Niamh Callinan | Europe and Eurasia Fellow
When thinking of Sweden, more often than not, the first idea that comes to mind is Ikea—its large blue and yellow logo, the maze of the store layout and flatpacks. Sweden, however, is more than Ikea; it is in fact an ongoing leader of innovation. Sweden can take credit for a myriad of successful innovations including everyday apps like Spotify, food processing and packaging services like Tetra Pak, oat milk for those who prefer a non-dairy alternative, the walking-frame, and pacemaker.
The Global Innovation Index 2021 ranks Sweden as second only to Switzerland in innovation and notes that both states ‘have remained in the top three of the innovation ranking for more than a decade’. The European Innovation Scoreboard categorically places Sweden as the European Union’s Innovation Leader, with particular emphasis placed on the continuation of Sweden’s leadership within innovation. The county’s education system is indicated to be a contributing factor to this innovation leadership.
Sweden’s government is quite proactive at ensuring Sweden maintains its innovation climate and capacity. The Swedish Innovation Strategy is an exemplary document of the government’s commitment to sustain and grow innovation within Sweden. The Strategy notably identifies education as an important factor in building and establishing skills of entrepreneurship and innovation.
Sweden provides substantive support, promotion and financing in higher education and research, noting such investments to be a crucial element to ensuring the ongoing development of innovation. The ongoing support of innovation and research in the higher education sector is a useful means to promote industry-research collaboration, a key mechanism attributed to enabling and encourage innovation. Sweden also takes this one step further by ensuring the education system supports, teaches and promotes life-long learning, knowledge-based learning, and entrepreneurship.
The current curriculum, introduced in 2011, draws particular attention to the need for students at all ages to be supported in the development of attitudes, such as ‘creativity, curiosity and self-confidence’ which fundamentally promote entrepreneurship. These aspects of education stimulate student’s skills and provides experience in developing ideas and opportunities, leading projects and a business ultimately contributing to the ongoing development of Sweden’s society and future competitiveness. In doing this, Sweden has made substantive efforts to remain a leader of innovation into the long-term.
The focus and inclusion of the attributes and skills associated with innovation from a young age through the education system is clever and well-designed. The model is a means from which future generations are able to contribute to the ongoing innovation practices of the state. Through establishing almost guaranteed innovation in future generations through education, Sweden has quickly set itself up to remain an innovation leader not only in Europe, but globally.
Whilst the education model aims to promote and develop skills to encourage innovation, there are concerns that the current implementation of this model is insufficient. Firstly, the concepts of creatively, curiosity and self-confidence are buzzwords which neatly describe the skills of innovation. However, these are concepts that are broadly defined, open to interpretation as well difficult to identify, measure, and improve. The inclusion of these concepts within the education model to promote innovation is significant, however due to the lack of attention paid to understanding these concepts, the model falls short of providing a substantial framework. This feeds into the second reason this model is insufficient; the model does not provide clear actionable recommendations to ensure the skills of innovation and entrepreneurship are encouraged, developed and established.
Finally, the implementation of the model does not appear to be consistent across Sweden’s education system. The IngenjörsVetenskapsAkademien Entrepreneurship Academy alongside the National Agency for Education and a variety of other stakeholders are undertaking substantive policy work to achieve the vision that ‘entrepreneurship is a common theme throughout the education system’. The work highlights that whilst the model promotes the skills of innovation and entrepreneurship the implementation of the model requires refinement.
The refinement of the model is highly dependent upon the input of stakeholders and the findings of the current policy work being taken by the IVA Entrepreneurship Academy. There are however two main improvements that can be made; firstly, a clear and well-defined understanding of the concepts of innovation and entrepreneurship needs to be addressed; and secondly, stages of how young people can procure these skills needs to be integrated into the model. Whilst measuring the attributes (creativity, curiosity and self-confidence) is highly individual, a general guideline would be useful in providing an overview as to how these attributes and skills can be established. The guideline should include elements of in classroom learning, playground learning and learning whilst at home.
Despite identified gaps in the implementation of the model, it still holds reasonable merit. The introduction and harnessing of life-long learning, knowledge-based learning and skills of entrepreneurship into education from a young age is an intuitive way to secure generations of innovation.
Interestingly, Austria, has been working over the past decade to reform higher education to support entrepreneurship and innovation. Notably, the country has been identified as a strong innovator by the European Innovation Scoreboard. The reforms undertaken by Austria are indicative of the recognition of how incorporating the skills identified by the Swedish model are a means to fundamentally increase innovation.
Sweden’s model of using education to promote skills of entrepreneurship and innovation to ensure the future development of innovation within the nation is highly unique and appears to be fairly effective. As states across Europe look towards building their competitiveness through innovation, Sweden—as an innovation leader-provides a sustainable model which other states can utilise, adopt, and adapt. Perhaps, in 15 years’ time a country like Austria may create an innovative way to produce self-assembling flat-packs.
Niamh Callinan is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.