Iceland is betting on its creative industries to rebuild its economy after the banking collapse of 2008, writes wired.co.uk.
In December 2009, a group of people from Iceland’s various centres for different art forms got together for two days outside Reykjavik and attempted to craft a strategy for their industry. They wanted to prove they could contribute as much, financially, to the country as another aluminium smelter would. While the rest of the economy had cratered, creative industries were almost unaffected, and were bringing in 81 billion ISK — about £930 million — way outstripping agriculture (25 billion ISK) and approaching the country’s mighty fishing industry (worth 114 billion ISK). It was also employing 17,000 people. They formed a federation — the Samtök Skapandi Greina — to give themselves a greater political voice.
The federation quickly realised that while Icelandic culture was popular in Iceland, limiting their artists to a audience of just 320,000 was never going to yield significant growth. “The only people Googling Iceland were Icelandic,” says Magnason. So like their Viking forefathers who sailed from Scandinavia, they cast their eyes to the horizon and began to look for international markets to plunder.
A number of projects began to take shape. Magnason wrestled permission from the head of the Icelandic power company he’d been feuding over hydroelectric dams with for years to found Toppstöðin in the disused power plant, and opened the space up to any creative businesses that needed a place to work.
The Icelandic Academy of the Arts began an initiative that pairs product engineers, food scientists and graphic designers up with farmers from around Iceland to create new products that could be sold on an international market. Products like chocolate-covered skyr, caramelised rhubarb and a heavy, meaty, black pudding cake.
In 2006, money was set aside for an organisation called Iceland Music Export, with the goal of promoting Icelandic music abroad. Iceland had already become known for its musical output thanks to the efforts of Björk and Sigur Rós, so it was an early success story. In 2010, Iceland Music Export took over the running of the Iceland Airwaves music festival, which has long had a reputation for uncovering new music.
“They started running the festival in a more professional and sustainable manner, which subsequently led to more organised efforts to map the impact of the festival on the local economy,” says Vasilis Panagiotopoulos, manager of the Icelandic band Rökkuró. “The growing interest in Iceland lead to established international festivals such as Sónar to run a Reykjavik incarnation for the first time in 2013.”
Other festivals that have sprung up in Iceland over recent years include Aldrei Fór Ég Suður, Eistnaflug, LungA and Extreme Chill, but there’s also been an increase in bands seeking out an international career, says Panagiotopoulos. To help, musicians can apply for grants from the government, the city of Reykjavik, and even the national airline, Icelandair. In fact, the government now offers a stipend called “Launasjóður listamanna” to any artist to help them cover their basic costs.
The movie industry is booming too, thanks to a government policy of reimbursing 20 percent of all film and television production costs in the country. Ridley Scott chose Iceland to film Prometheus, and so did Darren Aronofsky forNoah. Homegrown production studio Truenorth told Bloomberg that it has brought in close to three billion ISK through projects involving the likes of Ben Stiller and Tom Cruise. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is interested too — British VFX firm Framestore opened a Reykjavik office in 2008, doubled in size by 2011 and has worked on titles that include Harry Potter, Where The Wild Things Are and Sherlock Holmes.
Revenue from the videogames industry has risen 600 percent, and the ten companies that comprise the Icelandic Gaming Industry Association brought in £42 million in 2011. The country’s mobile games industry is starting to take off, but most revenue comes from established players — an Icelandic company called CCP is one of the few in the world that’s managed to build a stable, successful massively-multiplayer game: EVE Online. Like a vast, interstellar game of Risk, the universe of EVE is a maelstrom of politics, intrigue and diplomacy, set against a backdrop of planets, galaxies and supernovae. Despite having launched nearly ten years ago, its 400,000-strong userbase is still growing.
Intriguingly, the country’s games industry is linked to its fashion industry. Harpa Einarsdóttir, a young fashion designer and illustrator who won Reykjavik Runway in 2011, and spent four years working at CCP designing digital outfits for the game’s characters. Now she runs her own label — Ziska — and sells her work online.
All this has repercussions on other sectors of the country’s economy too. Tourism has risen around cultural events like Airwaves and the annual EVE Online “fanfest”. With a new focus on the international market, more foreigners want to come and see Iceland’s culture in its natural habitat. Since 2011, the number of foreign visitors attending Airwaves has increased 66 percent, and revenue from those visitors has increased 46 percent, too.
The growth of these industries is expected to continue. In November 2012, Iceland’s minister for Finance and Economic Affairs confirmed a massive three-year programme of investment for the creative industries and tourism, with 250 million ISK set aside for “new creative endeavour”. Where does the money come from? The country’s vast fishing industry.
An annual conference called You Are In Control, running alongside the Airwaves music festival, has been held since 2008 with the aim of collecting and celebrating digital developments in the country’s creative industries. Speakers are invited from across the world, but the focus is firmly on homegrown achievements, with many prominent local success stories showcased.
Back in Toppstöðin, Magnason warns guests not to press any buttons on the power plant’s myriad panels, telling a story of an overenthusiastic film crew who flipped a switch and accidentally flooded the basement with water from a nearby river.
It would be easy to claim that Iceland could be used as a model for other economies that were trashed by the global recession to follow — countries like Greece, Ireland and Spain. But Magnason cautions against this. “Iceland is a projection,” he says. “It often serves as a fantasy island for things people want to believe.” The country still faces challenges, including large household and government debt and a weak krona.
Nonetheless, there is something to be learnt here about the value of industries traditionally overlooked. With a renewed focus on culture, Iceland has recovered from its economic problems far faster than expected, and in February, Fitch Ratings raised the country’s status back to investment-grade. That’s something worth paying attention to. “I wouldn’t be surprised if creative industries will become the largest contributor to Iceland’s gross domestic product within the next 15 to 20 years,” Agust Einarsson, an economics professor at Iceland’s Bifrost University, told Bloomberg.
Magnason says that if the finance industry returns, it will return to a happier nation: “I don’t think even bankers want to live in a place with no culture. When this all comes together, it brings a sense of hope.”