Sweden is an industrialised and urbanised country with a population of 10 million inhabitants, and covering 450 000 km2, with large, sparsely populated rural areas. About one third of the population live in rural areas, and many rural regions in Sweden experience out-migration particularly young women, moving to major towns or the capital Stockholm (Rauhut and Littke, 2016). A strong feature of the Swedish context is the publicly-funded child care, health care, elderly care and social care. Parents can take 18 months paid parental leave financed through the tax system.

The Living Lab is focusing on Jönköping County, characterised as a region having a ‘traditional gender contract’ (Forsberg, 1998), and close to the bottom of ‘gender equality lists’ in Sweden (SALAR, 2016). It has a comparatively low share of women in municipal political bodies, a large degree of gender segregation in the labour market, and a large gender pay gap (Länsstyrelsen, 2017). Men own four out of five farms, while forestry is more evenly distributed among women and men, and around 9 per cent of women and 18 per cent of men in rural areas are self-employed, corresponding to the national numbers (Sköld et al., 2018).

Population density (2022)
Source: Statistics Sweden (SCB)

Women-led innovation strategies

Sweden’s innovation agency claims that they in line with the instruction from the government must integrate a gender equality perspective in the agency’s activities and promote gender equality when distributing funds for research and innovation. They also state that they shall also work to ensure that gender perspectives are included in the projects they fund, ‘when applicable’. In order to achieve this, they work with gender mainstreaming. Previous research has however found that innovation policies have not mainstreamed gender and ‘making of men and male as the norm’, whereas the goals of innovation policy, e.g., to be the most competitive, dynamic and knowledge-based economies, is clearly put before the goal of gender equality (Pettersson, 2007). The reasons for this have included a focus on male connoted technical and scientific knowledge as important knowledge, the representation of sectors of the economy where many men work as strong and assets on which to build. Another reason is the representation of inventions and inventors as men. According to Nyberg (1999), innovations and inventions have masculine connotations because women inventors have been made invisible, e.g., through men seeking patents for their inventions (Barwa & Rai, 2003). Due to the horizontal gender segregation of the labour market there has been a belief that women cannot invent technical products, but rather things related to the home. Imagining innovation in a new light, may still disclose ‘paradoxical spaces’ of feminist resistance where innovation can be re-invented (Pettersson and Lindberg, 2013).

Living Lab Focus and Goals

The focus of the Swedish Living Lab are women active in farming, forestry and related activities. The main objectives for our Living Lab, in line with the GRASS CEILING project, are for the participants to develop themselves and their businesses – and work with new ideas. The women also have a chance to develop ideas and innovations that can meet societal and environmental challenges to contribute to a sustainable, equal and vibrant countryside.

For the first Living Lab workshop the objective was to get to know each other and our activities, to understand the context of our Living Lab within the GRASS CEILING project and to begin exploring the goals of GRASS CEILING: a sustainable, equal and living countryside and new thinking and innovation. As the Living Lab follows a participatory method, the more specific objectives will be developed and deepened over the course of the project.

Activities and innovations being developed

The Living Lab organises specific sessions where women innovators discuss their innovative initiatives, the barriers encountered and the support needed, with relevant multi-actors to co-design changes in the agriculture knowledge innovation system (AKIS) to meet the needs of women.

The participants and co-leads have so far initiated discussions on gender equality, innovation, sustainability and rural development. The participants share a strong commitment for contributing to sustainable rural development – and the importance of women’s entrepreneurship for such a development. At the first Living Lab workshop, during an exercise called ‘The headlines’, the women were encouraged to make visions for the future – imagining what they and the Lab will have achieved during the course of the GRASS CEILING project, and beyond. Thoughts on the Lab’s achievements comprised of having contributed to the creation conditions for thriving rural areas –including well-functioning social and child care services– more rural women pursuing rural businesses and a larger degree of self-sufficiency in food production. The upcoming Living Lab workshop will be focusing on learning more about the women’s businesses and innovative ideas.

How the activities fit into the overall GRASS CEILING objectives

The activities performed and planned so far for our Living lab are in line with the GRASS CEILING objectives, especially the objectives:

Co-create knowledge of gender norms and the drivers/ enablers of women-led innovation. Using this co-created knowledge the Living Labs will actively support women innovators to find out about the specifics of women-led innovations in farming and rural communities, including idea development and reimagining techniques within the innovation process, network learning, accessing relevant knowledge and training, and finance.

Organise specific sessions in the living labs where women innovators discuss their innovative initiatives, the barriers encountered and the support needed with relevant multi-actors to co-design changes in the agriculture knowledge innovation system (AKIS) to meet the needs of women

Living Lab participants

The Living Lab involves a total of eight women working on beef production, horse stables, pig and sausage production, ecological beef production, a farm café, artisanal cheese production and forestry, tourism and small-scale pig production.

Regarding the group of external agents, one central stakeholder is the County Administrative Board in Jönköping. Other stakeholders will be engaged throughout the project.