans: welcome to #Almedalen where Ardalan Shekarabi & others present govt’s new action plan for #SDGs.

[Shekarabi, the guy with the t-shirt and beard in the middle, is “Civil Minister” in Sweden and a lead promoter of the 2030 Agenda, especially at the local level. He’s a charismatic presence, though when I saw him later in the day, he seemed thoroughly worn out. That’s why I felt compelled to stop him on the street a few minutes later and just say “thank you” for his hard work to promote the world’s most important agenda.

Almedalen reminds me of the New Orleans Jazz Festival, with talk instead of music as the focus

Sweden’s government picked Almedalsveckan to release its new action plan for the SDGs, focusing on six key areas: 1. An equal and equitable society, 2. Sustainable cities, 3. A circular economy that contributes to the wellbeing of society, 4. Strong industry with sustainable business models, 5. Sustainable and healthy food, and 6. Strong knowledge and innovation.

FYI, they were a bit upstaged by Volvo Cars, which simultaneously released news that all its vehicles would have electric motors by 2019 — which landed the company on the front page of the Financial Times. Of course, Volvo didn’t mean electric-only: their cars will be mostly hybrids for some years to come, and still dependent on fossil fuel to go serious distances. But it’s still a major global first for a car company, and a great indicator of where things are going.]

*  *  *

At #Almedalen watching IBM’s Watson recommend treatments for breast cancer. Maybe in the future, the supercomputers and robots will meet here instead?

[This session was basically a presentation by an IBM representative of the Watson medical application. It was impressive. Watson, a self-programming supercomputer famous for beating humans at Jeopardy, can crunch through the vast flow of new research coming out in the scientific press and find treatment options that even the best human doctors just haven’t managed to learn about yet. This was one of several sessions I attended — or tried to attend — on how artificial intelligence is changing our society. They were popular and often over-subscribed.]

*  *  *

72% of Swedish companies say they have “upgraded their business model” as part of their sustainability work, up from 65% 4 years ago. The percentage of those who find profit in sustainability is also up by a lot. This I learned while sitting in the auditorium of a theater-ship at Almedalen, listening to a who’s who in Swedish sustainable business.

It’s great news, of course. But panelists say that in 10 years, most companies will realize that this was “a first recalibration in a much longer journey” of transformation.

*  *  *

Now I’m in a basement – on a suddenly sunny day – listening to a seminar on the 2030 Agenda and the #SDGs at the local government level. @IdaTexell who serves on the national delegation for the SDGs is describing the 6 priority areas that were chosen by the delegation, and why the municipal is critical.

The big news? How popular this topic is. The cellar is bursting with folk, out the back and up the stairs. The person beside me works on sustainability in Malmö. When I noted that things have changed a lot in 30 years of sustainability work – from a lonely few to millions and millions of people engaged – she says, “it’s certainly better than if the process had gone in the opposite direction.”

*  *  *

Getting out of classic sustainability issues, to defense. American Chamber of Commerce in Sweden (“AmCham”, my firm is a member) is sponsoring a seminar on US-Swedish cooperation. What I’ve learned so far: 50% of SAAB’s JAS Gripen fighter jet is American components. (That was a surprise.) Technology exchange is important for both countries, as well as intel. Sweden’s military is small, but professional, and strategically important. There is no formal military alliance – Sweden is not a NATO member, and is officially neutral – but the country cooperates with NATO and the US, not only in the Baltic but in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

Then the talk gets real and a bit tougher. The US “would have to do the job” if Sweden were attacked (presumably by Russia); and Swedish airspace is so important to any defense of the Baltic states, that Sweden is a likely strategic target in case of crisis or war. Hence, cooperation.
And of course, there is a significant business aspect. Boeing and SAAB are building a new fighter jet together.

Everyone on this panel is “optimistic about Swedish-American cooperation. It’s happening, it will continue.” Not to fight a war, they are quick to point out, but to avoid one.

The risk level? Higher than one might think, because of a “drastic” build-up of Russian military capability, the huge gap between that buildup and the current state of Swedish capability and EU readiness, and of course the risk of surprises. (And, I would add, accidents.)

*  *  *

I pounded the ancient pavement all day at #Almedalen, attended 7 seminars and a mingle, met many old friends, made some new ones, bumped into a couple of clients, and personally thanked a minister (Shekarabi, I bumped into him on the street) for his untiring efforts to promote the SDGs. (In Sweden we defer to Agenda 2030, in English it’s called the 2030 Agenda and/or the SDGs.)

What a thing: a “festival of opinion”, real democracy in action. And everything worked smoothly, on time. I didn’t see a glitch anywhere. And #sustainability was clearly the dominant theme, it’s thoroughly mainstreamed, the transformation is well under way here in Sweden. Hooray for Almedalen!

*  *  *

New topic: biohacking. Transhumanism. This seminar is called “The perfect human: no longer science fiction.”

We can design life, redesign ourselves genetically. Should we?

“We’ve gone from theory of evolution TO intelligent design,” says a famous YouTuber and proponent, and this claim sets the stage, in a provocative way, for the Archbishop of the Church of Sweden (waiting in the wings). We can design life, redesign ourselves genetically. Should we? Who decides? In China, studies have already started, on live human subjects, to modify genes in stem cells (if I heard right) in order to treat cancer. Should Sweden do the same?

Now comes the Archbishop herself. She’s surprisingly positive about all this. Humans are “co-creators” with the Creator, and the church can help with the “really long-term questions”, such as who should get access to these new technologies, and who should pay. “We have 2,000 years of experience to lean on” in tackling complex ethical issues, she reminds us.

After the church comes the state. A government representative tells us, “Swedes are very positive to technology generally.” Sweden is the first country to offer complete genetic sequencing of all newborns, as a way to check for genetic diseases that might need treatment. But the state wants to make sure that the technology is used to help people – cure disease etc – and that all have access, that we don’t create class differences based on economic access.

Risks? Oh, my, yes. Not least, the “slippery slope” to racist eugenics. But the YouTubing transhumanist says, wait: it’s not a slippery slope, but a rocket ramp! We can create incredible human diversity with help of technology – people who fit into all kinds of environments. Presumably bearing all kinds of colors on their skin etc.

Finally, a little philosophy from the Archbishop (whose belief in God and eternal life has been gently questioned by the government official, who is clearly nonreligious): “Of course we strive for perfection, “she says. “But if everyone at Almedalen was perfect, how fun would it be to have this discussion?”

*  *  *

Sunset in Visby. The #Almedalen tents are being taken down. Actually there are a couple days still to go, but somehow it feels over.

Main message: sustainability is thoroughly mainstream.

Sustainability was the hottest topic here – hundreds of sessions (out of 4,000 total events), followed by digitalization. That’s right: sustainability “beat” digitalization. Of course, not everything I heard was interesting, relevant, “serious”. There was a lot of crowing and taking credit for the dawn. A lot of pure marketing and salesmanship using the S word as buzzword.

But that’s what happens when something goes mainstream. You get the good, the bad, and the cynical (the ugly). As I try to remind others as well as myself: this is what victory looks like. Institutionalization. Normal. The highs and lows – and long slogs – of real life.

“Sustainability is for Everyone”.

(FYI, an updated 2nd edition of my 2013 bestseller with that title will be released shortly.)

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