A proposal for the future of Sweden's rural areas
Let it die, to be born again - think again and dare to exist under new conditions. Today's countryside is unsustainable, the same service cannot exist on the same terms throughout a whole country.
A functioning postal system together with an expanded fibre network is the key.
The retail sector is dying in cities; this has already happened in the countryside. However, the countryside has the potential to be at the forefront of the development of a 'drop-off service' community. Let's take the example of 'Systembolaget' liquor stores, which have operated under alternative, self-service models for a long time. More service establishments should be able to operate this way. The development of unmanned stores are already counteracting the death of some types of shops, but such solutions can surely be included in different types of stores too - for example clothing stores, where you can browse and explore clothes and then order once you’re ready. There is a lot that can be done, with the lower premises costs and very low staff costs that unmanned stores provide.
Health and social care on new terms
We must recognise that care cannot be provided on the same terms as in the past. We must educate rural doctors, nurses and pharmacists and give them greater autonomy. Add centralised digital healthcare services to this: If X-rays already get sent elsewhere for processing, maybe a nurse can use a photo? That way, much of the health service can be local, even if a lot of the work is executed elsewhere. Healthcare is at risk of suffering in rural areas; in order to reduce the loss of quality, clear processes are needed, whereby local healthcare professionals can consult someone more experienced. Examinations and care can be done locally to a large extent, while analysis and counselling could take place elsewhere.
And there is also a sensitive issue around the cost of elderly care. This cannot be done digitally. Social care will remain a challenge for the countryside. Often in-home care services are not an option. It is therefore not appropriate to always direct people towards in-home care, instead more people may need space in senior housing - a solution that may very well be best for everyone involved.
Taxing for sustainability
A change in the taxation of natural resources and electricity production could reduce opposition to developing wind power and hydro power, as well as reforming forestry and mining. Forestry and mining account for a changing part of the country's economy - taxing this locally would result in stronger economies in the regions responsible for the raw materials, which would in turn reduce the need for these municipalities and regions to receive state subsidies. Local energy taxation would mean that the country could more easily convert to renewable energy. An important aspect of this is that it highlights that the countryside contributes to society in general, an important point to emphasise across the whole country.
Can schooling be done digitally? Today, it is very difficult and expensive for schools to be able to offer a broad curriculum covering all subjects. This is especially true from high school and upwards as more subjects are added. In the digitally-connected classroom more teaching assistants are needed and perhaps a new form of teacher. Imagine a broader teacher education where the teacher does not have a subject specialism but instead has a broad education, perhaps with an academic background. This could be across up to six subject areas, so they could act as a local support for the students in those subjects. A local teacher would be someone that students can consult and have direct contact with and someone who can provide support that a teaching assistant cannot. Digital university courses can be offered in local rooms where students can study together even if they study completely different subjects, something which is already done today, but on a smaller scale.
How often do people need to visit a physical bank branch in Sweden? Answer: Every time the Mobile Bank ID needs to be renewed. This is true at least for many younger bank customers. This specific aspect of mobile banking should be reformed so that more (reliable) agents can perform that service. And how should everyone else be able to manage their banking services? Answer: Introduce local digital service coordinators from the municipalities. They can help the elderly and others to succeed in a digital society. This would be a much-needed service everywhere, not just in the countryside.
New ways of working
Not all people thrive working from home, so the solution is not that people work from home digitally. Instead, co-working spaces can be developed where several companies can have a local presence. How many of us in cities do not work with the computer as the main tool and neither meet customers physically nor attend many face-to-face meetings? The important thing here will be to offer secure internet connections so that companies dare to open up access to their internal systems in a room outside their control. Government initiatives to open up these co-working spaces are needed. Hopefully, these places can become places where creativity flows as people completing different tasks can meet for coffee or lunch and share their knowledge. This is how the service sector should be able to reach the countryside.
Today, a large proportion of jobs in rural areas are in manufacturing industries. Co-owned management companies could make it easier for them to conduct their operations, for example by providing shared, centralised finance, HR and other services.
Flexibility in the labour market is also required. People will need different part-time jobs such as part-time firefighter, soldier, nurse, tourism worker and much more. This therefore requires a great deal more of the people living in the countryside to upskill in broader competencies and skills in general. If this can be implemented, it is my belief that the countryside will be better equipped than the country's medium-sized cities, and also big cities, once digitisation in the labour market takes the next step.
Food residues can be composted to reduce the cost of cleaning and waste management. Digital advertising policies can also reduce the need for cleaning costs. Road maintenance and snow removal are often a necessary expense that can eat up a small municipality's budget. Here, more of a culture of planning and preparation is required to enable efficiencies in snow removal in the countryside. As work, school and a lot else besides can be done from home where necessary, societies in cold climates can continue without taking a break for snow.
These are my thoughts on how some of the issues facing the countryside in Sweden, and in other countries, can be resolved. As I said, expectations of what society gives must change, while at the same time increasing the responsibility of the citizen. In connection with this change, taxes must be changed accordingly.
When I wrote this piece while working for one of the big Nordic banks, I had no idea I would soon be working on building some of the solutions I proposed here - remote, digital banking solutions which support 21st century customers. I hope you enjoyed reading my proposal. Please get in touch if this resonated with you, or if you'd like to read my original proposal in Swedish.
Joakim Jonsson, Compliance Officer, Intergiro