In 2008 Iceland suffered a severe economic meltdown and became bankrupt, it opted not to take loans to bail out the corporations that caused the debt crisis and with cooperation of the people and social media they are back on top..........
REYKJAVIK, Iceland — While visiting Iceland for an online marketing conference last week, I found myself in the president of Iceland’s living room, scratching my head at how welcoming and eager he was to talk about the country’s use of social media and technology to rebuild the nation.
The fact that Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson — who has been running the country for 16 years and just announced last week that he will be campaigning once again for re-election — invites strangers into his own home is not all that surprising, when you consider the way he runs the country.
Sure, it’s highly rare for someone in his position to open his door to people he doesn’t know, but this is precisely the way he approaches government in this tiny, snowy country in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
“Iceland is a society based on the principle that everyone is a friend until proven otherwise,” Grímsson tells me. “Unfortunately, most societies are going in the opposite direction, assuming that everyone is a potential threat. That is a dangerous route to take because you fundamentally destroy the democratic nature of human encounters. That’s not how we approach things in Iceland.”
The country is currently undergoing a resurgence since its economic meltdown in 2008. Iceland opted not to bail out the businesses that were partly responsible for the country’s crisis, and has since created a new constitution to move ahead.
I made my way to his home, a series of beautiful white buildings on the water outside the capitol of Reykjavik. The taxi driver mentioned he met Grímsson once at an art event. Not to mention, the founder of Nordiac eMarketing Kristján M. Hauksson — who ran the 2012 Reykjavik Internet Marketing Conference — said he used to go to the same gym as the president. (Grímsson even gave the keynote at the conference the following day).
The president of Iceland’s accessibility is unique, as is his approach to embracing the Internet and modern technology to help boost the economy. In addition to the country’s quirky Tumblr blog (Iceland Wants to Be Your Friend), its Twitter account and its Facebook presence, Iceland has gone out of its way to spread awareness about the nation and increase tourism.
Its 2011 “Inspired by Iceland” campaign encouraged citizens to take travelers on tours throughout the country. Even the president participated, inviting tourists into his home for pancakes with whipped cream and rhubarb jam.
Overall, the Internet has played a big role in modern day Iceland. The government recently asked citizens to post online comments and feedback about what they thought of its new constitution proposal. And although the president actually said he wouldn’t be running for re-election earlier this year, he changed his mind after Icelanders gathered thousands of signatures online as a part of an effort to keep him in office.
But this begs the question: Is all of this possible because the country only boasts 300,000 residents, or could this let’s-all-work-together mantra work elsewhere?
“To some extent, the size of Iceland allows this happen,” says Grímsson, leaning back in his chair. “However, there are smaller communities in bigger countries that can look at Iceland as a model.”
Although some believe the president’s accessibility could be a risk to his safety, he says it’s a far greater risk not to build trust and relationships with his people.
“Many say that there should be more barriers up for a president when interacting with citizens and that they could even get killed, but this contradicts the way we want to live our lives,” he says. “There is a risk to giving a teenager a driver’s license, but we accept that risk and let them drive anyway.”
Iceland’s progressiveness in embracing modern technology is astounding. In fact, Iceland’s 2011 Constitutional Council crowdsourced its constitution, turning to social media sites to make the process transparent and to collect input from the public.
SEE ALSO: Iceland Unveils Crowdsourced Constitution
“In the aftermath of the financial crisis, we realized that this wasn’t just an economic or a financial crisis; it was also a social, political and judicial crisis,” says Grímsson. “If we were going to allow the nation to regain its strength and position, it wouldn’t be sufficient to deal with it in traditional economic and financial ways. We needed a different democratic approach.”
A draft of the document was posted online, where it encouraged recommendations and comments from citizens to amend it. “You can look at it as an innovative thing, in terms of modern technology, but it’s actually just a modern expression on an old Icelandic tradition,” says Grímsson.
After the country was first settled by the Vikings, residents set up a parliament, an open assembly and open courts. It was based on rule of law and not on executive power.
“The tradition of conducting everything in a way that everybody could follow and have access to it was an early part of our history,” says Grimsson. “It has become a big part of the identity of Iceland.”
“Since Iceland is a small society, transparency here probably has a different meaning than larger societies where a bureaucratic state is in place,” says Grímsson. “It’s never been the case in Iceland. But like many other countries right now, we have a lot of activism created with the help of the Internet and social media.”
The Power of the Internet
When Grímsson announced he wouldn’t be running for re-election in 2012 — which could make him the longest serving president in the country’s history — Iceland’s residents started an online petition, urging him to stay in office.
“I decided not to serve more in the presidency, and thought I could be useful doing other things,” says Grímsson. “However, a lot of people wanted me to continue, and didn’t want to open the presidency up during a time of uncertainty.”
He agreed to run again under the condition that once the uncertainties regarding the economy and other matters were more resolved, he would reserve the right not to serve the full term.
“It goes to show that you can get so much accomplished with the help of the Internet at a much faster rate than ever before,” adds Grímsson.
As for how he plans to approach the campaign, he’s still weighing his options.
“There is this danger that if you become too fascinated by technologies and communicating with people digitally, it lessens the personal encounters,” says Grímsson. “There is also a risk that technology could become the main field of communication, and that could also impact transparency and trust. I wouldn’t want that to happen in Iceland.”
Inspired by Iceland
The country has been embracing the Internet to boost tourism, and it seems to be working. Hauksson of Nordiac eMarketing says that Iceland has experienced a nearly 20% increase in tourism in 2011. The campaigns have certainly helped, but public awareness also increased when the world learned of Iceland’s economic crisis and its recent volcano eruption. In addition, airlines such as EasyJet have expressed interest in flying to Iceland.
By logging on to InspiredbyIceland.com, tourists can sign up for free tours, meet local residents and, of course, even visit the president’s house.
Inspired by Iceland Invitations from Inspired By Iceland on Vimeo.
“By participating in the campaign, it carried out the message that everyone is a friend until proven otherwise, and that we can all work together to spread awareness,” says Grímsson. “It was very successful and promoted Iceland without huge costs.”
Grímsson noted that technology is having a greater impact on politics in both small and large communities. “What could have taken months to accomplish is now possible in just hours, thanks to mobile phones and the Internet.”
He also referenced one of President Obama’s speeches in Washington D.C. Amazingly, a crowd in Cairo, Egypt turned down Obama’s initiative via tweets and online messages even before he had finished speaking.
“Technology is becoming a side show to whatever is happening — it’s giving people the opportunity to be active and influential almost immediately,” Grímsson says.
Do you think Iceland’s tech efforts can work in other countries? Can nations learn from its model? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
Image courtesy of iStockphoto, 221A