Thinking Forward: The Future of Trade and Business Between the U.S. and Sweden – with Renee Lundholm, Former President & CEO of The Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce, New York

Since the onset of COVID-19, KARV Communications has remained in close contact with members of our global network, including industry leaders who are thinking beyond the immediate impact of the pandemic and focusing on strategies for emerging and thriving in a new business landscape. Leadership in the era of COVID-19 requires evolved approaches to implementing adaptive business models for 2020 and beyond.

We spoke with Renee Lundholm about global workforce developments since the pandemic began and the state of the relationship between the U.S. and Sweden. Renee formerly served as President & CEO of The Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce, New York (SACCNY), and is currently a House of Sweden Board Member and a KARV Senior Advisor.

How would you describe the current state of business and trade between Sweden and the United States?

Any discussion on the relationship between Sweden and the United States must mention the deep historical bond and shared heritage that dates back to 1638, when the first Swedish immigrants arrived on the shores of Delaware. Sweden was one of the first countries to recognize U.S. independence in 1783 and the two countries have maintained a strong bilateral friendship since then, based on shared values and mutual interests.

Sweden is highly dependent on exports, is strongly pro–free trade, and has one of the most internationally integrated economies in the world. The government has been expanding its export base away from the traditionally European market, seeking to grow in Asia, South America, and the United States. The United States and Sweden’s two-way trade for 2019 was $25.5 billion, and the two countries invested over $94 billion in each other’s economies. Sweden is the 13th largest investor in the U.S. and one of the largest investors on a per capital basis, investing $61.3 billion and supporting over 200,000 U.S. jobs.

Looking around the corner, how can companies adapt to get business back on track? What are some key developments or innovations you’re anticipating?

While there are some reasons to be cautiously optimistic about a long-term global economic recovery, it is certainly difficult to predict exactly how the coming year will impact trade between Sweden and the U.S. There are a number of critical issues that will inevitably shape the evolution of the relationship, namely, the ongoing impact of the pandemic, including travel bans that have reduced not just tourism but the exchange of business, scientific and technological information, and the outcome of the U.S. election, which will inevitably impact both global trade and tariffs. We are already seeing a sharp decrease in imports and indicators that the world is becoming less global and more regional in terms of manufacturing.

Despite the unparalleled challenges of the pandemic impacting global markets, and indeed Swedish-U.S. trade, there are some exciting frontiers for the partnership on the horizon. For example, Börje Ekholm, CEO of Ericsson, recently spoke of 5G’s potential to profoundly transform a number of key sectors across the U.S., including national infrastructure, healthcare, education and transportation. The pandemic has certainly underscored the critical nature of enhanced networks and communications as millions of Americans continue to work, attend school, consult their doctors and much more from home. Additionally, Swedish aerospace and defense giant, Saab AB, has partnered with Boeing to jointly develop the new T-7 Red Hawk, an advanced jet trainer. Production of the aircraft is set to commence concurrently at Boeing’s plant in Missouri and at Saab’s Linköping factory in Sweden. These two examples of remarkable Swedish-American collaboration serve as a testament to the strength of the relationship between our countries.

What will the business environment in the United States and Sweden look like a year from now? Five years from now? 

Globally, COVID-19 has fast-forwarded us into the digital world, reshaping consumer behaviors and creating new habits that will become a “new normal.” So many of our daily routines are now virtual – from business meetings and shopping to gym and yoga classes, to name just a few. We have also learned to work remotely, a trend that will almost definitely continue even after the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided. This will have a huge impact not only on the real estate market but also on the transportation industry and on small vendors catering to big offices. Increasingly widespread 5G networks will also facilitate people moving away from big cities, a trend that we have already seen growing over the last few months.

COVID-19 has created a strong incentive to automate the work of human beings. Artificial intelligence will play an increasingly crucial role, changing the world as we see it today. Millions of jobs could be lost forever as companies accelerate moves toward automation. This would have happened anyway, but it is estimated that the pandemic sped the process up by almost 10 years. Approximately 400,000 jobs were lost to automation in U.S. factories from 1990-2007, but the drive to replace humans with machinery is accelerating as companies struggle to avoid workplace COVID-19 infections and to keep operating costs low. Some economists project that 42% of the jobs lost during the pandemic are gone forever and that robots could replace as many as 2 million more workers in manufacturing alone by 2025.

In terms of communication, what messages do companies on either side of the Atlantic need to hear to get business back on track?  

Anticipate and prepare for challenges that are likely to occur. Think strategically about your business. Check in with your employees. Stay in touch with you customers. Focus on improving your online presence. Create formal and informal processes for requesting and receiving feedback. Gauge the overall community response to the changes wrought by the pandemic and to your organization’s role within the community.  More than ever before, communication is absolutely critical to successfully adapting to new stakeholder needs and expectations.