Published 2019-07-10

This post is also available in Swedish

Business offers hope; politics is worrying

As a young man, Johan Söderström already had a keen interest in nature and joined an environmental charity. He has been the Country Managing Director of ABB Sweden for many years, and Chair of Mistra for three.
In career terms, he is also on his way further up; but he has no plans to abandon Mistra.
‘It’s an honour to chair a foundation that does so much, so well.’

This interview was conducted on the phone one late Friday afternoon. Söderström had been busy since six o’clock in the morning, and during the day he had managed to meet both Svenska Kraftnät (the system operator for electricity in Sweden) and people with far-reaching plans to build electric aircraft. Despite his long working day, his voice sounded both exuberant and enthusiastic.

Clearly, ABB is dear to him; and he has also been the company’s employee for more than 30 years. These facts also made their mark on our conversation. Initially, it was all about the transmission of electricity from producer to consumer. Then, although this was not really intentional, our exchange became one that revealed quite a lot about him as a person and Swedish trends.

‘We like to pat ourselves on the back and say this country’s electricity production is 99 per cent carbon-free. And that’s both true and good, but there’s much more to do in terms of how electricity should be distributed. That’s making it harder for us to achieve a sustainable electricity system.’

This is obviously an important issue for the head of ABB: transmission is one of its core activities. Söderström does not deny the corporate interest, but he believes that the unilateral nature of the energy debate — one factor explaining why electricity transmission has not received the requisite attention— is transferable to other areas.

‘In many areas, there’s often a tendency for us to just look at one phenomenon at a time. This applies to the issue of climate change as well. It’s a fateful situation, and that mustn’t be forgotten, but at the same time we’ve got to both deepen and broaden the discussion to apply to global sustainability.

And this, he thinks, is precisely where Mistra’s greatness lies.

‘Research and social issues need a big-picture approach, which Mistra has. Personally, I’ve learnt a lot from Mistra’s efforts to always include views from all sides.’

It’s not just today, the day of the interview, that has been challenging for Söderström. The entire past six months have been professionally demanding. ABB, which he has worked for throughout his career, is now being restructured. The Power Grids business has been sold to the Japanese company Hitachi, which with this purchase has acquired Söderström too. And when the takeover is completed in mid-2020, he will become the European head of the new subsidiary.

‘I’ve had my current job for eight years, so it feels good to do something new. And it’ll be exciting to manage wonderful people and operations in 30 countries. The work is important if we’re to achieve a sustainable energy system.’

What will that mean for Mistra? Will you now become an even busier man?

‘I don’t think so — rather the opposite. In my new role, I’ll be able to be even more focused. But the past six months have been intense, which has meant that I’ve missed some of Mistra’s Board meetings for the first time. That hasn’t felt so good, but thankfully my competent Board colleagues have covered for me in an excellent way.’

He also heaps praise on Mistra’s CEO Åke Iverfeldt and the other Secretariat staff, and all those involved in the various programmes.

‘Throughout Mistra’s 25-year existence, the work has been developing. As a result, the Foundation has had a major impact, both in Sweden and internationally. Just take the concept of planetary boundaries, which was created by Johan Rockström in a programme started by Mistra.’

Asked what he can contribute with his business experience, Söderström begins with a long look back.

‘Many of our problems worldwide stem from industrial growth. Until a decade ago, environmental issues came second, but since then a lot has happened. Today, many companies are serious about people being equal in dignity and rights, and about our planet’s future and sustainability — not just out of goodwill but also because it’s profitable. But that doesn’t mean that everything’s solved and completed; we have lots left to do.’

Another insight he emphasises is that today, companies cannot solve the problems separately, on their own. If we are to create a better world, they must work in partnership with others.

He rapidly reels off several projects in which companies and researchers are collaborating to find solutions that benefit the environment. Examples are the smart mines and carbon-free steel production being developed.

However, not everything is clear and simple. ABB’s choice to enter as a partner in the battery factory to be built in Skellefteå is one example. There, it is more about wanting to succeed than being sure of success.

‘It’s an exciting, unique venture, but Northvolt (which is behind the initiative) still has a lot to prove in terms of how production can be made both circular and fully sustainable. But they see the challenge and are transparent in how they work. And that makes me optimistic, so it feels right that we’ve joined the initiative. Not least, that’s because the team behind the initiative is creating jobs in a new industry and taking a sustainable approach that has now paid off.’

Later, however, when we touch on global political trends, his tone is more sombre.

‘While we’re seeing many positive developments in the business sector, political trends have become increasingly worrying. Most concerning is major political leaders’ failure to accept the facts. Or, which is worse, their distortion of the knowledge that science is obtaining on issues relating to the environment, sustainability and climate. But here too, little Mistra is making a significant contribution by developing knowledge and communicating results.’

You’ve now been Mistra’s Chair three years. How do you now want to go forward?

‘We’re going to develop something we call Mistra Dialogue. It’ll be a knowledge hub that we hope can contribute to more knowledge-based decisions in both companies and society. And we’ll continue improving the quality of the programmes we’re funding.’

Time flies, and Friday night is approaching. The working day is not over but when Saturday comes, Söderström hopes to have time to get out in the wild — to be able to breathe, as he expresses it.

‘I grew up in a family that set off into the forest as soon as we had the opportunity. So early on, I became active in Nature and Youth Sweden (Fältbiologerna, literally ‘the Field Biologists’, Sweden’s largest organisation for young people interested in nature and the environment) and the Västerås  ornithological association (part of Birdlife Sweden). The fact that I was had such a solid, practical grounding in nature means that, for me, the environment isn’t an abstract matter but a very concrete one. So I don’t see my commitment to Mistra as a duty assignment; rather, I feel grateful that I’ve been given the chance to be Chair for another three years. I hope that Mistra, which has already accomplished a lot, can take further real steps towards a better world.’