Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon, photo by Susan Lahey

By Susan Lahey
Reporter with Silicon Hills News

It is always ironic when the tech doesn’t work at SXSW, which happened to Norwegian Crown Prince Haakon, speaking at SXSW on Tuesday about creating innovation that solves problems. Starting his presentation with a video about the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals he ran into technical troubles when the sound didn’t work.

“These people are saying something intelligent…” he quipped to the audience. “I could just dub it….”

When a few minutes later the audio kicked in and the video went out he waved his hands and said, “Or mime it….”

Finally, the video did work and he followed up by discussing the role of tech and innovation in solving the world’s problems and Norway’s role in that pursuit. Like other Norwegians, some of whom presented at SXSW including Kjetil Lund, Vice Mayor for Business Development and Public Ownership, Crown Prince Haakon communicates humility about his country’s reputation as a model country. They recognize that many of the notable attributes of Norwegian society—gender parity, universal healthcare, free education, strong environmental programs—are easier to implement in a country with only five million residents. Partly because of those advantages, leaders have a sense of global responsibility and encourage startup founders to focus on building companies that will address the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. These goals include ending global hunger and poverty, creating government transparency, providing gender equality and access to things like clean water and education. The UN aims to have these goals met by 2030.

“If you want to start a company, these 17 goals are a great place to start,” Crown Prince Haakon said.

Norway’s Growing Tech Sector

He introduced the audience to three such Norwegian companies:

Blueye, a company that makes underwater drones, could be sold as a toy, he noted. Instead, the company was focused on using the technology for rescue and exploration to help identify and mitigate solid waste in ocean.

No Isolation created a small, portable robot that lets children with chronic illnesses attend school and hang out with peers virtually. If the robot is accidentally damaged because a child’s friends are bringing it along on adventures, the company will provide the child with another one.

Diwala verifies the skills of refugees—some of whom are displaced for decades—to empower them to build work and economies, even receive micro loans while they are displaced.

In 2017, he said, 60,000 new Norwegian companies were founded. The city of Oslo reported a year-on-year investment growth of 160 percent. The country is working to pivot from oil—which has provided Norway with its $1 trillion Sovereign Wealth Fund—toward industries of the future powered by technology. In Norway, the government often provides seed funding for new startups and the country’s social safety net ensures that even if startup founders fail, they will be provided for. This provides incentive for Norwegian founders to focus less on making money than on solving “real problems”. It also gives them courage to try.

“It’s about daring to fail. Daring to feel uncomfortable, uncertain. Daring to try again.”

The country is seeking tech talent and investment in its startups which range from education technology to health and energy tech. In his presentation, the Crown Prince pointed out not only the quality of life issues many people are aware of in Norway, but also that Norwegians tend to be early adopters and have a high level of trust. When asked whether they felt they could trust other people, he said, 70 percent of Norwegians said they could, compared to 40 percent in the U.S.

“When you’re trying to sell a product or idea to an investor or a customer, being able to overcome a trust barrier becomes very important,” he said.

SDGs Front and Center

The 44-year-old Crown Prince, a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, is Norway’s most prominent advocate for tech and innovation. He makes regular appearances at tech events such as Oslo Innovation Week and Finland’s Slush and in 2018 at SXSW.
He was the Nordics’ senior representative in a large coalition from Scandinavia who not only appeared on multiple panels but hosted Scandinavia House at Cafe Blue with SAS Airlines.

He made several appearances at Scandinavia House, at Capital Factory and elsewhere, focusing on the importance of applying technology to creating social and environmental change.

Crown Prince Haakon pointed out in his presentation that many people believe Norway began its work toward social and environmental progress only after oil was discovered. But, he said, it began long before that.

When his mother was born, in 1937, he said, their society in terms of infant mortality and income was where India is today. In 1973, when he was born, he said, they were approximately on par with today’s Uruguay.

“When you think about the world,” he said, “you sometimes see other countries and people as distant. You think about developing nations. But when you think about them as your country you don’t think about them that way. I don’t think about my ‘developing grandmother.’ I think about my grandmother.”

Oslo Vice Mayor Kjetil Lund also spoke on a Norway led panel about the UN’s Sustainable Development goals, pointing out that the city has a “carbon budget” with specific climate targets that is a core of its policies. Among them, to reduce emissions of CO2 in the city by 95 percent by 2030. The city also has carbon capture programs, aggressive recycling of everything from food to bio-gas, and converting most of the city’s transportation to electric vehicles. Norway gets most of its electricity from hydropower.

“Norway has always believed in our responsibility to help solve international problems, at the same time hesitant to say to other countries ‘This is what you should do,’” Lund said. “We are a small country, a very wealthy country and homogenous. We have some challenges but arguably many of the challenges are not as big in Norway.”