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Ben Hammersley: the importance of first impressions

Our hi-tech globetrotter Ben Hammersley discovers that Copenhagen's welcome to 
visitors is more than just a lot of hot air. And perhaps other countries should take note
What message does Copenhagen airport's bicycle pump give its visitors?

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It's the first impression that 
makes the difference

The bike pump always cheers me up. But we'll come 
to that. Let me explain. I travel a lot, more than 20 countries and 150 days a year, and I've become a connoisseur of the little details that make up a nation. Apart from the few countries whose international standing comes from their economic power or military might, most nations 
are set apart by the Soft Power of their culture: their design, their music and the character of their people.

Take Denmark as an example. Successful, yes, but we don't think of it as a military or economic powerhouse. Instead, perhaps, we see it more as a haven of good-looking people sitting on modernist furniture. And if you happen to be travelling to Copenhagen airport right now, then very shortly, if you look to the left as you come through the doors from passport control, you will see mounted on the wall not entreaties against smuggling, or a tribute to a great leader, but an industrial-grade, no-messing, plumbed-in bicycle pump.

Consider what that means. Someone, perhaps a whole committee, considered that people flying to Copenhagen 
will not only be bringing their bike, 
but will be needing to reinflate their 
tyres before they leave the terminal. 
It suggests a nation entirely comfortable with the expectation that people 
will cycle home from the airport. 
Is there anything more indicative 
of a glorious civilisation than that?

Cycling to Heathrow, on the 
other hand, is almost unthinkable. Why would you? Yes, it's true that the British author Will Self makes a point of walking from his 
south London home to downtown Manhattan — strolling 
the country pathways to Heathrow, flying to JFK, and then picking his way through the warehouses of Queens before crossing the bridge. But such a pleasing psychogeographic excursion is only for the time-rich and luggage-free. Heathrow, for me, is where I try to beat my plane-door-opening to Heathrow-Express-departing sprint record 
of six minutes 32 seconds.

It's a place of (albeit slightly specialist) excitement, not one 
of hopeful inspiration. But the Copenhagen bike pump does gives me hope. Welcome to Denmark, it says, life can be pretty good at this tempo. And this display of Soft Power is only the start. Copenhagen acts as the gateway to the whole region. The nearby 8km Øresund Bridge crosses the Øresund Strait that once separated Copenhagen from Malmö, Denmark from Sweden. It connects 3.7 million local people into a transnational giant — the Øresund Region — that is now starting to stretch its legs. The two countries' local governments work together, as do the local universities, and a tradition of international trade dating back to the Vikings is being reborn. Fiercely multilingual and terrifyingly smart — there are more than 100 biotech companies in the region alone — 
the Øresundian locals are attracting the sort 
of press that China's Pearl River delta would receive if alongside trade and industry it also 
had Scandinavian social security.

But whatever the numbers, whatever the industrial ambition, it's not the hard data that make the difference, but the first impression. 
And countries looking to do business would do well to take notice. It's not press, or the slogan, 
or the country's advertising campaign that really matters. It's the impression from the first solid thing you see when you arrive, and in Copenhagen it's not just your expectations, but your tyres as well, that are suddenly inflated.

Ben Hammersley is a London-based technologist, author and broadcaster. His latest book, 64 Things You Need To Know Now For Then, is published by Hodder & Stoughton.

Ben Hammersley


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