Iceland’s Brutal Landscapes Shape Its Cutting-Edge Tech

Episode 4: Fish-slicing gear, space sims, and rugged turbines thrive in a punishing terrain of volcanoes and blizzards.

By Ashlee Vance | June 22, 2016
Photographs by Guy Martin

When the financial crisis of 2008 hit, no country suffered more than Iceland. Sure, plenty of places fell into economic ruin, with companies going bankrupt and millions of jobs lost. Iceland, though, was flat-out humiliated. Its wealthy fisherman-turned-investment bankers had spent years hurling money around like, well, like Vikings, and their moment of reckoning arrived with great speed and force. Icelanders were beaten down, laden with debt. They feared they might never emerge from the devastation, a sad state of affairs for a people who had already spent centuries eking out a living in a frozen hellscape

Blue Lagoon's geothermal waters
After a hard few days of gaming and drinking, there's no better way to relax than a dip in the Blue Lagoon's geothermal waters.
Photographer: Guy Martin

Travel to Iceland these days, and you’ll find a new story. Tourism is booming, with the number of visitors (more than 1 million in 2015) increasing by about 30 percent per year. The fishing business remains strong, as does Iceland’s renewable energy push. Iceland’s technology industry has thrived. Yes, some shame lingers, and people still grumble about restrictive fiscal policies put in place to try to stop Iceland from self-annihilating again. For the most part, however, Icelanders have a cautiously optimistic outlook and reasons to smile.

Fans tranforms themselves into EVE Online characters at EVE Fanfest
To play EVE is one thing, to become your character in real life is living.
Photographer: Guy Martin

On this episode of Hello World,we dive into Iceland’s revival with a special focus on how the country’s land and history have shaped its innovations. I visit a company called IceWind in Reykjavik that has a new take on small, durable turbines and then head down the coast to the fishing town of Grindavik. There, the meat processing giant Marel has installed a fleet of mechanical fish slicers that make their own decisions about how to carve up cod. I follow the tourists and take a dip in the Blue Lagoon, where geothermal pools and beer wash away the fish smell. (Sort of.) After that, I go ripping across snowy volcanoes while driving steroidal vehicles built by Arctic Trucks. It’s as fun as it sounds.

Really, though, it’s Iceland’s tremendous storytellers that drive this episode. The country has imaginative filmmakers and, more crucial to the tech scene, otherworldly video-game makers.

CCP chief executive officer Hilmar Veigar Pétursson
Hilmar Veigar Pétursson, chief executive officer of CCP, creator of EVE Online.
Photographer: Guy Martin

Iceland’s blockbuster game is EVE Online, made by the Reykjavik-based studio, CCP Games. Every year, thousands of people come to celebrate this game, which is something of a space soap opera, at an event called EVE Fanfest. For a few days, I get immersed in the EVE culture and meet the players who have a near-religious devotion to the game. It was a chance to take in the richest, most complex virtual world ever created—with some of the most devious, hardest drinking gamers.

What’s truly remarkable about Iceland is that any of this exists at all. A hundred years ago, a good chunk of the population still lived in houses made of mud and topped with grass roofs. Iceland was one of Europe’s poorest nations, with an inhospitable climate and volcanoes that seemed determined to wipe out any forward progress. Even today, there are only about 400,000 Icelanders trying to make a go of it.

Still, those people are well-educated and resourceful. Time and again, I stumbled upon some Icelandic engineer who had devised a new way to weigh fish or to farm seemingly un-farmable land. Icelanders have a knack for maximizing resources and finding clever ways out of problems.

Downtown Reykjavik
Downtown Reykjavik—the calm before the EVE storm.
Photographer: Guy Martin

Taking this all into account, it should be unsurprising that Iceland absorbed the 2008 hit and then kept on going. These are people who seem to have a sadomasochistic streak baked into their beings. They live to suffer. And then they relish the chance to have a few—quite a few—drinks and tell you a good yarn about the suffering.

Watch more from Hello World



Episode 1: New Zealand
Meet the Real-Life Tech Wizards of Middle Earth

Episode 2: Sweden
Why Sweden Is So Good at Making Tech Everyone Wants

Episode 3: Israel
How the Constant Threat of War Shaped Israel’s Tech Industry