Reflections on Almedalen Week 2018: An Insider’s Perspective
This week, our Director of Consulting for the EMEA region, Ekaterina von Gertten, participated in a roundtable discussion during Sweden’s annual Almedalen Week. The weeklong event and the specific discussion on immigrant youth she was a part of are of considerable interest, given the current political climate in Europe and around the world.
We were able to catch up with Ekaterina briefly once she returned from Almedalen Week to hear about her whirlwind experience over the last several days.
What is Almedalen Week, and why is it important for Sweden?
EVG: Almedalen Week is a yearly event that takes place in the first week of July, off the Swedish coast on the island of Gotland. Gotland has a unique climate, beautiful nature, a rich history, and is considered to be one of the main holiday attractions for a lot of Swedes. After I was invited to be an expert in the roundtable discussion, I started to look for accommodation options. Booking.com told me that nearly 4 months ago, 99% of all accommodation options were occupied! Almedalen Week is incredibly popular. Tickets are usually booked a year in advance.
Visby, Gotland, Sweden
It used to be and is still sometimes called “Politician’s Week.” Historically, the event was attended mainly by politicians who gathered together to discuss the most topical societal issues, while being closely followed by the press. Over time, it has grown into an event not only for politicians, but also for businessmen, social activists, and all others who care for societal development. This year, approximately 4,000 different events and activities are taking place during Almedalen week!
Similar events have since appeared in other Nordic-Baltic countries, for example, Denmark and Norway. 2018 marks the sixth year of Estonia’s Arvamusfestival (Opinion Festival), as well as the sixth year of Norway’s Arendalsuka Festival.
It sounds like a crucial event for Sweden’s democratic process. Does this year’s Almedalen Week differ at all from past years’ events?
EVG: Oh yes, indeed! This year is special for two reasons. First, this is an election year in Sweden. Summers are short here, and therefore, quite logically, an absolutely sacred period when everything closes down and Swedes go on holiday. Almedalen Week is basically the last opportunity for politicians to win the hearts and minds of Swedes before the final rush of the election on September 9th. The debate during this week is expected, understandably, to be quite heated.
The Swedish election is much anticipated, as it is one in the string of European elections where the parties that traditionally have won may actually have a historic loss to the right-oriented parties. Immigrant integration is, without a doubt, one of the hottest topics in Sweden, and one of the reasons for a possible political change.
In fact, quite recently, a number of parties have changed their stance on the topic. I believe this is an indicator that parties are realizing this issue can be the deciding factor for a lot of Swedes who are not satisfied with how things are at the moment.
Almedalen Week opens up the discussion about integration beyond politicians and parties. Swedish companies, both global giants and small start-ups, all want to contribute to finding solutions to the existing problems connected to integration. This event is an arena for people with very different professional backgrounds to meet and put their minds together; to argue with each other and inspire each other!
The second reason this year’s event is special is that 2018 marks the 50-year anniversary for Almedalen Week.
1968: Olof Palme, Sweden’s then Education Minister, gives a speech in the back of his pick-up truck for several hundred people who gathered in Almedalen Park, in Visby, Gotland.
Your topic for the roundtable discussion — foreign youth and what they need to feel a sense of belonging in Sweden — is, undoubtedly, relevant not only for Sweden and Scandinavia but on a global scale. What do you believe you added to the narrative?
EVG: There were a number of very interesting speakers with unique perspectives. Unfortunately, we had very little time! My objective was to share my expertise in working with private, global companies. It is not only Swedish companies that I work with. I would say that today, I mostly work with companies headquartered outside of Sweden. The topic of diversity and inclusion is at the heart of many global company’s policies and practices; a prerequisite for growth, as it drives innovative potential and offers a competitive edge. I see different global companies and their unique cultural perspectives on different diversity factors. This offers me a very rare and valuable vantage point when considering diversity in the public sphere, and how to leverage the benefits of diversity while avoiding and circumventing the challenges.
Aperian Global’s Director of Consulting, Ekaterina von Gertten, shares her unique viewpoint on immigrant youth and a sense of belonging in Sweden.
What makes the Swedish perspective on diversity and integration unique or different from other European countries?
EVG: What is probably unique for Sweden is that for different historical, political, and cultural reasons, discussing cultural differences tends to be very uncomfortable, and a very sensitive topic in general.
“…Talking about differences is not dangerous.”
What I wanted to bring to the discussion is that talking about differences is not dangerous. In fact, it is only when you open your eyes to differences, learn and understand them better, that you yourself can understand how you have been formed by your own culture, and also how the cultural programming and values of others contribute to who they are. Then, you can accept others for their differences and begin to understand and start to improve relationships. Diversity alone doesn’t work; understanding and continuous learning is the only way to make this cultural mix work.
I can tell you a funny story. As a linguist, when studying the Swedish language, I was struck by the fact that the word “lika” means both similar and equal. And because we think with words, a thought struck me: in Swedish minds, similarity and equality lie very close to each other. If you speak to anyone outside Sweden; a French, a Slovak, or a Brazilian, this way of thinking is quite unusual! I believe this could explain to some extent why talking about differences can seem so “dangerous” from the Swedish perspective. Swedes may be afraid of acknowledging differences, because, at least in their linguistics, it veers away from the idea of people being equal.
In my experience, it is actually quite the opposite. When you acknowledge and discuss differences, it allows you to accept others as equals and have more successful relationships. This is also what research shows. We know that teams and organizations with no or little diversity are generally more stable than teams and organizations with diversity. But teams and organizations with diversity, on the other hand, bear a huge potential for higher effectiveness and innovation. Research shows that diverse teams can either show worse performance compared to homogeneous teams or much, much better performance!
What makes diverse teams and organizations have this huge potential to outperform homogeneous teams and companies is the organizational culture and the leadership style when differences are acknowledged and addressed rather than ignored or suppressed!
What are some concrete ideas you shared for improving the current situation around immigration integration?
EVG: Actually, I was very excited to participate in this roundtable discussion so I could hear the varying perspectives. There were participants from both private companies and the public sector; politicians, psychologists, activists, and entrepreneurs. All of us strongly believe that it is very important to do something to help foreign youth feel a part of Swedish society — for everyone’s sake, and for the country’s good.
I feel very passionately about bridging the existing gap — which is marked by a lack of knowledge transfer — between the business sector and the public sector. I would like to continue to find opportunities to work with municipalities and bring the expertise and experience from successful examples of organizations and how they leveraged diversity and inclusion. I have worked with several municipalities, and each time it has been very rewarding. Despite my constant lack of time, I would still like to find more projects. I feel that in this way, I contribute with my knowledge and expertise to the Swedish society. And I am very glad that Aperian Global fully supports this initiative of mine.
Are you satisfied with how the roundtable went?
EVG: I am. It was definitely enriching! But I also wish we had more time — there were so many different and unique perspectives and too little time to explore them all.
Ekaterina and her fellow consultants at Aperian Global work with corporations, government agencies, non-profits, and universities all over the world to build awareness and to strengthen inclusion and diversity efforts. Learn more about what makes our global approach to inclusion and diversity different.
Also, if you’d like to hear more about our integration programs designed specifically for refugees, prospective employers, and municipalities, visit our Refugee Integration page.