Kjell A Nordström has a CV as long as he is tall. In the past twenty years, Nordström has completed a PhD in economics, worked as a teacher and management consultant based at the Stockholm School of Economics and become a popular lecturer, successful author and entrepreneur with his own company.

Kjell A Nordström’s analyses of the effects of globalisation and urbanisation on us as people and on Sweden as a country attract the attention of readers and listeners. He sees a future in which access and infrastructure mean everything and where Stockholm Arlanda Airport has to be 2–4 per cent better than Zurich in order for us to be successful.

“We live in a world where 500 to 600 cities will completely dominate. 480 or 490 of them already exist – we can see them clearly in satellite photos. By 2050, it’s thought that eighty per cent of us will live in these cities. If there are nine billion people on the planet by that time, then five or perhaps six billion will live in these cities.

“This concentration of people is incredible. If we take Stockholm and add Malmö, Gothenburg and two or three university towns here, that corresponds to what Sweden will be in 2050. The rest of the country will be what in architectural language is called junkspace. As many trees as you like, and space, space, space, and empty houses. We already see that today. It’s not a question of houses not being up for sale – it’s just that no one wants them.

“It’s been said for many years that the internet and mobile phones would reverse this trend and populate the countryside, that digital contact would replace physical encounters. There would be the same standards in northern Finland and Lappeenranta in South Karelia as in southern Sweden or Stockholm. Today research shows that people are increasingly crowding together in an astonishing way. Silicon Valley is in fact a small place, the same size as Uppsala. It consists of a university and the area around it, but people from all around the world go there to live and work. It’s the same with Hollywood – everyone who wants to make movies flocks there because they want to make movies and they live there, crowded closely together.”

“There seems to be a kind of knowledge that we people cannot yet transmit to machines. Researchers call it silent knowledge – I call it wild knowledge. It’s knowledge that the artist Ulrika Hydman Vallien has, painting cats on glass. It’s difficult to transmit this online, or using another technology, if you want to teach future glass artists. It’s a question of touch – how to deal with glass, heat, paint. In the end, it’s ‘This isn’t working – come over and I’ll show you’.

“I think that all our activities to some degree include wild knowledge. You can get far with emails and preparations, but then you actually have to bring it all together. In that case, you need a white­board to draw on, have discussions, look each other in the eye, trust each other – what we humans build, the little things that make it gel like handshakes and all that. Developments will require us to meet up in the future as well. And apparently, so far at least, these mechanisms work in a counterintuitive way. The more we communicate by phone, the more we want to meet up. That is, this communication drives physical communication, not the other way around.

“The growth of cities seems to be a given – the driving force, or one driving force, may be the peculiar knowledge that requires us to cluster. That means it can go so far that an architect who wants to become something doesn’t have a choice. They can’t live on an island like Gotland. A lead ­designer at the Swedish fashion company Acne can’t run off to the remote countryside of Värmland and set up shop there since they’ll be disconnected from the flow of colours, qualities, heel heights, and latte-drinking mums who want to have clothes and show off their sense of style on the streets of Södermalm. Sitting in a distant town like Fagersta and designing apparel for someone walking the trendy streets of Stockholm will be difficult, if not impossible.

“It’ll be like a complete geographic implosion, like in a sci-fi film where everything is sucked together. People need to see this and understand. That in turn indicates the value of wild knowledge may be great, far greater than we may imagine.”

“With 600 cities, we’ll be flying quite a lot – after all, it seems that communication will drive physical communication, rather than the reverse. We have nothing to indicate otherwise. No substitute transport means is foreseen today. A lot will happen, and enormous resources are being invested in the last mile. How will people get their children to day care, get themselves to work and get packages home from their online shopping? We’ll see many innovations in logistics. As for long-distance transport, we’ll have drones as well as ships and planes operated by humans or machines that move between hubs and handle heavy transport flows. And today there’s no new transport mode that has even been suggested as a substitute for air travel.

“It’s conceivable that we’ll make more products using machines at home, instead of in China – that is, technological substitution. Apple has in fact said that the next generation of iPhones will be made largely in the US, in fully automated factories. In that case, wage costs will no longer be a factor. On the contrary, less attractive places like Switzerland with high costs but extremely reliable infrastructure will be a good place to set up factories. Sweden is also a place like that which can attract production since we have access to energy and are one of the best-functioning societies in the world. In the latest survey, we’re ranked as the best country to do business in. Add to that a well-functioning infrastructure, a tax system that works, schools for international children, an electric power system, hospitals – all this must work well. Then we can be that kind of place,” Kjell A Nordström stresses.

“When that happens, if that happens, it will drive even more travel, not less, only more.”

“In Sweden, Norway and Finland, we live basically near the polar circle. But 250 million people live a few hours by car within the area around London, Paris, Milan and Rome. The population corridor here is frequently called the blue banana. It’s the most densely populated area on earth, including Asia. Everything and everyone is here. People don’t need to fly – it’s perfectly fine to take the autobahn or train.

“They’re there. We’re here. If we’re to compete with the blue banana, it’s not enough to be just as good, because then everyone will stay where they are. We have to be better. The basic principle is the same for an athlete – we need to be 2–4 per cent better. If we look at the Olympics and statistics, we see that if our athletes are that much better, then they’ll win essentially every medal. 2–4 per cent is incredibly large in sport if you’re world class. The margins are so small.

“We should be able to use this effect the other way around. I’ll head off to Stockholm, because things are so good there. I know things work – there’s good access. In order for Spotify to be able to settle here and ship 2,600 over people to work in their Birger Jarlsgatan office building in the heart of Stockholm, then a lot of things have to be right. The majority of them will be Spanish, Italian and Greek. KTH Royal Institute of Technology doesn’t produce enough graduates for us to take care of this ourselves. So if they have family somewhere else and also want to meet customers in a third location, then connectivity must be not just as good as in the blue banana, but better. And not 20 per cent better, just 2–4 per cent better. That’s enough, and then Arlanda can be a part of creating competitive advantages for Swedish business clusters.”

“However, it’s necessary but not sufficient for Spotify that Arlanda is 2–4 per cent better than the average European airport – totally necessary for Spotify to come into existence, granted, but not for Spotify to thrive and continue to exist. Things can be necessary but not sufficient. Any place that doesn’t have European-class connectivity, or better connectivity than other places, won’t even be in the running. Small players like Zurich, which is the same size as Malmö, have really good connectivity and will thus be of interest to IBM and Facebook since they can get direct flights to Singapore, Bangkok or Tokyo. Historically, we’ve had many stopovers when we fly out of Arlanda. It makes a difference when you’re a multinational company and people travel 100–150 days a year. It’s one thing to have promoted and experimented with Stockholm the Capital of Scandinavia in the past, but if one could instead say Stockholm, the Connectivity Capital of Scandinavia, that would be an enormous competitive advantage. Then there’s all the other infrastructure, but Sweden could be Switzerland in that case, albeit close to the polar circle,” Kjell A Nordström notes.

“I think that the airports must set themselves apart more. The problem is that when people build new airports, they look the same in Nairobi as at Arlanda. There have to be more places to socialise, or go to the spa, like at Hassel­udden in the Stockholm archipelago. They’ll be forced to. They can forget selling Hugo Boss suits and they can also forget alcohol and fragrances – no one’s interested or has time. They shop online instead, so the airport loses income.”

“Perhaps, but marginally. Visitors aren’t interested in Sweden – they’re interested in Stockholm, or a very small part of Stockholm. They don’t want to know that much about Sweden, since cities here are starting to become distinctly different from the rest of the country. It’ll be much more a matter of Stockholm than Sweden.”

“Right now, it’s not possible to see anything other than us having an airport solution that will end up in crisis and require a new decision as early as ten or at most twenty years from now. The question is whether we have to dismantle the airports into what might be called the social part, the shopping function, and the strictly technical function. One could imagine checking in at a number of places, in central Stockholm or at what is now Arlanda, with the actual runway located far away, accessible by high-speed maglev train. When the train docks with the runway, there won’t be any shopping, and baggage will already have been loaded. The place for socialising, something we humans like to do a lot, can be located closer to the city. But it’s a question of a core and satellites, with the satellites – the runways – being pushed further away from the city.

“Stockholm will be as big as it needs to be, once we’ve included Uppsala and the two cities merge, with the area in between becoming more densely populated. It’s possible that we may have more major airports providing access to the rest of the world, but that’s not very likely. We have Bromma and Arlanda and I don’t think we’ll get a third airport.”

Kjell A Nordström

BORN:1958 in Stockholm

OCCUPATION: Industrial economist and author

CURRENTLY: His book Urban Express and his work as one of Europe’s leading researchers on multinational companies and the global market.

TRAVELS: to Munich

When I travel on my own

“I travel without exception by air, even when I’m going to places like Gotland.”


“I’m in love with Munich and southern Germany. These are some of the world’s best kept secrets, but no one knows this probably. Most people seem to think everyone goes around in marching boots and is ill-tempered. There’s quality of life here.”

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