As an expert in AI and robotics, she knows more than most about rapid changes. Nonetheless, she says the transformation in Örebro since she arrived from her native Canada 20 years ago has been profound.
Firstly, Örebro University itself has been a huge catalyst for the city’s development since opening in 1999. Then there’s the exciting part that a city known for its magnificent 13th century castle is playing in Sweden’s 21st century startup scene, thanks to the entrepreneurial hub Creative House.
Furthermore, parents say it’s an ideal place to raise a family for a host of reasons. The Local spoke to Professor Loutfi, and another even longer-standing international resident of the city, to find out more.
A region of young talent
Maybe you’ve seen the name Örebro but have no idea how to say it? Or where to locate it on the map? The city is the sixth largest in Sweden and has an enviable location in the heart of the country, just a little closer to Stockholm than Gothenburg. But anyone thinking of it as simply a stopping point between bigger cities is sorely mistaken. Professor Loutfi says the sense of opportunity in Örebro today is palpable.
“I came from a town on Canada’s east coast that was in decline with a shrinking population,” she says. “The city of Örebro, on the other hand, has a pulse and you feel it in the bone marrow of the place. There are people coming, new restaurants opening and new initiatives starting.”
The university offers Sweden’s most modern medical training programme, ranks third nationally for scientific excellence, and is an important node in the national AI network. Professor Loutfi has a strategic role in developing the university’s role in Swedish and European AI initiatives through the Wallenberg Foundation’s WASP programme.
“We have a strong university and that means a fantastic pool of young people,” she says. “If you’re interested in establishing a startup or relocating your current business, you’ll get access to a generation with solid knowledge who are often interested in staying and contributing to the region’s growth.”
Little wonder that local startups making innovative use of technology are flourishing. “It was all about skor [shoes] and kex [cookies] when I arrived,” recalls Professor Loutfi. “Now, a wide diversity of businesses keep the city vibrant.”
Location and lifestyle: ‘everything is possible here’
Richard Kennett, who grew up in Brighton in England, moved to Örebro in 1987 as a love-struck teenager who had fallen for a Swedish au pair. The city now has an international appeal and level of self-confidence he could not have imagined in the early days after his move.
“At first, Swedes would ask me ‘Are you mad?’” he remembers. “The entire personality of the city has been transformed. I’ve seen a metamorphosis over 15 or 20 years – and today everything is possible here.”
Having raised three children who were born in the city, he says: “I think Örebro has been the perfect place for them to grow up. We’ve had a great system from kindergarten through school and all their sports clubs and activities. It doesn’t take long to get anywhere.
“The geographic location of this city is phenomenal – and so is the choice of lifestyle. You can live in the middle of nowhere, in a country village close to the city, or in the city itself.”
Following the university’s opening, Richard cites the local hospital becoming involved in research as another key milestone (it’s now rated Sweden’s best university hospital). He credits “a generation of politicians who focused on vision and possibility”, as well as the city’s location, which means over 70 percent of Sweden’s population lives within a radius of 300km.
Photo: Business Region Örebro
A home for families
Professor Loutfi, who has two daughters aged 11 and nine, also greatly values the family-friendly environment. As well as a sense of security and community, local residents enjoy easy access to outdoor activities and unspoilt nature.
“It’s beautiful here. You can hop on your bike and after 20 minutes you’re really out in nature and I think that’s different from Stockholm,” she says. “There are fantastic hiking trails nearby, like the Bergslagen hill range, where you can just go for a couple of hours or for a day.”
With the pace of developments in AI, has she ever thought about leaving? Even after a spell as a researcher in Spain, she knew she wanted to return to her adopted home. “I turn every stone and weigh all the pros and cons, which is what Canadians do,” she says. “I always come up with more pros [for staying].”
In Örebro, the list of pros for talented international people and their families keeps on growing.
European Commission recommends travel ban on southern Africa amid fears over new Covid variant
The EU is expected to announce an immediate travel ban to southern Africa because of the discovery of a new Covid-19 variant.
The B.1.1.529 variant, which is more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant and could evade vaccines, has been discovered in South Africa’s most populous province Gauteng.
The EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen tweeted: “The @EU_Commission will propose, in close coordination with Member States, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529.”
The future of this year’s United Rugby Championship (URC) could be in jeopardy as it has four South African teams in it.
Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer, Michael McBride, said the emergence of the new variant was “undoubtedly a matter of concern”.
Recent arrivals to Northern Ireland from the six countries on the UK list will be contacted by the Public Health Agency (PHA) and asked to self-isolate and take a PCR test, which will be prioritised for genomic sequencing.
Further assessments will be made concerning other countries with strong travel links to South Africa, the North’s Department of Health said.
Dr McBride said the introduction of travel restrictions was on a “precautionary basis, while we await further evidence on the spread of this variant in South Africa and understand more about it.”
The official Munster rugby Twitter account stated: “We all are safe & well in Pretoria. We are working with URC on the ongoing situation relating to Covid-19 & will provide an update once we know more #MunsterInSA.”
The Covid adviser for the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP), Mary Favier has warned that if the new South African variant of the virus manages to “out run” Delta, then “we will have a problem”.
It was still unknown if vaccines would work against the new variant which was why so much attention was being paid to it, she told Newstalk Breakfast.
Dr Favier also welcomed plans to extend the vaccine programme to children aged 5-11. GPs knew the difference that vaccines could make, however, she pointed out that it would be a parental decision and GPs would be willing to discuss the issue with parents.
On RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland programme immunology expert, Professor Christine Loscher said she expected the World Health Organisation (WHO) to move the status of the new variant from one of interest to one of concern in the near future.
The new variant was of concern because of the number of mutations in the spike proteins and it was still unclear how this variant would respond to vaccines. It was a case of wait and see the impact, she said.
Within the coming weeks it would be known how good current vaccines were at neutralising antibodies in the variant, added Prof Loscher. But she pointed out that vaccine manufacturers have been able to “tweak” vaccines as the virus changed.
“That’s a positive thing to know, that they have the technology to vary the vaccine as variants arrive.”
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said he is “deeply concerned” about the new Covid variant.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) will meet on Friday to to further assess the significance of this variant.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has not updated its travel advice to South Africa on its website. It no longer advises against non-essential travel.
Italy tightens Covid restrictions as some regions face return to ‘yellow’ zone
A government decree that comes into force from December 6th will require a ‘super green pass’ health certificate to access most venues and services across the country, in a bid to contain Italy’s rising infection rate and ensure Christmas celebrations can go ahead as planned.
The ‘super green pass’ can be obtained only by those who are vaccinated against or have recovered from Covid-19.
It supersedes the basic ‘green pass’, which was also available to those who had recently tested negative for the virus; though the basic green pass will still be valid for use on public transport and to access workplaces.
Speaking at a televised press conference on Monday evening, Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi said the restrictions would mean a “normal” Christmas this year for those who are vaccinated, and would “give certainty to the tourist season”.
The announcement comes amid media reports that some Italian regions will be placed under increased restrictions starting next week.
People wearing a face mask do some window shopping on Piazza di Spagna in central Rome on December 13, 2020. Vincenzo PINTO / AFP
The northerneastern region of Friuli Venezia Giulia will be returned to the more restricted ‘yellow’ zone from Monday, after it met all of the Italian government’s criteria for tightened restrictions.
Italy operates under a four-tier colour coded system for coronavirus restrictions, with ‘white’ zone areas under the most relaxed rules, and ‘yellow’, ‘orange’ and ‘red’ zones under increasingly strict restrictions.
Since October, the entire country has been in the least-restricted white zone – but this week, Friuli Venezia Giulia’s hospital ward occupancy and Covid infection rates exceeded the limits put in place by the government last summer.
The region’s figures stood at 15 percent Covid patient ICU occupancy and 18 percent general hospital ward occupancy as of November 24th, according to data provided by Agenas, Italy’s National Agency for Health Services.
Under a law introduced by Italy’s government in July, any region above the threshold of 10 percent ICU and 15 percent general ward Covid patient occupancy and with a new weekly incident rate of 50 cases per 100,000 inhabitants should automatically be placed in the yellow zone.
It’s thought that mass demonstrations held in the region’s capital of Trieste last month to protest the introduction of a Covid health certificate requirement for Italy’s workers are partly behind its deteriorating health situation.
A Santa Claus puppet wearing a face mask is displayed in the window of a food store at Rome’s Trevi fountain square on December 23, 2020. Vincenzo PINTO / AFP
According to Italian media, Friuli Venezia Giulia’s governor Massimiliano Fedriga has agreed to enforce the government’s ‘super green pass’ rules from Monday, allowing the region’s vaccinated population to bypass restrictions they would otherwise be subject to.
Currently, ‘yellow zone’ restrictions require an area’s inhabitants to wear a mask both outdoors and in indoor public spaces, and restaurants can seat a maximum of four diners to a table.
While those in a yellow zone will still be required to mask up outdoors, under the new rules, people who hold the ‘super green pass’ will be able to access “indoor catering”, shows (such as theatre performances), parties, nightclubs, sporting events, and “public ceremonies”, as normal.
Other parts of the country currently expected to join Friuli Venezia Giulia in the yellow zone within the next couple of weeks are the autonomous province of Bolzano, which had 10 percent ICU and 15 percent general ward Covid patient occupancy rates as of November 24th; as well as Marche, Liguria, Lazio, Calabria, which all have figures approaching the threshold.
Some of Italy’s larger cities are putting into place their own preemptive strategies to try to contain their infection rates.
On Thursday, Milan’s mayor Giuseppe Sala said he was preparing to sign a measure making facemasks mandatory outdoors across the city center from the coming weekend, reports news agency Ansa.
And in Venice, mayor Luigi Brugnaro has already signed an order requiring the use of masks at Christmas markets and other large outdoor gatherings in the city, reports Sky TG 24.
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