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Ministering to the grass root

In the fourth in our series of interviews, we speak with entrepreneurial wunderkind Guðjón Már Guðjónsson. In 1990, at the age of 18, he established his first international software company, OZ Communications, a consumer mobile messaging solutions provider that was acquired by Nokia in November 2008. He is a founding partner of a number of ventures, the driving force behind the research, development and design of many leading-edge technologies, and the author of several granted patents. Among his most recent ventures is the highly acclaimed Ministry of Ideas.

IWR: What is the Ministry of Ideas?

GMG: The Ministry of Ideas is a grassroots organization set up to communicate knowledge and facilitate networking among Icelandic entrepreneurs. Every Saturday the Ministry organizes an open meeting that is free of charge and which is basically an opportunity for people to make contacts, improve their skills and help them realize their ideas and projects. It is also a forum for innovators of all sorts, in all fields.

IWR: Where did the idea come from?

GMG: I probably had too much free time during the most recent Christmas holidays! Ever since the economic collpse I had been thinking of ways in which I might do something positive and help out. So at the start of the year, just when I was thinking of my New Year’s resolutions, I came up with the idea to form an open group called “Ministry of Ideas”. It is basically about channeling some of the human potential we have here in Iceland into innovation and entrepreneurship.

IWR: What sort of response have you had?

GMG: It’s exceeded my expectations, particularly since I had no idea of how it might turn out. Right now we have a strong core group of grassroots innovators here in Iceland, and between 60 and 80 people have turned up at each of the last four meetings. From among that group there are 10 to 15 very interesting seed companies that I think are extremely promising. To me, this is an exciting opportunity for investors as well as individuals interested in helping nurture innovation and entrepreneurship in Iceland.

IWR: How do you see your effort as helping Iceland at this time?

GMG: There is such a vast resource inherent in our common experience, know-how and relationships, which is so crucial for us to harness right now. We can do this by changing our methodology and ideology. The Ministry of Ideas is not operated for profit but rather through the motivation of the participants; for that reason we are much more likely to make headway. We have no political agenda and we are not competing with each other. No one shows up on a Saturday afternoon unless they feel it is for their own benefit, whether it be in the form of social responsibility, through passing on knowledge, or because they hope to learn something from the group.

That way, the grassroot is nurturing itself and consequently strengthening itself. To me this is new for Icelanders. We have been far too busy competing with each other, when we should be joining forces and supporting one another.
One thing about innovation is that it is not tangible enough at the beginning for those who make the rules. Part of it may be that, in recent years, people have been more into buying something that others have created, with a great deal of leverage. Like buying up shares in foreign fashion chains, airlines, or other things that have been created abroad. This is not innovation and it is something that a small country like Iceland should not necessarily be proud of.

I also wonder whether the fish, that we are fortunate enough to have, is standing in the way of us creating something new, in that our politicians always turn directly to fishing, or the aluminium industry.

Those of us who meet regularly hope to be able to map out the knowledge and resources inherent in Icelandic innovation at the grassroots level, thereby creating and developing valuables more quickly than we could otherwise have done. This is one of the major foreseeable gains that an effort like this could have for our society.

The next meeting of the Ministry of Ideas is Saturday, February 14 at 16.30, at the Iðnó theatre.

[This post is filed under Interviews]

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  • Andrew February 14, 2009, 2:31 pm

    Do you go to MoI meetings? What sort of new Iceland can you see being developed if the views expressed by groups such as MoI are adopted by the politicians after the forthcoming election? Is there any plan for any kind of ‘citizen’s movement’ to participate in the election? At least any MPs from it could keep a close eye on what the professional politicians get up to!

  • Ljósmynd DE February 14, 2009, 5:01 pm

    Grassroots organizations like the MoI are certainly crucial in a process to prevent the most talented people from leaving the country. I wonder, if the new government has recognised this fact and the need to get more diversity in the Icelandic economy in order to overcome the heavy industry dogma, which I would see as one cause for the crisis. Are there any plans to promote those seed companies by changing rules – I would expect, those rules are about tax regulations and government funding?

  • portkins February 15, 2009, 1:56 am

    Golly
    He spoke of innovation. Grassroots ideas. Do you notice the only mention of government is that they stand in the way of creating something new. The best and quickest way to recovery is to let peoples creative ideas lead them.
    Iceland has a great opportunity to learn that the government can skew the free market by creating incentives for industries that may not economically have merit.
    Unfortunately in the US a bloated 800 billion “stimulus” package just passed.
    What about using the geothermal energy you are fortunate to have and set up greenhouses for organic vegetables.
    PS my boys love the Icelandic chocolate we get here in the US.

  • James February 15, 2009, 2:08 pm

    Usually, more small businesses are set up during recessions (with funding from self, family and friends) than in booms; the main driver being reduced employment opportunities. I wonder if that effect is already happening in Iceland.

  • Sigvaldi Eggertsson February 15, 2009, 2:39 pm

    Portkins, ca 70% of food consumed here in Iceland is locally made and that includes vegetables (to a considerable extent organic) from greenhouses.
    James , Icelanders are already among the people most likely to set up their own business in the world and I belive we will only see an increase in that.

  • alda February 16, 2009, 5:57 pm

    Thanks, everyone.

    Andrew – I’ve been to one of their meetings and it was really good. What struck me was the uninhibited way people expressed themselves and shared with each other … it was very informal and relaxed. However, due to time constraints I’ve usually had to choose between going to the Saturday demo and the MoI meetings – and usually the demo has won out.

    LDE – I’m not aware of any specific programmes this new government has YET, but there are a number of things being done to address the need for more innovation and help for seed companies, including special courses being created at Reykjavík University, an interdisciplinary effort between various sectors to foster the grass root, etc.

  • Ps.Gireesh Nedungadi February 21, 2009, 7:17 am

    l am a full time missionary working among the unreached rural oor of western maharashtra,India, seeking an opportunity to get associated with your missin in this area.

  • Colin February 24, 2009, 10:20 pm

    Portkins, the government can also skew the market by getting out of the way of financial services organizations with grossly inadequate regulatory requirements about transparency of the deals being put together – such as, but not limited to, the re-securitization of mortgage-backed investments, and credit default swaps.

    There is no modern market without government – it’s just a question of what kind of government participation you want.

  • Colin February 24, 2009, 10:23 pm

    Sorry, forgot to address the underlying point: the idea of building local ideas into local and export business is a fantastic one for Icelanders to pursue. One of my frustrations, looking back at the old country, is the recurring emphasis on using government funds to underwrite foreign investment in low-skill jobs for mass employment. Better, surely, to use a portion of that as seed money for locals to get their ideas and products to market. Buying growth overseas only works as long as overseas is growing.

  • John March 5, 2010, 1:29 pm

    “There is no modern market without government – it’s just a question of what kind of government participation you want.”

    The Icelandic Commonwealth model of governance was the most successful and civil political system implemented in recorded history. It capitalized on natural market mechanisms in law and justice, allowing direct compensation of victims and open selection of chieftains.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icelandic_Commonwealth

    Were Iceland’s government to return to this model (or at least allow it to operate in parallel), it would immediately become the world leader in the justice industry.

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