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Arctic Exchange in the Digital Age

By Arne Riedel and Katherine Weingartner

In an age when technology is often seen as a part of everyday life, it can be easy to forget that not everyone has equal access to technology. The Arctic is a prime example of a region in which access to technology is a significant challenge for a number of sectors and developments. Ecologic Institute’s Arctic Summer College (ASC) explored this phenomenon in the Arctic as part of its breakout session Arctic Summer College: Arctic Exchange in the Digital Age at the Arctic Circle Assembly on Oct. 15 in Reykjavík, Iceland.

At the core of the session, selected ASC Fellows Andreas Kuersten and Heather Exner-Pirot served as panelists, presenting their work on the “Arctic Digital Divide” and “Innovation in the Arctic,” respectively. The audience took part in the discussion that followed, which was also live-streamed via YouTube. The many challenges to a digital development in the Arctic came quickly to the surface.

High Costs for Technological Infrastructure Pose Challenges for Investors

The Arctic suffers from two primary barriers to building the necessary infrastructure to allow for increased access to technology. First, difficult geographical realities make building such infrastructure more complicated from an engineering perspective. Though connecting urban areas of the Arctic to the Internet may prove easier than connecting their more isolated rural counterparts, both urban and rural Arctic areas are affected by geographical obstacles such as difficult terrain, inclement weather, and isolation. This feeds into the second barrier. To overcome geographical obstacles in these areas, greater financial resources need to be invested to build the necessary infrastructure to connect these areas to the Internet. Therefore, making a convincing argument to investors to fund needed infrastructure in the region is often a struggle.

As Andreas Kuersten highlighted in his presentation, Japan and the U.K. made great financial investments in fiber optic cables in Iceland in order to cut delays in communication between the two stock markets by a few milliseconds. In this instance, the financial gains of improved infrastructure outweighed the costs. While strategically developing successful businesses in less connected Arctic areas has the potential to attract further investments in infrastructure, the initial lack of technological access can impede the progress of establishing such businesses in the early stages. Throughout the Arctic, finding ways to justify the additional development of necessary technological infrastructure is critical.

Barriers to Innovation in the Arctic

How to bring areas of the Arctic into the digital age is just part of the narrative. The other question is to what extent this should be done. As an audience member put it, there is a delicate balance between preserving traditional lifestyles and customs and bringing foreign understanding of and uses for technology into the Arctic space. Heather Exner-Pirot captured the complexity of the problem in her presentation. While some forms of technology have already been part of indigenous life for years, such as snowmobiles and everyday communication through social networks like Facebook, investment in technical training to manage larger-scale infrastructure is lacking.

The foundational training to operate such infrastructure starts in the education system. Increasing education in math and science may result in less traditional education being taught in schools in the Arctic. Traditional education includes indigenous language and writing systems, as well as cultural learning such as on-the-land instruction about hunting, harvesting, sewing, and tool making. With limited time in the classroom, new lessons must replace others.

Even if math and science are introduced to the curriculum in lieu of other types of education, there are additional problems to be considered. For example, language itself can be a barrier to education in math and science in the Arctic. Some core engineering concepts cannot be fully expressed in Greenlandic, for example, leading students to prefer the Danish translation to understand the material. The fact that technical concepts may need to be taught through another language further complicates the development of technological skills in the education system.

Promoting traditional education and math and science are both valued, but there are practical limits to achieving the two simultaneously. This makes creating the educational foundation to support technological advancements far from easy. This foundation is necessary to develop a professional sector that can advance and maintain necessary technological infrastructure in Arctic regions.

Bridging Gaps in Circumpolar Exchange

Though the Arctic faces many difficulties in the digital age, a critical step toward addressing them is to engage in multicultural and multidisciplinary discussions with Arctic professionals in the circumpolar Arctic. As Max Grünig, my colleague at Ecologic Institute Berlin, and I described at the beginning of the session, ASC is designed to create a dialogue about important and dynamic problems such as these. To engage with more isolated areas of the Arctic in addressing issues such as technological development in the Arctic, the session concluded that additional platforms for sharing knowledge are needed.

In light of distinctions in access between urban and rural areas of the Arctic, the idea was proposed to develop a training program for teachers in northern Arctic areas that focuses on exploring issues of relevance to both urban and rural residents. Through a series of webinars, teachers would act as multipliers, passing on knowledge they have gained to members of their community. In this way, knowledge sharing would extend beyond Arctic professionals within ASC, reaching local communities throughout the Arctic. Education is a foundational component of further technological advancement in the Arctic. Therefore, engaging with the academic community in the regions most affected by a lack of technological infrastructure is necessary to develop the kinds of solutions that have the potential for lasting and meaningful change.

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Arne Riedel is a lawyer and fellow at Ecologic Institute, Berlin, coordinating the Institute's activities on Arctic issues. He previously worked on Arctic policy for the German Federal Ministry for the Environment and the EU Commission.

Katherine Weingartner is a fellow at Ecologic Institute focusing on energy security, Arctic affairs, transborder environmental issues, and the environmental and foreign policies of the European Union.

The Ecologic Institute will reach out to its partners and network to continue the debates on this additional facet of an Arctic Knowledge Exchange. Join the discussion and get in touch with us via ASC@ecologic.eu.

Arctic Summer College would additionally like to thank its partners WWF Global Arctic Programme and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation for helping to make discussions like these possible.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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