Angela VandenBroek, PhD candidate, Binghamton University (State University of New York) and visiting researcher, Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University

Innovation in #SthlmTech

Stockholm is the land of unicorns. Coined in 2013 by Aileen Lee, the term unicorn refers to startup companies that are valued at a billion dollars (USD) or more before they make their exit through a public offering (IPO) or acquisition. Sweden, driven by its capital city’s “startup ecosystem,” has produced the highest number of unicorns per capita outside of Silicon Valley—a feat that has drawn the attention of investors, talent, prospective entrepreneurs, and other municipalities seeking to build their own startup communities. Woven throughout all this attention is the claim of Stockholm’s exceptional innovative capacity. The word innovation appears in every corner of Stockholm’s startup ecosystem (known locally as Sthlm Tech): building hype, justifying infrastructure, inspiring creativity, drawing in investment, and marketing products to customers. Yet, interlocutors from within Sthlm Tech describe innovation derisively as a “meaningless buzzword” while simultaneously acknowledging its essential role in “getting things done.” This study asks what innovation is and what it is “getting done” in Stockholm’s startup ecosystem.

For this seminar, I will present the preliminary findings from the first half of a year-long ethnographic study of innovation in Sthlm Tech. Based on interviews and observations within Stockholm’s startups, co-working spaces, incubators and accelerators, events and meetups, and educational and governmental organizations, I will describe Sthlm Tech and propose two conceptions of innovation. Drawing on the work of Ulf Hannerz, I will describe innovation as a global scenario that imagines the future as hinging on the success or failure of producing commercial innovations. This conception of innovation works well for understanding the growth and structure of startup ecosystems globally, particularly within media, public policy, investment, and ecosystem infrastructure. Within the social sciences, it is this conception of innovation that is often and rightly critiqued as techno-solutionism and utopianism. However, this conception of innovation and its critique obscures and distorts–for both scholars and the community’s members–the epistemic and work practices of innovation that flow through the ecosystem. To better illustrate these practices and the challenges they present to innovation as global scenario, I will present an alternative conception of innovation that traces the paths of “innovative ideas” from inspiration to production.

Angela Kristin VandenBroek is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Binghamton University, a visiting researcher in social anthropology at Stockholm University, and a research fellow with the American-Scandinavian Foundation. She combines her anthropological background with a decade of experience in design and web development to investigate cultures of expertise that generate around working with and making web and other digital technologies. She is currently conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Stockholm, Sweden on innovation in Stockholm’s startup ecosystem that is funded by the American-Scandinavian Foundation. For more information about Angela see:

All seminars in the series.