REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Gudjon Mar Gudjonsson is not your typical entrepreneur. Although
he has founded numerous high tech companies — his first at the age of 17 — and
is clearly the sort of businessman that companies like Google and Microsoft
recruit, Mr. Gudjonsson has instead chosen to devote much of his time and technological
know-how to a think tank called the Ministry of Ideas. The group’s mission is
no less attention-getting than its name: it is pursing how Icelanders can
breakdown hierarchies that elevate people like himself far above the rest of
society in the first place.
“I am a big fan
of an active democracy and a participatory economy, and have been looking into
open source governance for some time,” Mr. Gudjonsson explained, as we sat down
to chat in his office. It is known as the House of Ideas, a former furniture
store near Reykjavik's harbor that once also served the country’s fishing industry. The House of Ideas — no relation to the House of Blues — now
provides free office space to successful applicants who have business ventures
that are all dressed up with nowhere to go.
What sparked Mr. Gudjonsson's desire to be a social reformer
was actually the same thing that drove the furniture store out of business. It
is a nationwide calamity that will affect Iceland for generations. It’s what
spurred the University of Reykjavik and the Icelandic Academy for the Arts to
establish a place like the House of Ideas. And “it” is this: Iceland’s bankers,
with the tacit support of its politicians, bankrupted the country.
In Icelandic, it is simply known as the kreppa.
Society Down The Kreppa
When Iceland plunged into financial crisis in late 2008, Mr.
Gudjonsson decided that the raw emotion of demonstrations was not for him.
“People wanting change were basically split in two groups,”
he said. “There were people who
went to protest, and people who joined groups like the Ministry of Ideas,
planning for the future.” The problem, as he saw it, did not arise because of
one specific government, but was a result of the way that representative
democracy functioned, or didn't.
It was too passive, and a whole new social construct was needed.
The protest movement was spawned by the traumatic nature of the financial crisis. The value of Iceland’s
currency, the krona, collapsed on foreign exchange
markets, which led to vanished savings, high inflation and even higher foreign
debt payments. Iceland's main banks – Glitnir, Kaupthing and Landsbanki – which
had only been privatized at the start of the decade, had managed to acquire up
to nine times the size of the country's GDP in debt. When, in the aftermath of
Lehman Brothers' collapse in the U.S., the big Icelandic banks were unable to
obtain the refinancing they needed for their gargantuan interest payments, they
went into government receivership. Icelandic taxpayers found themselves stuck
with the bill after the banks were re-nationalized, leaving them a touch upset
at the ruling class to say the least. Weekly protests gained momentum and
eventually forced a change in government in January 2009. The whole affair came
to be known as the Kitchenware Revolution, named after the pots and pans
Icelanders used as noisemakers.
At the Ministry of Ideas
In the wake of the Kitchenware revolt, Gudjohnsson felt that
a grassroots think tank like the Ministry of Ideas, which is unaffiliated with
any political party, could achieve something that the system itself could
not. “[Parliamentarians] have
worked for many years to get voted,” he said. “Certainly, to open everything up
– it doesn't really fly for them.”
On Nov. 14, Gudjonsson’s Ministry of Ideas and several
affiliated groups — known collectively as the Anthill — are hoping to take a
significant step towards opening everything up. They are hosting a National
Assembly where Icelanders will be invited to give their input about what sort
of society the country should build in the aftermath of the kreppa.
For the Anthill’s efforts to be taken seriously, they need mandate-like participation. That means inviting a large number of people to
Laugardolshöll, the sporting arena in Reykjavik where the Assembly will be
hosted. So Mr. Gudjonsson’s group has invited 1,500 people — roughly 0.5% of
Iceland's population — to attend.
About 1,200 of these invitations will go to people picked at
random from the national registry. If some fail to RSVP, more will be invited
until the 1,200 “randoms” confirm that they will be attending, Mr. Gudjonsson
At the assembly itself, the masses will be broken down into
groups of nine. With the help of discussion facilitators who have been trained
to ensure the roundtable discussions are healthy, participants will discuss what values defines them as a
nation. To ascertain exactly how these groups of nine will arrive at a larger
consensus, when each participant comes up with a proposed value – Mr.
Gudjonsson expects 20,000 ideas to be proposed – it will be “tagged” by that
group electronically, like on a blog.
Tags will be monitored by a backroom staff who will
ascertain which values were deemed important most frequently. The top nine will
be considered Iceland's moral pillars for the purposes of the National
Assembly. From there, slightly larger groups will discuss how to build social
frameworks — economic, educational, justice, and health care systems — based on
these core values. For each value, the assembled groups will come up with nine
ideas on how to improve society (nine, according to Mr. Gudjonsson, is an ideal
number for group work.)
Mining the data for a consensus in this section will be
relatively more qualitative, but at the end of the day participants will have
drafted a manifesto that will give the country a better idea of what sort of
future society it would like to build. Not bad for a Saturday’s work.
“Before entering the meeting, no one knows what the values
will be. We have a feel for it, but it’s up to the people of the meeting to
find a government for themselves,” Mr. Gudjonsson said. Giving effective
control of the nation’s monetary supply to a few avaricious profit seeking
individuals will probably not make the cut.
The resulting manifesto won't have any sort of legal
significance, but Mr. Gudjonsson said that holding such an event will be useful
in holding the government more accountable. “We can always refer to the 2009
November national assembly,” he exclaimed. “If there are going to be
discussions [about reform] in parliament,” which there have been and will be,
“then the national assembly will be kind of a guiding light.” In fact, holding
a Constitutional Assembly is something that some of the major parties in
Parliament have discussed, and the National Assembly is something from which
that they may draw wisdom. Even if
it is just the case of politicians blowing hot air, then at least the National
Assembly will be an exercise in participatory democracy.
First we take Reykjavik...
Of course, it is information technology that makes this all
possible. The whole ordeal is essentially the first attempt to crowdsource a
socio-economic-political manifesto in history. More importantly, as the whole
event will be on an open source software platform, Mr. Gudjonsson claims that
the entire world can look to the National Assembly as a model for reform. In
addition to allowing the
participants and the Icelandic public to scrutinize the information collected,
people around the globe will be able to analyze the data and how it was
obtained, thus ensuring the process' transparency and maximizing its utility to
People who are interested, for example, will be able to find
out what age group in Iceland esteems which values more highly than others.
Curious programmers, if they are interested in agitating for their own
assemblies, can find out how the code was written so that the Anthill's
administrators could quickly deduce the shared values of dozens of groups. If
someone wants to produce a copy of the final manifesto, they will be able to
do that as well, free of charge. This open aspect to the meeting, Mr.
Gudjonsson hopes, will not only garner the attention of like-minded people
abroad, but will encourage people in Iceland to act upon the ideas discussed by
the National Assembly.
“Instead of focusing on a particular solution, I want to
focus on the process. With a process, its something that can scale,” said Mr.
Gudjonsson, detailing his inspiration for open source social reform. “It's like how Linux competed with
Windows because of its open source software. The beauty was in the process,
which can scale so clever people all over the world can participate.” And what
better place to experiment with a scalable project in social engineering than
one of the smallest, most educated countries in the world? When the house of
cards that is global finance came crashing down, Iceland, one of the first to
take a massive blow, was called the canary in the coalmine. Mr. Gudjonsson is
now hopeful that the world will once more look to Iceland as an indication of
what the future holds, but this time for all the right reasons.
“In terms of
use of technologies, more people per capita use Facebook in Iceland than
anywhere else in the world,” he said, pointing out the role that the social
networking website played in Iceland's Kitchenware Revolution. Facebook isn't
just a place where you can update your status with the angst ridden Alanis
Morisette lyric du jour, you know. Such a tech-savvy, educated democracy as
Iceland that took Facebook and used it to organize an effective social
movement, with apologies to Iranians, could very well be a leader in government
“The feedback system so fast. You can implement change so
quickly and you have access to politicians and leaders within the country,” he
noted. Being a country with a population of just over 300,000, Iceland is a
place where, despite a lack of trust between the population and politicians, a tightly
woven social fabric makes wide reaching consensual reform possible. The
government has even given support to the National Assembly, although it gets
financial backing from a wide range of donors. Having such an in tune civil society as
exists in Iceland, in Mr. Gudjonsson's opinion, makes the country “the testing
ground for a more sustainable democracy.”
Rockefeller Foundation, This Isn't
A breach of trust by the country's elected representatives
wasn't the only thing that irked Icelanders about the kreppa. It made many question how it was that a small group
of bankers and investors essentially squandered all of the country's money and
then some without any real democratic process. Voters may have given a mandate to the Independence Party to
privatize the banking system, but that wasn't a carte blanche to bankers to pillage the country's savings accounts.
The government wasn't the only one to blame.
This injustice has not gone unnoticed by the Ministry of
Ideas who, Mr. Gudjonsson said, are also researching the idea of democratizing
economics in addition to its work with the Anthill's National Assembly. “We've seen that [a grassroots economy]
is based on trust, but we are still trying to see how it can work.” However it can work, it would need a
reformed financial system, that Mr. Gudjonsson said should be “based on common
values.” Again, in this respect, he believes that his diminutive country can
set an example by combining lessons learned about resourcefulness in the
private sector with the sympathetic worldview of non-profit organizations.
“[Iceland] could become a key partner in the G-20 for
prototyping these new values, tools and processes for a more sustainable
capitalism,” he said.
And what a better place to start than one's own
institution? Promoting both a more
active citizenry and innovating are both clearly important to Mr. Gudjonsson.
As with the work it is doing for the National Assembly, the Ministry of Ideas
does not claim copyright to any of its published material or ideas. “We are not about egos,” he ironically
boasted. “We are about making society better.” When the Ministry of Ideas holds
its weekly meetings, for example, individual enterprises are born, from which
the Ministry itself – financed by donors and staffed by volunteers – sees no
monetary reward. Mr. Gudjonsson
himself expressed an interest in an economic system without copyright, even
though he has filed a number of
patents in his time. “We somehow need to pay for clothes and food and
stuff,” he lamented.
What else is on?
The National Assembly and the idea of increasing
participation in the economy and government don’t have the support of everyone
in Iceland. Just who are they to decide
Iceland's future, anyway? some have asked. Mr. Gudjonsson responds that the
group’s experimental work is not legally binding and is fairly inclusive.
It is perfectly reasonable to question the results that can
come from a grassroots effort, especially when a nation’s very political and
financial structure are involved.
Nevertheless, Mr. Gudjonsson hopes the Assembly’s mission
will catch on because “the right people will pick it up and do something about
it.” By helping to found the Ministry of Ideas and getting involved with the
Anthill, he hopes to increase the odds of that happening.
“If you have a grassroots meeting at 8 o'clock” Gudjohnsson
said, describing the challenge, “then it has to be clear that it’s more
important to join that meeting than it is to watch Jay Leno. To make that
desire is to basically make people feel that they can have a role – that their
voices can be heard, and that they have a sense for their role within the big
Perhaps more people, at least in Iceland anyway, will be
convinced they can play an active
role in the big picture after the National Assembly on Saturday. That is, unless
there's something good on television.