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Green industry makes Swedish Luleå try to grow three times faster

Green industry makes Swedish Luleå try to grow three times faster

| Text: Fayme Alm, photo: Cata Portin

There is a race on in Northern Sweden. Enormous investments in new technology give the largest of the Nordic countries the chance to compete with others to be the first to kickstart the green transition. It is a challenge for businesses and for civil society.

“Nobody remembers a coward.”

The statement comes from Anna Lindh Wikblad, the Municipal Chief Executive for Luleå municipality since 2020.  

“I say it every day. Nobody remembers a coward. To manage this we have to be bold. So much is happening and it is so complex with so many timescales that we must make crucial decisions on half-ready data. If we don’t, we will be overtaken by developments. Courage is one of our most important assets right now,” she says. 

Anna Lindh Wikblad welcomes the Nordic Labour Journal at the Luleå city hall. The city is on the coast of Norrbotten, Sweden’s northernmost county. It is less than two hours by car to Haparanda and its twin city Tornio on the Finnish side, and some 150 kilometres from the Arctic circle. 

A new industrial strategy for Sweden

The courage Wikblad is alluding to is the decision-making capacity of all municipal sectors that she considers to be necessary to be an efficient and well-functioning municipality as Northern Sweden is investing tens of millions of kronor. Money that should help with the green transition and create new jobs. 

All this is in line with the industrial strategy presented in March by the Minister for Business, Industry and Innovation, Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson, called “The Future Industrial Strategy”. By encouraging this green and digital transition “we increase Sweden’s competitiveness and preparedness, we strengthen Sweden while jobs with good conditions are created across the entire country”, the Minister said.

In Norrbotten, the way this strategy is being put into action is particularly noticeable. H2 Green Steel and Hybrit are two companies that want to manufacture fossil-free steel using hydrogen gas. In Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost municipality, the LKAB mining company is testing out fossil-free iron ore extraction. And in Luleå, LKAB has its ReeMAP project which aims to recycle mining waste. This is also where Facebook is busy creating its third server farm. The first one was ready in 2011. The company’s Luleå data centre is now Europe’s largest, according to the Luleå municipality. 

Hoping to attract "the Gretas" 

The Municipal Chief Executive is in no doubt that Luleå municipality is interesting enough to attract people to work in the new industries. By being part of the green transition, the city can attract those who Anna Lindh Wikblad calls “the Gretas”, alluding to Greta Thunberg.

“This is the type of people who want to come here. Those who want ‘to save the world a little’. We also have those who appreciate the contrasts of this place. The dark winters. The light summers. Concert one day. Silence in the forest the next.”

Luleå woman by the water

Luleå is also a place that is characterised by what she calls a big smallness. Around two-thirds of the municipality’s nearly 79,000 citizens live in this urban centre. You can get anywhere within ten minutes, says Anna Lindh Wikblad, and explains that the busy pedestrian street is a result of the municipality’s decision to limit the number of out-of-town shopping centres. 

“The municipality has been persistent and managed to strike a very good balance when it comes to retail, through smart planning and by daring to take a stand. Retail can compete itself out of existence without the right measures,” she says.

Luleå pedestrian street

Anna Lindh Wikblad knows what she is talking about. She graduated with a master of engineering specialising in community construction technology from the Luleå University of Technology, and has worked as a community planner and project leader in the municipality. 

“Building a community is the driving force, this is what is really fun,” she says. Wikblad is not originally from Norrbotten, but comes from the county to the south, Västerbotten. She was born and raised in Skellefteå, the municipality that is leading the way in the Swedish transition.  

“I am following what happens there closely to see what we can learn from them,” she says.

Factor 3

Courage is one important parameter for Luleå in its drive to become a sustainable and attractive municipality that can attract a lot of workers to the region’s new and expanding enterprises. Another parameter is what Anna Lindh Wikblad and the municipality call Factor 3. This is a term that emerged after October 2021 when the municipal executive board decided to move the deadline for the overarching goals from 2050 to 2040. 

The decision was made because the big drive for a green transition depends on no less than 100,000 persons to fill the new jobs being created in Northern Sweden. 27,000 of these are jobs in new industries, and the rest are jobs in sectors that the first group will need access to – schools, health care, transport and more.  

“As a society, we must keep pace and deliver change in parallel with the large investments and all the new jobs. That is why we brought forward our deadline for meeting our goals by ten years,” says Wikblad. 

This means turning up the tempo for everything the municipality does from now on. Partly to facilitate the green transition, partly to speed up the democratic process, explains Anna Lindh Wikblad. 

“Everything in the municipality will grow threefold and the development and decision-making process must happen three times as fast as before,” she says and mentions the necessary population growth as an example. 

“On average, the population has grown by 400 people annually in recent years. With the transition we need Factor 3, so that the increase will be 1,200 per year,” she says.

Closer relations with business

One of the political focus areas in Luleå is the relationship between the municipality and businesses. Wikblad says the municipality needs to be more present and apply an agile methodology to identify where improvements can be made. 

She particularly emphasises the importance of creating trust through meeting the businesses that are already there, and explaining to them that they are the most important ambassadors the municipality has. This goes for both service providers and subcontractors as well as what Anna Lind Wikblad calls the “mega industries”. The municipality’s motto as an employer is “Everyone matters”.

“We work with new types of dialogue to see what changes are needed in the way we treat businesses. We have been doing this for a year and will carry out a survey to measure how things are going,” says Anna Lindh Wikblad.  

Getting rid of the silo mentality

Another challenge is how to get rid of the silo mentality in the municipality when development must go three times faster.  

Silo mentality is when units have parallel systems with their own employees and management that do not need to cooperate with other units. It is a vertical structure that does not promote horizontal processes.

“We solve nothing with a silo mentality. Instead, we must be innovative and share new ideas between us within the municipality and find out where the conflicts lie. Silo mentality is a threat and only allows you to work with one issue at a time,” says Anna Lindh Wikblad.

She believes it is important to have the ability to present the complex issues all at once and to gather the talents that do not normally work together while avoiding quarrelling about which values are more important and instead identifying the values that can coexist.

Cooperation on a county level too

Norrbotten’s Governor since February 2021, Lotta Finstorp, also focuses on cooperation and new models. Like all of Sweden’s governors, she was appointed by the government with a mandate to monitor developments and inform the government of the county's needs.

“I see it as my mission to keep the county together when several major industrial developments are being established along the coast. In Älvsbyn and in Arjeplog we have car testing companies that are important to the green transition because they are testing car batteries in an Arctic environment. In Älvsbyn we also have Polarbröd’s bakery with its own wind power plant which helps it produce its own electricity,” says the Governor. 

Lotta Finstorp welcomes the Nordic Labour Journal in the Norrbotten residency in Luleå. The county covers nearly one-quarter of the whole of Sweden. Here you find the massive highland areas sometimes marketed as The Swedish Arctic. 

“It is here, in Northern Sweden, that we will solve the climate challenges. This is where the green revolution is taking place, but sometimes it seems there is more interest from abroad than from elsewhere in Sweden. It is as if Norrbotten was in hibernation, but nothing could be further from the truth,” says Lotta Finstorp. 

The Green Wonder

But the green transition in the North has gathered international attention. So much that Lotta Finstorp has hosted several diplomats and other visitors from near and far since starting her job in February 2021. 

“Norway’s ambassador has been here, as has Denmark’s. And ambassadors from France, Indonesia and Japan. As well as 22 out of the EU’s 27 ambassadors, who came all at once. They all come to learn how The Green Wonder will come to pass. This is a venture that will reduce CO2 emissions and create more sustainable products and processes. And not least a lot of new jobs, says the Governor.

“The rest of the world knows that this is where the green transition is actually happening, while it all seems to attract less attention elsewhere in Sweden.

Skellefteå in Västerbotten, the county bordering Norrbotten in the south, is getting good national publicity, however. The city has created headlines with its spectacular timber cultural centre and the construction of Northvolt’s battery factory. Headlines or not, what is happening is happening in the name of saving the climate. So too in Norrbotten.

High-level network

To carry out social changes with massive investments in industry and personnel, you need cooperation on several levels. Lotta Finstorp has therefore further developed a network that she inherited from the former Governor.

The new network is called AGON – Accelerated Green Transition in Norrbotten (Accelererad grön omställning i Norrbotten in Swedish). It is made up of high-level individuals representing 13 businesses. A government representative for social change is also participating when larger companies are setting up shop or when existing companies are expanding in Norrbotten and Västerbotten. 

“It is interesting when the businesses, armed forces and municipalities meet. The network members hold the highest positions in their respective companies. Within the network there is an acceptance that is important for mutual cooperation,” says Finstorp.

When the members actually gather around the Governor’s table every six weeks, they discuss what has happened since the last time they met and talk through what they can do to accelerate the green transition – for industry and for civil society. 

“I am a social worker and have always put people who need to talk together around a table. We who are part of this enormous change must think big and beyond the short-term processes. We talk about the positive developments and then we ask whether we can do things differently. We are simply participants who seek new ways of cooperating. Cooperation is important,” says Lotta Finstorp.

She is not at all surprised that the new, big industrialisation is happening in Northern Sweden. She sees an entrepreneurial attitude similar to the "Kamprad spirit" in Småland (Ingvar Kamprad was the founder of IKEA), and industrialism 2.0 – as she calls the green transition – is similar to the first.

“Everything was here back then, and it is here now. Access to natural and human resources ready to knuckle down and get to work,” says Lotta Finstorp, and brings up the Bank Hall in the old parliament building in Stockholm.

“In the ceiling there you will find two frescos depicting what created Sweden’s riches. One shows Southern Sweden with its agriculture. The other shows the North with its forests, iron ore and watercourses. Northern Sweden has delivered for hundreds of years and will continue to do so,” says the Governor of Norrbotten.

Anna Lindh Wikblad

has been the Municipal Chief Executive for Luleå municipality since 2020.  

Facts about Luleå municipality

Read more about Luleå municipality here

Coordinator for Norrbotten and Västerbotten

In December 2020, the Swedish government employed a coordinator for Norrbotten and Västerbotten with a mandate to “promote the coordination of measures important to the creation of larger industries and the expansion of existing industries in both counties” as the press release said.


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