This week, the epicenter of Swedish politics and business temporarily moved from Stockholm to Visby, on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. Taking place in July every year, the Almedalen Week attracts some 45,000 visitors to the old Hanseatic town, who attend workshops, speeches, debates and receptions in pop-up locations like shops, gardens and warehouses.
It all started 51 years ago when future Prime Minister Olof Palme gave a speech en route to his summer holiday. The other parties soon followed, but for many years it was an event stretching over one or a few days attracting only professional politicians. Journalists came along to report upon what they discussed.
Around the millennium, NGOs and lobbying groups started to come. Companies then saw the opportunity to meet with a range of their stakeholder groups. With social media added to the mix by the 2010s, the week had evolved into its present format – a combination of politics and business, professionalism and party.
One could argue that the Almedalen Week is very Swedish in its forms – equal, consensus driven and based on dialogue. But it is also informal and intimate. And most important, focused on contributing to democracy.
This has drawn some international interest through the years. Foreign delegations have visited to see what goes on, and some countries have created similar venues.
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Crowds listen to opposition leader Ulf Kristersson during Almedalen week. Photo: Henrik Montgomery / TT
But there could be more. In these times of misconceptions towards the elites, the rural-urban divide and higher tensions in the public debate, an Almedalen Week would be healthy for every Western democracy. The recent political development has proven the need for inclusiveness, established political movements to renew and the public dialogue to be reinstated.
Sweden is by all means no exception to these developments, but the impact is probably less due to Almedalen Week. In several ways, it benefits Swedish politics and business.
For one thing, it gives anyone access to politicians and business leaders. The week could be described as a national mini-Davos Conference, but then again not quite. An almost complete “Who’s who?” of Swedish politics, business, administration and journalism gets on to planes and ferries to go there. But they are not alone. A broad layer of grass-root activists from even the most niche of NGO’s attend the week as well. So do citizens with no affiliation but just an interest in a specific question or society in general.
The seminars are free of charge and open to anyone, and there is no requirement to sign up in advance or get accreditation. In the medieval streets and tight restaurant terraces, these grassroots activists are back-to-back with government ministers and top CEOs. The culture is open-minded, allowing anyone to ask a question or express an opinion.
The discussions develop policies and advance the public debate. With several thousand programme items, it may not come as a surprise that most policy fields, public issues and societal challenges are covered. The seminars are opportunities for the main stakeholders in all fields of Swedish society to meet, and focus on idea creation in a way that is not possible in the daily life.
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A parade organized during Almedalen to celebrate diversity and tolerance. Photo: Henrik Montgomery / TT
It leads to unexpected meetings and cooperation. The mix of spheres and an open mindset is a terrific environment for unexpected meetings across dividing lines and conventional groupings. It is not only civil society and citizens getting access to politicians and business leaders, it is the other way round as well.
It is a platform for knowledge sharing. Most of the seminars bring more than just one speaker to the stage. Having five panelists or more is not unusual. This means that some 20,000-30,000 expert perspectives and insights are added to the discussion during the week, educating leaders about fields they may know little or nothing about, or about fields they work with already or simply can just get inspired by. It is a marvellous knowledge-sharing exercise, and its effect on Swedish decision making should not be underestimated.
It helps leaders make better strategic decisions. In a time with disruptive technologies, climate challenge and other mega-trends reshaping business, environments like this are crucial.
That's why this could be the next innovative export product from Sweden. An Isle of Wight Week in the UK or Rügen Week in Germany will not be full solutions to the crisis of democracy, but they could be a part of it.
Erik Zsiga is director at Kekst CNC in Sweden, former Press Secretary and Spokesperson to Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Global Head of Media Relations at Electrolux.