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The Triple Helix: Sweden and Saab’s recipe for success

Sweden is often ranked as one of the world’s most innovative countries. A significant reason why is the ‘Triple Helix’ cooperation model, where academia, industry and government combine to identify, research and develop innovative technologies and services that meet the nation’s needs. Sweden’s defence industry has long embraced this approach, and Saab plays a leading role.

What is the Triple Helix and why is it successful?

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The Triple Helix concept was named and explained by US academics in the 1990s, but it has actually been Sweden’s model of innovation (especially in the defence sector) since the end of World War Two.

“Sweden has a culture of cooperation, transparency and flat, rather than hierarchical, organisations. That makes it easier for the country to be innovative. We solve problems together,” says Magnus Ahlström, Saab’s Head of Global Innovation.

At the heart of Sweden’s Triple Helix approach lies the understanding that innovation contributes to national economic growth. When the three stakeholders of government, industry and academia join forces, they coordinate strategic directions, programmes and funding for technology innovations that benefit all. They interact as equal partners, driving ideas and spreading technologies that generate new formats for production; widening the knowledge base and applying it in new ways.

By sharing risk and R&D costs, the Triple Helix also ensures a cost-effective approach to innovation and means that the defence industry can create products with dual, military and civilian, use. It also helps create more job opportunities, strengthens and commercialises research, improves systems and techniques and increases industry competitiveness. It’s a ‘win-win’ for everyone involved.

The Triple Helix and Saab

The Triple Helix approach has featured prominently in Saab product developments. Gripen, the A26 submarine and GlobalEye were all complex projects requiring the involvement of different partners and competencies. They would not have been possible without input from academia and government in the form of research and strategic direction.

Another good example of the Triple Helix is NFFP, the Swedish National Aeronautics Research Programme, which began in 1994 and is currently in its seventh iteration. The NFFP involves the Swedish Armed Forces, the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration (FMV), the Swedish innovation agency Vinnova, GKN Aerospace and Saab.

Administered by Innovair, Sweden’s national strategic innovation program for aeronautics, this research programme is funded by government and industry.

“We identify technology areas that are important to the Swedish aeronautics industry’s strategic development needs and choose PhD subject areas accordingly,” says Innovair’s Mats Olofsson.

“Saab is among those picking employees that fulfil the requirements and sending them to a participating university, such as KTH, Chalmers or Linköping. The PhD student’s thesis work is thus tailored to the needs of industry and government.”

The future of the Triple Helix

Sweden’s success with the Triple Helix approach has piqued the interest of other nations, including some of those who have signed agreements with Saab for defence products.

With its own Gripen programme, Brazil is keen to know more: Mats Olofsson is among those who have shared their knowledge of the Triple Helix. Saab’s commitment to technology transfer as part of the offset agreement sees it working with local aerospace company Embraer to build up the latter’s capabilities for developing Gripen in Brazil, and the Brazilian Air Force’s steering of ITA University provides a potential framework for the country to take a more integrated approach between academia, industry and government.

The increasing globalisation of Saab is also deepening the Triple Helix approach in our operating countries in the US, UK and Australia, as well as longstanding markets such as Finland.

But in Sweden, there are new challenges to meet for the Triple Helix to sustain the nation (and Saab) in the future.

“Digitalisation has initially been a consumer-driven, separate innovation system outside of government and established high-tech industry, and in this sense aeronautics and the defence industry are maybe not the technological forerunners we once were,” says Magnus Ahlström.

“Government and Saab need to find ways to get on board and there are discussions with the big digitech companies such as Google, as well as the small start-ups. Furthermore, Saab is involved in initiatives such as WASP and Combient, which allow for cross-industry collaborations to mature and for the sharing of new technology.”

The new geopolitical uncertainties pose further challenges regarding new investment and flexible response capabilities for Sweden’s ‘total defence’, with its new vulnerabilities in the digitalised society.

The Triple Helix of tomorrow will have to adapt faster and be more agile in the new reality, to meet needs and find solutions at a faster pace than ever before.