Interview with Hallgeir Aalbu, Nordregio’s first Director

Interview with Hallgeir Aalbu, Director of Nordregio 1997–2005, currently Director-General at the Norwegian Ministry of Local Government and Modernisation.

You were Nordregio’s first director. What was your background?
I had previously worked for the Norwegian Ministry of Local Government and within research and research administration in Norway and Scotland, including seven years as Managing Director for the research institute Nordlandsforskning in Bodø. The family moved to Stockholm from Glasgow, where I was Visiting Professor at the European Policies Research Centre at Strathclyde University.

How do you remember the first years of Nordregio? What was its vision back then?
Nordregio’s vision was to be a leading Nordic institute for applied research on regional development and planning. Our specific profile was comparative studies, initially with a Nordic focus and later increasingly European.

The first task was to establish the way this new institute should work with respect to both the topics (regional development and planning) and the activities (educational courses, applied research, dissemination/ publications). Nordregio was to work with the Nordic Council of Ministers (NCM) as an owner and also as a client. After a couple of years, about two-thirds of the income came from other clients in Europe and the Nordics. All the work was organised in projects, including that part funded by the NCM. We established routines for project and economic management, including systems for time registration at project level and how to invoice clients.

The most important initial task was of course to develop a way to work and to recruit staff who were interested in European comparative research in our field. Luckily, a significant number of staff members from the three predecessors joined, despite the offices in Helsinki and Copenhagen closing down. We built upon the statistical database and the mapping skills from Helsinki, and Nordregio was already producing a journal from the start. Moreover, we could soon benefit from new staff members from other Nordic countries and elsewhere.

Which projects were the most memorable for you and why?
We started working in 1997. Soon after that, we successfully won the contract to manage the pilot phase of ESPON (the European Observation Network for Territorial Development and Cohesion), now part of the objective of European Territorial Cooperation. It was in a pilot phase for almost two years, during which we established a European network of researchers and consultants.

The ESPON pilot project was probably the single most important event that had the largest impact later. It provided insight into European regional policy and spatial planning, and fostered excellent relations with the European Commission as well as with researchers in all European countries. The networks we established in 1988–1999 gave Nordregio a competitive advantage when ESPON was set up, and also when we tendered for other European contracts. It was also through this work that we experienced the need for language skills and research experience from countries other than the Nordics.

From the start of ESPON, Nordregio was one of the largest participants, both at Lead Partner and as Partner in projects managed by others. I believe that our unique set-up – as a public-sector institute but still small enough to be efficiently managed – made Nordregio an attractive partner to co-operate with.

The biggest contract in these early years was with DG Regio in the European Commission, concerning a mountain policy for Europe. At that time, Romania and Bulgaria had been accepted as applicants to become members of the EU, and were to be included in the project. Naturally, DG Regio commissioned a study of only EU members and applicants. But a mountain study without Switzerland, Norway and Iceland would be incomplete, so we got additional contracts with these three countries. As part of this work, for the first time in Europe, we collected municipal-level data from 128,000 municipalities. The contract was worth about 1 million euros, which is a lot of man-hours to be delivered in a very short time. I informed the Nordregio Board of Directors about our successful bid at their next meeting, and I was met by a question I didn’t anticipate: “how do you manage the risks of taking on such a large project?” I had never thought about that, since I had confidence in the skills of our own staff and our partners. And the project was a success, which is of course also the best risk management.

Have you noticed what kind of impact and to what extent Nordregio’s recommendations have had on regional policy-making over the years in the Nordic countries?
Policy development is usually a lengthy process, and there is a range of different inputs. Policies build upon a narrative, a story that describes the challenges and points the way forward. Comparative studies are valuable in this context, since they may sometimes change the way we look at the challenges. They may also contribute to the discussion of possible solutions by highlighting how other countries have dealt with similar issues.

It is always difficult to trace the path from research to policy, and to identify the impact of a single report or piece of evidence. But international studies – both Nordic and European – are becoming more important over time.

However, there is a conflicting tendency operating in parallel; policy development is increasingly concerned with politics and less about empirical evidence. Political handicraft is of course a combination of ideology and compromise, and research will not necessarily play any significant role in the decision-making.

How do you wish to see Nordregio develop in the next few years?
I hope Nordregio can continue their excellent analyses of regional development. Nordregio’s maps are very visible and a trademark for the institute, and are found in almost every presentation of regional development; I see them everywhere.

The more difficult task is to analyse and characterise the policies of different countries. This is always challenging for researchers, even in a domestic context, and of course even more so when it comes to comparative studies. This is a field where it may be possible to develop unique knowledge and a competitive edge.

I would also like to see Nordregio competing more often for contracts within Norway and the other Nordic countries, as this will improve the usefulness of the valuable work done at Skeppsholmen and in your international networks.

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

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