What’s It Like Being a Digital Nomad in Stockholm, Sweden?

By Julian Stubbs – OK, I have to declare a vested interest right up front.

I love Stockholm. I live here and still find it one of my favourite cities in the whole world. Ever since visiting for the first time I’ve been taken hostage by its many charms, and quirks. It’s a very wealthy city but one of the biggest things I appreciate are its values. There’s a very easy feel about Stockholm, very easy to live in and I love the fact it’s so open and inclusive to everyone.

Why Stockholm was the perfect place to start UP

In UP we don’t have offices and we don’t have employees. We do however have people – lots of them, in fact over 200 people globally as of today. Some might describe themselves as digital nomads, but the vast majority would call themselves E-ployees. We’ll come on to the distinction between these two terms later.

So instead of traditional offices we run what we call Creative Spaces. These are shared co-working facilities where our members (more on that in a moment) can go and work if they need to meet a client, or other UP colleagues or use a conference room. Our creative space in Stockholm is in a district called Östermalm. This shared working facility gives our members a base, and many of us within UP appreciate this, and also like the fact that we don’t have to go there to work – but can when we want or need to.

Östermalm itself is a very ritzy area with a fantastic choice of cafes, restaurants, markets, shops and health clubs. It’s a little world in itself, and a very welcoming one for digital nomads.

As I said, Stockholm is a rather well off city and Östermalm is the epitome of this. It’s one of the few places in the world where people not only park illegally, without regard to the consequences, but also it is their Range Rovers or Mercedes that they triple park. I saw one woman recently abandon her Porsche SUV in the middle of the road, hop out with a hand bag sized pooch under her arm, and casually trot into a cafe; simply abandoning her car with the hazard lights on, to warn people she was taking lunch. The fines are hefty, but she didn’t seem too concerned.

We established UP THERE, EVERYWHERE® in 2011, and Stockholm was the perfect place to start it. We’re a global cloud based branding, marketing and digital agency, and Sweden is extremely progressive when it comes to employment trends, so Stockholm was a natural fit.

Stockholm. The Capital of Scandinavia

I was also fortunate enough to work on the marketing and branding of my home city a few years back. After much research and several workshop groups, we came to the conclusion that Stockholm was the most important place in Scandinavia for business and for tourism. As that wasn’t terribly sexy, we created a shorthand for this idea creatively by dubbing Stockholm The Capital of Scandinavia.

This brought the normally passive Scandinavians to the point of falling out, and the Danes and Norwegians more than got the hump. However, over sixteen years later the idea is still central to Stockholm’s brand and positioning, and has been an enormous success.

But anyway, what makes a city great – or even perfect?

There is an equation for the perfect city. So say Luis Bettencourt and Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute.

Having amassed vast reams of big data (the length of electric cables, average income to the length of roads, the number of petrol stations and so forth), they came to the following conclusion: as these quantities increase, so does the city size.

So far, so obvious. But what was really interesting was this: the way in which cities grow around the world and indeed through the ages is mathematically predictable. By using Kleiber’s law as a point of departure (which states that metabolic rate is related to an organism’s size) Bettencourt came to realise the pattern holds good not only for all organisms and plants, but also for that uniquely man-made construction, the city.

To put it another way, cities always obey scaling laws and they do so in a super linear fashion. As Bettencourt puts it, “when you double the size of the city, you get more than double the amount of both good and bad socio-economic quantities—patents, aids cases, wages, crime.” He takes the view that, whichever metaphor you pick, (an ant colony, a super organism, a machine, cities are first and foremost) cities are ‘agglomerations of connections between people.”  In short, cities are born of connection.

Bettencourt and West took the data and turned them into a few elegant equations, which describe how a city grows, has grown and will grow. Such is his faith in the mathematics and the laws on which they are based that Bettencourt claims that if you tell him the size of any city in the US, he can tell you everything about it. Because it will obey scaling law-without exception. He quite rightly says that urban planners, architects and politicians need to be aware of this.

However, for my part I find his faith in mathematics troubling. His equations are no doubt faultless, his logic unquestionable, but to conceive of a city in solely mathematical terms strikes me as misguided. You can analyse the Mona Lisa in terms of the Golden section, you can look at it through a microscope, you can run every test known to science, but doing so would bring you no closer to its essence. So it is with cities.

Which brings us to Stockholm. Perhaps I’m biased because I’ve made Sweden my home for over twenty years, but I think Stockholm is one of the greatest cities in the world.

But how does Stockholm measure up for the digital nomad or e-ployee?

Let’s start with its good points, of which there are many.

Stockholm is one of Europe’s, nay the world’s leading innovation and entrepreneurial capitals. At the time of writing, there are over 700 start-ups in Stockholm. Outside of Silicon Valley, Stockholm has more Unicorns (privately held start-ups valued at a billion dollars or more) per capita, than any other place on earth.

GDP stands at $538 billion 2018, which is pretty good. All the indications are it will top this in 2019 and 2020. This figure represents 0.89 of the world’s economy (source) that, given its population of ten million or so, is doubly impressive.

Sweden is blessed with a high standard of living.  Yes, money helps, but life is good in Sweden in large part because the Swedes have got the work / life balance right – a very strong motivator for digital nomads.

The World Happiness report, which is published by the UN, declared Sweden the 7th happiest country in the world. The rankings are based on answers to the main life evaluation question asked in the poll. This is called the Cantril ladder: it asks respondents to think of a ladder, with the best possible life for them being a 10, and the worst possible life being a 0.

Wi-fi is super fast and for the most part free. Indeed, Sweden boasts some of the fastest broadband in the world. The 3rd fastest according to Akamai’s 2017 state of the internet connectivity report.The average is an impressive 20.6 Mbps across the country.

The reason? Sweden wisely invested in fiber optics nearly twenty years ago. To put this into context, South Korea leads the charge with an average connection speed of 28.6 and Paraguay gets the wooden spoon in 148th position with a snail-like 1.4.

It won’t come as surprise then that Stockholm is digital nomad savvy in a big way. Take hotels and cafés, for example, both of which have long realised that people are increasingly doing business on the move, and so they have gone to great lengths to make the digital nomad feel welcome. Which is why hotels and cafés are full of new age workers doing business. Add to this the fact there are co-working places galore and Stockholm adds up to a formidable digital proposition.

Sweden is ultra-modern. So, too, is its capital. Sweden embraces tech as to the manner born. For instance, for good or for ill, the Swedes have practically gotten rid of cash (I can’t remember the last time I actually needed cash). Even the homeless (and we have a few mostly from other EU countries, such as Romania) accept donations via a smartphone app called Izettle or Swish.

Sweden has a famously tolerant society – an important criterion for many E-ployees. The Good Country Index, which calculates what each country contributes to the common good, puts Sweden in fourth place, ahead of Germany, Switzerland and the UK.

Clearly, the Swedes are doing something right. Corruption is also very low compared to all other countries on earth, and red tape is pretty minimal – provided you have a personnummer (a personal number). Every Swede gets one the minute they are born and it’s pretty difficult to do anything without one if you intend to live in Sweden.

Stockholm is safe, crime is low, the lifestyle relaxed. Stockholmers are as a rule calm, polite and welcoming. Indeed, Stockholm is one of the safest cities in the world, despite a rise in crime over the past few years. According to the 2019 Safe city index, (which ranks 60 cities against 57 criteria covering digital security, health security, infrastructure security and personal security) it is the sixth safest city on earth in terms of personal security. The first? Singapore.

Public transport is excellent and relatively cheap, which is good news for digital nomads who have shallow pockets. The Tunnelbana, or subway, is punctual, the stations well connected, and everything runs as smoothly as you would expect in Scandinavia. Oh, and the air quality is one of the best in Europe, which also helps Swedes to be one of the healthiest races on earth.

And those who think it might be light on high culture can think again. It boasts over 80 museums and art galleries. What of the nightlife? It is rated as ‘’good” on the Nomadlist.

The downside of living in Stockholm

However, Stockholm is inevitably not without its disadvantages. For starters, some things can cost more than in many other European cities.

Alcohol is a good case in point. Sweden has a nationalised chain of off-licenses called the Systembolaget. Save for bars and restaurants, it’s the only place where one can buy booze stronger that 3.5%. And by British and American standards, it’s a bit pricey. Some bars and restaurants are even more so. But as one Swede recently told me when talking about the price of drink ‘Ah could be far worse, we could be in Oslo where it’s really expensive to get ratted!’ (just goes to show the Swedes capability at English, being able to use such an English colloquialism).

On the daylight front, there is either too much light or too little. Winters are cold. Swedes are also a shy bunch and it can be a bit more difficult to make friends, according to some. Best advice: get a few drinks inside them and they lighten up pretty quickly.

So, on balance the pros more than outweigh the cons. If you get a chance to visit Stockholm, do check it out.

In my next blog I’ll look at what it’s like to be a digital nomad, or e-ployee, and how my company UP is making it possible.


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