COVID has shown we can be creative under pressure: Stockholm’s mayor on harnessing a city’s people power

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Sean Fleming, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • Stockholm is making public spaces attractive to a more diverse population.
  • It has a sense of identity and purpose that draws people and businesses to the city, according to its mayor, Anna König Jerlmyr.
  • Its schools are teaching the importance of creative thinking and collaboration.

Sweden has a reputation as a forward-thinking nation with high living standards and a solid track record on issues such as gender equality, clean energy, and improving accessibility. It has also given the world some very catchy pop songs, some sturdy automobiles, and a lot of keenly priced flat-packed furniture.

The country’s capital, Stockholm, is at the forefront of this progressive Swedish outlook, even setting itself the goal of becoming the world’s leading city when it comes to fulfilling the Paris climate agreement.

Anna König Jerlmyr is the Mayor of Stockholm, a post she has held since September 2018. In conversation with the World Economic Forum, she explains her vision for the city and how that fits into this broader, bolder, Swedish view.

a picture of Stockholm‘s council chamber empty
Rådssalen – Stockholm‘s council chamber. Image: Yanan Li/City of Stockholm

In past interviews, you’ve talked about feminist urban planning – can you explain that to us?

I was inspired by the work of [urbanist, activist and writer] Jane Jacobs in this field. The theory is that if you work on making public spaces safe for women, and also children, they become safe for everyone. One element of that is to ensure good lighting of your public spaces. You need to feel welcome when you come to a public space, so they need to be clean, pleasant places. But it goes deeper than that.

To encourage people of different ages and from different backgrounds to use public spaces, they need to be able to offer a variety of activities and perform different functions. That could mean opening up retail spaces in the ground-floor areas of buildings and so on. Including women in urban planning really is a benefit for everyone. https://open.spotify.com/embed-podcast/episode/1eWNSDm06Ai7U7iMf9ipSl

You’ve also spoken about people in Sweden wanting to find meaning and purpose in their lives. How is Stockholm doing that?

I think we have to remember that Sweden is a very secularized country. So a lot of Swedish people don’t really have a religion. But they do know that they have only one life and they want to find meaning in that life.

And so people ask themselves: “What should I do with my life? What is my purpose? What kind of legacy do I want to leave behind?”

What they want to do is to make an impact.

I think that’s one reason why so many young people are looking for something more than just salary or bonuses from their work-life. They want to be involved with a company that has a sense of purpose.

They’re asking what their company or employer is doing to create good, to create value for others. Those companies with a strong sense of purpose are the ones recruiting the best talent nowadays. Not just companies but cities with strong values and a sense of purpose attract the right kind of people and businesses.

a picture of  Anna König Jerlmyr
Anna König Jerlmyr. Image: Lieselotte van der Meijs/City of Stockholm

How is Stockholm helping people find that sense of purpose?

We have a number of programmes that we’re using to try to help young people create purpose in their lives. Things like music and creative courses in school and after-school. Many of them are also subsidized.

We want young people to share their ideas, too, and we’re encouraging them to build a collaborative environment in schools. We hope they’ll see that it’s not just about the work you do as a single student, it’s about working in a group, and how the group’s combined efforts benefit their ideas.

And that’s why I think this collaborative way of working should start at a young age.

We have a Young Entrepreneur program running in our schools. You set up your own company and you can be judged to be the best entrepreneur of your school.

The company only lasts for one year, but the idea is to foster a lifelong entrepreneurial mindset. Many policy-makers think creativity is somehow separate from the main academic subjects. But I think that time will show creativity is an asset we will all need in the future, and that we really have to cherish and value it more.

Are you optimistic about the future?

We live in a complex world, with artificial intelligence, digitalization and the Internet of Things. Really, our strength – our value – as humans is to be the creative force in this new environment.

That’s why I think it’s so important for us to foster creativity, entrepreneurship and that sense of purpose in school.

Think about sustainability and the work of mitigating emissions. It’s everything – it’s for our children’s future, but it also lets you find a purpose and really make an impact. And as a city, Stockholm can help do that on a global scale.

Now, it’s in our DNA. And I see so many investors from the start-up community, from the unicorns, are looking for green investment opportunities. So you can see it creates jobs, but it’s also important for our citizens to have clean air, clean water, less noise pollution, to have a more livable place today, and for future generations.

One thing that surprised me during the pandemic is that things that we thought would take decades actually only take weeks. I’m talking, of course, about the digitalization of school.

I think that is amazing and it’s just the start of it. Here in Stockholm, you can actually see that the students are more present than before. We can also reach out to students that perhaps had difficulties with coming to school before.

I think we should take note of how agile and how fast moving we can be, and how creative we can be when we are under pressure. That is one positive thing that this awful pandemic has given us and we want to nourish it for the future.

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