Why Sweden Is So Good at Making Tech Everyone Wants

Episode 2: We explore magical treehouses, faceswapping robots, and enjoy fika with Spotify’s Daniel Ek

By Ashlee Vance | April 27, 2016

Tucked away down a side street in Östermalm, Stockholm’s ultra-hip neighborhood, is Café Saturnus. The place reeks of style and expensive lattes. Handsome waiters with spectacular man buns serve up delicious meals, while elegant patrons relax inside the colorful shop or take in the city scene sitting at wooden tables outside. Daniel Ek, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Spotify, is there all the time, and it’s easy enough to find him catching a quick breakfast.

Ashlee Vance speaks with Daniel Ek outside Café Saturnus in Stockholm.
Chatting with Daniel Ek over lattes and fika.
Photographer: Jennafer Savino/Bloomberg

Ek comes from a generation of Swedes that were fed a steady diet of technology in their youth. Decades ago, the Swedish government concluded that technology would be a big part of the country’s future, so it set out to build high-speed Internet lines for all, to subsidize PC purchases, and to teach computer science at schools. The results have been phenomenal. Sweden has produced an outsized stream of mega consumer-technology hits—Spotify, Minecraft and Candy Crush—while also building an infrastructure capable of supporting some of the world’s largest data centers. Though tiny in terms of population, Sweden has emerged as Europe’s premiere technology powerhouse.

This episode of Hello World takes a look at Sweden’s success and examines how the country’s culture is coping with the sudden influx of tech riches. I start out in Stockholm eating cinnamon buns with Ek at Café Saturnus, discussing his background, struggles, and aspirations. From there, I meet with the founders of startups such as Furhat Robotics, which is rethinking how people and machines interact, and I hang out with other young, ambitious technophiles who chill at the local nerd lounge, Epicenter. Along the way, there are encounters with Swedish meatballs, Swedish whiskey, and Swedish hangovers.

Furhat thinks human faces will make robots more social.
Photographer: Jennafer Savino/Bloomberg

I head from Stockholm to the picturesque town of Luleå. It’s there—right on the cusp of the Arctic Circle—that Facebook has built what’s believed to be the world’s most efficient data center. It’s an engineering marvel designed to cool tens of thousands of like machines with Arctic air. The systems run on hydroelectric power pumped out by turbines planted along the Lule River. Naturally, I decide to go inside some of these turbines and turn them on, all while in the company of a pair of amiable moose hunters.

The Swedes’ mastery of technology has roots in the country’s culture. These are the people that brought us Ikea, H&M, and Björn Borg underwear. They have a natural sense of clean, functional design that carries over to such services as Spotify and Minecraft. There’s also a real desire to be forward-thinking while still living in harmony with nature. And so Vattenfall—the local energy giant—can build its dams along the Lule River and provide all the power Northern Sweden needs, just as long as it agrees to restock the river with millions of fish to maintain some measure of balance with the surroundings.

On the road along the Lule River.
On the road along the Lule River.
Photographer: Jennafer Savino/Bloomberg

But then comes the turmoil. Sweden hasn’t quite figured out how to digest people such as Ek and Minecraft creator Markus Persson and the services they’ve created. Swedes generally prefer to go about their business without drawing too much attention. The only time they brag is to convey just how humble they really are. Yet it’s difficult to keep this act up when you’re making millions—sometimes billions—of dollars. Ek went through a period of soaking himself in champagne at Swedish nightclubs and driving fast cars, and Persson followed with his own journey into personal excess. Both men came away unfulfilled and haunted by their new fame and riches. While they’re the top of the pyramid, plenty of Swedes have made small fortunes and the country as a whole is struggling to come to terms with its changing identity as the home of tech playboys.

Sturm und drang aside, Sweden remains a beautiful country full of beautiful people doing beautiful things. This last visit reconfirmed my previous impressions of a land that seems to have mastered the art of living simply while still chasing progress with fury and passion. Sit down with a cup of coffee as we journey into Swedish technology and a country’s psyche.

Watch more from Hello World

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