Sustainable Vikings:

Covid-19 Proves The Nordics Have An Edge In Building Resilient Societies

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how fragile our societies are. But the Nordic economies and businesses are better positioned to emerge from the crisis because the Nordic countries have long focused on building resilient societies, says Robert Strand, a professor and executive director of the Berkeley Haas Center for Responsible Business at the University of California. He teaches American MBA students about Nordic approaches to sustainable business and is writing a book on the subject.
By Bibi Christensen

Ask Robert Strand if he is a man on a mission and he lets out a resounding: ”Yeah!”. Strand, who is Executive Director of the Berkeley Haas Center for Responsible Business at the University of California, wants to help ”reimagine capitalism” and is looking to the Nordic region to do so. 

”I’ve seen a different way of organising society and a different way of living a life in the Nordics. ”What the Nordics have done for me is to prove an example: If the Nordic model didn’t exist, I with my American mind would not believe that you could actually set up this well-functioning society where you have all these safety nets AND you are very efficient,” the American professor tells Nordic Business on a video call from his base in San Francisco. 

”In my American mind, I would say, ’oh with all these safety nets people are going to be very lazy, not efficient, the companies are not going to be very vibrant, they are just going to die’. But what I have seen is the complete flip-side of that: With these safety nets, people don’t live with anxiety and fear all the time, instead they look at the opportunities of life and not just the risks,” Strand says. 

Originally an industrial engineer who spent a decade working in the corporate sector, Robert Strand has since studied and researched Nordic approaches to building what he refers to as sustainable businesses and resilient societies. He has long held the view that the United States in particular has much to learn from the Nordic region.  

Now more than ever, when the Covid-19 pandemic has shown how fragile our societies are, Strand firmly believes that Nordic economies and businesses are far better positioned to emerge from the crisis precisely because the Nordic countries have long focused on things that make their societies and therefore their citizens and their businesses more resilient to shocks.  

The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are frequently referred to by Robert Strand. They were launched in 2015 as a framework for addressing the world’s most pressing challenges. As Strand points out, the logos were designed by a Swede, Jakob Trollbäck.

At a societal level, elements such as universal healthcare, disability insurance, paid parental leave and subsidised childcare – things that in the U.S. tend to be paid for by the employers and are therefore at risk if you lose your job – are all part of this.

But rather than fitting these into a traditional narrative of social welfare, he is eager to flip the language upside down. The conversation he wants to have concerns not what from a U.S. perspective may tend to be portrayed as ”socialist” Nordic societies or nanny states, but what will actually enable citizens to realise themselves and ”unleash businesses” to do what they do best: do business.

To shift this narrative in the U.S., he likes to refer to American companies as ”nanny companies” that are actually saddled down by the burden of having to offer things such as healthcare insurance to their employees.

At a corporate level, this is also about reframing the traditional notions of competitive advantage to talk about ”cooperative advantage” and what he sees as very typical of Scandinavian companies – cooperating with stakeholders and creating value beyond the profit on the bottom line. This fits in naturally with the Nordic tradition of consensus-seeking, whereas the U.S. is very conflict-based, Robert Strand says.

On a far wider scale, with particular global challenges in climate change and inequality, he points to the Nordics as consistently leading the world in the annual rankings based on the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. He also points to the high level of digitisation as making Nordic societies and economies more efficient.

Strand was originally inspired by his own Norwegian ancestry – poor tenement farmers who emigrated to the U.S. – to study in Norway and later at Copenhagen Business School, an institution he is still affiliated with as an associate professor of leadership and sustainability.

Based on his research and his own personal experiences from living, studying and working in the Nordic region, he is currently writing a book about Nordic approaches to what he calls ”sustainable capitalism”. The book, ”Sustainable Vikings”, which is due to be published towards the end of 2021, also draws on a course on Nordic sustainable business that he currently teaches to executive MBA students at Berkeley Haas. 

As part of his work, he has been organising study trips to Scandinavia for the past 13 years or so, bringing executive MBA students as well as public policy students from the U.S. to visit both private companies and public bodies across the Nordic region. While these study trips are currently on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with the next trip postponed until August 2021, Robert Strand is moving on with a far bigger project.   

With the University of California at Berkeley, which has a long tradition of Scandinavian studies, he is working to establish a Nordic Center as an interdisciplinary platform for dialogue and mutual understanding between the Nordics and California.  

The Center aims to work through academic exchange, research and student opportunities, including placement with employers, merging Strand’s existing experience from bringing American MBA students to the Nordics and Berkeley Haas’ ties with companies such as Microsoft, Patagonia and Levi Strauss, as well as the University’s proximity to Silicon Valley, a major employer for many of its MBA students.  

Strand is now in discussions with partners across the Nordic region, including Innovation Norway, leading Swedish universities and the Swedish American Chamber of Commerce about the Center, and is seeking to collaborate with research agencies, industrial foundations and other public and private partners.  

A major thematic focus will be on building resilient societies in terms of facing shocks such as Covid-19 and addressing growing challenges such as inequalities and climate change. 

”We really want to be a platform to foster discussions and debates to both challenge America based on what the Nordics have done and to shine a light on the Nordics to challenge you to continuously improve and have that outsider perspective that can maybe help to illuminate for you what’s special and unique about the region and where you might have some challenges,” Robert Strand says. 

In this outsider’s perspective also lies a worry, he says, of people and decision-makers in the Nordics looking too much towards the U.S. for inspiration, rather than seeing what is in the Nordic backyard. 

”I realise that far too many listen to me (in the Nordics, ed.) because I am this American guy, and that scares me. I am this American guy in the Nordics telling you to keep doing what you are doing but then do more of it,” Strand explains. 

”Don’t go more free market, do go more American, but actually use your competencies to address your challenges,” he continues – then adds: ”I guess I am om a mission.” 

Robert Strand may be contacted at MrNordic@berkeley.edu 

The SDG Index ranks countries in relation to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Nordic countries have held the top 3 positions every year since 2015. (Graph from ”Sustainable Vikings”)
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