A Window into Iceland´s Soul - The Reykjavik Grapevine

A Window into Iceland´s Soul

A Window into Iceland´s Soul

Published December 8, 2009

On November 14th, a total of 1.231 Icelanders gathered in the cavernous
Laugardalshöll stadium, munched on snúðar and chatted over round
tables, each one marked off by a white balloon.  What felt like an
immense family reunion was actually the first ever National Assembly,
and instead of sharing grandma’s recipes, attendees were burdened with
a Herculean task: defining what type of society the whole of Iceland
longs for.
Orchestrated by a group of organisers collectively known as the
Anthill, the one day event was founded on the concept of ‘the wisdom of
the masses.’ “No single ant has the same amount of wisdom as the entire
anthill. This philosophy created the framework for the assembly,” says
Guðjón Már Guðjónsson, a business entrepreneur and one of the event’s
organisers. “Statistically, this is the voice of the country. This is
Iceland.”
Starting a debate
The organisers of the National Assembly claim to have no motive; their
stated goal is to start a debate. “We do this because we love our
society,” says Haukur Ingi Jónasson, an organiser and lecturer at the
University of Iceland’s Department of Mechanical and Industrial
Engineering. The Anthill’s dream is make the National Assembly a
cornerstone of the Parliament, or “to start every year with a National
Assembly,” as Guðjón put it.
Of the roughly 1.200 individuals who took part in this year’s assembly
(the target number was 1.500), most were chosen at random from the
national registry, although roughly 300 were specially invited as
representatives of municipal communities, the parliament, private
enterprises and various political organisations. However, as soon as
they entered the stadium, organiser Maríanna Friðjónsdóttir says, “they
were all nothing but Icelanders.” Participants were divided into nine
person discussion teams, each headed by a hand-picked group leader
whose role it was to maintain order and promote dialogue.
During the first part of the meeting, participants identified values
and visions for the future of Iceland; during the second, members
discussed the central pillars of Icelandic society, or ‘themes.’ Their
goal was to find a way to apply the values defined in the first half of
the day to the themes discussed in the second. During the numerous
breaks between talks, attendees milled about leisurely, shuttled back
and forth from the buffet table and did their best to avoid the
substantial number of press people flown in to report on the event.
What we want
Conference results were posted online mere hours after the assembly
closed thanks to a crack-team of data processors. The nine themes
discussed during the conference—education, economy, equal rights,
family, environment, public administration, welfare, sustainability and
‘other’—yielded roughly one hundred recommendations for the nation’s
future.
Apart from a few notable requests (“Nature and resources to be owned by
the Icelandic nation!”), the vast majority of suggestions skirted
sensitive topics, opting for statements like “improve business ethics,”
“support for minorities,” and “transparency.” The four key values
recognised by the conference—integrity, equal rights, respect and
justice—were equally diplomatic. Asked whether the discussion ever
touched upon how to institute these changes, a young participant
replied: “No, we mostly focused on what we want.”
While the long-term effects of the conference remain to be seen—results
are not scheduled for presentation before Parliament—the immediate
payoffs were evident for anyone present during the assembly: teenagers,
single mothers and elderly gentlemen huddled around tables discussing
topics like education reform with grave seriousness;
participants-turned-friends gathered for group photos; strangers
discussed their nation’s future over paper cups of meat soup. Smiles
reigned as far as the eye could see. Despite the serious task at hand
attendees were enjoying themselves and feeling empowered. “From the
media you’d think that people are reluctant, don’t want to participate,
are negative and very angry. But you can’t feel that today—everyone is
positive and eager to take control,” group leader Bjarney Harðardóttir
commented over the crowd.
When asked whether any heated debates or major disagreements erupted,
participants responded in the negative, pointing instead to the polite
discussions sprinkled around the room. According to organiser Guðjón
Guðjónsson, the only glitch of the whole conference came in the form of
a paper jam in printer number four. An impressive feat of organisation,
but not exactly what you’d expect to hear from 1.231 people struggling
to define a nation in crisis.

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