Pink scarves and an easel: Why the future of digital health is found in art and creativity

by Jaida Temperly
8 minute read

Oli Viggosson, CPTO of Sidekick Health, is no stranger to navigating the unknown. Whether hiking the remote highlands of his native Iceland, developing Eve Online (one of the largest multiplayer video games to date), or living in Rome while his wife studied architecture, he takes change in stride. Sitting down with The Sidebar, Oli discusses how the same agile mentality holds true with navigating the future of digital health — although his approach may surprise you.

Right Brain, Left Brain

As Oli sees it, the early, foundational infrastructure of digital health companies like Sidekick is primarily built by engineers and data science – and this makes sense, given that the technology must ultimately apply to and understand behavioral economics. Oli describes this as a right-brained approach to organizing and building a company. “But you can’t fit human behavior into a box,” he points out. “You can make programs to measure it, track it, even predict it…but there needs to be some form of ‘x’ factor that takes a different approach to balance this out — the left brained approach — that is able to sidestep all the data, science, and habit tracking, and still influence people to make a change.”

In other words, science and engineering aren’t the only ways to approach things, nor should they be. For just as there are scientists in the world whose research is wildly impacting and influencing the human race, there are also artists throwing paint onto canvases and composing music that people relate to and are moved by.

“Both approaches, science and art, generate influence and change,” he says. “So it’s not necessarily ‘one or the other’ but rather both.”

With that said, Oli finds the artistry element more difficult to identify and bottle. “It’s because one doesn’t just go out and say ‘great, now I’m going to be creative.’” Instead, he says, it’s more a state of mind — and a willingness to explore and examine and make mistakes — that leads to creative thought.

The solution? “You have to bring out your pink scarf, so to speak,” he says. “Try something different.”

Oli The Artist

Amplifying creative pursuits doesn’t mean that Sidekick is necessarily looking to bring on Artists with a capital ‘A’ to their product team — or at least not right now. According to Oli, it’s important to find people who are experts in their field, but whose brains can live in and flex somewhat between both the right-brained and left-brained worlds. An engineer who also likes to write. A marketing manager who dabbles in gaming. Or, in Oli’s case, a CPTO who’s learning to paint.

“I’m as far away from being an artist as possible,” he laughs. “But if Sidekick needs to move in this direction — and I believe that it does — then it’s only natural for me to move in this direction as well. And so one day, I bought an easel and brushes and paint and just started to paint. I’m never going to show it to anyone, but that’s not the purpose. The purpose is to try to get me closer to an artistic mindset, to that ‘zone’.”

Oli also divulges that while he did pick up painting partly to explore his own creativity, it was also because the long days during COVID lockdowns were beginning to wear on him.

“I started to feel that I was running a live experiment on burnout. How far could I go without tipping over? But at the same time I was thinking: okay, that’s not really the best experiment you should be doing right now. Or ever. So let’s change that.” 

And so he began painting while listening in on calls, which was often, at one point having an average of 50 meetings per week. “I found that painting was exceptionally relaxing for me. Perhaps it’s just the mindfulness of it.” 

Or perhaps it was the subtle habit change that led to a new, positive lifestyle with a positive feedback loop — which is, after all, a cornerstone of Sidekick’s philosophy. It’s also an integral element of how Oli views “gamification” in the Sidekick universe. 

But what is “gamification”? Well, it depends on who you ask…

Gamification & The Quantified Self

Oli asserts that while gamification is an umbrella term with lots of varying definitions and interpretations, his view, as it applies to the digital health sector, is the method that is utilized to positively affect or influence a person’s behavior. In other words, “gamification” doesn’t have to strictly be a game.

“To me, gamification is a combination of psychology, behavior economics, data, you name it, all stirred together in a big pot. But it’s also the style of communication — the advertising, marketing, and market research — in which we translate and transmit our enthusiasm and excitement to the person on the other side, so as to positively influence their behavior. And that, again, is an art.”

It’s also an art to figure out what works (and why) for different people with different circumstances.

“We’re seeing an emergence of the ‘quantified self’ generation,” Oli explains. “People that walk around with Apple Watches and Fitbits and get direct feedback about their steps, weight, diet, you name it.” But this data-driven, quantifiable-only approach isn’t effective for everyone or every lifestyle, particularly those living with chronic illnesses.

“The ‘quantified self’ audience is not the one we are looking to impact. We want to impact all of the other people who are wired differently or who require different types of motivation or respond to different types of communication. Yes, behavioral economics and statistics will come into play, but the goal is to approach this communication and motivation more as an artistic decision, rather than pure science. And that’s what I’m trying to do in my role at Sidekick.”

When it comes to applying an artistic lens to digital health and gamification, Oli explains that to him, being ‘artistic’ also doesn’t mean that you have to write the next great American novel or become the next Rembrandt, but rather, it means being curious, asking questions, and going beyond your comfort zone. The point of trying these sorts of things, he says, is to train yourself to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. To experience this uncomfortableness, because this often leads to new ways of thinking, new ways of perception, different solutions to problems, and ultimately, new ideas. 

In other words: innovation, the very lifeblood of any company looking to successfully navigate uncharted territory like digital health technology. 

To Infinity and Beyond

Innovation and charting the unknown continues to excite Oli just as much as it did the day Tryggvi Thorgeirsson, now CEO & Co-Founder of Sidekick, first approached him with the opportunity to lead product development.

“I knew almost immediately that I wanted in. Just the concept of the idea was enough to interest me,” he says. “It was really small stuff at the time but just the idea was enough. I knew that I could contribute in a meaningful way. We weren’t really thinking about the business challenges or creating a sustainable business or the logistics or anything of that sort — that we knew we could figure out. There were no roadmaps, however, for what we wanted to create, but I was absolutely sure that we could do it.”

Oli’s passion and belief continues to gently guide the company through the ever-evolving digital health landscape. When asked specifically about the future of Sidekick’s artistic evolution, Oli says, “I don’t know for sure, I just know there is one. What that looks like, however, is yet to be determined.” 

His response is sure and steadfast, but there is excitement bubbling underneath, which seemingly captures the essence of who Oli is: passionate, ambitious, and welcoming of the challenges that lie ahead. 

Just like an artist.

Interested in joining Oli on his mission to improve healthcare? Learn more about career opportunities at Sidekick Health.