Women in the Housing Business Series: Who decides how we co-live sustainably?

Posted: 14th April 2021

Anna Älgevik on the interplay between green urban development and society — and the women making it happen

Interview with Anna Älgevik, Project Director at Sweco Environment

Altair is committed to sharing the successes and learnings we observe in our work with clients. As part of the “Women in the Housing Business: Inspiring International Leaders you should know about” series, our research and insights lead Cassidy Curls sits down with international female leaders from across the housing sector to learn about and share their experiences.

As our second interview in the series, Cassidy speaks with Anna Älgevik, Project Director international projects at Sweco and global expert on sustainable, international urban development. Based in Stockholm, Anna has grown her career in consultancy through a variety of projects in many different places ranging from China to Rwanda to the UK. Today, she is deputy team leader for the feasibility and set up stages for the largest green development project in Africa. Anna manages a team of over 40 consultants to bring ambitious green urban development objectives to reality in Kigali, Rwanda.

A career in international, sustainable development

Anna is a Swedish professional working in the urban development and sustainability sectors with experience leading and delivering consultancy projects all over the globe. Today, she is Project Director international projects at Sweco.

With headquarters in Stockholm, Sweco is Europe’s leading architecture and engineering consultancy. Anna joined Sweco as a Junior Consultant and has grown her career following a multidisciplinary approach to urban development and environmental sustainability which draws on the interplay between public policy, technology and society.

Anna’s multidisciplinary, society-centred approach stems from her education and experience in economics, business and public policy. Her first post-university job was at the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) in Stockholm, where she assisted a team that supports democracies and new political parties to achieve and promote transparency and anti-corruption. Undoubtably the introduction to the world of development cooperation she gained at IDEA inspires her work today.

After working for a few years, Anna returned to school to undertake a Masters in Environmental Sustainability Management at Harvard University where she learned to evaluate and design practices, technologies, and systems that bring sustainable solutions to communities and organisations. When she returned to Sweden, she began working for Sweco under a female consultant lead who would become a strong mentor figure in Anna’s career and a source of inspiration for refining her multidisciplinary approach to sustainable urban development and societal study Anna subscribes to today.

Underpinned by Anna’s approach is an ongoing reflection in her work on “who decides how we get to co-live?” and constantly challenging herself to advise on solutions which make the biggest positive impact in society.

Anna wishes to pay forward the help and support she received in the early days of her career. So in addition to her client work, Anna is a mentor to younger members of staff and stresses the importance of helping younger women develop their careers.

Anna’s take on housing and sustainability drivers in Sweden

Much of Anna’s work in sustainable urban design is in housing but Anna also works on mixed use developments and commercial spaces.

In Sweden, sustainable solutions and affordability are real drivers for new housing development. With strong rent control regulations, rental homes in Sweden, in desirable locations, are in short supply and homes across the market are expensive and unaffordable to many. Municipal governments often take a lead on not only delivering social housing to meet need, but also key worker housing (e.g. teachers) and student housing to address gaps left by the market.

The size, scale and objectives of projects Anna is involved in in Sweden varies. For example, Anna was part of the team that developed the environmental program and the performance criteria for the developers of the Royal Seaport project in Stockholm, the largest urban development area in Sweden, with plans for at least 12,000 new homes and 35,000 workplaces. The Royal Seaport makes use of sustainable interventions including:

  • Using innovative ways of storing waste to make better use of buildable space.
  • Developing infrastructure and processes for residents to effectively separate recyclables
  • Creating buildings that are carbon neutral or carbon positive
  • Using renewable energy sources like geothermal or solar technologies to heat buildings
  • Developing areas designed for walking and biking with minimal street car parking
  • Creating spaces for social events and children to create a strong community

While many of Anna’s projects have affordability objectives, Anna also delivers projects to meet other market needs such as demand by businesses for green commercial spaces. She notes that some businesses in Sweden wish to rent or purchase green officers to meet their investor and corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies which require collection and reporting on sustainable intervention data such as number of bicycle spaces provided to staff.

Drawing on learnings from Sweden, Anna stresses that only so much can be done at the individual site or development level. In addition, effective community infrastructure led by municipal or central government must play a role to encourage green growth. This requires investment by government into suitable infrastructure connections to encourage renewables and sustainable behaviours as well as effective and trustworthy institutions to manage them.

Working internationally – market fit is a delicate balance

In addition to domestic projects, Anna also works on urban development projects internationally. Her first international project was in China, where she learned about the challenges of “transferring” technologies designed and created for a certain context into another.

Today she spends a lot of her time on projects in Africa including most recently Rwanda and Ethiopia. Anna recognises the tremendous opportunity in Africa for positive impact and considers this a real driver for her work. This opportunity is in part driven by need for climate mitigation measures in new urban areas in Africa, for example to respond to the UN’s sustainable development goals as well as many country strategies for climate-centred economic growth. She currently leads a team of consultants working to develop the Green City Kigali project in Kigali, Rwanda which seeks to deliver sustainable urban development for social inclusion and poverty reduction. It will be the first green city in Africa and the project is a big opportunity to pilot proposals for sustainable, urban living that could act as a blueprint for future urban development elsewhere on the continent. Proposals for the new city include delivering green new housing, commercial space and infrastructure affordable to local people. She is tasked with overseeing the large, multi-firm consultancy team to ensure interventions not only reflect the geographic and topographical requirements at Kinyinya Hill, but also that interventions meet strategic goals such as being assessable and suitable for local people.

With many developed and developing countries looking to follow Sweden’s example of sustainable development, Anna’s challenge when working internationally is sharing with and advising her clients on good practice that is suitable for the local needs and consumer behaviours in the places where she works.

Those technologies we associate with sustainable build in the Western world, such as district heating networks, work well when consumers trust the technologies will be maintained into the future and when consumers service the costs of ongoing maintenance individually or collectively (e.g. service charges). One of the common challenges Anna faces when advising clients, therefore, is identifying appropriate technological solutions within cultures where trust in institutions and communal upkeep is low. The first requirement is to gain a thorough understanding of the cultures present where she is working and then to work with specialist designers to develop innovative and cost-effective solutions. In practice, delivery of projects requires local expertise and Anna stresses the importance of working alongside local teams and experts when undertaking culturally sensitive international work.

Good quality work also involves identifying and leveraging opportunities that are already present in a culture. For example, in Rwanda there is a strong commitment to community as evidenced by mandatory community work days known as Umuganda. The concept of Umuganda is being closely considered in design and maintenance plans at the Green City Kigali. By embracing an existing public commitment to collective sustainability efforts, Anna’s work draws on existing behaviours to maximise suitability of solutions proposed.

Advice for aspiring women

Anna strongly believes in women creating a support and structure network for others.

For a woman on the rise, it means reaching out and identifying a mentor whose career path and approach she admires and is inspired by.

The value of a mentor is not only guidance but also direction, and a mentor who works on projects of interest can help young women shape and navigate their own interests and goals while providing some insights into the right direction to serve these interests and goals.

Like in Anna’s story, a mentor can have an unshakeable impact on direction and help manifest a “school of thought” that follows throughout one’s career.


View others in this series:

“Don’t wait until you’re a leader”: Saadiya Aminu on female empowerment and running a successful real estate business in Nigeria

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