City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Morning walk, Stockholm 6 April 2020

Sweden’s ‘Middle Way’ approach to the coronavirus, democracy as a political system for people who are not sure that they are right, and the role, and limits, of trust, expertise, and science, as compared with other Nordics, Taiwan and China.

I write these notes from Sweden, whose policy towards the virus is now recognised as an outlier in Europe, and increasingly, globally. As I write, there are still relatively few restrictions in place, despite 400 dead from the virus, and similar exponential growth curves to other places of similar size and demographics (in fact, the number of fatalities quadrupled whilst I was writing these papers). Compared to most previous crises, we citizens have access to endless detail on what all other countries are doing, of course, which is causing quite a lot of debate. Yet my writing throughout this piece is no doubt coloured by a quite different atmosphere outside the window, at least currently — it feels a long way from Wuhan, Madrid, Detroit.

Sweden’s approach is not easily filed: it is neither stereotypically ‘Eastern’ (rapid, technocratic, well-practiced interventionist, brute-force-algorithm-effective) nor ‘Western’ (dithering, reluctantly interventionist, distracted, often ineffective, eventually gets there). As usual, Sweden has found The Middle Way.

Sweden: The Middle Way, Marquis Childs (1936)

Restrictions have focused on gatherings of people, slowly tightening the noose from banning gatherings over 500, to gatherings over 50 this week (even this has come into criticism from sports clubs.) Restaurants and bars can only offer table service. Universities and the last two years of high schools have switched to distance learning only. Over 70s and other risk groups are advised to stay at home, those who are sick are told to stay home, and if people can work from home, that is encouraged too. And all non-essential travel is banned of course (this is something, due to the nature of travel itself, that one can’t take a unilateral position on.) As I write, a few more restrictions fall into place, around basic social distancing — yet they are still expressed more as loose guidelines. This country tends to deploy social norms rather than regulations, wherever it can.

I have a sense that what the looser guidelines are trying to achieve is to use lockdowns sparingly, trying to prevent the ‘behavioural fatigue’ of months of ‘confinement’, which may be harder to keep enforcing (though that very concept of fatigue came in for severe criticism in the UK, and so I have no idea if Sweden is using it. Even though, as suggested below, Sweden would probably cope with it better than the UK.) Perhaps the strategy is to deploy intermittent lockdowns, when the system is approaching capacity, but also release people too, to ensure they stay fit and healthy through regular exercise and social interaction. Mere speculation.

But essentially, the Swedish approach is predicated on clear and concise encouragement to do the right thing, with a touch of preemptive admonishing in the event that one didn’t: be sensible, use your common sense, adults should act like adults, think of the health services and the country, and “meet the crisis as a society”. That messaging has come from the top, with prime minister Stefan Löfven giving a televised address to the nation two weeks ago—that it is only the fifth time a Swedish prime minister has done that also says a lot—and King Carl XVI Gustaf making his own televised address two weeks later, asking the nation, “Did I think about other people? Or did I put myself first? We will have to live with the choices we make today, for a long time to come. They will impact many.”

“The only way to get through this, he said was to meet the crisis as one society, with everyone taking personal responsibility for themselves, for each other and for the country.”—Statsminister Stefan Löfven (Sverige Radio)

But obviously encouraging personal responsibility is a long way from other countries, many of whom are in effective quarantine enforced by police patrolling the streets. There is a rising tide of debate about in Sweden whether encouragement is enough. At this point it may be relevant to consider that Sweden has largely avoided being at war for centuries — for various reasons, good and bad — and so being the language and dynamics of ‘being on a war-time footing’ are relatively alien here, in a way they are not for most other countries.

Yet there is perhaps not quite as much debate around this as you’d think. The government’s position is framed by Folkhälsomyndigheten, the national public health agency. In Sweden, such agencies are politically independent, formally separated from the ministers, and seen as ‘expert agencies’, with considerable freedom to act and advise — albeit whilst taking instructions from the politically-led ministries (I work at Vinnova, also a Swedish government agency, though to be clear, I have no insight at all into Folkhälsomyndigheten’s work in this area and I am writing this in a personal capacity.)

As Peter Englund explains in the Financial Times, “There is a rule in the constitution that forbids ministers from intervening in cases handled by their agencies; the heads of state institutions are ruled by the government as a whole rather than by individual ministers. This makes these institutions difficult to override.”

So despite the prime minister’s unusual televised address, the State Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell is generally the face of the coronavirus communication in Sweden, which creates a quite different milieu for decision-making, compared to when, for example, Boris Johnson or Donald Trump face the media.

‘Confidence in national government varies across countries’, Percentage of people reporting confidence in national government by age, average 2014/2015. Source OECD.
‘Nordic countries tend to report higher levels of trust’; Percentage of people reporting trust in others, 2014. Source OECD.

In Sweden, as with other Nordic countries to some extent, this approach builds on an exceptionally high level of trust, two-way, between citizens and agencies, between government and citizens, and from citizen to citizen. All tend to have immense trust in the role of expertise and research, and in the position of authority. Lars Trädgårdh describes the situation like this.

“First, citizens tend to place a lot of faith in public agencies and trust that they act in the public interest. Second, the authorities on their part trust citizens to heed their advice. Third, there is a high level of interpersonal trust where Swedes trust one other to act responsibly.” — Lars Trädgårdh, from ‘Sweden Is Open for Business During Its Coronavirus Outbreak’, Foreign Policy, 24 March 2020

When that works, it’s what Hilary Cottam would suggest is a tight ‘bonding relationship’, each body mutually supporting the other, an inherent trust derived from similar backgrounds and perspectives underpinning the institutions and its citizens. So far, the system is holding, with trust in the Statsminister (prime minister) almost doubling during the COVID-19 crisis, at least at the time of writing (as it has been for many world leaders, including Trump, to be fair.)

Trust building through decisive, engaged governance

However, if any of those bonds loosen, and there are signs that is wavering a little at least, the system could unravel rapidly.

“And if we do end up facing a major and devastating epidemic here, then the citizens’ trust in authorities — and in the government which has been guided by them — will be at stake, too. Sweden’s response and outcome will surely be analyzed for years to come but we do have some structural advantages here. Not just in relation to our particular form of governance and the high level of trust, but also because we are a pretty sparsely populated country where there are a lot of single households and social distancing is basically a national characteristic. Like the Swedish actress Greta Garbo famously said: ‘I want to be let alone!’ Well, it turns out that during a pandemic that peculiarly Swedish preference may well be an advantage.” — Lars Trädgårdh, quoted in ‘Sweden Is Open for Business During Its Coronavirus Outbreak’, Foreign Policy, 24 March 2020

One reason those bonds loosen is when that sense of ‘shared backgrounds and perspectives’ diversifies, for reasons of social progress (more enlightened social mores) or immigration, which enriches the economy, culture, and resilience of a nation immeasurably, but does mean the concept of ‘a Swede’ is richer rather than duller, complex rather than simplistic, various rather than homogenous, open rather than closed. Here, I like to adopt and adapt Bruno Latour’s position on European-ness, in his coda to Down to Earth, suggesting that being a Swede is a question of active choice.

“A European is anyone who wants to be one.” — Bruno Latour, ‘Down to Earth’ (2018)

Whilst that is a powerfully progressive, ethically-sound standpoint—and to me at least, entirely the right thing—this richer definition of ‘Swede’ makes it harder for authorities to assume how ‘Swedes’ will react to suggestions from the prime minister, or how they will even discover explanatory information and guidance from the public health agency. (Several of the early coronavirus deaths in Stockholm occurred in a couple of northern suburbs, which happen to be home to many Swedish-Somali communities. There are question marks over whether advice was initially delivered in the right way, perhaps given the actual rather than assumed context.)

These cultural patterns are not absolutes, which is why we found this work so interesting at Helsinki Design Lab a few years ago. All of our projects there were essentially about increasing diversity in a condition of homogeneity, and decision-making attuned to that changing context, one way or another. The objects were citizen participation platforms, street food projects, or major urban development, but the subjects were something else.

Street food insurgency leads to policymaking Trojan Horse

Those projects were classic Trojan Horses. The street food project was actually about starting difficult conversations about immigration, expertise, and shared governance and ownership, opened up via ‘the gift’ of better street food, for example. They were exploring how to evolve the remarkably successful 20th century Nordic Model for the quite different conditions of the 21st century. We wanted to better understand, based on insights from research, how strong institutions would actually produce and reinforce trust, from people to people as well as to institutions, in conditions of diversity.

“The impact of ethnic diversity (on trust) actually disappears when we control for institutional quality … I am not saying that immigration doesn’t entail problems for trust. But this is not written in stone, as many seem to claim.” — Bo Rothstein, University of Gothenburg

Then, as now with my work at Vinnova, the challenge involves building on the “structural foundations” Trädgårdh refers to, whilst recognising that it is increasingly dangerous to take the shortcut of assuming an entirely consistent pattern of beliefs and behaviours within Swedish people. This is a true ‘middle way’ project, for there are consistent patterns at work here — the reactions to the virus have largely been common sense, civic-minded, sensible and appropriate, with most Swedes switching to working from home without being ordered to do so, social distancing effectively, looking out for each other, not panic buying, not going on holiday, and generally trusting what the public health agency says.

There are also some advantages potentially underpinning the Swedish approach. Despite some major, highly-connected cities in classic mittel-European medium-density mode, many settlements are relatively distributed across a very large, relatively empty land mass. Sweden has the highest proportion of people living in single-occupancy households in Europe. Many in the country — perhaps a third of Stockholm’s workforce, for example— were able to switch to working from home easily due to the very high levels of fibre-to-the-home already in place. The population is healthy, relatively (but then hard-hit Spain’s and Italy’s is apparently healthier, so go figure.)

Given the primary impact of this first strain of the virus is on the elderly, Sweden’s pattern of living comes into play too. The elderly do not tend to live in intergenerational family units, say compared to an archetypal Mediterranean culture, but instead in care homes or in their own house. This has been seen as an issue within the Nordics for years. There have been questions of loneliness, isolation, health and wellbeing, basic empathy and ethics. Right now, however, it may be some kind of awful advantage.

“If you have a household with several generations, of course you are going to have a quick spread. We have a lot of single people living in Stockholm, in the big cities in Sweden, and that could sort of slow the pace a little bit.” — Björn Olsen, Professor of infectious diseases at Uppsala University

With social distancing, of course, the self-deprecating joke around here is that Swedes have been doing that for decades (and as usual, followed by a more pointed joke at the expense of the Finns, who do it even more.) In fact, Swedes are naturally gregarious, and strong communicators — yet there is also more than a grain of truth here too.

Twitter meme, March 2020

It is not exactly all Bergman all the time — except on Fårö, on Gotland, of course, where it is — but a walk in the forest, or a paddle in a deserted lake, may still be an archetypal Swedish condition, as indeed may be coding all night. The most common Friday night activity, stereotypically at least, is fredagsmys, which roughly means ‘Friday night cosy time with the family’, usually nachos, for some reason, and TV. This, as opposed to Friday night in Newcastle, say.

A lockdown, for many in the Nordic region, and as awful as it is in essence, will not feel the same as a lockdown in the Mediterranean. It will be awful, but differently so. Some form of introspection is part of the character, and personal space, mental and physical, has a different radius, a differing porosity. Robert Ferguson ‘Scandinavians’ is very good on how the melancholy Scandinavian is a completely invented trope — a kind of Nordicism, after Edward Said’s Orientalism — and entirely true at the same time.

A family relation of solitude, stoicism is also (un)comfortably at home in Sweden, a factor some suspect is at play behind the government’s approach. Yet Finland always has another level of hardy resilience up its sleeve — the legendary sisu — and they are in much firmer form of lockdown.

“Here in my solitude, I have the feeling that I contain too much humanity. It oozes out of me like a broken tube of toothpaste; it doesn’t want to stay within the confines of my body. A strange feeling of weight and volume. Soul volume perhaps, which rises like clouds of smoke and envelops my body.” — Ingmar Bergman

Naturally, there are cultural dimensions expressed in language, which can be difficult to comprehend as an outsider. Emma Löfgren writes well about this in The Local, the English-language news network in Europe, which is run out of Sweden and has been invaluable for folks like me throughout the crisis. She picks up on Löfven’s use of the word folkvett, which is an example of a Swedish word with no real parallel in English, like the equally nuanced lagom or duktig, for example.

“We can’t legislate and ban everything. It’s also a question of common-sense manners,” said Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, telling people off for not following recommendations. The translation of the last bit is not perfect. He used the word folkvett, the moral sense that every person is expected to have without being taught, and a word every Swede will instinctively recognise as being very, very bad if you do not have it” — Emma Löfgren, ‘Sweden’s coronavirus strategy is clearly different to other countries so who should people trust?’, The Local, 27 March 2020

Löfgren would know better than me, but the “manners” aspect of her translation doesn’t feel quite right, as she perhaps suggests herself. ‘Folkvett’ does somehow capture this almost moral imperative to ‘do the right thing’ for you and everyone else, almost alluding to ‘folkhem’, the central idea aligning much of Sweden’s ‘middle way’ success in the 20th century. But although it may be an “untaught” or unspoken rule, it is not convey the notion of ‘manners’ as such, which, to an English speaker at least, implies a class-based construction, pinned to aspiration. Here, it is related rather more to Nordic idea of the law of Jante, which is not actually a law, of course, but a kind of social and cultural heuristic as to how to be, the opposite of individualistic aspiration. It is a constant reminder that you are no better than your neighbour, and should not act as such.

What’s happening outside the window as I type is, at best, more of a peer-to-peer mutually-assured construction, a collective reinforced. At worst, it is conformity without question. But if it’s the former, folkvett could a profoundly useful material to work with — as long as we work with it.

Sweden’s intake of migrants in recent years has been enormous, comparatively, which is a great credit to the place. The way in which ‘New Swedes’ have been absorbed into, and thus enrich, the nation comes in for criticism, not least from the same right wing populists you find elsewhere in the West but also by meaningful and justified critiques. But on the whole, Sweden is richer, in all senses, as a result.

As is Swedishness. When I wrote about Finnishness for this book, I explored how the cultures in the Nordic nations are genuinely rooted deeply in the past, with all the stories around nature, seasonality, landscape, and climate contributing vivid threads of the tapestry, and yet they are entirely confections, with conjured mythologies providing elaborations on deeply modernised, urbanised nations, with constant reinventions, mutations, and appropriations. Due to the conditions in which they emerged as modern nations, the Nordic cultures, of all cultures, are designed, essentially. Swedishness is endlessly evolving.

This in turn means that government policy and communications during a pandemic have to be attuned to a richer, more diverse idea of Sweden than the one in which government’s laws, policies, structures, cultures, and indeed employees, were born in. This, on the whole, is done well — but it is also the single biggest project in the country, in a way, as our culture is the bedrock with which we can meaningfully address any major challenge, whether climate or corona.

This also requires a richer idea of what knowledge itself is. The Swedish policy on coronavirus, and its communication, is thus far being handled calmly, professionally, and apparently firmly based on doing what the science says — in a country with a generally high respect for such things. Remember, even our most famous activist is also the planet’s most successful advocate for ‘listening to the scientists’.

But, as David Runciman points out in the London Review of Books, assessing various government responses to the virus, that may not be so simple when it comes to the virus (and, I would add, climate and public health generally.)

There’s no such thing as simply doing what the science says. This is partly because the science itself is political — how could it not be, when so much of it is the science of human behaviour? Models of the expected course of the disease under different policy regimes rest on assumptions about how people will respond to government injunctions to change the way they live. The point isn’t that the people who create the models are following their own political preferences — they aren’t saying that they want this or that to occur — but that anyone acting on the basis of those models will also be passing a judgment on their underlying premises.” — David Runciman, ‘Too early or too late?’, London Review of Books, Vol. 42 №7 · 2 April 2020 (my emphasis)

That implicit judgment, beyond the science, is crucial, and needs to be rather more explicit. There is considerable danger of placing too much faith in a certain kind of expertise; a technocratic, engineering-led culture, usually implied by the word ‘science’, as if certainties can be located in the lab (or in the big data imaginaries inside Dominic Cummings’s head), that truths can be ascertained, and surgically-precise instrumental policies put in place as a result.

Part of the issue is with the nature of science, and partly the other forms of knowledge not usually captured by the word ‘science’, and its particular expertise. The science cannot give simple answers to complex questions, particularly when there is no data about a pandemic like this. There are judgement calls ‘on top’ of that scientific advice, about many more subjective factors. They could be described as ideological, or political, or simply cultural. They are not bad things; if it were as simple as ‘doing what the science’ says, as if pulling a readout from a ticker-tape machine, we would not need politics at all. (Clearly, this is precisely the algorithmic governance outcome some are motivating for, though usually from a Californian Ideology perspective, rather than from these latitudes.)

So the Nordic model takes input from expertise, and balances political judgement, and democratic deliberative processes, ‘on top’ of this. How that happens varies even amongst these few tightly-knit countries. It’s fascinating to read the view of scientists discussing Sweden’s approach, noting the different interpretation of modelling and simulation to other countries:

In Sweden, the public health authorities have released simulations to guide “surge requirements” … From these simulations, it is clear that the Swedish government anticipates far fewer hospitalisations per 100,000 of the population than predicted in other countries, including Norway, Denmark and the UK.” — Paul Franks and Peter Nilsson, Lund University, ‘Sweden under fire for ‘relaxed’ coronavirus approach — here’s the science behind it’, The Conversation, 27 March 2020

That data has to be interpreted creates one level of variation. That data to drive simulations for pandemics like this may not coherently exist is another. That the models that chew on the data cannot precisely map something like real life is another. That the resulting policy suggestions rely on interpretations of human behaviour is another. And the results will be tempered by complex adaptive systems that are near-impossible to predict. And then there is luck, and “the pitiless crowbar of events”.

There are strong similarities, and differences, across the set of neighbouring Nordic countries of Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, which makes them being a good case study for varying strategies. There are intense disagreements even across these neighbours of course, potentially due to the minute differences in the strength of agencies vis-à-vis ministries across these broadly similar cultures of decision-making.

“Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell argued that the tough actions taken by the authorities in Denmark and Norway were not based on scientific evidence. “I think it’s political,” he said. “You saw that the head of the Sundhetsstyrelsen [Danish Health Authority] actually went out and said that these are not the measures they had been recommending. “If it’s an overreaction, or if it’s an adequate reaction, we will not know until afterwards.” … Tegnell said that in his weekly online meeting with his counterparts in Denmark, Norway and Finland, his approach was respected. “I’m not going to name any names, but I do get a lot of support,” he said.” — Richard Orange, ‘The Nordic divide on coronavirus: Which country has the right strategy’, The Local, 31 March 2020

Despite the similarities, Sweden has also pursued subtly different trajectories to its close neighbour Finland in several ways. Finland appears to have retained many elements of its wartime sensibility, an instinct perhaps forged during their shattering defensive campaigns against the Soviet Union during World War Two. In Jared Diamond’s book ‘Upheaval’, post-war Finnish President Urho Kekkonen is quoted as saying “A national should rely only on itself. The war years taught us an expensive lesson in this respect.”

Finland retained strategic supplies at scale, as if it is a “prepper nation”, according to the New York Times. Sweden, largely a promoter of peace wherever it can be, at least according to the Times, has instead sold off or privatised strategic supplies when it joined the EU, meaning “the Swedish health and medical care system has been built around “just in time” deliveries.”

Privatisation occurs here too, and at scale, although the relatively strong public sector, and public infrastructures, are still in line with a general ambition to be the ‘world’s first fossil-free welfare state’, the stated goal of this government. And the healthcare system in Sweden is in good shape compared to many—we will see if it is as robust as Germany’s apparently is, another EU member of course—but overall, it takes a somewhat different management of public assets to its neighbour to the East.

That Times article also notes the reliance on citizens, and the general preparedness that Sweden tries to cultivate there, not least through the information campaigns that MSB, the national civic contingencies agency produces. Kieran Long, director of ArkDes, wrote a lovely piece picking apart the meaning of this document, ‘Om krisen eller kriget kommer’ (‘If crisis or war comes’) for Disegno, when a new version was issued a couple of years ago.

An image from Om krisen eller kriget kommer’ (‘If crisis or war comes’), analysed by Kieran Long for ‘Disegno’

Perhaps framed through an American lens, that dependence on citizens might appear a weakness in the context of a story about privatisation. Yet here, it is part of that triangle of interdependent bonds, and powerful. ‘Om krisen eller kriget kommer’, when it came through our door, encouraged me to create supplies of food in our basement, a dilettante prepper. But when we lived in Helsinki, I recall getting the instructions on where our friendly neighbourhood nuclear bunker was. This Finnish prepping is not simply individual, but infrastructural. Suffice to say, ‘Om krisen eller kriget kommer’ does not mention a pandemic as one of the ‘contingencies’, and citizens do not tend to keep ventilators in their cellar, nor do they know how to use them.

Our household’s copy of ‘ Om Krisen eller kriget kommer’ (If crisis or war comes’), produced by MSB

Leaving aside the Nordics, there are layers of complexity for any nation’s decision-makers here, many of which are ‘beyond science’. My colleague at UCL IIPP Rainer Kattel pointed out to me that government agencies in almost all countries tend to use only one or two models with which to formulate policy. Further, they rarely gather evidence and analyses on different competing assumptions, or contradictory models, and then tend to build capabilities around the existing underlying models, rather than cultivate new approaches, potentially exposing previous judgements. This would tend to suppress nuance, but also inhibit the exploration of new trajectories. (I wrote about the problem of models themselves being in lockdown in ‘Change the Model’.)

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That uncertainty is part of democratic decision-making, and a particular strength and weakness. We have evidence to suggest that citizens are relatively comfortable with understanding uncertainty, maintaining a level of trust, yet do we feel confident enough to communicate in this way? It is incredibly hard to be anything other than brutally simplistic in contemporary politics and public sector work. So the Dutch PM Mark Rutte deserves a little credit, at a time when he is not getting much of that, when he conveyed this sense of working with uncertainty recently. “In crises like this, you have to make 100% of the decisions with 50% of the knowledge”, he said, whilst also using his speech to convey some of the scenario thinking at work in the Netherlands, sharing decision-making tools with the populace.

Our ability to act upon scientific advice, whilst conveying the uncertainty and limits inherent to the scientific process, is something else we are stress-testing in public right now. Perhaps a better understanding of both the value, and limits, of science is something else that could come out of this crisis.

“Democracy is a political system for people who are not sure that they are right.” — E.E. Schattschneider

Plenty of research indicates the issues with relying on narrowly scientific forms of expertise (Gadamer 1967; Tetlock 2005; Grundmann 2016; Reiss 2019, or the more accessible versions, like Taleb’s ‘Black Swan’ and Epstein’s ‘Range’.) That research, of course, is also a form of expertise! But it is at least expertise tasked with assessing the condition of knowledge itself, and the value in conveying a richer set of tools with which to think, and act.

“Technological and economic solutions are good at fixing technological and economic problems. While the planetary crisis will require intervention and legislation, it is a far broader kind of problem — it is an environmental problem — that involves social challenges like overpopulation, the disempowerment of women, income inequality and consumption habits. It reaches not only into our future but our past.” — Jonathan Safran Foer, ‘We are the weather’ (2019)

This ‘broader problem’ does not mean that we should not listen to science (again, by which we mean the understanding of ‘science’ that is usually implied by the word. There are many forms of science of course, including social science; this Github is collating social science research relating to COVID-19.) Science, at its best, provides solid foundations upon which we can build — it just cannot be the only voice in the room, the only branch of knowledge adhered to. Architecture is not simply an expression of physics, but it cannot work without it. The kind of science that the public health agency Folkhälsomyndigheten specialises in — epidemiology, in this case, primarily — provides that foundation. But what is constructed on top of this, to get to action, from which richer insights can be drawn? And what kind of disciplines are good at deriving richer insights, given conditions of uncertainty?

Whilst the crisis requires a form of ‘virus-centred design’, any strategic or structural changes beyond tactics requires a far richer toolkit, involving multiple disciplines and perspectives, and methods comfortable dealing with subjectivities and uncertainty well beyond the sizing of field hospitals and sourcing of ventilators. There will be a fairly unclear line right now, however, about where the edges of the ‘science-based’ virus-centred design processes are, and how far they inadvertently encroach into other fields.

Sweden’s own recent past indicates the dangers of listening purely ‘to the science’. Most horrifically, the forced sterilisation progamme of over 63,000 people from 1936 until 1976, led by the Swedish ‘state institute for racial biology’. Those programmes would have been justified, at least partly, on what were thought to be so-called scientific arguments.

“Mattias Tyden, a researcher in the history department at the University of Stockholm and an expert on eugenics, said a broad consensus existed in the scientific and medical communities and across political parties that the introduction of the sterilization programme was a “scientific and modern way of changing society for the better” — Eugenics scandal reveals silence of Swedish scientists, Nature, 4 September 1997

Perhaps less dramatically, and closer to my own field of ‘expertise’, the major urban planning and transport planning initiatives from the 1930s onwards were absolutely pursued on the basis of rational decision-making and expert advice. Those automobile-based programmes were pursued across the developed world, leading ultimately to millions of deaths, directly and indirectly, poverty and social inequality, public health crises, and ultimately, a major contributor to the climate crises. They happened in Sweden as much as anywhere else. That those ‘scientific approaches’ were often coloured by ideological positions is barely admitted now, let alone then.

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Scientific advice can simply be wrong, rather than ‘evil’. Or it is not wrong as such, but simply on its way to a better understanding over time. Or, scientific advice can be gamed by the politics or other interests of the day, as in the two examples from history above. These ambiguities may be what some Swedes are clearly worried about, in the current response to the virus. The national public health agency here is, quite rightly in my view, trusted to provide the right advice, and is listened to accordingly. Yet clearly, those of us living in Sweden are not immune to the calculus of corona, to its logic of exponential growth curves. So what to do?

At least one way to resolve this dilemma that is to ‘spread your bets’ across a variety of forms of knowledge, in order to thoroughly stress-test the “underlying premises” Runciman refers to.

The new Nordic Model: the augmented spirit level from Dark Matter & Trojan Horses

As I described in the last chapter of my book, Finland, Sweden, and the other Nordic countries, along with Japan, say, are examples of largely successful ‘Spirit Level’ countries, after Wilkinson and Pickett’s book, and can take advantage of their firm foundations rendered by their traditionally relatively homogenous cultures of decision-making, yet must carefully enrich them with increasing heterogeneity and diversity.

“The way to paint a picture of any country is not with broad brush strokes, but dot by dot, where every dot is one among millions of complementary and contradictory stories. Only in the nuance can any nation be truly understood.” — Paul Rapacioli, ‘How Sweden Became a Symbol’, New York Review of Books, 2 August 2018

From a governance perspective, that means not assuming what a Swede is, but engaging, actively, to help shape and steer what a Swede is, exemplifying an ever-diversifying richness of Swedish public life via more nuanced, participative, collaborative models of governance. That is a representative democratic project, lest we forget it.

Crucially, for the Nordic culture most attuned to consensus-based decision-making, it will mean Sweden has to find a way of confronting and engaging with disagreement and dissent across pluralistic cultures — without, as we say, throwing the kollektiv baby out with the bathwater, and losing a history of powerful shared decision-making driving towards shared activities, and a consensus and respect for institutions. Chantal Mouffe’s concept of agonistics may need be useful to explore in this context. She writes:

“Political questions are not mere technical issues to be solved by experts. Proper political questions always involve decisions that require making a choice between conflicting alternatives. This is something that cannot be grasped by the dominant tendency in liberal thought, which is characterised by a raionalist and individualist approach.” — Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics (2013)

Sweden has, at least, long and deep traditions of participative governance and pluralistic ownership. Economically, Mariana Mazzucato pointed out to me recently that Sweden had developed a working model of ‘stakeholder capitalism’ well before the participants at Davos 2020 were even born. But equally, with the virus in mind, there have also been numerous Swedish examples of participative, collective, and collaborative decision-making and ownership. The cooperative in particular was at the heart of Sweden’s Middle Way success. Some of these capabilities have been left to atrophy, others engulfed by those other damaging viruses, new public management and late capitalism. But the soil is still rich with that knowledge, if we dig deep enough.

An active engagement with these open, participative, culturally-nuanced yet science-based, models of decision-making would help ensure, to Runciman’s point, that “assumptions about how people will respond to government injunctions to change the way they live” are not ‘assumptions’ at all, but openly researched, prototyped, and evolving understandings of how people will respond.

“If you believe that most citizens are more or less capable of doing what is asked of them at the appropriate time then a more interventionist approach will almost certainly save lives in the long run. This is a real argument, based on real evidence. But it still starts with an ‘if’.” — David Runciman, ‘Too early or too late?’, London Review of Books, Vol. 42 №7 · 2 April 2020

Without that deep engagement, though, the “if” in the line above gets more, well, iffy. In Sweden, we will soon discover just how much.

One thing is clear: the levels of trust in government have been an important component in responding effectively, as expected, no matter what the strategy. The emerging “major trust gap” in US government scientific advice that the Gallup/Wellcome poll picked up last year have come home to roost at the wrong time, for example, whereas those countries with existing high levels of trust, who have communicated well throughout the virus crisis, may have earned further trust.

As well as the Swedish response, these numbers for high trust include the other Nordic countries and New Zealand (noting that all this data is a few years old). In contrast to Sweden, the approach across that latter set of countries has been to ‘lockdown’ fairly quickly — and yet the NZ Prime Minister, Jacinda Arden, has been praised for her clear, concise yet empathetic communication, quite rightly in my view. Her actions, with the major caveat of ‘if successful’, will no doubt further engender trust. A bank of collective trust helps deliver with both Swedish and Kiwi strategies.

2016 chart showing “Percentage of respondents who state that ‘most people can be trusted’“, indicating peer-to-peer trust relationships (L); Survey assessing citizen attitudes to government responses to coronovirus outbreak (R)

One question I ask in this context is not simply public levels of trust in government, but what about government’s trust in people? As in, more broadly, how are people trusted, by government, to be involved in decision-making, governance, participation, co-design, co-ownership? But in this case, in shared interpretation of scientific advice, and individual and collective choices about individual and collective behaviour?

This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Swedish approach, particularly given the sometimes highly technocratic approach usually associated with this end of the Nordic Model at least. This capability is reinforced by the high levels of trust people have in each other. Again, these tendrils of culture and policy entwine each other, only if the positive relationships are reinforced through positive actions.

You can hear this even in the way State Epidemiologist Ander Tegnell framed his response to the press on Sunday. “What everyone is doing around the country must have had an effect”, he said. This is not so much a statement of fact, but an collective expectation being rewarded, and reinforced.

Leaning on citizens to make their own informed choices, rather than regulating, not only requires trust but generates it — if (big if) it is done well. Trust is not some finite element, like a fossil fuel we are running out of, but can be generated and earned through good governance — it is, in effect, a source of renewable power.

This virus is testing our levels of trust like never before, outside of wartime at least, but in doing so it is preparing some nations and cities well for the real battles to come, around climate crises. Those challenges will require resilience in informed and earned trust, in science and culture, in agonistics and consensus, in systems and cultures of decision-making, and in shared responsibilities and shared action.

The apparently ‘softer’ approach we see in Sweden will no doubt be compared with that of other high trust countries, like New Zealand, Finland, or Denmark, which have taken different approaches, perhaps more in line with the way that certain Asian nations have moved, quickly and thoroughly.

We must be aware of how the Chinese model emerges from this examination. Along with many others — in fact, perhaps most outside of the Trump Reality Distortion Field — Adam Tooze seems slightly awestruck when describing how the virus, despite its apparent origins in China, is revealing the sheer capability of China at this point. I remember talking to my friend and colleague Dr. Justin O’Connor about this years ago, as he schooled me on the thousand years of statecraft China had up their sleeve. We may be seeing some of that in action right now. Having apparently flattened the Chinese corona curve, and with Italy, and now New York State, receiving daily donations from both the Chinese state and benevolent Chinese billionaires, in stark comparison with a US response unravelling before our eyes, the imminent shift in this century’s balance of power may be clearer than ever. In the Talking Politics podcast of March 19th, Tooze notes:

“The ability of the Chinese regime, apparently unprecedented in epidemiological history, to bend this curve on this scale with this speed … There is an extraordinary state capacity there, and they are ahead of the curve.”

We are going to have to work hard to make the case for representative parliamentary democracy being better equipped to solve for virus and climate simultaneously. It may not even be better equipped, ultimately. But either way, we will have to try to make it so, and to demonstrate that through our actions, rather than countering it with paid-for insidious and often unwarranted criticism of China in certain Western media.

In this respect, Taiwan may be worth watching closely, balancing a high technology response with an open, collaborative, social and ‘civic tech’ environment within at Far Eastern governance culture that could move coherently at speed. It may be a balance of top-down and bottom-up, to put it crudely, that we can learn from. This interview with Taiwan’s digital minister, Audrey Tang, from just before the virus is fascinating, not least as she describes her approach as an “indigenous culture” based on “non-coercive, collaborative internet governance”.

The digital governance aspects of the crisis will also be a weathervane for movements in deeper currents. There is a generally enlightened view of open, legible and collaborative engagement at work, as in Taiwan, but could also include a contemporary twist on the Defense Protection Act which would enable tech companies like Alibaba and Tencent to share data and services to help in tracking outbreaks. But such responses, if handled differently, could also clearly describe a further slide into surveillance states. Taiwan’s response thus far, which includes cellphone tracking, appears to be working because of the wider perspective described in that interview with Tang, and is generating increased trust in government as a result — at least at the moment.

“Taiwan strikes a balance between protecting privacy and enabling citizen-organized “data collaboratives”; achieving exceptional environmental standards and climate emission abatement; protecting workers in the “gig economy” without preventing the rise of innovative digital services; and fostering civic participation with creative engagement and voting tools.” Jaron Lanier and E. Glen Weyl, Foreign Affairs, 20 March 2020

All these real-time responses to the virus are collectively asking deeper questions, with this potential shift towards ‘Eastern models’, as an overly simplistic shorthand, being perhaps the key. Within Europe, from Anglo to Nordic, or globally, away from UK towards Taiwan, Singapore, or away from USA towards China. We don’t know, and we won’t know for many months, the outcome of these varying strategies, and therefore the true shifts in the perceived value in the ideologies underpinning them. But these patterns may throw down serious challenges to many existing ‘Western’ (again, simplistic, sorry) orthodoxies around cultures of decision-making, particularly when facing complex challenges.

Well before the virus, it was clear that many of our various cultures of decision-making were rusty and misfiring, misaligned for these meaningful challenges, or too easily gamed by populists, lobbyists and others. Contemporary representative democracy has been “much of the time living on past glories”, as David Runciman puts it in his book ‘How Democracy Ends, addressing Trump, Brexit and more besides (if only he knew we were about to hit a pandemic that pulls a handbrake on the global economy.) The virus forces the rethink. Many, like Runciman, were all but suggesting we might need some kind of catastrophe in order to motivate the desire to change.

“To get the best possible future we have to run the gauntlet of the worst.” — David Runciman, ‘How Democracy Ends’ (2018)

The coda of Catherine Fieschi’s piece in The Guardian a week ago provides an insight into this broader challenge we have, but perhaps more optimistically, describing it as an opportunity. We knew we had to fix this anyway; this is actually a chance to do so.

“The coronavirus crisis is a test of progressive politics — a test of solidarity, but also a test of transparency. It is an opportunity to show that a new diffused technocracy can be to the benefit of the greater good. It is an opportunity to show that to grow trust in government you trust the citizen. This is what will rescue us from the coronavirus, and the virus of populism.” — Catherine Fieschi

Slowdown Papers

These are a series of observations, reflections and ideas, emerging from my view of the early impact of the coronavirus COVID–19 pandemic in the first quarter of 2020, but following the Australian bushfires over Christmas 2019.

1: Writing to memory

Observing, listening and writing, as a way of remembering the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, from within the midst of the slowdown.

2: The pitiless crowbar of events

How will we remember the coronavirus? While we are ‘flattening the curve’, how can we think about the curves beyond?

3: Remember the bushfires to remember the virus

The Australian bushfires and floods as harbingers of the coronavirus, and a world wearing masks and blinkers.

4: We make the virus and the virus makes us

The reversed dynamics of coronavirus and climate, and how the destruction of biodiversity that created the climate crisis probably also created the virus.

5: The curves beyond the curve

Flattening the curve on corona, squeezing the curve on climate.

6: A language in crisis

How key words, phrases and concepts are being bent out of shape by the coronavirus, shaping how we think about what follows.

7: Cultures of decision-making, in Sweden and beyond

Sweden’s ‘Middle Way’ approach to the coronavirus, democracy as a political system for people who are not sure that they are right, and the role of trust, expertise and citizenship, as compared with other Nordics, Taiwan and China.

8: An A/B test on our way of life

The lumpiness of history, how events change the world, World A versus World B, and six questions to prompt reflections about what the coronavirus might mean.

9: The restoration

The coronavirus immediate creates a restored and regenerative environment, and the Slowdown starts to create new habits.

10: Another Green World

Slow cities, flightshame, fast and slow layers, energy use maps the permanent weekend, the acceptance of essential infrastructures and Universal Basic Services, and is the coronavirus forcing us to sketch new forms of governance?

11: Post-traumatic urbanism and radical indigenism

How cities post-coronavirus can benefit from the distributed patterns of post-traumatic urbanism meeting radical indigenism, Wakanda meeting Aalto, and ‘Lo-TEK’ nature-based technologies meeting contemporary infrastructures.

12: Between the roots and the stars

Another green world lying just beneath ours; what our response to the coronavirus can learn from the night sky after Katrina, a 6000 year-old eel machine in Victoria, and a spruce tree in Sweden.


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