H.E. President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson is Iceland’s longest-serving former President, serving five terms from 1996 to 2016. Prior to this, he was Minister of Finance, Member of Parliament and a Professor at the University of Iceland. Since the end of his presidency, he has been Chairman of the Arctic Circle, a non-profit organisation that aims to promote international cooperation to address issues facing the Arctic and its future.
President Grímsson joined us on July 20 for our fourth Experts Talk session. He shared his views on the roadmap to a green recovery with Salman Mahdi, Vice Chairman of Deutsche Bank International Private Bank, and Markus Müller, Global Head of the Chief Investment Office at Deutsche Bank International Private Bank.
Lessons from Iceland on COVID-19
“My country was fortunate to recover from what seemed in March and early April a very severe threat, and I think there are a few lessons that Iceland can offer other countries in dealing with COVID-19,” Grímsson said.
One related to very aggressive testing, which became an immediate government priority. Grímsson suggested that Iceland tested more per capita than any other country in the world. The authorities were also quick to develop a track and trace app, and although it was a voluntary app, 70-80% of the entire population agreed to use it.
“An interesting aspect was that our political leaders, with all due respect to them, decided not to front this.” As Grímsson explained, the whole effort was led by the chief pandemic medical official, the head of the National Health Service and by representatives from Iceland’s civil defence unit.
“We call them the trio.” These three individuals gave daily press conferences and Grímsson concluded that this was where the country’s national solidarity and willingness came from – because it was the experts telling the nation what to do.
Four emerging trends shaping our new world
President Grímsson identified four fundamental trends going forward:
The first is the link between clean energy and health. He said, “The relationship between clean energy and health has become very apparent.” Six or seven million people die every year from urban pollution. “Even COVID-19 has not reached that kind of scale.” The front-line attention on the pandemic has made the discussion around the relationship between cities, energy and health clearer than it has ever been before.
Secondly, the importance of information technology to help societies deal with external threats from nature and disease. Will that become a basis for geopolitical tension, as we are now seeing between China and the United States? “In the previous century oil and natural resources or mining were the causes of such geopolitical tensions,” he said. “Now, it is information technology.”
The third is the focus on biotechnology. “I think this crisis has demonstrated also for us that the race towards excellence and innovation in biotechnology is absolutely crucial for our survival. Even for our civilisation.”
The fourth trend President Grímsson discussed was the changing value of real estate and land. “We have seen that the virus becomes most acute in cities. And for a few months we have experienced a new type of lifestyle. Companies, city authorities and governments will look at city planning in a completely different way. It may even be that their employees and customers will demand other locations.”
“So, I think the value of land, the proportional economic advantage of not being in the city of London or being somewhere else on the outside will change in a fundamental way.” Although it is too soon to predict exactly how, “It is clear that people have now experienced the different form of living, different form of working, which, in fact, they enjoy much more.”
The magnetic draw of the Arctic Circle
This focus on the new world we are entering was also an opportunity for President Grímsson to talk about the Arctic. A topic close to his heart as Chairman of the non-profit organisation, the Arctic Circle.
“This big part of the planet, which is, if you take it all together, almost the size of Africa, will, in the 21st century, play an absolutely crucial role,” he said, highlighting the vast natural resources available and the shorter air and shipping routes offered via the Arctic.
Is it too late to avoid the climate crisis?
Throughout the session, the same question was submitted from different parts of the audience; how optimistic is President Grímsson about the future?
“The honest answer is I am very optimistic.” He referred to the great advances that have been made in the last 40 years in areas such as medicine, education, science, information technology, economic progress and eliminating poverty. “We have never, ever before in human history seen such progress.”
He emphasised that the climate debate was hampered for years because it was very difficult to argue that there was an alternative model. There were deniers who maintained that there was only one way to have economic progress. But all of a sudden, in a matter of a few weeks, we have been able to adopt an alternative model that none of us would have agreed to if it had been put to us as a plan at the beginning of January.
“So, in addition to the experience of the last 30 or 40 years, the experience of the last three or four months has made me even more optimistic than I have been before. Otherwise, I would be simply enjoying my retirement.”