Op-Ed.: Barriers and opportunities for Arctic growth – Arctic paradoxes and solutions

Den norske regjeringens nordområdestrategi fokuserer på økonomisk, miljømessig og sosial bærekraft og hevder at beslutninger må fattes basert på den beste kunnskapen som er tilgjengelig. En fersk rapport fra UArctic om arktiske forskningstrender viser at hovedvekten av forskning i Arktis foregår innen naturvitenskapelige fag. Samfunnsfag utgjør bare 7 prosent av arktisk forskning, skriver rektor Bjørn Olsen. (Forside: Audun Rikardsen).
The increase in population will put a tremendous strain on our natural resources, and the need for sustainable management of these resources is more important than ever. The Arctic may hold the key to solving many of our global challenges.

In 2050, there will be 10 billion people on the planet, an increase of 30 percent. Humans will consume 60 percent more food than today, and between 50 – 100 percent more energy. The increase in population will put a tremendous strain on our natural resources, and the need for sustainable management of these resources is more important than ever. The Arctic, with its abundance of natural resources, may hold the key to solving many of our global challenges.

The Arctic paradox

However, the Arctic is also characterized by a paradox: increasing opportunities to create growth, but a reduced ability to exploit these opportunities. The increased opportunities for growth is related to increased access to natural resources, facilitated by global warming, technological advancements and development of infrastructure, increased access to energy, and an increasing demand for Arctic resources, including tourism. These realities provide a solid economic foundation for Arctic growth. However, the Arctic has some permanent disadvantages related to location and climate.

The flight of people

Global population increases are not reflected in the Arctic. The geographical distance between the natural resources of the region and the areas of the globe where human population growth is taking place, is increasing. Job creation is, with a few exceptions, lower in the Arctic than in other regions of Arctic countries. We are witnessing the flight of people, real and potential intellectual and labour resources. This brain drain undermines opportunities for development.

So what is the solution to this paradox?

The peaceful, innovative and sustainable north

The Norwegian government’s Arctic Strategy, presented in Bodø in April 2017, envisions a peaceful, innovative and sustainable north. The strategy focuses on economic, environmental and social sustainability and argues that decisions must be based on the best available knowledge. Further, the document argues that knowledge is crucial in promoting sustainable development in the north. The strategy even argues that the Arctic regions will become the most innovative and sustainable regions in the country.

So far, so good.

The lack of Social sciences

My concern is that sustainable growth, and the mechanisms for promoting it, are seen exclusively through the lens of natural science. There is a clear acknowledgement that we must increase our knowledge about sustainable growth in the Arctic. However, a recent report from UArctic on Arctic research trends indicates that the main research effort in the Arctic focuses on the natural science, especially earth science and biology. Social sciences constitute just 7 percent of research in the Arctic.

Future research needs to consider the bigger picture, while specifically addressing our ability to create sustainable economic growth in the Arctic. To be able to do that, we need to increase our research effort, also within the social sciences. The future of Arctic research is multidisciplinary, as are many of the challenges we face.

Young people are leaving

A prerequisite for economic growth is social sustainability, implying a diverse labour market and a balanced population structure. The key is access to the young and educated. However, the educational level of the people of the Arctic is generally lower than of those in other regions of the Arctic countries, and the young people are leaving. 

How do we make it attractive for young, educated people to live in the Arctic?

In addition to interesting jobs and good living conditions, the most important one is talent development. We need a stronger focus on talent development specific to the Arctic. This involves developing educational visions and programmes relevant for sustainable growth in the region.

We need more collaboration

Norway has eight universities and, fortunately, two of these are located above the Arctic Circle. UIT – The Arctic university of Norway houses 16,000 students, and has a specific focus on natural sciences. Nord University houses 12,000 students, and has a specific focus on social sciences. The two universities have a specific responsibility, not only to deliver education independently, but also to cooperate with other universities in the Arctic countries.

An example of one such programme is our Joint Master of Science in Energy Management, a collaboration between Nord University and MGIMO University in Moscow. We need more such collaboration, but we also need to develop a broader vision for talent development for the Arctic.

Arctic innovations and innovators

Increasing innovation capacity in the Arctic is integral to creating Arctic growth. This is about creating processes that ensure a successful journey from ideas to sustainable value creation. We need to raise awareness about all the stages of these processes, as well as the specific challenges facing Arctic innovations and Arctic innovators.

Knowledge development and talent development are necessities for Arctic growth; however, they alone are not sufficient. There is also a need for capital. And not just any capital, but competent capital, risk capital, and capital for all the business processes leading to sustainable growth.

The Arctic promises solutions

In sum: The Arctic promises solutions to our global challenges, but we must address the Arctic paradox: increasing opportunities for Arctic growth, but reduced ability to realise these opportunities. We must address this by looking at a more comprehensive approach to sustainability, where we address economic, environmental and social sustainability.  We need a broader view of knowledge development, to ensure that our decisions are based on not only the best available knowledge, but also the right knowledge. As such, we must increase our research efforts within the social sciences. We need a more multidisciplinary approach.

We need to make it more attractive for young people to live in the Arctic, by creating new educational visions for the Arctic. We need a stronger focus on Arctic innovations and Arctic innovators. We need competent Arctic capital. We need Arctic policies, but more importantly, the political will to implement these strategies, moving from rhetoric to action.

Multidisciplinary approach

Most of all, we need Arctic business. A profitable, adaptable and sustainable business sector. Business and industry will ultimately deliver the economic foundation for broader development. One way to tackle this challenge could be to establishment of a center for Arctic social science research and development, with a focus on addressing opportunities within a more multidisciplinary approach.