My experience as Sweden’s Minister for the Future

By Kristina Persson, September 2018. 
Kristina Persson was a Minister for Strategic Development and Nordic Cooperation under Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, from October 2014 to May 2016.She started her career in the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Finance in the 70s, moved to the Secretariat for Future Studies, and then spent the 1980s in the Swedish trade union movement. During the 1990s she was an MP and then a MEP, before becoming a County Governor in Jämtland and Deputy Governor of the Swedish central bank in 2001. From 2007 she founded and led the one of Sweden’s most important think tanks called Global Challenge.

This article describes my experience as the Swedish Minister for the Future – as the popular title was. It was a great opportunity, but I am afraid, also a controversial one. At the time of taking up his new mission the then newly elected PM was warned by previous ministers and collegues that his time easily would be eaten up by the daily handling of issues and events of a short-term nature – conflicts, critics and, not least medias preferences and that he would run the risk of getting much too little time for the important, long term challenges.

I had all my life, in different capacities, been focusing on long-term issues and started immediately to put together three working groups with the best expertise Sweden could provide: From academia, business, trade unions, civil society and some former politicians.

The groups were:

  1. Work in the future: How can the Swedish labor market meet the combined challenges from      AI, robotization and globalization?
  2. The green transformation: What should Sweden do, in concrete terms, to establish a fossil free society (zero net emissions) not later than 2050?
  3. Global Cooperation and governance: How to achieve a long-term sustainable development for the world, as spelled out in the UN Agenda 2030?

Eighteen months later, the groups had delivered three main reports, some 50 special reports with 108 concrete proposals and a great number of hard facts and analysis. I had established a standing Council for the Future, consisting of one third of the government ministers, plus the Prime Minister, receiving and discussing the reports. I also gave a few of my staff the task to work on strategic foresight reports, to assess the long-term prospects of technological development, geopolitical changes, migration etc.

The main message from the group Work in the Future was that Sweden must invest heavily in knowledge at all levels: – Higher education, research and innovation.
Further education is the most important answer from society to the great structural changes that will take place, as more and more services will be performed by AI instead of by humans.
This also meant a need to invest in broad knowledge and competence among people in general, for a continuous supply of AI and other skills in the labor force. A very concrete proposal from the group was a new scheme for joint financing between unions, business and government for life-long learning for adults before they are hit by the changes in the labor market.
The need for human beings in working life will still be there but will look different and the new jobs will many times need active support from the public sector to develop. This is not new, but the speed and scope of the changes are unprecedented and will thus put the public interest at a great test. Many more professions will be affected, also the highly skilled.

The interface between machine and man will create increased value in many areas like medicine, education, industry, energy, transport and public administration. But if we shall be able to catch the immense potential of the new technologies we will need a lot of private and public investments, leadership and innovation.

These conclusions are, I believe equally true for all other countries if you want to develop your economy and become competitive on the world markets. We all start at different levels and we are strong in different segments of the world-economy, but we all have the same kind of journey to make. Nothing comes for free, ever.
We also need to adjust our economic or social organization – taxes, welfare systems, insurance and the like – to fit the changed nature of work.

The Green Group made it clear that an extensive transformation to a fossil-free and resource efficient economy is fundamental for Sweden to remain a strong and competitive welfare-state. According to the group there were no long-term contradictions between a radical green policy and future economic strength – on the contrary it meant a push for technological development in sectors and products that soon will be in great demand in the whole world. All parts of society need to transform – transport, industry and agriculture were in the forefront, as was green financing. And since the report was published, Green Bonds have seen considerable growth in Sweden.

The group on Global Cooperation and Governance focused on the need for cooperation between the social partners – global deals were needed between labor, business and governments to assure inclusive growth and decent work. This work is now continuing in close collaboration with ILO and OECD. The group also stressed strongly the need to strengthen the multilateral cooperation in the world, like IMU for more decent migration – rules and an increased international cooperation for a Cyberpolicy.
In short, we had formed the perfect base for the continued work of Agenda 2030, the UN Sustanbility Goals in Sweden. All should have been well, but instead my work was suddenly put to an end.

To me it is more than obvious in the time we live in that a government need to address not only what has happened in the society now but also the need of policies to meet future challenges – to be proactive. The reasons are many and partly reflected in the choice of themes for my three working groups.

I will not go into details why this and similar initiatives before, was stopped, only note that there are three conditions that must be present, if a strong commitment to the long term within a government, shall have a chance to survive:

First, the Prime Minister must him/herself stay strongly committed, active and eager to fulfill a mission for the long term and the whole. A “Minister for the Future” – senior or young – can assist and do much of the work but can never replace the PM. Long-term strategic issues is and must be the key responsibility for the top leader.
Second, a Prime Minister must have a holistic and long-term view and be prepared to challenge the silos within the government offices. Power struggles between the silos are very destructive for good governance.
Third, the internal culture of the government offices must move from being 110 % administration oriented and rule-based to a more intellectual and problem-solving culture with creative contacts across sectors and dialogue with the outside world.

It goes without saying that all governments, no matter where on earth they find themselves must devote time and resources to try to understand what is happening around them, as well as try to foresee what might happen some 5 to 20 years ahead. And against this backdrop formulate strategies how to achieve important goals.

Many conclusions are valid for all countries. Like the recommendation that OECD gave Sweden in a recent report to strengthen its central governance capacity. And that the ability to prepare system analyses, that create an understanding of how different drivers, factors and processes affect each other, are very significant. This was concluded in a new report on AI from Vinnova, a Swedish research and development agency. A systemic view is a great challenge for the present organization of the Swedish government offices.

Furthermore, great changes like the ones I addressed in my role as a minister will be impossible to realize in a peaceful way, unless they are done with a strong, social conscience. In the Nordic countries we enjoy very high trust in relation to almost all other countries. This as a social capital of great value that must be cherished by our governments. The recent election success for The Sweden democrats is an indication that we have a job to do to keep trust from deteriorating.
Corrupt leaders or leaders who are more interested in their own wealth and privileges would fail to pursue the kind of reforms that I have been talking about. A good economic and social development depends on both a country’s ability to use new technology and on the public’s trust.
Values will be decisive for our common future. Not least for a beneficial AI development. Governments must get involved and formulate their visions and communicate them to their people and establish a dialogue. In the meantime, it is encouraging that both AI- researchers, employees and some leaders in the tech giants are taking their own initiatives in support of Good AI.

In 2016, a group of AI- researchers from different corners of the world formed an association to promote a beneficial AI-development, supported by some private donors like Elon Musk, who share their deep concern about the future of humanity society. In the manifest agreed upon in 2017 by a large number of researchers, a number of principles were formulated to secure that superintelligence is developed solely in favor of broadly shared ethical values to the benefit of the whole humanity, and not of a particular state or organization. You can read about this in an instructive book about the ongoing AI-revoution “Life 3.0” by Max Tegmark.

One of the most prominent companies involved like Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook, have also formed a group to discuss the effect of tech- development on society as a whole. It is high time that governments become an active part in these efforts!

In April this year, the EU Commission launched an initiative to boost European investments in AI and prepare for the social and economic changes, including ethical guidelines for the development. 20 billion pounds was promised by the end of 2020. The Vice-President for the Digital Single Market, Andrus Ansip, said: “… Just as the steam engine and electricity did in the past, AI is transforming our world….”

The UN agency for information and communication technologies called ITU in Geneva has organized two global summits for “Good AI”. The second one, in May this year discussed how AI solutions could yield long-term benefits and help achieve Agenda 2030 – the Sustainable Development Goals. EU should follow up on this. The two national superpowers US and China are dominating the digital race, but they are not likely to lead a multilateral effort. EU should work together with other regions in the world and support initiatives by the UN.

To conclude: Sweden’s and Europe´s greatest opportunity for competitiveness, lies within the interaction between innovative AI application in business and innovative organization of society. Business will need important new drivers and incentives coming from an inventive public sector. Sweden and the other Nordic countries should have a better starting point than most other countries – but, could it be that the young and ambitious in the less developed countries will turn out to be quicker to change? Complacency is a great risk.

Time will show. And I believe we should work together, not just compete. The interdependence in the world is so strong that collaboration will be a more decisive factor for success than competition.

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