One of many bike counters in Copenhagen, sending data to the City.

It’s no secret that everyone’s life is digital in some way or another, but what is it like to live in one of the world’s most digital countries? Life in Denmark has gradually transitioned into a digital society and on a scale that is still rare in most other places. It is deep-rooted in daily life for everyone in this country.

Indeed, Denmark consistently ranks at the top of the list of Europe’s most digital nations and, in 2018, it took first place in the world in The International Digital Economy and Society Index. The index ranks countries based on five main parameters: connectivity, digital skills, citizen use of internet, business technology integration and digital public services.

I did something strange today, which led me to write this article. I actually remembered to check my mailbox down at the entrance to my apartment building. It was, as expected, empty. Just remembering to check it is hard because it’s been many years since I’ve had any regular flow of letters. It’s almost an event if I discover something in there, although it’s usually just things like royalty statements from my foreign publishers, a christmas card from one of my nieces — the only one I get each year — or birth notices from Dutch friends. It’s apparently a thing for the Dutch to send out cards to announce new offspring. Cute. There is hardly ever any Danish content in there.

Here’s a rundown of my personal life and how digital it has become.

Postal Service

We’ve been at this digitalization thing for a while, when I think about it. I wrote this post on my Facebook on May 22, 2014:

Okay, this is weird and a little spooky. I got this thing today. It was some pieces of paper with words printed on them. They were placed in an envelope and it was sealed. My FULL name was on it and… this is where it gets spooky… whoever made it KNOWS MY ADDRESS. Not my email or Instagram or twitter or snapchat or whatever, but my PHYSICAL address.

What’s more is that a man I don’t know walked straight into the office and HANDED it to me. Like he knew me or something. He was wearing a uniform, too. His job is apparently to deliver things like this to people. He just, like, KNOWS where they are. He said that it probably came by a complicated and pre-orchestrated combination of motor vehicles, trains and bicycles. A whole delivery system EXISTS for this thing! Who ARE these people?!

I read the text and whoever made this thing was talking to me like they know me. Inviting me to an event in Hamburg. At the end of it all there was a signature in INK. Like somebody actually wrote it there. On purpose. With their own hand.

The paper had a logo and even the envelope did, too. Like it was all prepared in advance. Like someone went to all the trouble of printing it on there, as though they PLANNED to send stuff like this. Maybe others have gotten them, too.

I googled it and found out it was something called a “letter”. Weird.

Already back in 2014, receiving a letter was a rare event in Denmark. The Danish Post was founded in 1624 but in 2002, it was privatized by a right-wing Danish government. In 2009, it merged with the Swedish postal service to form Postnord (Post North). Denmark’s digitalization is more advanced than in Sweden so now the Danish arm of the postal service is bleeding money, which is irritating to the Swedish head office. While Sweden is modern and has a high level of digitalization, it looks like they weren’t really aware of how far advanced it was in Denmark.

Reduced importance of a postal service is just a part of any digital transformation and it is often the first thing that we notice.

Package delivery, due to online shopping is increasing exponentially — like most places — but letters are fading to black. I simply cannot tell you when I last bought a stamp and sent a letter. I did send a package last week — returning a router to my internet provider, but they had sent me a self-addressed, stamped label to put on the box of the new router. I just tossed it in the container at the supermarket post office. Yeah, that’s another thing. Most post offices have moved into supermarkets, eliminating their own physical brick and mortar buildings.

When I receive a package, an app tells me all the details of the delivery. No more paper notifications about how they tried to deliver a package when I wasn’t home and how I now can pick it up at the post office at my local supermarket, or one of the local shops on my street that acts as a delivery point.

A few months after I turned 50, I received a padded envelope from the Danish health authorities — IN THE MAILBOX — which every adult apparently receives at that age. Denmark being Denmark, it was an info pack asking me to take part in a standard test for intestinal cancer. The envelope included a kit for taking a fecal sample. So I dutifully scooped up some of my poo one morning and placed it in the vial, dropping off the self-addressed, stamped envelope and placing it in an old-school post box down the street. A couple of weeks later, I received a letter in my e-box from the regional health authorities telling me that all was well.

Health Care

If I need to book a doctor’s appointment, I can call our family doctor’s office but it’s so much easier to book a time online. I can also send a message to the clinic and my doctor, renew prescriptions and ask simple questions. I automatically get a text message reminding me of upcoming appointments. Smooth ease-of-use.

In Denmark, like almost every other country on earth, we have universal medical care. Schools have a nurse but also a dentist so my kids have free dental care until they’re finished their schooling. Whenever one of the two rugrats has visited the nurse or dentist, I receive a text message informing me of this fact and a link to their online journal so I can see what they had done, look at any x-rays that might have been taken, you name it.

Lap Dansk: An unexpected life in Denmark

Later today, I’ll be cycling down to a COVID-19 test centre, because all adult Danes can be tested to see if they have the virus or have had it. I booked a time online yesterday, for today, and it was quicker than booking a restaurant table online. You can read this article for how the Danes are being tested for COVID.

Communication

Communication patterns have changed radically and not just our postal habits. In 2017, Denmark had the highest smartphone penetration in the world and in 2018, 84.65% of Danes had a smartphone. I remember how in the 90’s, mobile phones suddenly boomed here. Everyone and their dog had a Nokia in no time flat.

Interestingly, the main telecommunication companies on the market here looked at the Blackberry when it came out in North America and said, “nah”. They didn’t even bother selling them because they could see smartphones on the horizon so they decided to wait it out.

In 2007, there were around 3000 payphones in Denmark. In 2009: 500. In 2013: under 200. In 2015: just 45. The last payphone in Denmark was dismantled on 13 April, 2018, after 120 years of public phone history. There weren’t any phones left by that point, just the boxes. Well THAT escalated quickly. Or rather, de-escalated.

Faxes… that’s another technology that I, personally, never really engaged in. I’m sure that companies had fax machines, but they never really made as much impact here as in other countries. It was kind of a Blackberry thing.

My kids, having grown up with mobile phones and smartphones, don’t have a library of remembered phone numbers in their head, like I did when I was young. They can barely remember their own number. Me? I only have three numbers memorised — apart from my childhood phone number, which is carved in stone in my brain: my own, my ex-wife’s and Scandinavian Airlines’ customer service office. Yeah. I travel a lot.

I never know how my kids will call me, if they don’t just send a text on Facebook Messenger. Could be on my phone but it could also be through the Messenger app or from a friend’s phone if their battery died. They have also never learned how to answer a phone like I did. They just jump right into the conversation without the now old-fashioned, “Hello, Mikael speaking… hi, Daddy, this is Felix…” preamble.

The expansive and competitive digital market means telecommunications is cheap — unusual for a country with a high standard of living where tourists are consistently amazed at how expensive it is for them. There are countless companies fighting for my custom. I pay 160 kroner ($23 USD) a month for 25 gb data, free phone and texts (hardly use either/I send text through messaging apps) and I can use my phone freely in 62 countries in the world, as though I was at home in Denmark.

For whatever reason, Denmark has been one of the countries in the world that uses Facebook the most per capita. We were early adopters and Facebook remains a primary platform. Yes, we can discuss whether or not THAT is a great thing, but need to ask your internet provider or local café a question? Send them a Facebook message.

Authorities

The transition to digital has been gradual, but nonetheless pretty quick. I couldn’t remember when it became obligatory that all communication from the city, region and national government became digital. A quick google reveals that the Law of Digital Public Post came into effect in 2012. Any citizen who COULD receive communication from the authorities HAD to receive it like that.

Everything the authorities need to communicate to me happens via digital post portals. I have an app on my phone to read the correspondence, or I can open them on a website. It’s mostly stuff from my bank, but also public service announcements — most lately about COVID-19 — information about garbage collection, tax documents, etc. Seriously… think about how much paper has been saved over the past decade in Denmark.

In order to use most public portals and services, as well as your bank, Danes are given a code card — there is now an app, too — that you use when logging in. After you type in your user name and password, a four-digit number is shown and you find the corresponding six-digit number on the card and enter it. It is admittedly a bit of a clumsy system, but it works to ensure online security.

The schools my kids attend communicate through an app, as do all the parents. All documents are signed digitally. Prescriptions are sent electronically from my doctor to the pharmacy. I can send information through an app to the City about potholes or other urban issues and they come out and fix it. Ordering a copy of a birth certificate takes about 4 minutes and it’s sent digitally.

One quirky service provided in Denmark is changing your legal name. A few years ago, the government streamlined the process for name changes. I tried it myself in late 2019, and was astounded by how quick and easy it was. It took me ten minutes on a website to change one of my middle names. I paid 500 kroner ($73 USD) on the site and I got a confirmation the next morning. Boom.

I know from working in urban design that the City of Copenhagen gathers more data than virtually any other city in the world — but they also make it available to the citizens. This website from the City called The Copenhagener Map is in Danish but it gives anyone the chance to view all manner of data from the municipality. You can try this: on the left menu click Borger > Veje > Trafiktællinger for cykler and you’ll see all of the bicycle counts across the whole city. You can click on a circle to get more info and then on a link to download the full data set as a pdf.

Banking

When travelling abroad, I have to remember to withdraw cash in many places in the world. Here in Denmark, I haven’t had cash on me for more than a decade. A true paperless society extends to paper money. If one of my kids — when they were smaller — needed some cash for something, it was such a pain to remember to get it for them. There are still bank machines around, and I’d have to search one out. Although for many years, you have been able to pay with a bank card for your groceries and then ask for some cash on top of the bill. Effectively using the supermarket as a surrogate for your bank.

I work primarily internationally and normally payment is via wire transfer. The United States is one country that struggles with normalising wire transfer payments. On a couple of occasions In 2019, I was to receive payment from the States. When they ask who to “cut the check to”, I have to disappoint them.

On 30 December, 2016, checks stopped being accepted by Danish banks, and this followed a long period of decline in the usage of checks. Only large companies were left using them. The population had moved on. Technically, a bank might still honour a foreign check, but I would have to pay a fee of between $100-$500 USD for that. (I asked my bank and they weren’t even sure about the fees.) Luckily, wire transfers are widespread and most of my clients around the world assume they’ll wire the money to me and they have done for over a decade.

Banking is online, of course, with apps and whatnot and all communication being electronic. Like many countries, Denmark has a quick payment app. Ours is called MobilePay. What a transformation. I send money to my kids, which they then use at a shop — through their phone. Flea markets are a breeze now. You don’t have to worry if you have enough old-fashioned paper money to buy stuff. You pay for dinner at a restaurant and your friends just send the money for their share in a flash. It’s all through the app.

Many of these digital features that are a part of my daily life in Denmark are also in place in other countries. Absolutely. Some won’t surprise you, others might. My personal realisation of just how all-penetrating the Danish digital transformation is — and has been — gradual. I haven’t really spent much time thinking about it until now. It all seems pretty wild to me, but that’s the beauty of it — it works so seamlessly (by and large) that you don’t even notice it.

Urban playmaker, designer, host of The Life-Sized City tv series about urbanism. Author of “Copenhagenize”. Impatient Idealist.

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