Stockholm stares down the barrel of the climate emergency

The Swedish workplace has a reputation for sustainability but that is no defence against the urgent need for structural transformation to avert the climate crisis, according to the WORKTECH Stockholm conference 2023

The Swedish workplace is built around the twin pillars of sustainability and social democracy. Many Swedish companies are admired for their commitment to a greener future. So, we might cut the Swedes some slack when discussing the climate emergency, right?

Wrong. Past Swedish success at sustainable design afforded no protection against a broadside from architect Indy Johar of Darks Matters Labs, keynote speaker at this year’s WORKTECH Stockholm conference, which was held in unsettlingly warm weather on 21 September 2023. Johar laid out the scale of the oncoming climate breakdown and nobody was spared. ‘Which of your office assets is ready for eight degrees warmer?’ he asked delegates.

Stock responses to the climate crisis were given short shrift by Johar. Renewable energy? All it will do is barely cover GDP growth. Timber-constructed offices? They would need to survive 200 years to be truly sustainable. In a passionate address, he called for a shift away from material-driven growth towards intangible experiences. ‘We need to de-materialise,’ he warned.

Structural transformation

Such is the environmental challenge that Indy Johar declared ‘we will need a structural economic transformation in how we live and work at the speed and scale equivalent to recovering from a world war’. Current employment contracts, he said, were an extension of slavery. Command and control was finished. The future CEO will be the Chief Learning Officer. ‘We need to build a new thesis of what it is to be human,’ concluded Johar. ‘The big question is how we create organisations of deep learning.’

‘The big question is how we create organisations of deep learning’

Indy Johar’s linking of the planetary crisis to a waste of human potential resonated throughout the entire Stockholm conference, even if many of the issues raised were dwarfed by the magnitude of the climate breakdown he was describing. Things need fixing in the workplace even while half the world burns.

Jeremy Myerson of WORKTECH Academy called for a new social contract to close the gap between employers and employers over how hybrid working evolves. Kate Milne from Cardea Health Consulting argued for action to be taken to prevent older women abandoning the workforce, citing a concept called ‘gendered ageism’. A high-powered panel of workplace leaders from Spotify, Ericsson, Microsoft and games company King called for a rethink on what really supports productivity – tools for new ways of working, not just reliance on proximity and place.

In all of this, technology has a key role to play. A lively session moderated by the Veldhoen consulting firm looked how data can ‘help us build more brain-friendly offices’; Suzana Drakulic of Google discussed generative AI; and EY and Nokia shared notes on the future of an ‘enterprise metaverse’ driven by the demand for better digital collaboration. Even the issue of older women leaving the workforce might be addressed by wearables, gamification and virtual wellbeing programs, explained Kate Milne.

People-first approach

WORKTECH Stockholm’s heart was closest, however, to the social democratic traditions long associated with its location. An entertaining ‘fireside chat’ between Chief Operating Officer Emma Dowden, Change Manager Anna Taylor and Workspace Strategy Manager Audrey Cowan from independent UK law firm Burges Salmon demonstrated how the legal sector can make progress and evolve with a people-first approach on the journey to agile working.

The conference was preceded by a masterclass at EY’s convivial Stockholm office, designed around a framework of ‘bricks, bytes and behaviours’. This discussed the results of EY’s global 2023 Work Reimagined Survey, and suggested that skills-building and training remain key priorities for employers despite tough economic conditions.

Not organisations of deep learning entirely, but some consolation for Indy Johar as he warns the business community of imminent climate chaos unless there is a radical change of course.

Access the WORKTECH Stockholm conference site here.
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