It’s a sad irony that the Swedish Embassy opened its new exhibition series about mobility just as a pandemic essentially ground mobility to a halt around the world.
Since the debut of “Smart Mobility: Taking Us into the Future” in March, the planet essentially came to a stop as countries shut down in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, which has sickened millions of people on every continent except Antarctica.
Despite the grim numbers, at some point, we will all inevitably get moving again — especially as more countries continue to reopen their economies — and the lessons of how to move around smarter will be just as important, if not more so, in a post-pandemic world.
Fortunately, “Smart Mobility” runs for quite a while, so there’s a good chance you can still visit it in person. In the meantime, the embassy has made the entire exhibition available to see online (including a video of the opening night).
It’s this type of high-tech ingenuity and adaptability that’s at the heart of “Smart Mobility,” which presents Swedish mobility solutions with global impact. From steamships to strollers to sports cars, the exhibition takes visitors on a journey both back in time, by examining transportation successes and failures throughout history, and toward the future by looking at ways to ensure that advancements in mobility are sustainable, safe and inclusive.
At the exhibition opening, Swedish Ambassador Karin Olofsdotter explained that the theme of mobility was chosen “because it’s on everyone’s minds.” She noted that both Sweden and the U.S. are grappling with issues such as autonomous systems (including self-driving cars) and their effect on the labor market, and that she hopes the exhibition can ignite larger economic and policy discussions about how to navigate this new terrain.
In many ways, Sweden has been at the forefront of this shifting landscape — in part out of necessity. With a scattered population and nearly 1,000 miles between the country’s mountainous north and the beaches of the south, Sweden has become a pioneer in finding smart, efficient ways to get from one place to another.
And as a worldwide leader in sustainability, the Nordic nation is constantly working to balance economic progress with environmental preservation.
That ethos was made clear as guests entered the House of Sweden (the country’s contemporary, glass-enclosed embassy on the Georgetown Waterfront) for the exhibition debut. Near the entrance was a fitting quote from Robert Falck, founder of Einride, a Stockholm-based electric vehicle company, that read: “Intelligent movement means zero emissions, zero waste, and zero traffic fatalities. Technology has progressed to make it happen. It’s time for hearts and minds to follow.”
At the embassy, what follows is a series of eye-catching displays featuring the work of over 40 Swedish companies and start-ups that show us how Swedes drive, bike and even carry their babies.
Highlights include a bright pink flamingo dubbed “train brain” that uses an algorithm to light up every time a train in Sweden is delayed. There’s also an electric wheelchair called the Permobil that is higher than a traditional wheelchair, allowing people with disabilities to be eye to eye with others. Other displays feature a cycling helmet that doubles as an airbag and a platform that allows guests to view live traffic patterns for 500 cities and towns in Sweden.
In addition, guests can learn about the work of Swedish companies such as Ericsson ONE, which is investigating 5G mining technology to keep people out of danger zones; Everdrone, which completed the first autonomous drone delivery between two hospitals; and Norrsidans Innovation, which uses smart sensors that report on the amount of trash in garbage cans, eliminating the need for unnecessary trips by garbage collectors, thereby cutting down on carbon emissions.
Ibrahim Baylan, Sweden’s minister of business, industry and innovation, told guests that the exhibit exemplifies “our creativity, our innovation power and our focus is on sustainability. We believe it is not only our moral duty, but the natural way forward, to be sustainable.”
Today, transportation accounts for about one third of Sweden’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Baylan said he wants Sweden to become a fossil fuel-free country while ensuring that future jobs and economic growth are sustainable as well — a transition that will require new technologies, new ways of doing business “and a totally different way of living.”
“Smart Mobility” vividly demonstrates why Sweden was voted Europe’s most innovative country by the European Commission in 2019. However, innovation is not only defined by success. It is redefined by the misses. On that note, the exhibit included a collection of items from the Museum of Failure in Helsingborg, including a model of the Vasa, at the time the world’s most high-tech warship. But when the Swedish naval ship set sail in 1628, it sunk within 20 minutes of leaving port, exposing engineering flaws that made her top-heavy and unstable. Still, it was a beautiful ship and the design was used as the basis of the Black Pearl in “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
While the top floor of the embassy showcases innovations in mobility, two exhibits located below focus on Sweden’s cutting-edge approach to art and fashion.
“Papier” features elaborate paper outfits handmade by Swedish fashion designer Bea Szenfeld that have been worn by celebrities such as Lady Gaga and Björk. Here, paper meets haute couture as Szenfeld uses basic scissors, tape, staples, needle and thread to create fantastical garments that are set against colorful backdrops drawn by illustrator Stina Wirsén.
When asked where her passion for handmade — or what she calls “analogue” — design comes from, Szenfeld told us that she and Wirsén “don’t hate computers, but we love paper. I don’t make the designs. The paper makes them, and they are lovely.”
The mesmerizing patterns and craftsmanship also look out of this world. But one stunning piece stands out not for its eccentricity, but for its solemnity. Since 2012, Szenfeld has been working on a project called “Grief,” which examines how people cope with the loss of a loved one. Szenfeld said it was the stories of those who lost children that affected her the most. They also inspired the installation on display at the embassy, where small white bundles made of 100% recycled paper lie together on the ground — an eerie but poignant reflection on life and death. Each paper baby is made by hand and has its own name, which can be found at the bottom of one foot.
While “Papier” celebrates two established designers, “Sustain Able Voices” spotlights up-and-coming Swedish designers such as Jan Klingler and Tonje Halvorsen.
Klinger’s colorful, blown-up petri dishes contain frozen bacteria taken from important times and places in his life — such as a first date — in essence using microbiology to preserve memory.
Meanwhile, Halvorsen’s “Obsession” is a collection of 21 garments — ranging from a ball gown to a midriff sweater — made of 500,000 safety pins, 1.5 million beads and steel wire. Halvorsen has said that her self-professed obsession with her artistry — she spent 7,000 hours putting her outfits together — began almost as a joke after wondering whether she could make something beautiful out of an ordinary household item like a safety pin. Her work, similar to the dresses in “Papier,” challenges people to rethink how everyday materials can be used in extraordinary ways.
According to the embassy, “Many of the works in the exhibition solve practical challenges in everyday life, while others lean toward art and fashion. What they all have in common is courage, openness and a desire to experiment — giving us hope for the future.”
That future, of course, is now fraught with even more uncertainty in light of the coronavirus pandemic. True to its risk-taking roots, Sweden has become an outlier in the fight against coronavirus by refusing to completely shut down restaurants, shops and other businesses as many other countries have done, ostensibly in an effort to build up herd immunity.
The unorthodox approach remains controversial. But it’s clear that whether it comes to mobility, art, fashion or health, the Swedes aren’t afraid to think out of the box in search of smarter solutions.
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat. Siddharth Muchhal, a freelance writer and student at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, contributed to this report.