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Reader’s story: How I adapted to Sweden’s cashless society

Learn Swedish. Get a personnummer. Go cashless. Moving to a new country means going through a series of 'firsts'. The Local's reader Alexander de Nerée writes about some of the challenges, quirks and adventures he has faced since moving to Sweden.

a hand rejecting Swedish banknotes
Once you go cashless, can you ever go back, asks a The Local reader in this column. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

I’ve lived in Sweden for almost a year now. I did my daily groceries, took taxis, went on public transport, ordered take away and even bought an apartment. Despite all these transactions, I can honestly say I would not know what a krona looks like for the simple reason that I’ve never seen one. Well, as a paper napkin once, but that wasn’t legal tender.

Before moving, I had heard about Sweden going cashless and Stockholm being the pilot city for that experiment. But I was sceptical. It sounded like something governments say to make themselves seem more modern and digital. It is also something banks like to say to justify closing branch offices.

Maybe my scepticism stemmed from having lived in Hong Kong which is incredibly cash focused and where many transactions were still settled by cheque as if it were the 80s. This was not improved by living in Switzerland where I worked at a bank. The bank was always propagating to its clients to do all their banking online and not bother with cash. The Swiss senior bankers, and the Swiss themselves in general, would walk around with hundreds of Francs in cash in their wallets; just in case they felt the urge to buy a second-hand car at short notice, I presumed.

The adjustment to full cashless feels a little like when they banned smoking from restaurants and bars: at first you think it will be weird. After about two weeks of going to smokeless restaurants, you wondered what maniac allowed people to smoke inside while you were having dinner in the first place.

The same goes for cash when you think about it. Your employer puts the money in your bank account. You queue at an ATM to get it out and then when you go to buy groceries, you give it to a supermarket who then bring it back to their bank in an armoured truck, who put it in the supermarket’s bank account. Why not take the money from your bank account and put it in the supermarket’s bank account directly and cut out the circus in the middle?

After 11 months of no cash, I’m completely adjusted and excited. I happily bleep and Swish and don’t miss the pot of coins on my desk in the slightest. It also seems that Swedish society has adapted well. Except at Systembolaget, where someone occasionally pays with cash, nearly everyone from young to old pays with their phone or card without blinking.

This made me wonder why Sweden seems so far ahead of other countries in this regard. One thing a colleague mentioned was a clever safety angle used to push the cashless society. An abundance of cash everywhere is a risk for those handling it. It’s the same reason most countries justified the smoking ban: health and safety of staff working in restaurants and bars.

In addition, I suspect that Swedes enjoy the modernity of abandoning the pot of coins on their desks to lead the way to the cashless future ahead of the rest of the world.

Alexander de Nerée moved to Stockholm with his husband in October 2020. He is Dutch, but moved from Zürich, Switzerland, after having lived in Hong Kong for 10 years. Signing up to move to a country they had never been to, in the middle of a global pandemic, was definitely a first for the couple. One of many more to come. Alexander writes for The Local about his “firsts” in Sweden.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Sweden’s second city is the site of Scandinavia’s largest urban development project. But there is rising concern that the costs outweigh the benefits, says David Crouch

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Last week, residents in the area of Fågelsången (birdsong), a quiet street at the very heart of Sweden’s second city, woke up to read the following news: “Explosions at Fågelsången: On August 8, week 32, we start blasting around Fågelsången and are expected to be done by week 40. When blasting, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to go out, open their windows or be within the blasting area. We will work weekdays 7am to 5pm.” 

Blasting deep holes in the granite – along with sprawling roadworks – has been the reality for central Gothenburgers for the past four years, as a vast rail tunnel is being dug to link the current terminus with other parts of the city and enable smoother connections with other routes. The aim is to triple rail passenger numbers and eliminate traffic jams on the main road through the city, at a cost of 20 billion crowns (€1.9 billion).

This railway, known as Västlänken (the West Link), is not the only big construction project in the city centre. It is just the largest element in a gigantic scheme to revive the docks area along the river, which was destroyed by a global shipping crisis in the 1970s. The great rusting cranes opposite the opera house and the disused Eriksberg gantry are an important aspect of Gothenburg’s skyline and self-image. The areas on the north bank were also home to many recent immigrants and a byword for poverty. The city’s mayor famously, and shamefully, referred to it as “the Gaza strip”.

So in 2012 the city launched an ambitious plan. Christened Älvstaden, the RiverCity, municipal investment aimed to build an attractive, modern waterfront while creating tens of thousands of homes and jobs. It is by far the Nordic region’s biggest urban regeneration project. A YouTube video commissioned by the city authorities a few years later neatly sums up both the breathtaking scope of this vision and the exciting / brutal (choose your own adjective here) nature of the transformation it would bring: 

The RiverCity revolved around two flagship projects: a new bridge over the river, the Hisingsbron (Hisingen Bridge), combined with major new office developments right in the centre; and Karlatornet, Sweden’s tallest skyscraper, which would literally tower over Gothenburg like a beacon of modernity in a city that traditionally has had strict rules against high-rise buildings. 

Add to all this a proposed high-speed rail link with Stockholm, and you have a recipe for quite spectacular urban upheaval involving billions of tons of steel and concrete. Visit Gothenburg today and much of the city seems to have been turned into a building site. There is a forest of cranes, while smart new office blocks puncture the skyline – a genuine metamorphosis is under way.

But many Gothenburgers are either uneasy or downright unhappy. The RiverCity is a vanity project to gentrify the docklands, they say. Karlatornet’s 73 stories of luxury apartments will be a scar on the landscape and a symbol of Gothenburg’s new love affair with finance and real estate, a slap in the face for the city’s proud industrial values. Västlänken is a vit elefant, a costly project that will deliver questionable benefits, many believe.  

Opposition to Västlänken was such that a new political party, the Democrats, took 17 percent of the vote in 2018 with its headline demand to stop the project immediately. This caused a revolution in local politics, overturning decades of Social Democrat rule. 

And now the gloss on these big-ticket construction projects is starting to fade. Karlatornet was the first to run into trouble. For most of 2020 building work was at a standstill, raising the threat that this flagship of regeneration would be nothing more than an unfinished stump, after American financiers pulled out of the project. The new Hisingen Bridge is open to traffic, but its construction was fraught with setbacks and the final cost to the taxpayer is still unknown. “There has been an awareness from the start that this was a high-risk project,” one of the project’s bosses said ominously this spring.

RiverCity is more than two billion kronor over budget, and facing accusations of mismanagement that evoke Gothenburg’s old nickname of Muteborg, or Bribetown, after a proliferation of municipal companies in the 1970s led to conflicts of interest, with politicians sitting on company boards. Opponents of the scheme argue that in any case it is unlikely to solve any of the city’s fundamental problems, such as the ethnic segregation that has created immigrant ghettos in outlying suburbs.  

In May, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published leaked minutes from Västlänken management meetings in which one of the main contractors on the project said it would be delivered billions over budget and four years later than its official 2026 deadline – in other words, four more years of earth-shattering explosions, roadblocks and associated upheaval. With local elections only months away, the Democrats have taken out advertisements on billboards and in local media demanding that top politicians tell the truth about what is going on. For opponents of the scheme, this is exactly what they have warned of all along

Next June, Gothenburg will officially celebrate its 400th anniversary, postponed from 2021 because of the pandemic. Visitors will experience a city on the move, with pristine new motorways and sparkling office blocks. So for Gothenburg’s urban planners, there is light at the end of the development tunnel. In the case of Västlänken, however, they will be hoping that the light is indeed that of an oncoming train. 

David Crouch has lived in Gothenburg for nine years. He is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It, a freelance journalist and lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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