Nordregio after 20 years: reaching excellence through continuity and constant renewal

The Nordic Region is among the richest regions in the world, with vast natural resources, high levels of technological development and a prosperous welfare system built on social equity. But we are also facing serious challenges in many areas related to regional development. In recent years, regional development has been severely affected by the economic crisis, the impact of rapid demographic change driven by urbanisation, a shrinking and aging population in remote areas and increasing refugee immigration.

Nordregio’s most important mission is to provide Nordic authorities with evidence-based knowledge that contributes to solutions to these and other sustainable development challenges. From Longyearbyen in the north to Rødby in the south, we are constantly learning from each other by exchanging knowledge and experiences between the Nordic countries. Acting as an advisor and knowledge broker on Nordic regional policy, Nordregio provides professional and efficient support to the Nordic Council of Ministers and authorities at the national, regional and local levels.

Nordregio was established by the Nordic Council of Ministers in 1997 through a merger of three institutions. The largest of these was Nordplan (Nordiska institutet för samhällsplanering). Originally a Swedish government institution established in 1968, it was co-funded by Denmark, Norway and Finland and established in 1981 as a Nordic institute. Nordplan, which arranged popular annual courses for practitioners from all Nordic countries, was located on Skeppsholmen in Stockholm, in the same building where Nordregio exists today.

In 1997, Skeppsholmen was also the location of the NordRefo (Nordisk institutt for regionalpolitisk forskning), a research institute for regional studies and policy development, which periodically rotated its office between the Nordic countries. NordRefo was established as a Nordic institution in 1980, but existed as a Nordic working group from 1966. The third party in the Nordregio amalgamation was NOGRAN, an analytic unit funded by the Nordic Council of Ministers and located in Helsinki. NOGRAN was initiated in 1979 as a project that aimed to map and evaluate Nordic regional development to produce policy-relevant knowledge to support decision making.

Nordregio inherited valuable assets from all three of its predecessors. Although the renowned Nordplan courses were terminated by the end of the 20th century, the organisation’s important networking function has formed the basis for the Nordic Cooperation Programme for Regional Development and Planning. Further, the extensive international research cooperation that currently happens at Nordregio builds on the foundations laid by NordRefo. Finally, the analytical approach that shapes publications like State of the Nordic Region carries on the traditions originally established by NOGRAN.

Nordregio’s course has been steady over the past 20 years. During the first eight years, with Hallgeir Aalbu as the director, Nordregio developed a role as a professional advisor for EU, national and regional authorities regarding regional development, as well as playing an active role in the first ESPON 2006 programme. This development continued for the next eight years under Ole Damsgaard’s leadership, when Nordregio became the largest single contributor to the ESPON 2013 programme. Furthermore, during this period Nordregio’s active role in implementing the Nordic Cooperation Programme for Regional Policy was fixed. Over the past four years this role has been emphasised, and Nordregio’s analytical capacity has also received broader recognition within the Nordic Council of Ministers (e.g., through the Prime Ministers’ initiative on Nordic Sustainable Cities and the Nordic Cooperation Programme for Integration of Refugees and Immigrants).

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Nordregio’s development is also characterised by constant change. We continuously adapt to changing priorities in national regional development policies and trends and keep seeking new research opportunities in European, Nordic and national programmes. We are also continuously renewing our competence profile by recruiting new people with different skills and tools. The thematic focal areas have shifted during Nordregio’s 20 year’s history. Based on Nordregio’s strategy 2020, developed by the employees in close dialogue with Nordregio’s Board, we now have four focal areas:

  1. Regional Rural and Demographic Development
  2. Urban Planning and Sustainable Development
  3. Regional Innovation and Green Growth
  4. Governance and Policy: Regional Reforms and Strategies

Nordregio strives for scientific excellence: As an internationally oriented research institution, it is crucial for Nordregio to aim for scientific excellence. We do this through three pillars using both qualitative and quantitative methods: A close dialogue with stakeholders in the field; solid quantitative/GIS data collection and comparison; and case studies analysed and compared using multidisciplinary techniques.

Nordregio works with people: Nordregio carries out both basic and applied social science research. Applied social science is carried out using evidence-based research, by analysing and developing policies based on a wide and diverse number of case studies within Nordic regions and municipalities. Research is grounded because it is conducted in collaboration with policymakers and stakeholders within various regions and municipalities, to create a thorough understanding of the context, build trust and draw on local knowledge.

Nordregio uses a multidisciplinary approach: To understand and carry out research on practical economic and social challenges and opportunities, as well as related policies in different Nordic areas, we need a broad base of expertise from across a range of social science disciplines. Furthermore, as language and cultural knowledge are keys to understanding, we emphasise a broad representation of researchers who focus on both rural and urban regions across the Nordic countries. This helps us meet the needs of our diverse communities as well as being able to approach research from different perspectives.

Nordregio produces advanced maps and analyses: Visualisation of key data and analyses of regional development (e.g., migration, bioresource potential and immigrant employment) are keys to developing rapid and thorough overviews and comparisons between the regional and municipal levels across Nordic countries. Statistical and econometric methods are used to identify key relationships across time and space.

The Nordic countries are blessed with vast natural resources, including forests, agricultural land and marine resources that are critical for transformation from a fossil to bio-based economy. When organised well, this transformation provides opportunities for the development of rural areas and offers space and opportunities for newcomers to the Nordic countries. This transformation also requires change and innovation within supporting institutions and technologies. Nordregio has taken this challenge seriously and has carried out studies within the circular economy and bioeconomy, as well as assessing the potential for integration of immigrants in rural areas. Finally, new sustainable cities and small towns are developing in all Nordic countries – and Nordregio is critically investigating how these cities and towns can develop, not only from an environmental perspective, but also from the perspective of social equity, considering all groups of people.

As an international research institution, Nordregio contributes to the wider international community by improving understanding with socially, economically and environmentally sustainable examples and policies that are grounded in regions and municipalities across the Nordic countries.

Nordregio is situated on the beautiful island of Skeppsholmen in the heart of Stockholm. Photo: Johanna Feuk

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

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