Today, the country's unemployment rate is down to 5.7 percent -- considerably below the United States, the United Kingdom and its old colonial master, Denmark. Many of the emergency loans that it took out to keep it afloat have been repaid, early. Economic growth in 2012 was forecast to be just shy of three percent. A startup ecosystem is flourishing in the country's capital. "The last five years in Iceland have been very interesting -- it's changed how we talk about society", says Iceland's minister for culture, science and education, Katrin Jakobsdóttir, one of the few government ministers in the world who gives speeches wearing Doc Martens.
How did this happen? How did the country pull itself out of the financial swamp quite so quickly? To understand, we need to open the pages of Magnason's book.
In Dreamlands, Magnason argues that Icelanders shouldn't be relying on a handful of industries, but should instead diversify -- spreading the country's culture around the world. He talks of setting up "communities where engineers, architects, computer scientists, graphic designers, accountants and people like that could set up and work for companies in the great world outside". He says "I want this country to have a rich assortment of prosperous and creative industries."
Flourishing creative industries
Many in the country took this message to heart. 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 for Noah. 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.[..]
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.
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