Sweden. Despite its small population of an estimated 9.8 million people, the country has an ever strong presence with brands such as H&M, IKEA and Acne wooing the world with their cool and sleek designs. There’s no denying that Sweden has been winning the rest of the world’s heart with its functional, minimalist and high quality aesthetics in everything Swedish people seem to create. In order to unravel how Sweden has become a cultural superpower, I decided to learn more about the country with the help of the ambassador of Sweden to Canada, Per Sjögren.
Today, more than ever, Sweden holds a very strong soft power (cultural influence) that can be seen all over the world. How do you think this has happened?
Ambassador Per Sjögren: I believe we have a rich culture when it comes to music. We have many talents, songwriters, DJ’s and producers. I think there are several reasons for that. First, music plays an important role in the Swedish school system. We have a public school program, the Swedish Music School, which offers all young students the possibility to learn to play an instrument, where all classes are for free. The music school is open all day. Most students go there right after or before school. This inspires and motivates students to engage in music from an early age. It makes music a natural element in everyday life. And many famous artists from Sweden are often known to have said that they started off learning music there. When Grammy winner Max Martin [Swedish Music Producer] recently received a prize called the Polar Music Prize, he said that he started at the Swedish Music School, and that it provided an important foundation for his career as a music producer. The same can be said for singer and musician Seinabo Sey. The Swedish Music School has been starting point for many artists in Sweden.
Can this kind of high quality public art schools be seen in other forms of art such as painting or acting?
Yes, but it especially comes strong in the case of music. The public music school is quite unique and exists in all municipalities in Sweden. Some of these schools have however broadened their curriculum to include dance, theatre and art. However, it is also important to know that in the normal curriculum of all schools in Sweden, you have art and other creative studies as part of the curriculum.
How would you describe Sweden’s cultural identity?
Modern Sweden is shaped by democracy and equality. We have free education, free health care, and an egalitarian society when it comes to wealth. So, the aim is to give everyone the same rights, opportunities and possibilities. Democracy, equality and an ambition to provide everyone with the same opportunities are important elements for Sweden and its cultural identity.
In lists ranking the quality of life in various countries, Scandinavian countries, including Sweden, tend to be towards the top. What do you think are some of the defining factors that contribute to this?
Public education and health care. Education helps to improve economic possibilities. Gender equality is also considered to be important. One of the areas where we’re most advanced is childcare. Public childcare allows both parents to be home after a child is born. We have both maternity and paternity leave. Paternity leave has existed for a long time and it’s even more developed now. Parents can have up to 480 days of payed parental leave for each child, and the public views this as a good thing. So, my colleagues who are younger and have children usually take some time off. It’s very common. It is seen as a positive thing in both the public and private sector. You can take parental leave until your child is 8 years old. I think this aspect of Sweden is something that is seen positively by other countries.
Can you explain what the bilateral relations between Canada and Sweden look like? How important is Sweden’s relationship to Canada? what makes it unique?
We have an excellent relationship. One area in which we have a good relationship is education. On average, 500 to 600 students from Sweden studying Canada and the same numbers goes for students from Canada studying in Sweden. As for commercial activities, trade between Canada and Sweden is substantial. We have a large number of Swedish companies in Canada such as IKEA, H&M, and ABB. Also, we both share a passion for ice hockey: the NHL is followed closely in Sweden. There are many Swedish hockey players in Canada, but perhaps interest is even greater in Canada.
During my interview with ambassador Per Sjögren, I can’t count how many times my inner voice said “I need to move to Sweden, NOW”. Sweden has become a cultural superpower not by accident, but by adopting progressive values of life.