By Sam Richardson @SamRich91
When the sun comes out in Denmark, it’s usually the cue for a mass migration to the country’s parks and beaches. It’s certainly not usual for hundreds to pack out an old town hall to hear a range of talks about the internet. Not only able to tempt Danes away from their ice-cream, Aarhus, a city of just over 300,000, is hosting over the next five days more than 100 events, celebrating the country’s array of internet businesses and initiatives. It’s all part of the city’s Internet Week Denmark festival, which began on Monday.
Previous Internet Weeks have taken place in New York and London. In keeping with the subject matter, they have been ‘crowd-sourced’; companies themselves host events, an easy achievement for large media centres with established global connections – everything Denmark and Aarhus is not, in other words. Yet with a little help from local government, with Invest in Denmark’s backing, Denmark’s second city has been transformed into a giant trade fair. And whilst the nation’s business executives will gather for serious panel discussions, the public are also invited to participate in workshops at all levels, from children upwards.
So where has this sudden burst in confidence come from? To understand the Danish IT industry’s recipe for success you need to understand its ingredients; a highly networked society, public-private cooperation and most of all experimentation.
An advanced society
Internet Week is first-and-foremost a community endeavour. “Internet Week is an attempt to share” began charismatic Aarhus Mayor Jacob Bundsgaard, introducing the week. “We want to be the place where new ideas are born and connections are made and [promote] the exchange of ideas across industry and the public.” The star of the show, Wikipedia-founder Jimmy Wales, told the audience at Aarhus Radhus that through careful management, the site was now a community “not an anarchy”. Wales was joined by Krish Ashok of India’s Tata Consulting Services and Steffen Grarup of US taxi-ordering firm Uber and Morten Heuing, General Manager of Ebay Classifieds Denmark.
As interesting as the speeches were, one look at the crowd told the real story behind Denmark’s infatuation with the internet. Every minute of every speech was instantly chronicled, tweeted and posted, not by the journalists present, but by a sea of mobile phones held aloft by the general public. No old-fashioned Q and A’s here; questions to Jimmy Wales were instead tweeted in, using the hashtag #AskJimmyW. In fact the solitary suited man typing at his laptop seemed oddly out of place, a relic left behind from a bygone age.
That’s the whole point, explains Ebay’s Morten Heuing to me in the lobby afterwards. Denmark’s highly networked population – the country has the second highest proportion of broadband subscribers in the world – provides a unique place for doing business: “of course it’s not awfully big, but it’s a test market because it’s so advanced”. This wasn’t simply due to an exceptional penetration of devices and broadband, he added, but instead “consumer readiness to embrace new services. It’s the trust of Danes in new services. It is secure payments online. So the whole ecosystem surrounding online commerce is very advanced in Denmark.”
Internet came to Denmark in 1999, and a whole generation of Danish youth have grown up with a technology-heavy education. These youngsters now form a substantial graduate talent pool which Ebay and the others companies want to tap into during Internet Week. Ebay are running an event for youngsters aged 15-19 to design a platform for the exchange of used goods. When I ask Heuing if teenagers have the technical skills to design such a platform he gives me a questioning look “yes absolutely…I would even go as so far to say that 13 years olds can code. ” Aarhus’ highly-ranked University and high proportion of students, comprising around 13% of residents, explains why it, not Copenhagen, is hosting Internet Week.
By its very nature, Internet Week is also testament to the importance of Denmark’s public sector in driving innovation. The high tax rates for which the country is well-known also happen to pay for the country’s top-ranked education system and other infrastructure services. Attempts to centralise government services has also spawned huge IT projects: all citizens are assigned a single number ID (the CPR number), and NemID, a logon service developed in conjunction with Denmark’s banking sector, allows access a huge number of online services, from tax to health and even online dating.
But at the local level, city and regional Kommune (councils) also contribute to innovation. As Internet Week organiser Mai Skou Wilhborg told me, Aarhus Kommune put forward the initial funds and organisation for the week, hoping the industry would follow, although she hopes that the private sector will eventually take control of future Internet Weeks. Moreover Internet Week Denmark is a product of the wider government-backed Smart Cities project, which aims to unite the public-sector, business and citizens themselves to provide better municipal services.
Officially-sanctioned innovation has, understandably, a poor reputation. Yet, taking Aarhus as an example, the Smart Cities project is starting to produce surprisingly practical solutions for the city’s residents. The Skal jeg køre nu (Should I go now) app, launched in February this year, provides travel advice based on congestion and route data collected in real time. It draws on the city’s open-data portal, www.odaa.dk, which companies can use, and profit from, providing their plans have some social purpose.
Finally Internet Week is a constant reminder of the Danish IT industry’s appetite for experimentation. “The game of disruption”, declared Ebay’s Heuing, “is one we’ve played, and are playing every day”. As if to prove this point, stood just outside the conference room was Katapult Group, a US-based company that aims to create business-to-business products for Google Glasses. Unfortunately, Google’s highly-anticipated glasses won’t be commercially available until later this year, possibly 2015 in Europe, and so to make money from b2b solutions might seem highly ambitious. This didn’t however seem to concern the sizeable crowd of spectators who gathered round Katapult’s stall.
Ambitious Danish equivalents to Katapult are everywhere you look in Denmark: 20,000 IT workplaces lie within 10 km of Aarhus’ city centre, estimates Business Region Aarhus. Many of these belong to start ups, often based in custom-built hubs with cheap rental space, such as the Incuba Science Park and Godsbanen cultural centre. Their particular niche is mobile software, and indeed the week, from the inaugural speeches (mobile, suggested Jimmy Wales, was Wikipedia’s next big challenge) to specialised networking events, is heavily mobile-biased. The root of these start-ups again lies, again, in those countless mobile phones waved by the audience: relatively wealthy Danes have been using smart phones for a while – the first GSM phone was developed in Denmark. And as mobile phone access sees huge expansion in the developing world, Danish early-adoption could pay huge dividends.
That is, of course, providing Denmark, with its notoriously high costs, doesn’t get undercut by those same developing countries. Some Danish IT showcases, such as Aarhus-based consulting firm Systematic , are already subcontracting services abroad, in their case to Ukraine. That dilemma I posed to Morten Heuing: could Ebay Denmark’s work not be done from India? “I’m sure it could”, he replied, “[but] I believe there’s a big advantage for us to be able to apply whatever we build in the same market. It gives a speed to market which we could not achieve if we had somebody in India code an application which we would have to pilot somewhere else in the world to see if it worked.” Denmark’s role, he made clear, was as a test-centre combining consumer demand and technological talent.
The idea of an Internet Week is nothing new, but it’s evident that Internet Week Denmark is a reflection of genuine confidence and innovation within the Danish IT industry. The country may even have found itself an enviable niche, simultaneously developing and testing the latest internet services. Perhaps its challenges are far more mundane; Internet Week and Danish firms operate in a small environment. Just as the week, partially held in Danish, can only attract so many international visitors, the IT industry, operating in a country of 5 million, is forced to look abroad for markets and employees; or, as Heuing put it “whenever something is successful we run out of Danes.”
If Internet Week Denmark gathers the international attention it hopes for, perhaps that won’t be such an issue. For now, as the audience departs the gloomy city hall into the dazzling heat outside, the sun seems to be shining on Denmark’s internet businesses.
Jutland Station is an official media partner of Internet Week Denmark, and will be covering the event in English. Look out for pictures, interviews and features, every day of the week on Twitter @JutlandStation.
On Wednesday we’ll explore the Smart Cities project in detail, and what it means for businesses.
Sam Richardson is a journalism student and freelancer, and Society Editor of Jutland Station. He’s worked at the BBC, The Times, Daily Telegraph and Islington Gazette newspapers, and studied History at Oxford University. You can see his portfolio here: http://flip.it/CNH5t