The First Minister has stirred a hornet’s nest over plans to privatise the troubled Ferguson’s ship yard on the Lower Clyde. No-one needs reminding two unfinished ferries sit there – over budget and way beyond original delivery dates. Island economies are being wrecked meantime and the whole sorry episode looks like a uniquely Scottish failure of governance.

Except a version of the same thing happened 150 years ago and 1,400 miles further east in the Swedish city of Gothenburg which once housed the world's biggest shipyard.

Closure and dereliction struck in the 1990s, and yet today, Sweden’s second city has become the country’s R&D capital, with 24,000 people working, studying and living on the old docks at Lindholmen – a thriving science park with a regular hybrid electric ferry link to the city’s more populous south bank.

The Silicon Valley company Plug and Play (which ‘incubated’ the founders of Google, Logitech, Paypal and Dropbox) revealed Lindholmen as its latest international hub, earlier this month.

Nearby, Volvo cars will celebrate their centenary in Gothenburg as a fully electric car company by 2030. Their new car battery manufacturing plant, employing 3,000 people, will open in 2025.

But it’s not all industry.

Gothenburg’s been named the world’s most sustainable tourist destination every year since 2016. One hotel has 100,000 bees in hives on its rooftop garden, whilst the luxurious, central Hotel Eggers (built in 1859) is completely powered by its own coastal wind turbines, serves mostly vegetarian and fish dishes and smaller portions (with more on demand) to cut food waste.

According to manager Jessica Vialleton, its green stance helps the hotel recruit the best staff and attract customers in a city that doesn’t tolerate green-washing. Gothenburg City Council led the world by issuing green bonds to finance its epic shift to sustainable transport and waste management ten years ago. Today, the city has the largest tram system in Northern Europe with 12 lines, plus an expanding fleet of electric buses and river ferries.

This year, the city is one of the five fastest growing in Europe, is halfway through a £90 billion project to build 25 thousand new flats and three new bridges linking the banks of the Göta river and is piloting a new wireless charging system with Volvo to charge electric vehicles like taxis and delivery vans on the move – the service vehicles that cannot easily be removed from the streets of the future. Quite a way to celebrate the city’s 400th anniversary.

Gothenburg’s renewal is breath-taking and yet, like Glasgow, it retains a friendly, easy-going air. If there’s a Swedish secret, it’s genuine collaboration, the ability to treat ‘failures’ as opportunities and to learn from neighbours – especially Scots.

Gothenburg’s massive Götaverken shipyard was founded in 1841 by Dundee businessman Alexander Keiller, who invested money made from a textile mill he co-founded up-river from Gothenburg at Jonsered, with Arbroath-born entrepreneur William Gibson.

Keiller devised a machine to spin flax and hemp and later Jonsered produced jute with machinery imported from Dundee, while Gibson bankrolled the whole venture and built a village like Robert Owen’s New Lanark. Gibson's grandson later introduced sick-pay, medical care, kindergarten and a house for older workers without children. Some suggest this ‘cradle to grave’ care was a template for the expansive Swedish welfare state. Others, like Jonsered Museum Chair, Hjordis Fohrman suggest Gibson had no choice if workers were to spend their lives on an uninhabited mountainous riverbank. Still, the mechanised mill was Sweden’s first, adding a hydro plant, steam engine and timber machinery wing before finally closing in 1979. 

Meanwhile Keiller’s company in Gothenburg opened a new shipyard with indoor construction which helped tiny Sweden become the world’s second largest shipbuilder, after Britain, by the 1960s.

But in 1971, the year of the UCS occupation, Götaverken also foundered, in the face of Japanese competition, the oil crisis and a world economic downturn. The yard was nationalised and shifted from building oil tankers and iron ore transporters to icebreakers, ferries and freezer ships. It was a losing battle, but the Swedish state consistently identified itself with the shipyard’s cause, and all attempts to close it were rebuffed. Just like Scotland.

In 1989 though, Götaverken’s last home-made ship was launched and although the yard limped on with repair, maintenance, and renovation work till 2015, Gothenburg entered the 1990s with 20,000 shipbuilding jobs gone, five kilometres of empty dockland and the heart of the city, all but broken. So far, so very like the Clyde.

But though shipbuilding, textiles and their Scottish originators were down and out, Gothenburg most definitely was not.

In 1996, the City Council bought the empty docklands for one Swedish krona, financed new house-building, constructed six secondary schools and linked up with Chalmers University of Technology – founded in 1829 by a bequest from the son of Scottish merchant William Chalmers – to set up a new campus and technology park. That attracted the Swedish mobile phone company, Ericsson which wanted to create a cluster of 10,000 people in IT companies around its own new HQ, building an inter-dependency that helped the sector survive the crash in the early part of this century.

The biggest advance though, followed the biggest setback, when Sweden’s innovation agency, Vinnova, rejected a bid for an open research area at Lindholmen. Undaunted, the Science Park owners (council and business) went ahead without public funding, seconding 30 people for one year to fine tune the plans.

Now, 375 companies (including Astro Zeneca) operate on dockland that wasn’t worth four pence 30 years ago.

It was the same story in nearby Malmo where the last shipbuilder closed in 1988 prompting the Swedish government to fund a new SAAB-Scania car plant employing 2,700, a regional development fund, a marine technology centre and a bridge over the Oresund strait linking the region with Copenhagen. The Bridge has transformed Skåne into an economic powerhouse and formed the iconic centrepiece of a hit series, co-produced by Swedish and Danish state TV with five international remakes.

Christian Borg of Business Region Gothenburg says more people are employed in tech jobs in the docklands today than ever worked in the shipyards; “Yes, it hurt to see the yards closed and empty, but with hard work, Gothenburg has moved on.”

Has Scotland? The row over missing ferries and procurement processes will naturally continue. But will a fraction of that despairing energy be devoted to the transformation of Scotland’s old shipbuilding heartland? Gothenburg demonstrates there is life after heavy industry and Scotland could usefully emulate their genuinely collaborative outlook – a wee bit of payback for the Caledonian cash that funded Sweden’s shipbuilding effort 180 years ago.