Rejuvenation – with political will and a city that understands design in the digital economy

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If you walk out on the dock of the harbour in Malmö, there is a packed restaurant that serves only one dish a day and has queues out the doors. Saltimporten Canteen – a trendy bistro serving flavoursome food made with local ingredients – is in a refurbished building amidst the old grain silos and other buildings with peeling paint from the long-departed shipping industry. Next to Saltimporten are architects, small design businesses and furniture stores, while the carpark in front is packed with cars and innumerable bicycles for the two hours a day it is open for lunch. In a way Saltimporten and the little strip of design-centric offices represent Malmö’s own rejuvenation.

Malmö is a small European city on the western edge of Sweden across the bay from Copenhagen and was once a major centre for ship building. But, after this industry declined, Malmo looked for a way to reinvent itself. And it has, with aplomb.

Saltimporten Canteen“Malmö has 50% first and second generations immigrants from 178 countries around the world. It’s the third or fourth most international city,” says Magnus Thure Nilsson, the CEO of Media Evolution, a remarkable organisation that has helped turn Malmö into a Scandinavian digital design hub. Inside a converted warehouse, Media Evolution’s offices has 100 people working in it, from its 400-member companies. Malmö is also home to the biggest computer game company in Sweden and hosts Scandinavia’s largest computer games event, says Nilsson. “It’s a rising creative industry hub in Sweden. The municipalities are being helpful and supportive; and we’ve got an incubator run by the city of Malmö,” he adds.

There’s a project called Little Big Malmö, to convince people to emigrate to the city, half of which’s 300,000 population is under the age of 29. Malmö – which seems to have successfully effected its shift from the old analogue to the new digital economies – is the kind of town that offers a potential model for other cities in how to rejuvenate themselves. And how to embrace the digital economy.

I was in Malmö last week speaking about African innovation at The Conference, as the event organised by Media Evolution is called. The Conference is held in a former slaughterhouse, which is now a stylish conference venue a stone’s throw from the equally refurbished central train station.

Malmö’s design status was part of the reason James Haliburton came to Malmö to open strategic design consultancy Topp, which has helped Samsung redesign its Tizen operating system, becoming the largest smartphone maker’s strategic innovation and design partner. Topp’s other clients include Ford, SAAB, Miele and Médicines Sans Frontières.

“The reason I came back from San Francisco to Malmö was not only for the team I used to work with, but also because the density of different feeder schools; both in design and technology. You’ve got Lund University, the oldest engineering school in Europe, plus some of the founding members of UX and interactive design schools in the world based out of Malmö,” says Haliburton, who was the head of innovation at renowned design outfit The Astonishing Tribe, which was acquired by BlackBerry to help it build its BlackBerry 10 operating system.

“You’ve got some of the highest density per capita amount of talent for technology and design in a single place. They don’t know their own value. They should but they don’t. As a place you want to build an international business, maybe not a local business, this is an amazing place. It really is.”

As cities around the world grapple with how to reinvent themselves for the new digital economy, Malmö offers a grand example of what can be done with an abundance of talent but also the political will from local government to spur not only a new generation of talented youngsters, but a new generation of economic activity.

This column first appeared in Financial Mail

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Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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