Meet the Swedish innovators turning their dreams into worldwide positive impact

How do you go about saving the world? The Local meets two innovators not deterred by the daunting task of making global positive impact to find out how they did it.

Meet the Swedish innovators turning their dreams into worldwide positive impact
Better Shelter housing for refugees in Syria. Photo: supplied

Some inspiring people daily try to tackle looming issues through their work, with promising results. From helping farmers in developing countries better plan for drought to providing refugees with durable, dignified shelter – real change is happening.

The Local speaks to two ‘social entrepreneurs’, Louise Croneborg-Jones of Water In Sight and Johan Karlsson of Better Shelter, both graduates of the Stockholm School of Economics, about their work, and how the MBA they earned at SSE gave them the tools they needed to effect real, positive change. 

Global problems 

After a career in finance, Louise had a clear understanding of what she wanted to achieve: she wanted to tackle climate change by better understanding one of the world’s most precious commodities – water. She had an idea to streamline and improve rain measurements across developing nations, a key indicator of climate change. The data gathered would not only serve to assist agriculture and conservation but could also warn of potential humanitarian disasters.

Louise even had the SMS-based frameworks necessary already developed that would allow those on the ground to send a simple text message. This would bypass the need for internet access – something lacking in many remote regions. 

“I spent most of my career working in international development for the World Bank. My focus was water – how it is supplied, and how we measure rainfall. This has implications not only for developing countries but for global economics and food supply. 

“What I noticed is that mobile phone technology was not being leveraged to monitor rainfall in remote and less-developed areas – this could vastly increase the number of readings taken in the field, which would assist in resource management and disaster preparation.

“I kept thinking I’d love to research this and identify how I could bring more innovation to bear on this issue. I dabbled with the idea of doing a PhD, but I realised that I wanted to do something more practical.”

How does an Executive MBA help you change the world for the better? Learn more about how the Stockholm Schools of Economics helps innovators apply knowledge to real-world challenges

Louise Croneborg-Jones of Water in Sight, left, and Johan Karlsson of Better Shelter, right. Photos: Supplied

Likewise, fellow Swede Johan Karlsson had a very clear idea of a problem that he wanted to address. 

“I am by training an industrial designer – I graduated from Konstfack (University of Arts) here in Stockholm. As an industrial designer in Sweden, there are not that many companies that you can work for. I mean, you have Electrolux and IKEA and I did a bit of commission work for them. 

“By accident, I became involved with a project that dealt with disaster relief and housing refugees. I was incredibly surprised and shocked by what we were sending to house refugees – they were ancient, like the tents that my grandmother would use!

“I had a chat with IKEA about the subject and they suggested I go into business to try to solve the problem, and invited me to speak to their foundation – appropriate considering that their mission is that ‘hope begins at home’. 

“Consequently, I developed a shelter that is a lot more comfortable and durable than previous shelters. Some refugees have lived in shelters for more than a quarter of a century, so this is a significant issue. I wanted to make sure we could provide safety and dignity and a better living space for those who need it the most.

What united Louise and Johan at this point was not only their enthusiasm for social impact but also a lack of expertise regarding how to go about making their ideas a reality. 

In Louise’s words: “If you’re coming from a specific field – maybe you’re addressing a specific environmental issue – you’ll bring with you certain expertise and passion.

“That means you’ve often got a lot of knowledge in dealing with a problem, but rarely have the ability or time to focus on organisational management and accounting. However, those are the core building blocks of any organisation, whether you’re in the public or private sphere.”

Johan also admits that he had little understanding of business: “Coming from a background in fine art and industrial design, I couldn’t read financial statements or understand ideas such as value creation. I didn’t have the tools that would allow me to plan and analyse what challenges I faced in establishing a business.”

Without a concrete understanding of how organisations operate, and how finance dictates the development of products and services, it seemed that their ideas would remain just that: ideas. 

The Stockholm School of Economics campus, where Lousie and Johan completed their Executive MBA. Photo: SSE

A Swedish solution 

The solution came when  Louise and Johan decided to complete an Executive MBA at the Stockholm School of Economics. Both indicate that studying for the qualification allowed them for the first time to understand how to both manage an organisation and plan for its growth. 

Johan reflects: “The MBA gave me an understanding of the basic components of running any organisation. That was very new to me and enabled me to plan much better. I could also evaluate our systems and operations to see if they were working or not. 

“It made it easier for me to coordinate and communicate our business strategy with our other stakeholders.”

Louise feels similarly: “When you do an Executive MBA you’re learning about how organisations grow and change, as well as financial management. This allows you to broaden the breadth of what you can achieve.

“I highly recommend it. The funny thing is, most of the people in our class came out expressing how interesting and fun they found the accounting components – a subject that many of my colleagues hadn’t considered since they were at school.

One aspect that both Louise and Johan highlighted is the value of the network they developed during the MBA, which influences their work long after they graduated. 

Says Louise: “I have access to a wide network of fellow alumni, lecturers and other partners that have helped my efforts grow tremendously. 

“What I appreciate about it is that it is very research-focused, I can draw upon the latest thought leadership and work alongside other organisations very easily. 

“I would say it has given me a toolbox, one for tasks I didn’t even know about!”

For Johan, the networks he gained while completing his Executive MBA have helped him develop the funding sources he needed to make his product a reality.

“We have long-term investors on board right now that we did not have. I think this was a result of learning to articulate our strategy and execute it, in partnership with my MBA networks.

“It was great to meet other people who had been working across several areas, and for much longer than I had, I learned so much from it.” 

Changing Lives: Samson Phiri collects rainfall data for Water In Sight in Malawi while children play in front of a Better Shelter in a Syrian refugee camp. Photos: Supplied

Worldwide benefits  

Following the completion of their Executive MBA, both Louise and Johan have established enterprises that are transforming and empowering lives across the globe. 

With a little help from the IKEA Foundation, Johan established Better Shelter, which now supplies the UN Refugee Agency, among other relief agencies, and has deployed over 70,000 buildings in 78 nations.

Working with national governments, they have been able to leverage logistics networks to deliver life-saving accommodation within hours of a disaster or crisis. 

Most recently, they have been providing victims of the Ukrainian war shelter and a sense of stability. Refugees fleeing the conflict have also been able to access pop-up shelters in Czechia and Poland. 

Reflecting on his journey, Johan credits his MBA as central to the success of Better Shelter: “I think we’ve been able to set up a robust company that is ready for growth.

I’ve gained the tools that were needed to articulate strategies and effectively run our organisation. It’s created stability and we’re now in a very healthy position.”

The completion of an Executive MBA also helped Louise to establish Water In Sight. The company now operates in both Malawi and Mozambique, their SMS technology and tech infrastructure allowing locals to vastly increase the number of data collections they can carry out. 

As a consequence, local farmers and officials have a better understanding of water demands, and the company has a data product that it can sell to governments. This has allowed Water In Sight to greatly expand. 

“We’ve been able to leverage mobile phone technology to digitise the collection of valuable data. In our first two phases, we’ve demonstrated that this solution works across large geographical areas. Now we can expand into southern Africa with the technology.

“My MBA led to the very natural creation of our tech start-up. It’s been a great foundation for me to achieve my vision and build upon it from there.”

Have you been inspired by the stories of Louise and Johan? Learn more about how Stockholm School of Economics prepared them to address some of the world’s most pressing problems

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Why prisoners in Sweden can no longer study at university

Sweden scrapped university-level teaching for incarcerated people with a high school diploma almost four years ago. US-based reporter Charlotte West looks into the reasons behind the decision in an article published in partnership with Open Campus.

Why prisoners in Sweden can no longer study at university

Those involved with criminal justice reform in the United States understandably gaze across the Atlantic with envy.

With an approach more often focused on rehabilitation than punishment, the Nordic countries beat most of the rest of the world on almost all metrics, ranging from incarceration rates to recidivism. Earlier this year, California governor Gavin Newsom drew inspiration from “the Norwegian model” in his plans for transforming San Quentin – the state’s oldest prison and home to its death row – into a centre of rehabilitation.

But it’s easy to put the Nordic countries up on a pedestal – and to lump them all together. You might be surprised to learn that in Swedish prisons, for example, university-level education was eliminated in 2019.

Approximately 30 people per year were enrolled in higher education prior to that decision. Since then, there have been no academic opportunities available to incarcerated people who already have a high school diploma.

That’s different from Sweden’s Nordic neighbours. The 2014 Norwegian Education Act guarantees prisoners access to education. People incarcerated at some Finnish prisons can enrol in online classes in high-demand fields such as artificial intelligence, and in Denmark, incarcerated people at some prisons can earn college credit alongside outside students who visit the prison.

As of 2022, there were approximately 6,150 people incarcerated in Swedish prisons, according to the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention. 

Educating those who have had the fewest opportunities

The shift away from higher education in prison was a pragmatic decision, rather than a political one.

Lena Broo, an adult education expert at the Swedish prison service, told Open Campus that about half of the prison population has less than a grade-school education and officials decided to concentrate their resources on giving those who have had the fewest opportunities the best chance of success once they got out. That means incarcerated people in Sweden can earn up to a high-school diploma while inside. 

“To have any kind of chance in today’s job market, the minimum requirement is basically a high school education,” Broo wrote in an email. “That’s what Kriminalvården [The Swedish Prison and Probation Service] is focusing on.”

The prison service has a system-wide network of “learning centres”. The curriculum is the same as that offered through the municipal adult education system, known as Komvux.

The instructional model is hybrid; incarcerated students take computer-based classes offered across the system, but each of the approximately 45 prisons in the country has at least one teacher who provides in-person tutoring. Offering the classes through the agency’s secure network allows students to transfer between facilities without interrupting their education.  

Svartsjö, a minimum-security men’s prison outside of Stockholm, is very different from the US prisons portrayed on TV – there is no body scanner, the perimeter is a single chain link fence and the modular housing units are the same classic red associated with Swedish summer houses. During the day, the incarcerated men can leave the premises to work in the nearby wood workshop or to run the prison’s farm. 

Svartsjö is a minimum-security men’s prison on the outskirts of Stockholm. Incarcerated students there can earn up to a high school diploma through the Swedish prison service’s network of learning centres. Charlotte West/Open Campus

Svartsjö history teacher Henrik Busk teaches incarcerated students all over the country through the learning centre network. He said that prisoners need to be productively engaged at least six hours a day, whether that be in education, work, or treatment. 

He said that one of the biggest challenges the system is dealing with right now is the increasing criminality of young people, many of whom are from immigrant families.

“Most feel that Swedish society isn’t open to them,” Busk said of the growing number of young people in Swedish prisons. 

The Swedish government has in recent years adopted more tough-on-crime policies, such as lowering the age for a life sentence and gang enhancements, in response to an increase in shootings and gang violence.

These policies have led to a steady growth in the prison population, following a low in the mid-2010s when the country even started to close prisons. The resulting overcrowding has made it difficult to meet the needs of everyone who should be enrolled in education.

Prisoners who enter the system before they are 21 are prioritised for in-person instruction, Broo said. 

Nine university degrees 

Svartsjö is very different from the maximum security prisons like Kumla where Ricard Nilsson served almost 20 years of a life sentence.

Nilsson was released in 2019 – so he benefited from access to higher education offerings before they were eliminated. While incarcerated, Nilsson earned nine degrees and certificates, including a master’s of law. As a result of his education, he was admitted to the Swedish Union of Journalists while he was still incarcerated. 

Ricard Nilsson earned nine university degrees and certificates in prison between 2000 and 2019, when he was released. Charlotte West/Open Campus

Nilsson was able to enrol in a sociology programme at Örebro University shortly after he was incarcerated in 2000. Both outside students and professors visited the prison for some of the lectures. By 2005, online classes were starting to become more common, Nilsson told Open Campus. 

He was allowed to access his online classes and use university email while staff at the learning centre looked over his shoulder. He said that when he took his last courses in the late 2010s he was only given computer access 10 minutes at a time to respond to emails, download course materials and upload assignments. Then he completed his assignments on a secure, offline computer. 

Up until around 2019, incarcerated individuals like Nilsson were allowed to enrol in regular university classes if they were accepted to the degree programme. Some faculty were willing to make exceptions for requirements like attending lectures.

But over the years, higher education institutions were less able to accommodate individual incarcerated students, Broo said. As universities shifted more and more of their instruction online, it became nearly impossible for students to enrol without more direct internet access. 

Because of security concerns, a staff member had to sit with the student and watch the screen the entire time that a student was online. In 2018, the prison service suspended all supervised online learning. “We don’t have the staff for that today,” Broo said, in light of the increasing prison population.

Now, the only higher education that he’s aware is happening in Swedish prisons is if a professor is willing to do an independent study via snail mail, Nilsson said. 

It’s unclear why Swedish universities aren’t offering formal prison education programmes despite the fact that some of them, such as Uppsala University, have a long history of teaching incarcerated students that dates back at least until the 1970s.

Officials at the prison service have indicated they aren’t opposed to higher education opportunities if the logistics can be worked out. 

Nilsson is critical of Sweden’s shift. His experience of education inside served as a role model for others. “They are forgetting about the normative aspects of people being inspired by others who do positive things,” he said.

Charlotte West is a US-based national reporter who covers prisons and higher education for Open Campus. She lived in Sweden from 2002 to 2009 and was a frequent contributor to The Local. She earned her master’s in politics from Stockholm University. 

This story is published in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom in the US focused on higher education. Subscribe to College Inside, an Open Campus newsletter on the future of postsecondary education in prison.