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Published: 2023-05-17

Trying to make the transformation of the north sustainable

NEWS Rikard Eriksson studies regional development – in particular the conditions for work and prosperity outside of larger cities. He is currently setting up a brand-new, comprehensive interdisciplinary research programme that will focus on both the economic, social and political dimensions of the societal transformation of the north of Sweden.

“You could say that all my research is actually related to the societal transformation of the north of Sweden, because I explore the capacity of different regions to handle change and transformation,” says Rikard Eriksson.

Rikard Eriksson is professor of economic geography at the Department of Geography, and head of research at the Centre for Regional Science. These next seven years, he will be leading the research programme ‘The new land of the future? Driving forces, challenges and opportunities in relation to the (green) industrialisation of northern Sweden’, which is funded by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (The Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation).

We want to determine whether, and for whom, the societal transformation will truly be sustainable.

“The programme will focus on the economic, social and political dimensions of the societal transformation. We’re an interdisciplinary group of geographers, economists, ethnologists, political scientists, architects and economic historians. Together, we’ll analyse the transformation from the perspective of inclusive and sustainable local and regional development. We’ll explore whether and how people’s image of northern Sweden will change in the wake of these investments, how municipalities and regional health authorities plan to deal with the potential population boom, and if we can draw any parallels with other events from the past. All to try and answer the question of whether this societal transformation truly is sustainable and, if so, for whom.”

Talent acquisition is a challenge

One issue that already poses a challenge to municipalities up north is the acquisition of talent.

“Sourcing the right skills, both for the jobs directly linked to the new investments and for those in other areas of the labour market, will be a challenge. We’re talking about municipalities and regional health authorities with a relatively small working age population, many of whom are already employed. Because it’s so rare for people in Sweden to move to a new town or county, attracting labour in the north is a major and pressing challenge. There’s a real risk of the situation becoming a zero-sum game in these municipalities, because new jobs in the green industry might end up rendering existing ones obsolete rather than creating new ones.”

Municipalities shoulder a heavy responsibility here.

Another major question is how to plan for growth in a way that will make the transformation sustainable.

“Municipalities shoulder a heavy responsibility here: they need to create favourable conditions for investment, while simultaneously attracting people. It’s a huge challenge, investing in and planning for expected growth without knowing whether that growth will actually occur.”

“And then there’s the question of how municipalities can promote inclusion, not letting all resources go to a handful employers or even just a single one. And those are just a few of the challenges municipalities now face. It’s anything but a given that everyone will benefit from this transformation. Lastly, existing sustainability goals may need to be revised now that new areas need to be built in no time. Is it possible for today’s society to change overnight, while keeping the needs of tomorrow’s generations in mind?”