THE BLOG
25/06/2019 11:23 BST | Updated 25/06/2019 11:25 BST

What We Can Learn From Norway's 'Tech For Good' Boom

It's not the first country you'd think of as Europe's answer to Silicon Valley, but Norway is punching above its weight when it comes to problem-solving tech.

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We’re often told that technology is damaging our children. Whether the outcome is bad behaviour, mental health, rising obesity or poor socialisation — somebody, somewhere is blaming screen time and calling for a return to the halcyon days when children only played with wooden toys.

While moderation and management of a child’s access to technology are very important, the idea that we can return to a time before apps and screens is unrealistic. It denies the positive benefits technology can have and the problem-solving possibilities it offers.

Norway is probably not the country you think of first when imagining Europe’s answer to boffin-infested Silicon Valley. But, while London, Berlin or nearby Stockholm might hog the tech headlines, startups in Oslo have been quietly ploughing a “tech for good” furrow.

“Tech for good” describes digital technologies developed to address and rebalance social challenges. As one of the most prosperous countries in the world, home to a population of just five million with high levels of education, free healthcare and less gender disparity in the workplace thanks to shared parental leave, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Norway is punching above its weight in this area. 

A nascent strand emerging in Oslo is “tech for good” specifically for kids. The company leading the charge in this area is No Isolation, a startup co-founded by 29-year-old Karen Dolva four years ago to connect lonely people using technology. Dolva and colleagues invented a robot that is “essentially a smartphone inside a generic avatar” that can be the eyes, ears and voice of children who, perhaps because of chronic illness or anxiety, cannot attend school. 

The robot, called AV1 (“we wanted a boring name so the robot becomes the child”) can sit in the classroom or be carried around by students in the playground and the ill or absent child can use a smartphone or tablet to see and hear what is going on in school and to speak with their friends. 

“We couldn’t find any products that were built to help children with longterm illness participate in the world,” says Dolva. “AV1 is an extension of yourself. You dress it up with stickers, give it your own name or a made up name. There are currently 900 AV1s out and about helping kids in 13 countries across Europe.”

“Examples include bone marrow transplant patients who are awake for ten minutes, but AV1 means they can say hi to their class every day. Or we have hyperactive 12-year-olds with immune disorders. They are completely fine they just can’t go outside and they use AV1 for hours of streaming time — full days at school and playing with friends after school.” 

Is it unsettling for other children to have a robot in their classroom? Dolva says it’s surprising how normal it is, adding: “It takes anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes for kids to recognise the AV1 as their friend. They hear the voice of a kid they know. They’re used to playing games. It’s not as much of a leap as it would be for adults.”

Although No Isolation has expanded so much in the past two years that they have recently had to move offices in Oslo, the company was originally based at the Startup Lab in Oslo Science Park, an early-stage incubator that can also boast Norwegian stars Opera Software, Chipcon, GET and Mamut among its alumni.

An exciting emerging Startup Lab company in the “tech for good for kids” space is Poio. CEO Daniel Senn came up with Poio on his kitchen table four and a half years ago when his son, who has hearing impairment, struggled to learn to read. Traditional teaching methods didn’t seem to be working, his son’s confidence had nose-dived and as a result, he was reluctant to try and read. So Senn devised a paper-based game that is now an app that has helped over 60,000 Norwegian and Swedish children learn to read — the English version of which has just launched in the UK.

“Instead of gamifying books I wanted to make a true gaming experience that also taught reading principles,” says Senn. “It’s a bit of a challenge for adults as it seems illogical.”

The game is a series of codes that eventually unlock words using phonics principles and the reward at the end is a physical book. The titular Poio is a huge scary troll who eats letters and there are a number of small, quirky characters the child has to free from the troll.

“Poio introduces letters, words and sentences that are quite ambitious. But at the same time, there’s lots of repetition and the incentive to learn is that the letters and words in the book explains the game. It makes them want to keep learning,” says Senn. 

Another Oslo Startup Lab-based company trying to inspire good old fashioned creativity in children using technology is Playfinity. Paal Smith-Meyer joined Playfinity in early 2018, having previously spent 15 years working at LEGO in Denmark. “We’re all dads. There are five of us. We’re old school friends. One of our co-founders noticed that his nephew was sitting inside playing computers all the time. So he wanted to create something that would inspire him to play outside, but which used the smartphone and his digital interest to make it fun.”

They came up with Playfinity, a platform that gamifies physical activity. Through a digitally connected device that can go in a ball, a pocket, a sock or be adapted for another piece of play equipment, Playfinity users can play and compete against each other in a variety of games, ranging from catch, through to trampolining, freestyle football and handball. During our interview the Playfinity team throw a bright orange softball to and fro — getting my five-year-old to chuck it high up in the air and squeal with glee at the pinball sound effects the ball produces. 

“People tell us that although they buy it for their kids they end up playing it as a family. It gives them a reason to do something together, to do something active together,” says Smith-Meyer. “While they play people don’t have to look at a screen they can see each other’s faces and smile and have fun. It’s playing, not exercise.”

While tech for good can be used to solve important social problems and promote change, it can also be extremely useful for serious business such as not losing your children in a shopping centre. That was the starting point for another Norway-based company, XPLORA, which makes smartwatches for children aged four to 13, that act as a smartphone and tracking device.

Co-founder and father of four, Sten Kirkbak, had the idea when he briefly lost his four-year-old son. While Kirkbak knew that giving his child a smartphone would provide a solution for comparable situations in the future, he didn’t want him to have unfettered access to social media and the internet. The XPLORA watch resultantly has the basic functions of a phone, such as calls and text messages, but also a geolocation feature that allows parents to track their kids. Children can also call or be phoned directly by contacts (controlled by a parent via an app), which can make it easier for them to speak to separated parents or grandparents and friends.

“It’s a direct link to the child and it can help them feel secure being more independent, knowing that they can always reach their parent,” says Kirkbak.

Oslo has already developed a reputation as a big hitter in green tech and tech for good — so what’s next? If No Isolation continues to blaze a trail then it looks like the elderly could be the next target for innovation. The company recently launched a piece of kit called a Komp for seniors or people with dementia. It is a screen with a knob that looks like an old-fashioned radio and allows family members to send photographs, text messages and make video calls. 

Dolva says: “Komp means so much to me personally because having it means I have spoken to my grandfather more in the last year than in the past ten years, and that’s because of something we’ve made. Which is so cool.”