In recent years, Stockholm has earned the reputation of being a ‘unicorn factory’. Sweden’s capital claims to have produced more billion-dollar start-ups per capita than any other region outside of Silicon Valley, having produced the likes of Spotify, Klarna and Skype.

Its mayor, Anna König Jerlmyr, says the groundwork for its rise as a tech hub was laid three decades ago. “At the beginning of the 1990s, we had a tax break for residents to buy personal computers,” she says. “That was a huge reform and meant that everyone had a computer at home.” It made Swedes early adopters of new technologies and attracted companies looking to test their solutions in a digital-friendly country. 

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Today, a bigger factor underpinning the city’s tech success is its culture. Ms König Jerlmyr believes Stockholm’s collaborative environment and open mindset have helped it attract and retain talent. “Our unicorns are still here and they are investing in new companies, new entrepreneurs and new start-ups,” she says. “Companies tell me they can attract talent as we have flat hierarchies and we are transparent. You can be gay, you can be trans — ‘tolerance’ is the wrong word — we are very open to everyone.”

She observes that workers increasingly choose where in the world they want to live, before choosing which company they want to work for. Accordingly, she strives for Stockholm to be a city that operates according to the values of openness, transparency and freedom.

Female-founded unicorns

While Sweden is known for its leadership in gender equality, Ms König Jerlmyr has a close eye on the gender gap that persists in the tech sector. She’s set the lofty goal of having half Stockholm’s unicorns founded by women within the next decade. To achieve this, she wants to work with investors to get more capital behind female tech entrepreneurs, while laying the foundations for future generations. The city runs programmes within schools that encourage girls to pursue studies in maths and introduce them to alternative role models. “We need to see young girls wanting to be engineers,” she says.

Stockholm’s reputation as a place where women can thrive also extends to town planning. Ms König Jerlmyr is a champion of feminist urbanism, a movement based on the idea that a public space that draws women and children is a safe place for all. “We work with property owners, shop owners and others to have this feminist perspective — to see what activities or changes are needed to make areas more attractive to women,” she says.

Post-pandemic positives

Stockholm has strong sustainability credentials that date back to 1976, when it adopted its first environmental programme. The city is now aiming to become a world-leading city for electric vehicles by 2030. In the meantime, Ms König Jerlmyr wants to learn from the pandemic and encourage flexible working to improve quality of life and reduce traffic congestion. “Building new infrastructure is expensive and not good for the environment,” she says. “We should use what we have in a much cleverer way.” 

Sustainability is also at the heart of the city’s finance ambitions. “The next step for Stockholm will be to develop a sustainable finance centre to collaborate, or compete, with London in funding the race to net-zero.” Indeed, another silver lining she sees emerging from the pandemic is increased co-operation within Stockholm and further afield. “There is much more collaboration now. Those that used to compete — be it cities, countries or property owners — now collaborate much more as we face the same challenges.” However, the city’s friendly rivalry with Denmark’s capital Copenhagen continues, she notes.

This article first appeared in the June/July print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.