Dare to listen

Gothenburg and its environs comprise one of the most innovative and fastest growing metropolitan areas in Europe.

In terms of sheer investment, the area has attracted €100 billion through large scale, long term urban development and infrastructure ventures up until 2035.

Yet, the price of rapid urbanisation has been steep. Not long ago, Gothenburg could have been described as one of Europe’s largest construction sites.

This led to numerous complications in the way business was carried out, and, as a result, small business owners felt excluded, and without a stake in the future development of their city.

​And somewhere along the way, between 2010 and 2018, Gothenburg fell from 97th to 222nd (out of 290 municipalities) in Sweden’s national business climate ranking for ‘competitiveness.’

In short, something had to be done.

Gothenburg means business

The answer, commissioned jointly by the city and region, became so central to the city’s long term planning that people started simply referring to it as ‘the strategy.’

The strategy

When Business Region Gothenburg, which developed the strategy, spoke with business owners, they learned that the steep pace of development meant business owners were growing frustrated with things like mounting traffic jams, and that their interactions with the public sector were perceived increasingly negatively.

According to Pia Areblad, who works as head of industry and commerce of the Strategic Development Programme for the business region, and who was involved in developing the strategy, “the business community felt remote from politics.”

The strategy was, in the end, rather simple. It focussed on meeting these frustrations together. Its vision was to ensure the entrepreneurial community has the city’s full support.

A long term strategic approach set goals for 2035 to provide homes, jobs, healthcare and other services to match the growing needs of the city, while also enlarging and deepening the labour market. As a priority, an initial action plan for the first two years, 2019-2021, sketched out a means to unite the public and private sectors. The results of 40 workshops with over 100 companies were shared directly with public authorities and a roadmap was developed to confront the main issues head on. This has already resulted in more coordinated work between city departments and an annual meeting between public and private representatives to hash out ongoing issues. But the most essential thing, according to Areblad, was that public authorities were prepared to, “take time to listen.”

At every stage, both the regional and city governments are being involved in delivering change, alongside local businesses, and other public actors from the port authority to the schools board, with each given a clear role.

At the core of this understanding on the part of the public authorities lay the realisation that, “a flourishing business sector is the foundation of wellbeing,” and that “the private sector generates 75% of the value created in the region,” meaning that, for Areblad, “it is the financial fundament for a healthy society,” and this became the “key motivator for civil servants.”

This helped inspire the administration to think about things much more from the business point of view. Now when SMEs share their frustrations, that public decisions and permits are not always coordinated, for example, there is a momentum to listen and for various public bodies to coordinate.

As a result, Gothenburg’s once negative trend is starting to shift upwards in the business rankings.

Entrepreneurial champions

With Gothenburg’s metropolitan region set to expand by 220,000 residents within the next 15 years, the long term vision to meet its needs includes the creation of an extra 120,000 jobs by 2035. That’s on top of 132,000 new jobs that have already been created since the year 2000! The region is clearly growing fast, but coupled with the strategy, which proposed 24 key actions, things are going in the right direction.

Pia Areblad, Head of industry and commerce of the Strategic Development Programme for the business region

This includes a focus on making it easier to become an entrepreneur in Gothenburg. The YesBox project, for example, facilitates a one-stop shop for anyone who wants to become an entrepreneur. The services offered include things like counselling, workshops and financial support.

The city is also hosting several demo sites for sustainable mobility, a crucial venture in a growing city. This includes a €100 million Swedish government scheme to make Gothenburg a test bed for electric vehicles.

And the ‘250 families’ project, meanwhile, seeks to tackle long term unemployment by ensuring that families with children have at least one parent at work before the end of December 2021.

It’s not surprising really that this focus on improving the business climate and creating a more entrepreneurial vibe has already seen Gothenburg crowned with the European Entrepreneurial Award 2020, which rewards regions with the most credible and forward-looking entrepreneurial vision.

On accepting the award, Axel Josefsson, chairman of the Gothenburg Region Association of Local Authorities and chairman of the City Executive Board of the City of Gothenburg, said “The core treasure, however, is the Region’s ability to open up and listen to the entrepreneurial community, to address challenges together with no less than 35 stakeholders, and to act together in order to achieve and maintain a favourable business climate.”

It just goes to show the power for transformative change encapsulated in an oftentimes underrated skill: listening.

Alex Godson Eurocities Writer