The past year has seen growing interest in sustainable business in Sweden. This was particularly noticeable at July’s Almedalen conference – the annual Swedish get-together of everything politics, business and civil society. Originally a ‘politics week’ when it started 50 years ago, Almedalen has become more of a business forum with over 4,000 seminars and panel discussions over the week. And what we saw this year was people across all sectors talking about how to improve business as a means to improve society.

Sweden has both a long tradition of social engagement and an established view that the state and public sector are responsible for social welfare. However, with growing backing for the Global Goals for Sustainable Development – and in light of recent UN reports on climate change, plus an extremely hot summer this year – people are also accepting that it’s not up to one sector to solve social and environmental challenges.

People across all sectors are talking about how to improve business as a means to improve society

Among those taking a leading role are social enterprises. In Sweden the sector is still quite small. It’s also not very well-defined: concepts such as ‘social economy’ and ‘social enterprise’ are relatively new, and there is no specific legal form for social enterprises. The term is also often associated with work integration social enterprises (known as WISEs) that aim to integrate people into society and working life, such as Yalla Trappan which provides work for immigrant women, or Basta which offers rehabilitation and work experience to those with a history of drug and alcohol abuse.

This lack of a clear definition means there isn’t much data available to establish the size of the sector (although we know there are 300 registered WISEs). But the growing interest in using business to do good is clear when you look at some of our start-ups. Food waste app Karma is connecting restaurants and stores with individuals, who can buy discounted food at the end of the day to avoid it going to waste. Peppy Pals is a series of games and movies teaching 2 to 9-year-olds about social and emotional intelligence, and Just Arrived connects newly-arrived immigrants with companies looking to recruit staff.

Social entrepreneurship has also boomed since the founding of the Norrsken Foundation by Niklas Adalberth, the wealthy co-founder of financial services company Klarna. Wanting to do more than just make money for the sake of it, Adalberth left Klarna in 2016 to set up Norrsken Foundation to invest in technology for social impact. He also set up Norrsken House in central Stockholm, a co-working space that claims to be Europe’s biggest impact tech hub, hosting over 300 social entrepreneurs and tech for good solutions.

The need for systemic change

The growing interest in social entrepreneurship is positive, but there is more to do. Earlier this year, SE Forum together with social enterprise associations in Latvia and Belarus published a review of the Baltic region and its social entrepreneurship ecosystem. Talking to Swedish entrepreneurs, municipalities and others, it became clear to us that a systemic change is needed for social enterprises to grow. The support system is fragmented; local government procurement focuses more on cost than social impact; and short-term funding is more common than long-term vision, which leads to many feasibility studies and temporary initiatives, but less real change.

The support system is fragmented, and short-term funding is more common than long-term vision

Things are evolving, though. There are many informal and formal initiatives around social impact measurement. Sweden’s first social impact bond was developed in 2016 in the Norrköping municipality to improve support for children placed in care. 700 people attended a Social Innovation Summit in Malmö in November to discuss collaboration across sectors.

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