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Monday May 2, 2011

Land of many wonders

For centuries, Sweden has been producing world-class innovations, some for the betterment of mankind. Isn’t it time we learnt from them?

WHAT do Swedes have that we don’t? Well, blonde hair, blue eyes and a towering stature, for starters.

According to the Innovation Union Scoreboard 2010, Sweden is the most innovative country in the European Union (EU). And yet, it has been noted that many still confuse it with Switzerland.

As green as it gets: The buildings in the residential district of Hammarby Sjöstad have been designed to be twice as eco-friendly as normal buildings.

Having a relatively small population of nine million has not deterred Sweden from being associated with legendary names like Alfred Nobel, Ikea, Volvo, Ericsson, H&M, ABBA and the aurora borealis. It is a place where frost is second nature and pickled herring, a delicacy. Most Swedes are well-versed in English and nobody spanks their children (because it’s against the law).

The Swedes are an environmentally-conscious bunch, and even have a residential district in Stockholm (Hammarby Sjöstad) that is fitted with automatic underground waste collection systems, solar-powered hot water and electricity, green roofs and a system that extract biogas from household sewage.

For seven days, the Malaysian media was given the chance to experience Swedish spring in the flesh. Could there be more to the kingdom where Vikings once thrived? Definitely.

After a 14-hour flight, we arrived in Copenhagen, Denmark, and travelled across the Öresund Bridge to Sweden. Our first stop: Älmhult, Småland.

Amidst the deafening silence of the small town lay a cheerfully coloured Ikea store – the first one that started it all. Directly across stood the Hotel Ikea Värdshuset, a no-frills hotel fully decked in Ikea furniture.

A guided stroll through the Ikea museum provided some answers to the company’s success. Over a century ago, the town of Småland was gripped by poverty; the people were driven to innovate in an attempt to save costs.

“That has helped shape our country and also our company,” said PR personnel, Mattias Ludquist. “When we produce things, we do it without wasting any resources.”

Who knew that a seven-year-old boy who sold matches to his neighbours would one day become one of the wealthiest people in the world?

Founder Ingvar Kamprad had a knack for listening to the needs of others. Greeting cards, ballpoint pens, seeds, mushrooms, berries and fish – young Kamprad never failed to deliver the things that his customers asked for. Ikea is his way of continuing to create a better everyday life for the people.

As concept learning specialist Anna Rosenqvist opined: “We don’t develop things just for fun. Everything has a purpose.”

Despite being the world’s largest telecommunications provider, the Ericsson headquarters is housed in an inconspicuous building in the heart of Stockholm’s IT sanctuary, Kista Science City.

Beyond the double doors, we were greeted with a talking plant that seemingly enjoyed the human touch. A rustle of its leaves generated smooth vocals that piped: “I like that.” Interaction is vital in the company.

Ericsson research engineer Marcus Gardman showcasing The Social Web Of Things, a brilliant concept that allows people to ‘talk’ to their devices on a social network.

When we met research engineer Marcus Gårdman, we were introduced to “The Social Web of Things” (TSWOT), a brilliant concept that allows devices – not people – to have a social network.

Electronic ‘friends’

In his hands was an iPad; on the screen, an interface that resembled Facebook. “Our research shows that users have a really hard time understanding the network,” Gårdman revealed. “But there is one network that everyone is really good at understanding, and that is the social network – I have friends; I know my friends’ friends and together we can collaborate.”

In TSWOT, Ericsson has taken the friendship network metaphor and applied it to the technical network stratosphere.

“Instead of having human friends, I have devices, services, companies, the electricity meter and the calendar as my friends,” said Gårdman.

Imagine this: You’ve left for work. When you log in to TSWOT in the office, you see a message from your lights at home saying, “Hey, you left us on. Since no one is at home right now, can we turn ourselves off?” Yes, you click.

Before long, you get a message from the surveillance camera saying: “If you don’t really trust the lights, you can click here to see for yourself.” Clicking “here” brings up a series of images from the CCTV. The lights are indeed off.

Ping! Another message from your lights pops up: “We could also just turn ourselves off without bothering you the next time this happens. Do you want us to do that?” Click yes and you’ve configured a “rule” in a very simple way.

Of course, TSWOT is designed to let you do more than turn off the lights remotely. According to Gårdman: “It redefines the world of interaction by letting you talk to your devices.” Who knows, you could be asking your microwave “What’s for dinner?” next. But end users will have to wait – TSWOT is still in its conceptual stages.

Never say never

The first thing that we noticed at the glass-panelled Interactive Institute was the “Flower Lamp”, which resembled an upside-down sunflower with retractable metal plates for petals. The idea behind the design is that the lamp “blooms” in accordance to the energy consumption within a household – the less you use, the more beautiful the lamp becomes.

Our attention shifted to business developer Christina Öhman, when she appeared with a hair dryer in hand and promptly connected it to the “Power-aware Cord”, which happens to be one of Time’s 50 best inventions of 2010.

“Normally you’d interact with energy through your power bills; everything is measured in kilowatt-hours. But really, how much is a kilowatt-hour?” proposed Christina von Dorrien, the experimental media research institute’s CEO.

As the hair dryer whirred into life, brilliant blue electrical impulses began rushing through the power cord. To curb wasteful habits, the power-aware cord lets you “see” how much energy your electrical devices are actually consuming.

Additionally, the institute has also been involved in developing the Virtual Autopsy Table (VAT). The slice-free medical visualisation tool lets users explore the insides of a human being using a simple multi-touch interface and 3D imaging software.

The Interactive Institute’s warmthemitting interactive pillows allow hugs to be ‘exchanged’ across the continents.

“If you have a potential murder victim who’s been lying in the water for months, it can be really hard to perform an actual autopsy on the body. But if you take the body through the scanner and explore using the VAT, you can then get the precise data that you need,” said von Dorrien.

The Interactive Institute has also combined textiles with information technology. The result? Interactive pillows.

“These are two pillows connected over the Internet – one could be in Kuala Lumpur and the other in Stockholm. They are interwoven with sensors and a material that can be lit up. Hug one pillow and the other will glow and become warm,” said von Dorrien. Subtle, but it is a type of communication nevertheless.

According to Öhman, decorating the home with items like these offers an avenue for snackis — the Swedish word for “storytelling”. Indeed, Swedes never let a good idea go to waste.

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