Arctic change is on the radar

The Nordic countries comprise five of the eight Arctic nations, and the development of the Nordic Arctic region is an important inspiration for many of the other regions in the Circumpolar Arctic. Over the past 20 years, there has been increased Nordic co-operation in the attention paid to these areas, and it is likely that the rapid changes now becoming the norm in Arctic societies will foster a continued focus on their development.

The Nordic Council of Ministers (NCM) has supported Arctic co-operation since 1996 and in 2009 Nordregio became the administrator of the Nordic Arctic Co-operation Programme on behalf of the Nordic Council of Ministers. In 2013, the Nordic Committee of Senior Officials for Regional Policy (EK-R) put the Arctic on its agenda by establishing a working group for sustainable regional development in the Arctic. The primary aim of this working group was to initiate a thorough study that would provide input to the regional planners and policy makers in the Nordic Arctic. The researchers were assigned to collect, process and analyse the existing information, and to evaluate various assumptions concerning the future. Among the conclusions of the work carried out is the projected impact of future demographic changes by 2040 is such that future population composition in smaller and larger towns will determine future business and occupational development. The proportion of youth in the population plays an especially important role because the active age group in the workforce (19–65 years) is likely to shrink, with only a few regional exceptions.

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Migration creates growth
More regions in the Nordic Arctic have experienced population stability because of positive net migration, rather than natural growth based on birth and death rates. This underlines the importance of newcomers from foreign countries, who could potentially join the labour force. An important part of this immigration trend is to continue to strengthen social cohesion by building social capital to utilize the opportunities of the bioeconomy and the sustainable extraction of natural resources. A theme emphasized by those 12 communities that took part in the Foresight Analysis was the need to ensure a more diversified labour market and to reduce dependency on a single economic sector. Value creation in the Nordic Arctic countries is mostly based on the extraction of natural resources, which often dominates other occupations, but opportunities for knowledge-, service- and creativity-based industries could blossom. New financial instruments are evolving with increased awareness that multifunctionality needs to thrive in the north, and that there are exciting opportunities to develop emerging from the Arctic. They have been initiated by private investors such as Guggenheim Partners, the World Economic Forum Arctic Investment Protocol, the European Investment Bank, and by public development programmes by the EU, Nordic countries, Nordic Co-operation and other international networks. Their effect on the Arctic stage remains to be seen.

An example of a recent initiative funded by EU Interreg and the Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme, is the REGINA project (Regional Innovation in the Nordic Arctic and Scotland with a Special Focus on Regions with LargeScale Projects),. The project supports the development of local smart specialization by introducing the regional concept of smart specialization to local authorities that deal with large companies extracting natural resources. The aim is to mitigate negative demographic development, manage land-use conflicts and foster entrepreneurship, innovation and green growth in the local area.

Increased interest in Arctic research
Since 1996, the NCM’s Arctic Co-operation Programme has funded several hundred projects, artistic activities and political initiatives on topics ranging from climate change, nature, the environment and sustainable development to health, culture and skills enhancement. These initiatives share one common goal, namely sustainable development that respects nature and safeguards the welfare of Arctic people. The Arctic Co-operation Programme supplements other NCM programmes, strategies and initiatives that address issues relevant to the Arctic. So far in 2017, there have been more applications than in previous years, with 82 applications with a total value of 34.6 million DKK on the thematic priorities of environment, climate and nature, economy and business development, population and education, and skills enhancement. However, despite the number of interesting project applications in 2017, the capacity of the programme only allows for 6.5 million DKK to fund new and ongoing projects. Another indication that changes and development in the Arctic are on the radar is that the ICASS (International Circumpolar Arctic Social Science) conference is to be held in Umeå in June 2017, and has received approximately 900 paper abstracts, more abstracts and paper submissions than ever before. Nordregio will be present at several sessions and hosting a side event.

Arctic development by the people in the Arctic
Nordregio as an institute has a legacy in Arctic research through its personnel, who have worked on issues and regional development in this region over several years. Its interdisciplinary co-operation makes it particularly interesting to work with, and the strength of interdisciplinary co-operation in the Arctic includes environmental, economic and social aspects that provide a solid basis for analysis. However, this requires the natural scientists, economists and social scientists to co-operate by informing and updating each other, although this does not always occur as we would wish. It is demanding to gain local and regional knowledge from within, but the experience from our Foresight study on sustainable regional development in the Arctic provided an important and profound lesson on participatory research where science meets practice. Along with the increasing global focus on climate change over the last 20 years, the Arctic regions have gained more attention than ever before from international politicians. As an example, the former President of Iceland and founder of the Arctic Circle, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, described the strong interest of the leading economies in the Arctic territories, and Chinese interest in co-operation is one proof of this. In his view, expressed at the Nordic Arctic Working Group final seminar in January in Copenhagen, the Nordic Arctic represents a much larger area for future potential wealth of natural resources than the populated capital regions of the Nordic countries. Anne Husebekk, Rector of the Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø, stressed that we need to keep value creation in the Nordic region, and not ship raw materials to other countries for further processing and added value. She emphasized the need to explore all the possibilities that the bioeconomy and bioprospecting can offer to regional business development. An ongoing challenge for regions with dominant business structures characterized by small and medium-sized companies is gaining venture capital for the long term. The results of the Nordic Working Group for Sustainable Regional Development in the Arctic (2013–2016) have been integrated and taken into consideration in the new Thematic Group for Sustainable Rural Development (2017–2020), and you can follow the work through projects and publications published on our website.

This article is part of Nordregio News #2. 2017, read the entire issue here.

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