The Many Ants of Iceland

With their country's economy in tatters from the financial crisis, Icelanders are turning to some strange methods for reforming their government.

Althea Legaspi
Althea Legaspi

I’m standing in a huge room that looks more like a wedding reception hall than a national summit chamber, with a stage, a buffet table, and 1,500 Icelanders sitting at round tables talking excitedly. We’ve been serenaded by a girls choir and fed lamb soup. Attendees refer to themselves as "ants," and our name tags only feature our first names. Surreal as the event may seem, many Icelanders are convinced it’s the only way to get their troubled economy back on track. In this tiny, sheltered island nation, as political crises mount, solutions to economic distress are coming from some unexpected directions.

About a year ago, days after the collapse of Iceland’s three largest banks bankrupted the country, Icelanders held a peaceful protest calling for the removal of the then chairman of the board of governors of Iceland’s central bank, David Oddsson. By early 2009, as general protests increased in size and sometimes turned violent, the country’s government was ousted.

The political situation has now stabilized, but Icelanders remain skeptical about the current government and the economy hasn’t rebounded. Unemployment tops 8 percent, an alarmingly high figure in a country of 300,000 citizens where the rate prior to the crash hovered around 1 percent.

Meanwhile, the country is struggling to pay back the debt it incurred during last year’s bank failures. On Dec. 30, Iceland’s parliament narrowly approved a bill to reimburse Britain and the Netherlands more than $5 billion for the losses those countries’ investors took during Iceland’s crash. But the bill is hugely unpopular because of the burden it places on taxpayers, who resent having to pay for the mistakes of private financial firms supervised by other country’s regulators. President Olafur Grimsson vetoed it on Jan. 5, throwing the government into turmoil once again. Grimsson has argued that the bill should be subject to a national referendum, but supporters of the legislation fear that if the bill fails, it would endanger the $10 billion IMF aid package promised to Iceland after the bank failures, as well as Iceland’s chances of joining the European Union.

In reaction to these crises, a sort of grassroots economics movement has risen up in Reykjavik, where citizens are trying to provide solutions for and by the people. One of the organizations leading the pack is House of Ideas, a loosely defined office-space-cum-think-tank that is the brainchild of Gudjon Gudjonsson, a telecom industry entrepreneur and professor of entrepreneurship at Reykjavik University. Shortly after the crash, House of Ideas, under the sponsorship of Reykjavik University and the Iceland Academy of the Arts, began providing creative entrepreneurs rent-free space to foster business ideas.

No walls separate companies, and most work in a central room with an indoor park containing a tire swing and life-size male doll, which slumps on a bench, apparently to reinforce the park setting. There’s a room filled with randomly scattered, mismatched couches and a coffee shop with a ping-pong table. Words from brainstorming sessions adorn the walls. One company uses brain waves to play a game; another is inventing a more advanced kind of television set.

The "National Assembly," where I found myself eating lamb soup and listening to the children’s choir, came out of the intellectual crucible of the Ministry of Ideas, which is located in the House of Ideas. This experiment in collective decision-making brought together 1,500 Icelanders, the majority of whom were selected randomly from Iceland’s National Registry, to brainstorm ways to rebuild the country’s economy and its values. In any other country this might be fairly considered completely insane; in Iceland, where the participants made up a respectable 0.5 percent of the country’s population, there was a certain logic to it. In July, a group of volunteers based out of the House of Ideas joined forces with other grassroots organizations to begin developing the National Assembly’s manifesto.

Gudjonsson explains his initiative as an attempt to develop a business plan for Iceland. "The country could behave like a business in terms of sharing common values and a common vision," he said. "Iceland’s population is the size of General Electric. The opportunity Iceland has is to model a new way of democracy." He wants Icelanders to become part of the solution, rather than passively remaining at the mercy of the financial institutions that destroyed the country’s economy.

Gudjonsson sent me the National Assembly’s manifesto, which designates the assembly’s volunteers as "The Anthill" and describes its mission as pursuing a "unique flavor of crowd-sourced democracy." The National Assembly’s goal, the manifesto states, is to "harness the collective wisdom and consciousness of the Icelandic public, which is hidden to each individual in isolation."

One of the founding National Assembly "ants" told me that the "Anthill" moniker was inspired by ants’ intuitive perception of threats and their ability to move their society to safety; each ant is an equally important part of the whole. Original "ants" in the National Assembly Anthill include Iceland’s minister of environment and the singer Björk, who helped formulate the idea of the National Assembly but did not, unfortunately, attend.

The ants finally came together on Nov. 14, when 1,200 random Icelanders and 300 influential Icelandic leaders, including former and current political figures, gathered at Reykjavik’s sporting arena, Laugardalsholl.

Laugardalsholl’s main hall was decked out with video screens and balloons everywhere. Volunteer ant Sigga Stina, media ant Marianna, and data logistics ant Thorgics brief me, as the participants start to gather at their tables: Seven discussion rounds enable participants to confer on categories vital to national health. Individuals write down words through each round, and each table reaches a consensus on one phrase during every round. The data for the entire assembly will then be tabulated and appear both on a website, which is broadcasting live video of the proceedings, and as word clouds shared on the video screens at the National Assembly in real time. The most popular responses appear as the largest words within the cloud.

By 10 a.m., 1,500 Icelanders — young and old, male and female — are sitting at their assigned tables. The mayor of Reykjavik, Hanna Birna Kristjansdottir, sits at one table, the leader of the fallen Independence Party, Bjarni Benediktsson Jr., at another. Finance Minister Steingrimur J. Sigfusson also participates. They are working with common Icelanders, from a pink-haired 18-year-old to a 100-year-old fisherman. During rounds, the room is subdued as people focus on the discussions. "This is hard work, but important work," says one ant during a break between rounds.

By lunchtime the first word cloud forms on the video screens: Heidarleiki, or honesty and integrity, is number one. The room erupts in applause. Equal rights, respect, and justice are tied for second. Love, responsibility, freedom, sustainability, democracy, family, equality, and trust follow. Words such as "transparency" and "education" are also popular.

Between rounds, there are meals and entertainment. Marianna wipes away tears. "This is the future of Iceland," announces a facilitator ant.

At the end of the day, participants fill out suggestion cards on ways to improve Iceland’s future, as an Icelandic singer performs in the background. They then stuff the cards into boxes by the stage. We eat our soup. Smiles abound. A man named Helgi shares what he has written: He wants a variety of jobs available for everyone and programs to teach young people how to form a better society.

During the next phase, laid out by the National Assembly’s manifesto, the Anthill will implement an action plan for the year ahead. Ten days later, Iceland Review, an English-language magazine in Reykjavik, and the Icelandic daily Morgunbladid reported the formation of a partnership between the Anthill and a government-appointed strategic-planning task force to "incorporate the conclusions of the National Assembly into the task force’s plans." The results of the National Assembly — simple words that define a nation’s values and economic needs — may seem like rhetoric, and after the corruption and collusion within the government and its former banks, it’s no surprise that words such as "honesty" and "integrity" would receive consensus among Icelanders. Still, no matter the outcome of these developments, Iceland’s ants have responded to the daunting challenges they face by starting to form a solution that can truly bear the stamp: "Made in Iceland."

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