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Innovation in the Arctic

As a Canadian invested in northern and Arctic issues it is frustrating to note the lack of innovation in infrastructure, food & energy security, and health care & education access in the region, and its negative impacts on human development. Existing technologies, for example in greenhouse food production, small scale energy production, and telehealth, could be applied in new and locally relevant ways in the north, contributing to local self-sufficiency, providing new employment opportunities, and improving quality of life, but often aren’t. We know so much about the problems in Arctic development but so little about solutions. What are the barriers?

Much has been written in the past decade about the creative class – the drivers of economic development and early adopters of technologies. The leaders of economic development in the information age are those who contribute to the knowledge economy, and they are often – usually – found in large cities where the variety of networks and collections of smart people converge to produce innovative ideas, and where capital and the entrepreneurial spirit exists in a way that they can commercialize these.

The flip side of this phenomenon is that the kind of innovation that leads to economic development is unlikely to originate in rural and remote areas, and these may fall further behind as technological advancement occurs in faster and faster cycles in urban areas.

It is certainly not true that there is no innovation in the Arctic. Many of the Nordic countries, including communities in their Arctic areas, are world leading in some areas. And there are hotspots of creativity – in particular artistic talents and engagement in civic leadership - which the literature tells us are important preconditions for innovation. The Arctic region has borne some of the most exciting and innovative governance arrangements in the world in the past four decades, and large resource extraction projects have relied on new and better methods to make them profitable in increasingly remote locales and amid increasingly robust environmental regulations. But many of the things that most impact the daily life of Northerners are still done the way they were three or four decades ago, from housing design and diesel energy generation, to flying in food, nurses and doctors.

A few things stand out as hurdles in improving the capacity of Arctic communities to develop and embrace new technologies and innovations. The first is a lack of educational attainment, especially in rural and indigenous communities. The North needs better science and math literacy, as well as individuals with post secondary qualifications in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields to modify and apply technologies developed for a southern or urban context to the particular needs of northern communities.

The second barrier is the inordinate size and scope of the public sector in northern economies. The public sector is notoriously risk adverse, and so long as bureaucrats make the bulk of planning decisions we should not expect experimentation with new ways and means.

The third is the conservative nature of rural and indigenous communities, a phenomenon evident far beyond the Arctic. Traditional ways of knowing are cherished and a sense of communal responsibility is reinforced, but this seems to have deterred entrepreneurialism and the processes that lead to commercialization.

A fourth challenge is the lack of economies of scale in the Arctic, particularly at the community level. It makes investment of capital in new applications of technology particularly risky and lacking a sufficient return on investment. In this way Arctic regions must collaborate closer – an application that works well in northern Alaska may be equally suitable in eastern Greenland or north-eastern Russia, as well as other remote locations throughout the world, such as island nations or the Australian Outback. Markets of a few million people are much more promising than markets of a few thousand people.

A fifth barrier is the lack of reliable and affordable telecommunications infrastructure. The internet promises to make health care, education, capital, ideas and networks of thinkers far more accessible to Northerners. But it is cripplingly expensive and of poor quality in many of the most remote Arctic locations. It is also worth noting that the internet is only a tool – Northerners will have to take advantage of the doors it opens, and this requires addressing the first four issues.

I expect in time – 30 years, 50 years maybe – many of these issues will be addressed. But it will not happen by accident. Innovation – the kind that creates jobs, opportunities and economies – needs to be pushed much harder in the Arctic, or the gap between rural and urban quality of life and social outcomes will continue to grow larger.