A fresh look at growth and well-being

In 2019 Iceland's Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir gave a speech on growth. But rather than focusing on boosting global GDP, Jakobsdóttir emphasized the need for social and individual growth. Jakobsdóttir’s speech echoed similar ideas from a group of leading economists, including Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz. He argues gross domestic product can never quantify the things that make us happy or satisfy our deepest needs, such as strong family relationships, community bonds, a sense of purpose, and the feeling that we have value. Or, in Jakobsdóttir's own words, "Economics is still centered on the measurable and quantifiable. Growth is considered not only essential but also positive. [...] We need to think about how it is achieved and what does it cost?"

Jakobsdóttir teamed up with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and New Zealand's PM Jacinda Ardern to launch the well-being economy project. Each country committed to measuring its population's well-being every year, setting out clear well-being budgets and happiness targets. Iceland's well-being index will look at 39 indicators that go way beyond how much people earn, spend, or consume. Key indicators are a mix of environmental, economic, and social factors, including access to clean air and green spaces, mental health, social networks, and equality. The project is still in its early days, but it shows Iceland's commitment to building an economy that values people over profit.

A commitment to sustainability

After signing the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2016, Iceland went even further and set a target to become carbon neutral by 2040. In an interview last year, Iceland's Environment Minister Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson laid out a road map to success. He said, "What we need to do is to change from fossil fuels in all of our energy systems over to renewable energy sources and sequester the remaining carbon emissions into soils and vegetation through land restoration activities." 

Guðbrandsson admits that revolutionizing carbon-heavy industries in less than a few generations is a monumental task. However, Iceland has got one trick up its sleeve - a large group of energized and committed young people that want to make a greener world the reality.

The Icelandic Youth Environmentalist Association is one of the many groups working toward net carbon emissions by 2040. The group's chairman, Pétur Halldórsson, said, "Right now, we're releasing a handbook on environmental advocacy. Most adults don't even know how the system works, much less young people. We're hoping this book will kickstart youth participation in the democratic process. Then these important conversations can happen a lot faster."

Meanwhile, engineers like Anna Hulda Ólafsdóttir are designing the models and tools to help Iceland reach its ambitious targets. Ólafsdóttir is part of the team behind the LOCOMOTION project, an integrated mapping system model that can assess the impacts of environmental policy changes and identify the most effective ones. 

And with such a fantastic pool of talent to draw from, it's easy to see why the Environment Minister believes Iceland is on its way to carbon neutrality. "I am more optimistic than I was even a year ago," says the minister. "We're starting to see the results of the actions we took. That sends a positive message to society. We are seeing a sign that change is starting to happen in the right direction." So if you’re a student who wants to join the fight against global warming and help enact real change, Iceland is the place to be.

Iceland values its experts

Iceland has under 2,000 cases of coronavirus and just 10 confirmed deaths (at time of writing). Even for a country with a population of just 364,000 and a low population density, these figures are extraordinary. What is Iceland's secret in dealing with the largest global crisis in recent memory? Well, according to Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, it was because Iceland let the experts take the lead. She says, "What we can learn from this is that it's important to put your ego as a politician aside and learn from those humble scientists, who have been faced with a crisis nobody could expect."

Following the advice of its leading scientist, Iceland was among the first countries to introduce social distancing measures, border restrictions, tracing apps, and free testing for residents. And now while other European countries are just beginning to lift lockdown restrictions, life in Iceland is already returning to something that could be referred to as 'normal'. Schools, museums, and hair salons have been open since the middle of May, while as of this week many Icelanders are enjoying nights out in the long summer nights with friends and family as bars and pubs have reopened.

Investing in Iceland

Iceland's economy is a mixture of free-market principles underpinned by an extensive welfare system. As such, it reports strong growth year-on-year, has low-levels of unemployment, and a relatively even distribution of income. 

In the last few years, Iceland has seen massive growth in its tech sector, especially in software production, biotechnology, biomedical engineering, and IT-based equipment production for food processing. And with the government's commitment to sustainability and an abundance of geothermal and hydropower sources,  green energy investors from all over the world are keen to invest their funds into Icelandic start-ups and entrepreneurs. In other words, Iceland is a great destination for students brimming with ideas and ambitions to create the best next-generation technologies.

A country where women can thrive

Iceland is a place where female students and graduates can express their full potential. In fact, according to a recent report by the World Economic Forum, Iceland is the most gender-equal country in the world and has topped the gender-equity chart for the last 11 years running. The World Economic Forum’s Geneva Equality List looks at 14 different equity indicators, including political participation, health, education, and employment. Women account for around 40% of all elected officials in Iceland and are now even significantly outperforming men when it comes to earning a place at university. Figures from 2018 show that 65% of all university students are female. 

Iceland was also the first country to enforce equal pay for women. The 2018 equal pay law stipulates that companies not independently certified as paying equal wages to men and women for work of equal value will face daily fines (with the laws coming into effect on different dates depending on the size of the company). 

A great place for vegans

Iceland is also a great place for vegans. One of Iceland's vegan Facebook groups has over 22,000 members. That might not sound like much, but it accounts for around 6.5% of Iceland's population. Ragnar Freyr, the man behind the Vegan Iceland app, said, "there's almost no restaurant in Iceland that doesn't offer a vegan option." Head chef Linnea Hellström tours the country in her mission to 'veganize' Iceland, teaching chefs how to make delicious vegan dishes.

Iceland is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and it's becoming a new model for individual wellbeing. What's more, it shows a real commitment to many of the ideals that inspire young people to learn and effect positive change, including sustainability, freedom, and equality for all.