Suðurnes Clinic Introduces AI-Powered Eye Screening

eye scanning in a suðurnes health clinic

The Suðurnes Hospital and Health Center has introduced machine-learning based screening for eye diseases caused by diabetes. It is the first of all Icelandic health clinics to offer such screenings.

Powered by an Icelandic startup

The screening uses a special camera powered by machine learning, developed by Icelandic tech startup Risk Medical Solutions (RMS). Established in 2009 by Professor Einar Stefánsson, Dr. Arna Guðmundsdóttir, and Professor Thor Aspelund, their flagship product is RetinaRisk, a suite of AI-trained cameras, an app, and custom APIs that can accurately predict the risk of sight-threatening eye diseases in patients.

According to RMS, diabetic eye disease is a leading cause of blindness worldwide. When detected early, however, it can be prevented in 90% of cases.

Inaugural screening well-attended

The inaugural AI-assisted eye scan was conducted on Friday, April 26. The screening was also attended by Minister of Health Willum Þór Þórsson, representatives from RMS, and delegates from the local Lions Club of Njarðvík, which provided a grant to assist in purchasing the system.

Minister of Health Willum Þór Þórsson stated:

“This innovation enables the important monitoring of eye health for people with diabetes in a simple and effective manner. Regular screening allows for timely intervention when necessary. Innovation in healthcare services involving artificial intelligence is extremely exciting, and we undoubtedly expect to see significant progress in this area in the near future.”

Can save time, resources

Damage to the retina is a common complication from diabetes, and it is essential to monitor the progression of retinal conditions to prevent vision impairment or blindness caused by the disease.

Such AI-assisted cameras can facilitate this monitoring, and by using it for screening, RMS state that unnecessary visits to eye specialists are also avoided, saving both time and resources.

Like reading about Iceland? How about winning a free trip to Iceland? Find out more here!

Keeping the Balance

maría guðmundsdóttir

Next year, Parity (est. 2017) is scheduled to release the adventure game Island of Winds. Loosely based on the so-called “witch-craze” in 17th-century Iceland, the game draws upon elements of nature, folklore, and history – with a focus on puzzles and empathy encounters. The game features nine unique areas inspired by Iceland, including glaciers, highlands, […]

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New Law on Taxis Takes Effect

Taxi in Iceland's capital, Reykjavík

The much-protested law on taxis came into effect this April 1, leaving many taxi drivers uneasy about their future as a new company enters the market.

Among other reforms, the law loosens requirements for operating a taxi and removes restrictions on the number of taxi permits. According to lawmakers, the intent is to free the taxi market and to bring it up to date. The bill was opposed by interest groups, such as the Federation of Icelandic Taxi Drivers, who say it will both drive down their wages and lead to a decline in service quality.

Read more: Taxi Drivers Stage Protest in Reykjavík

The bill, however, was not opposed by all. Hopp, a popular electronic scooter rental company, is now making moves into the taxi market.

Reykjavík residents will soon be able to order a taxi through the Hopp app, 15% cheaper compared with traditional taxi services in Iceland. The law now also allows taxi drivers to operate within multiple companies, meaning that drivers in Iceland’s established taxi fleet may now choose to also work part-time gigs at Hopp as well.

Eyþór Máni Steinarsson, CEO of Hopp, stated to Morgunblaðið: “Times change and so should transportation. We can drive down prices in the taxi market, and we aim to be 15% cheaper than our competition. There is, of course, a vocal minority who are concerned about these changes. We only accept taxi drivers who are legal and registered. But of course, we would like to see extensions there as well. The barriers in becoming a registered taxi driver don’t quite match the spirit of the times.”

Eyþór Máni continued: “This is the next step in the revolution against the private car. The best car is no car, but the next best is the one you share with others, and we want to make it easy for people to share cars, both the ones they drive themselves and the ones others drive. We also believe that many working taxi drivers would be willing to work for more than one station and will be happy to receive more fares and a more transparent way of assigning them.”

Read more: Taxi Drivers Demand Hearing with the Government

Some, however, are still concerned over the shakeups in the taxi market.

Daniel O. Einarsson, chairperson of the Federation of Icelandic Taxi Drivers, stated: “They begin by undercutting the competition to establish themselves in the market. But then they raise their prices. We’ve seen this strategy before, just like how Uber operates.”

With the new taxi bill now in effect, Hopp has opened applications for new drivers. Hopp has stated that they hope to launch their taxi service when they have enough drivers, hopefully this spring.

Elon Musk Walks Back Comments About Halli After Twitter Exchange

halli haraldur þorleifsson twitter

Elon Musk has walked back some of his comments regarding Haraldur Þorleifsson, better known as Halli, after a contentious exchange yesterday, March 7.

Twitter layoffs

The exchange followed Halli’s termination at Twitter during the latest in the large-scale layoffs since Mr. Musk’s acquisition of the social media platform. After he was locked out of his work accounts, Halli was unable to get a clear statement from Twitter HR about the status of his employment. He opted instead to contact Mr. Musk directly over social media.

In the ensuing thread, Mr. Musk cast doubt on Halli’s disability, and accused Halli of not working.

A partial apology

Following his statements, however, Mr. Musk has walked back some of his statements.

In the wake of the exchange, Mr. Musk stated: “I would like to apologize to Halli for my misunderstanding of his situation. It was based on things I was told that were untrue or, in some cases, true, but not meaningful. He is considering remaining at Twitter.”

Some commentators have also pointed out that identifying Halli’s disability publicly violates American labour laws.

While not all details of the Ueno sale were made public, Halli purposely chose to receive the sale price as wages in order to pay higher tax on it in Iceland. Likely due to this arrangement, Halli was reportedly on a “do not fire list” at the social media company. If Halli is indeed terminated, Twitter is likely still obligated to pay him out.

At the time of writing, it is unclear whether Halli will remain at Twitter.

Halli has called the entire exchange “surreal” on social media.

Making It Work

The uphill battle for equality in the workplace and technology’s latest solutions

It’s been 43 years since Lilly Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton solved the equality issue in the seminal film 9 to 5, but somehow, we constantly find ourselves running into the same old stumbling blocks, and even some new and unexpected ones. Venture capital investments are only a tiny fraction of the business world but they are indicative of a larger issue. No matter how you slice it, women still aren’t on equal footing with men in the workplace. Despite the situation, plenty of things have changed since 1980, including attitudes towards inequality as an issue. Women are a much larger part of the workforce and they’re putting in the effort to change the game.

Someone recently tweeted about a relatively young Icelandic tech company that’d just gotten a large investment. When someone jokingly replied asking where a woman could go to find such a large sum of money, the jesting tone was lost on the original tweeter who replied that investments like this are the result of years of hard work, something that many men and women can and do earn. It’s a nice thought, isn’t it? 

Except that it’s mostly men. In 2022, a report found that women-led teams accounted for 1.1 % of companies that received funding from venture capital funds. And reader – if you, like me, hoped that that number is so low because most of the teams are mixed, I regret to inform you that mixed teams received just over 10% of the funds. 88.7% of VC funding goes to all-male teams of founders. 

PayAnalytics – Working with international companies to evaluate salaries and positions for people of all genders and origins.

PayAnalytics founder Margrét Bjarnadóttir has a background in operation research. Her Ph.D. focused on how we can use data and mathematical models to support decision-making. When a COO at an Icelandic bank complained about the lack of resources to close the pay gap where they worked, Margrét was the right person to hear them, at the right time. Two years earlier, the bank had realised the extent of their pay gap and vowed to make changes. Their goal was to incorporate gender equality into all hiring processes and promotions. When they assessed progress at the end of those two years, nothing had changed. For Margrét, this was the perfect research opportunity, and she created her prototype of a mathematical model that would not only analyse the extent of the pay gap, taking into account different positions and responsibilities but also provide the solution to closing the gap. When her calculations worked, providing the bank with the tools they needed to implement change, the foundation was laid for Pay Analytics. Today, the company has clients in more than 50 countries, the largest of which comprises hundreds of thousands of employees worldwide.

Since its beginnings in 2016 when the idea for PayAnalytics won the entrepreneurial competition Gulleggið, Margrét has found the conversation regarding the pay gap is changing rapidly. “When we were starting out, we needed to explain to investors that there were companies that needed this kind of service, but we donʼt anymore. There’s been an avalanche of rules and regulations all over the world requiring companies to measure pay gaps and release the results. They differ from country to country but in the EU, for instance, when you advertise a position you will soon be required to also advertise the pay range.”

When the percentage of VC funding allocated to women-led teams comes up, Margrét nods sympathetically. While acknowledging that every company’s trajectory is different, she recognises the stories of investors asking defensive questions and focusing on risks rather than potential successes when talking to women. “By now, I can send the guys out to investor meetings,” she states jokingly, referring to the CEO and the CFO. On a more serious note, she continues: “The pay gap and lack of investment in female-led companies come from the same root: implicit bias. We all have it and it taints our decision-making,” Margrét adds. Her approach is to fight bias with data. “Documentation also helps, such as writing down why people get raises. Research shows that having to provide neutral descriptions of why people get raises lessens the pay gap.”

Every successful idea raises the question: Why hasn’t someone done this before? When I pose the question to Margrét, she refers to the cultural environment. “It’s not a coincidence that we’re an Icelandic company. Iceland has always led the way in this regard. Gender equality is a topic that people of all genders in the country care about. The issue was on people’s radar much sooner than in other countries.”

For Margrét, we’re in a unique position to tackle inequality. “We’ve never talked this much about diversity, inclusion, and equity. And the regulations and legislation are being put into place to back it up.”

Empower Now – Digital consultation working to create inclusive workplace culture.

While Pay Analytics focus on financial equality, Empower Now offers a holistic DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) solution to develop people-friendly workplace cultures. This extends beyond finances to areas including employee experience, public perception, recruitment processes, parental leave, diversity, and team surveying. But the first step is to assess the current status. Sigyn Jónsdóttir is the CTO of Empower Now and in her opinion, there is still much work to be done. “The fact is that most workplaces can and should do better,” she tells me. Once Empower Now has analysed the situation and isolated the issues, they provide a solution to the challenges that come up, based on measuring, goal setting, and education. “We offer micro-learning modules on DEI topics that leave an impact. An easy example would be our short videos in mobile format that the employees can choose to watch anytime, so people gain perspective and education, which they can then apply in real life.”

Founders Dögg and Þórey have been working as DEI  consultants for years but in-person consultation is impossible to scale up to an international level. The scalability comes in taking the process digital. 

Sigyn explains further: “If a scandal occurs, many issues can arise, from losing valuable employees due to completely preventable bias, to affecting bottom lines, like the company’s stock tanking. Since #metoo, they’ve found that old-fashioned crisis management practices, like simply firing a CEO, don’t necessarily repair their brand image or employee trust. Nor correct behaviour and prevent it from happening again. Issues of discrimination or bias are never down to one person. Even if the issue stemmed from a single person, it is still down to culture. It becomes a scandal when it’s not immediately handled and corrected properly. If something like this has been happening at your company, people know that it’s an issue with the workplace culture. But companies are a little lost on how to correct issues when they arise and prevent them from happening in the first place. That’s where we come in.”

There aren’t many men working in the gender equality business and finding out that it was mostly women cleaning up misogyny’s messes was a glum start to my research. Sigyn, however, has a more uplifting take. “Often, we get our foot in the door because a person who has experienced inequality gets us involved, but it’s important to us that it doesn’t fall on victims of discrimination to get Empower Now integrated into their workplace. Senior leaders who want to create equitable companies need to take action. The pressure is usually on groups who are the most vulnerable to bias to fix matters, which creates an unnecessary additional burden. But they also are often the greatest drivers of change.” According to Sigyn, it makes sense for those who are susceptible to discrimination to have a voice in fixing it. “That shouldn’t change. But they can’t be tasked with the responsibility of fixing these problems. People in a position of power should focus on being allies to those with less power and support their work.” 

Sigyn’s optimism is only slightly dampened at the mention of the 1.1% figure. “A recent study from Harvard Business Review shows that when pitching to VCs, men tend to get progressive questions focusing on potential gains, while women get more defensive questions focusing on risk and potential losses,” she states. “A progressive question might be something like: How do you plan to monetise this? While a similar defensive question would be: How long will it take you to break even?” Interestingly, she adds that there doesn’t seem to be a difference if it’s a man or a woman posing the questions. A dearth of women presenting their ideas can also be explained by the state of the startup world: “The startup scene has been known for its ‘bro’ culture, and that’s not a culture that supports DEI in any way.”

Empower Now is the rare instance when a women-led team gets funding based on an idea, without presenting a ready-made prototype. “Usually, teams have to be much further along in product development to get an investment. I hope that with more funds being available at the very early stages of a company’s development, that things might be changing. Unfortunately, I think, given the news in the last weeks about investments in women-led teams globally being down in 2022, it may only be an aberration.” In Sigyn’s opinion, things are changing for the better, but she has to admit the statistics don’t support her optimism. Yet.

GemmaQ is working on a gender diversity index for investment professionals, based on the mounting evidence that gender equality is not only a question of equality but can also be an indicator of a lucrative business. 

Freyja Þórarinsdóttir is the founder of GemmaQ, an index which automatically rates publicly traded companies according to management diversity. The reason why investors should focus on companies dedicated to equality isn’t just moral or ethical. According to Freyja, investing in equality is good business: “There’s a correlation between diversity and an above average profitability. Although we don’t have evidence of causation, multiple studies have shown us that companies with greater representation of women in corporate leadership are more likely to outperform those with less diverse leadership.”

 “First and foremost, there’s a marketing aspect to being able to state publicly that your fund is only investing in companies who’ve got it together when it comes to equality and to be able to back it up with data,” Freyja states. Before launching GemmaQ, she was with the Merrill Lynch wealth management division of Bank of America in Seattle and a director and team leader at the Central Bank of Iceland. In addition to her degrees in law and political science, Freyja received a Master’s in Economic Policy Management from Columbia University. Her work in asset management showed her that besides wanting a return on their investment, clients wanted to know where their money went and if it was making a difference. While there was a distinct generational shift in clients’ sense of responsibility, it’s clear that pension funds, for example, are set on investing in a more responsible way, as are large national funds such as the Norwegian oil fund and Japanese pension funds. 

GemmaQ is a technical solution that gathers public information on companies’ management diversity and monitors changes that would jeopardise it. Officially started in 2019, the project has earlier roots as Freyja’s research project at Columbia University. With 15 years of diversity data at her disposal, Freyja explains that while things are looking up, attitude-wise, the numbers are still bleak.

 “Gender Lens, the GemmaQ Fortune 500 index, tracks the gender leadership balance among Fortune 500 companies. It shows that women represent only 10.2% of Fortune 500 companies CEOs, and just 6.6% of board chairs today. With five new women taking on CEO roles in January 2023, this is becoming a record year with women in leadership roles”. 

 

In the US, legislation differs significantly by state. Some states have required gender quotas on company boards, while some companies are required to list their gender ratios publicly. In some states, however, there are no regulations at all. “Even though there are differences between companies in the same sector depending on their location, we are seeing the same trend across states,” Freyja tells me. “Women are being promoted at far lower rates to leadership roles than men. The rate of change is unacceptably slow.” 

Heima – An app that organises housework and family life, splitting tasks equally between family members, ensuring an equal division of labour while removing the mental load of managing the home.

The business world doesn’t exist in a bubble. And in spite of the recent explosion of the fintech sector, it is still run by humans, not robots. It’s not enough to make sure the business world is paying people of all genders equally, providing a healthy environment, and diversifying their management teams if the pressure of housework and managing the home doubles their workload when compared with men. That’s how women get burnt out. According to Alma Dóra Ríkarðsdóttir and Sigurlaug Guðrún Jóhannsdóttir, their app will not only lessen the workload in the home but also make your relationship better. “We believe the key to happy family life is to work well together and communicate well. We went with a software solution, a management tool that enables people to cooperate harmoniously, much like work management tools operate in the workplace.” Data suggest that women do 75% of housework worldwide which negatively impacts their personal and professional development. Alma continues: “The idea was inspired by my work as a specialist in gender equality in the Prime Ministry. We were mapping the major equality issues in Iceland and the world, and the unequal division of housework is a foundational issue. If we’re going to have equal pay and equal opportunities, we need to start at home and make this right.” When introducing their idea, Alma and Sigurlaug had to start at the very beginning, by explaining the concept of the mental load of managing housework, sometimes referred to as the third shift: “The invisible managerial work in the home that’s less tangible than simply washing the dishes or cleaning floors. We’re bringing that unseen work to the surface.” In Iceland, VR, Iceland’s largest trade union, launched a national campaign to introduce the idea to people. “We do sometimes have to explain the concept of the mental load, especially when talking to people from outside of Iceland. It’s becoming better known worldwide, but in Iceland, everyone knows what it is, following VR’s campaign. Before, we would have to introduce the concept to people doing user reviews. Now, people bring it up in the first place,” Alma says.

While younger people are generally more excited about technological solutions, in the case of Heima, it makes perfect sense. “We’re focusing on younger people, who might have young children. People who’ve been living together for decades have their own routine that they’ve settled with their partner and it might not need disrupting. We’re doing this for the people in the process of creating their housework division and settling their routine. People who want more equality, less hassle, and more joy in the home.” According to Alma, tension over housework is the third most common cause of divorce worldwide, so there’s a lot to be gained.

On the issue of finding funding, the developers behind Heima have received initial funding. Now they are marketing their concept to investors and developing their business plan for their second round. Alma is hesitant to make generalisations about the startup environment. “What I can say is that I was working for the Ministry of Industry and Innovation, looking into funding for women, and what I found was that very often, when assessing the success of innovation projects, what’s looked at are the results, the successes, the companies that have made it through and been successful. And men are much more heavily represented. So if your idea of a perfect entrepreneur is Mark Zuckerberg, women will always be further from the goal than men.”

Startups are looking towards the future, trying to be the first to decipher what it may hold, being the first to introduce new solutions and technology into our lives. But somehow, when it comes to business, they keep betting on the exact same type over and over again. “They’re trying to make you fit into a male entrepreneur cookie cutter instead of acknowledging that women bring different things to the table. I think that plays a part. Also, many funds talk a lot about a funnel problem, that the percentage of women who receive funding represents the percentage of women that approach them, but it has been demonstrated that funds who make an effort to highlight women and make sure women know about them and that they have access to them have a higher proportion of women in their portfolio. So it’s not a funnel problem, it’s a question of accessibility.” While funds are in the end only responsible for maximising the return on their investment, Alma maintains that the singular approach to finding projects likely to succeed is limiting their scope. “We know that women tend to be more conservative in their estimations of success than men are. So instead of pushing them to create more unrealistic business plans, you could factor that into your calculations, while keeping in mind that men’s goals are likely to be unattainable.”

Finally, the women behind Heima arenʼt afraid to state that they’re not doing this just to serve their ideals. “We’re not afraid to say that this is a for-profit company. We intend to give our investors a return on their investment. We want to find a way to get our solution to as many people as possible.” That’s how they make their mark. “With money, you can scale up, you can enter more markets, introduce your solution to more people and have a bigger effect. We can give our app to the thousand people on our mailing list and that would have an effect but we could also try to get it to a million people in two years and that will have a bigger impact.”

Man of the Year

Haraldur Þorleifsson

This is Haraldur Þorleifsson. In 2021 he sold his company, Ueno, to Twitter. During the sale process, he was advised how to legally avoid paying taxes on the profit. Instead, he demanded that the purchase price be paid as salary to maximise the tax he would have to pay.In 2021, he paid the second highest tax in Iceland.

When Ramp Up Iceland constructed its 300th ramp this November, a curious scene ensued. As Haraldur Þorleifsson, the project’s founder, took centre stage in the Mjódd bus station to make a celebratory speech, President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson interrupted him from the crowd, in what the media would later playfully describe as “heckling.” The President then proceeded to spray-paint over Halli’s initial goal of 1,000 with a new one of 1,500. Later, Halli would tweet, “Since he’s the president, I guess we have to do it.” The playful exchange captured what many find so endearing about Halli, as he’s often known: a benevolent tech titan who’s still able to take a joke. Much of the exchange also took place on Twitter, of which Halli is both an avid user and a current employee.

People can be successful without working hard or being smart. But nobody can be successful without luck. And a lot of it.

LIFE BY DESIGN

As a designer, Halli thinks a lot about the decisions that shape the world we inhabit. We take so many aspects of life for granted, be it a building, a coffee cup, or a public transportation system. We see them as a given, as part of our environment, forgetting the choices and circumstances that made them. Halli, however, was not the kind of child to settle for “that’s just how it is” as an answer.

His tech career has allowed him to work wherever he wants, and he has travelled extensively, living and working in places like Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Vancouver, Barcelona, and Rio de Janeiro. Both his travels and design background have made him think very deeply about why cities are laid out in certain ways and why certain buildings lack accessibility, while others don’t. “You can go from city to city,” he says, “and often even just within the same country, there’s a very stark difference. So it’s very clear that these are all man-made decisions.”

 

HUMBLE BEGININGS

Halli’s journey to becoming one of Iceland’s so-called “tax kings” was not an obvious one. Born with muscular dystrophy which left him fully dependent on his wheelchair by his mid-20s, his family was working-class. Looking back, Halli is fully aware that things could have been different. “Education is definitely the big one,” Halli says, reflecting on the advantages of growing up in Iceland. “In places like the United States, there’s a big difference in education depending on the money you have. And social differentiation begins very early in education, starting in kindergarten. And of course, it’s not just the quality of education, but the network you develop and your social ca  pital as well.” 

Having studied philosophy and business at university, Halli went on to drop out of a master’s degree in economics. Like so many foundational figures of the tech industry, Halli found it hard to adapt to the daily routines of formal education and work life. But unlike many of his tech peers, Halli hasn’t mythologised his origin story. “It wasn’t really a principled stance at the time,” Halli admits. Thinking back to some of his first jobs, he’s quite candid about the reason he forged a different path: “I just felt I couldn’t show up in a tie every day.”

As Halli was finding his way in the world, he also received some aid in the form of disability payments. “I couldn’t have lived off of them for a long time,” Halli says, “but they did get me through some hard times.” Some of these hard times included being fired from one of his first serious jobs in New York and a difficult period with alcohol and drug use. He also recalls ruefully how he happened to start his first day of work at CCP, a large Icelandic game development studio, on the same day as the banking collapse in Iceland. But in 2011, Halli sobered up and got married.  In 2014, founded Ueno.

Ueno grew out of Halli’s work as a freelancer. Halli scored a lucky break in taking on a project for Google, and as his projects grew bigger and bigger, he realised that he needed to organise a team. Over the years, Ueno grew into a full-service design agency, developing apps, making websites, creating brands, and leading the way in online marketing for some of the biggest names in tech, including Uber, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Visa, Verizon, and others. Some of their best-known projects include the Google Santa Tracker, the Reuters news app, and Dropbox’s online guide.

When Halli sold Ueno to Twitter in 2021, the proceeds from the sale were enough to send him to number 2 on the list of Iceland’s top taxpayers, the exclusive list of “tax kings.” Normally, selling off a highly profitable tech company involves stock options and other financial instruments designed at keeping the profit in lower tax brackets than wages. Instead of experimenting with creative bookkeeping, Halli went in the opposite direction, opting to receive the majority of his profit in the form of wages. The highest wage bracket in Iceland is taxed at a marginal rate of 46%, with lower brackets at 38% and 31%. Had Halli chosen stocks or other financial instruments instead, he would have been taxed at a much lower rate of 22%. Not all details from the sale are public, but according to his tax return, Halli reported a monthly salary of ISK 102 million [$718,000; €672,000] throughout 2021, some 46% of which would have been paid in tax.

In talking with Halli, there is no sense of martyrdom or regret. Nor does he seem to have been simply “following the rules,” impartially acting like everyone ought to. He seems genuinely happy to have the ability to give back. 

The largest part of his working life has been with American tech companies. Reflecting on the differences between his home and the United States reveals a deep appreciation for Iceland’s social systems: “In terms of living, Iceland is simply a better place. In terms of work, if you just isolate that part, the US probably has a leg up, but not for the right reasons. It’s a fear-based society. People are afraid to make mistakes, and when they do, there are no safety nets. In a lot of ways, I relate to that American work ethic, but I don’t think we should build a society around it. Everyone is very motivated, but I don’t think they’re happier. In Iceland, because of the social system, there’s more room for life.”

Despite his passion for the principles of social democracy, Halli certainly does not believe he has all the answers for the world’s social woes. Exhibiting his trademark humility, Halli says simply, “I’m not smart enough to have solutions, but I think in general it would be good to level things. We should start with the assumption that it would be good to be more equal, that people who have more should pay more.” 

This, it seems, is Halli’s goal: to make Iceland an even better place for living. 

‘Talent’ is my least favourite word. It implies that some people are born with a gift. And that others are not. It’s a limiting word. Gatekeeping through genetics. Passion is what actually matters.

RAMP UP

Once Halli was back in Iceland with his family after years of travel, its lack of accessibility seemed both obvious and insupportable. Only now, he could do something about it. Ramp Up Reykjavík started humbly, with the goal to build 100 ramps, mostly in downtown Reykjavík. “It seemed like every year, there was some story about how a person in a wheelchair couldn’t go somewhere on Laugavegur,” he recalls. “The reporter was always shocked, but nothing ever changed, and I remember stories like these going back for decades.” 

Now, Ramp Up has expanded its scope from Reykjavík to all of Iceland, with the goal of 1,600 total ramps across the country by 2026. The difference is especially noticeable on Laugavegur, Reykjavík’s main shopping street. Just a year ago, the entrances to many stores, restaurants, hair salons, clinics, and more were blocked by staircases. Now, gently sloping stone ramps, unassuming in their design, can be found throughout the land, allowing people in wheelchairs to access services previously out of reach. Every ramp is a little different, needing to be fitted to the building and surrounding in question. Ramp Up’s success, according to Halli, is largely thanks to the very focused nature of its goal. “In the beginning,” Halli remembers, “we weren’t really sure how it all worked. But now we can do it at scale. It’s complicated and expensive to do as a one-off, but we’ve learned from doing this over and over again.”

“We have a very deep knowledge of this subject now, but we have no idea how to do anything else,” he jokes. The goal of Ramp Up, in short, is to remove any excuse for lack of basic accessibility, making it as easy as possible for the store owner. With a total budget of ISK 400 million [$2.8 million; €2.6 million], half of which is supplied by government funding, Ramp Up handles everything from applying for permits, submitting plans to the city, sending out work crews, working with local municipalities, and everything else. And the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, with many confessing that they’d wanted to build ramps to their stores for years, but had no idea how to go about it.

However, Halli tells me, as Ramp Up has made progress, they’ve quickly realised that ramps are far from the whole story: “In the beginning, we talked with a lot of people in the disability community. They rightfully pointed out that it’s not just ramps. How wide are the hallways in a building? Are the restrooms accessible? Are there accommodations for blind and hearing-impaired people? There are so many things that need to be fixed,” Halli says. “If anyone wants to tell me how we could be doing better, I’m always listening.”

A tourist asked me recently why there were so many people in wheelchairs in Reykjavik. I told him his country had them too, but it wasn’t as accessible so they stay at home. Same applies to all minorities. If you don’t see them it’s because they are hiding.

ANNA JÓNA

One of the defining experiences of Haraldur’s life was the loss of his mother to a car crash at age 11. He was on vacation at Disney World when his father received the news, but it was only once they arrived back in Iceland that he was told. Her early loss was, of course, a tragedy. But before he lost her, she left a lasting mark on her son that would shape how he viewed the world for the rest of his life. In Halli’s telling, his mother Anna Jóna was like many mothers: “The best in the world.”  

His mother imprinted a deep love of the arts in Halli. According to him, she was loving and creative, having worked in set design for films. He remembers how they watched many movies together and what an amazing storyteller she was. It speaks volumes that many of his passion projects now aim at promoting the arts. Upcoming projects include an artists’ residence on the Kjalarnes peninsula and his own musical pursuits, including a guest appearance at this past year’s Airwaves festival and an upcoming album called The Radio Won’t Let Me Sleep, to be released in the spring. For an awkward and depressed kid, the recent time in the spotlight isn’t entirely natural. “I’ve had to learn to be open to failure in a whole new area,” he explains. “It’s a small country, so everyone’s kind of famous, but I’ve gotten a fair bit of attention. It’s been kind of scary. What if the music is terrible? It would be a very public failure.” 

This February, Halli will be opening a new café in downtown Reykjavík. Dedicated to his mother, it bears her name: Anna Jóna. With a small theatre equipped with 40 seats, it also aims to become a venue of sorts for small performances and screenings. “It’s an homage to my mother,” Halli tells me. “But something I thought about a lot before opening this café was how I only grew up with her until I was 11. When I think about it now as an adult, it’s such a small slice of her life. I thought about going around to everyone who knew her and asking about her, about their memories of her. But, ultimately, I decided not to, because there’s no way for me to capture her in her entirety. This is an homage to her, but it’s also an homage of my memory of her, of a son for his mother.”

An especially strong memory of his mother stays with Halli to this day, some 40 years later. “Something I keep coming back to is a conversation with my mom I remember very well,” Halli tells me. “We were walking around the city, I think, and she was telling me how everything I saw, everything around me, was man-made. I got such a clear impression from my mother that I could have an impact on the world, that it wasn’t just for me to look at. It was something that I should, that we all should, feel some responsibility for changing.”

 

LIFTING THE VEIL

A popular post featuring Halli made the rounds on social media recently, titled simply “If you’re rich, be more like this guy.” In the comments, a general consensus emerged that cast Halli as the “good guy millionaire.”

Inevitably, the idealisation of Halli is also tied up in romantic ideas of what people want Iceland to mean to them. These ideas portray it as a perfect society, the first nation in the world with an openly LGBT head of state, and the nation that jailed their criminal bankers, if only for a little while.

But to be faithful to Halli’s own social democratic convictions, it is only fair to see him too as someone human, all too human. There is, for instance, the uncomfortable truth that Ueno made much of its fortune working for American tech companies, many of which are working against precisely the systems which allowed Halli to flourish. Companies like Uber, Tesla, and Amazon have all worked to drive down wages, while fiercely resisting the recent wave of unionisation in the United States. Ueno was, of course, not directly involved in these practices. But nevertheless, wherever Silicon Valley seems to promise novelty and freedom, one cannot help but notice that potentially democracy-destabilising concentrations of wealth seem to follow. Halli was lucky enough to benefit from strong social systems during the hard times of his life, but for many, such opportunities are increasingly being taken away by these tech firms.

Though Halli’s fortune is admittedly more humble, it is difficult not to draw comparisons with other members of the tech elite. In some sense, Halli serves as the inverse image of his current employer, Elon Musk. The child of South African diamond miners, Mr. Musk has likewise benefited from the advantages of his upbringing, though where Musk was born into great generational wealth, Halli was simply born into a strong social democracy. But what truly differentiates Halli from his fellow members of the tech elite is the application of the designer’s eye to his own life as well. Halli doesn’t take the world for granted, nor his position in it. Where others justify their anointed positions through appeals to genius, work ethic, and rugged individualism, Halli openly talks about the social support he’s received, often letting online followers in behind the scenes of his life. 

And it’s this kind of online engagement that keeps Halli optimistic about the future of our increasingly digital lives. “I still remember the first chat on a computer I ever had with my cousin on an old 286,” Halli muses, referencing a popular Intel PC model. “Back then, I thought it was going to revolutionise the world in almost exclusively good ways. I am in general more optimistic than pessimistic, but the pessimistic part has definitely grown.” Something the tech world, and especially Twitter, has still not totally come to terms with was the election of Donald Trump and the accompanying culture wars centred around freedom of speech, “cancel culture,” and online hate speech. Today, Halli is working closely with his team at Twitter to address some of these problems, but given the sensitive nature of the work, much of it is under wraps. As hard a project as it may seem, Halli hopes to make Twitter resemble more the digital hopes of his youth. “Twitter has allowed me access to different groups of people,” he explains. “I think it’s broadened my view of the world. I often learn things on Twitter that are uncomfortable but necessary. I come from a very specific background, a community where everyone is kind of the same. It’s important to have access to these different experiences.” 

haraldur þorleifsson

MAN OF THE YEAR

At the end of 2022, Halli swept various Icelandic media outlets’ awards for Person of the Year, being voted by the audiences of Iceland’s widest-read publications as the man of the moment.

And for good reason: between Ramp Up, his contributions to legal funds for victims of sexual abuse, and generous donations to families in need over the holidays, it is hard to think of one Icelander trying to do more good. 

And yet, despite all of the good he’s done, it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider a peculiar irony. The Man of the Year, after all, was chosen for something every one of us does every year: paying our taxes.

Síminn Retires Clock Service after 86 Years

síminn iceland

Telecommunications company Síminn has decided to retire their clock service, where residents could call a number to know what time it is, after 86 years of service.

The company announced on their website that the service stopped answering calls on January 16. The change comes in response to a world in which information technology has made such services redundant, and Síminn points out in their announcement how we are now surrounded with many devices in our homes and offices that easily provide this service.

Utilisation of the service has declined significantly over the decades, and according to Síminn, was barely used at all in its final years.

The service was introduced in 1937, when Halldóra Briem was the first voice for the clock. According to Síminn, she travelled to the headquarters of the Swedish phone company Ericsson, where she recorded 90 separate different recordings that could be played back in different versions.

During its first years, the service was only available in Reykjavík. It was only introduced to Akureyri in 1950.

Over the years, voices of the clock have included actress Sigríður Hagalín (1963), actress Ingibjörg Björnsdóttir (1993), and the first man in 2013 with Ólafur Darri Ólafsson.