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Northern exceptionalism holds back Arctic innovation

May 22, 2017


Brandon Ray

Gwen Holdmann, Alaska Center for Energy and Power, discusses how Alaska is pioneering new microgrid energy solutions that it hopes to export to other regions around the globe.
Gwen Holdmann, Alaska Center for Energy and Power, discusses how Alaska is pioneering new microgrid energy solutions that it hopes to export to other regions around the globe. (Photo credit: Arfian Setiaji)
Feature Series

Arctic Foreign Policy Field Experience

International Policy Institute Fellows in the field

Innovate Arctic began like most Arctic meetings, with an acknowledgment of the sacred ground on which we stood, which belongs to the local Athabaskan people. However, this is largely where the similarity stopped. While the Arctic Interchange events held in Fairbanks, Alaska, were largely geared toward capturing the arguably cautious approach to Arctic governance, the Innovate Arctic event in Anchorage was geared toward enterprising entrepreneurs who work collaboratively and creatively across borders and solve problems in a relatively quick manner – generally outside the confines of normal bureaucracy. Anchorage mayor Ethan Berkowitz kicked off the meeting by reflecting on Alaska’s history; the state was largely built on the dreams of its inhabitants and those who moved here in search of greatness. He challenged the participants to shed their irrational fear of risk and embrace the changes that are coming, much as Indigenous people have done for millennia. This was a fresh approach to encroaching challenges. While governance at the international and national levels has progressed at a slow pace, the local level is positioning itself to fill this void – forming connections with other municipalities and using citizen diplomacy and city diplomacy to circumvent inefficiencies in traditional international relations.

The day progressed into two tracks of TED-style presentations, one focused more broadly on a variety of innovation issues, and one specifically examining innovation in the energy sector. Isaac Vanderberg of Launch Alaska provided statistics, showing that Alaska is greatly lagging the rest of the nation in innovation and venture capital; Dane Boysen of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab described the rising energy consumption and costs in rural Alaska. Boysen’s message was surprisingly not one of technology or projects. Boysen urged investment in people and innovation through connecting stakeholders, developing Alaskan solutions to Alaskan problems.

This sentiment was echoed by other speakers, including Ben Kellie, CEO of K2 Dronotics, who argued for the need to build resiliency and solve problems as a community. He remarked, “What we do as necessity here is improvement on efficiency elsewhere,” which provides opportunities for Arctic goods and services in non-Arctic markets. Greg Poelzer of the International Centre for Northern Governance and Development at the University of Saskatchewan argued that political engagement needs to occur where it matters most, at the local level. He pointed to a recent study that showed that almost 25% of First Nations individuals in Saskatchewan had contacted a local official and almost one-third had attended a municipal meeting. Due to this increased local activism, the partnerships that emerged help build capacity, strengthen the local economy, lower transaction costs, and ultimately build the global economy. These talks echoed Mayor Berkowitz’s call to action, as all focused on developing local solutions to local problems – yet working collaboratively with peers in other communities and nations when issues are held in common.

The afternoon included several panel discussions. The first focused on the military, one of Alaska’s largest employers; the second on developing an innovation ecosystem, which included the Norwegian ambassador to the United States, Ambassador Kåre R. Aas. Although the panelists argued that there were huge differences across the Arctic and thus solutions to a problem in one location may not be transferable to another, community–community partnerships have proven successful at pushing economic development. One example mentioned a village where an extraction company was trying to consult with the local inhabitants, in which the consultation was not going well. A more remote village that had successfully worked with the extraction company came to speak with the local inhabitants and helped broker the consultation process. This helps reimagine challenges as opportunities. Morten Brugard, a Senior Advisor at Innovation Norway, argued that “Northern exceptionalism” is holding back northern economies. The notion that the Arctic is a special and unique place is preventing Arctic innovations from spreading to other areas around the globe that have similar issues. He further argued that if northern entrepreneurs want to be globally successful, they must be treated like all other entrepreneurs within the Arctic nation.

However, the biggest challenge the panelists discussed was how to foster this collaboration, especially with market opportunities outside the Arctic. Hezekiah “Ky” Holland, professor at Alaska Pacific University, described the typical entrepreneur as someone who works long hours just to make sure next week’s product can get out the door on time, which provides no room for developing additional partnerships. This is an area where the Arctic Economic Council can play a role. By working at the macro level to develop partnerships between innovation centers, the Arctic entrepreneurs could have easier access to network, brainstorm, and collaborate with their counterparts – especially as increased connectivity in the Arctic is bringing remote villages a greater opportunity to benefit from the global economy.

Thinking about the barriers between the Lower 48 and Alaska in terms of identity, one of the most interesting discussions that arose is that of “Northern exceptionalism,” which adds a bidirectional component to this barrier. While much of the rhetoric on the Arctic has highlighted its uniqueness on the international stage, this uniqueness can also prove harmful, as it effectively excludes market opportunities outside the Arctic when developing northern businesses. While there are different challenges in Alaska than there are in Arizona or Arkansas, if Alaskans want to compete on the global market, they also need to think of ways to implement their solutions for a broader audience.

This publication is part of the blog series, “Arctic Foreign Policy Field Experience: Arctic Council Ministerial Meetings 2017.” View the introductory article and the listing of the 14 blogs that make up this series.

This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.