An Arctic innovation hub could help the region adapt to climate change

By bringing communities and scientists together, such a hub would prioritize local needs, but draw on global research.

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A smartBUOY is deployed in the ice near Qikiqtarjuaq. The SmartICE program could serve as a model for linking outside resources with Arctic residents to create new innovations for the region. (Courtesy of SmartICE via Nunatsiaq News)

A new sense of the severity of climate emergency is growing around the world, following youth activists and increasingly severe weather. As COVID-19 has forced them to create new lifestyles, climate change will demand significant transitions for each society after the tipping point. The Arctic is the most vulnerable region, with temperatures rising more than twice as fast as the global average. If we have channels to exchange needs and experiences inside and outside the Arctic, both of people will benefit from the relationship; Indigenous communities in the Arctic would solve ongoing adaptation challenges; people outside the Arctic would learn clues about how to prepare for the approaching impact of climate change.

The melting sea ice is dramatically disturbing the traditional life of Arctic Indigenous communities. These communities are masters of adaptation who have lived in the Arctic for a long time. The accelerated environmental change has begun to overcome their traditional knowledge, however. For example, the retreat of sea ice has disrupted hunters from accessing to subsistence animals and the communities. We need to fill the gap to continue to sustain their lives in the Arctic.

Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI) have the potential to promote adaptations in the Arctic Indigenous community. People in the modern world invest in STI to solve social problems. The United Nations promotes STI as key means of implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I propose the concept of a “Global Arctic Innovation Hub,” bridging international actors that have the STI experiences to create adaptation measures for the problems facing Indigenous communities. Building networks between the local universities and foreign specialists such as researchers and engineers would foster opportunities to introduce good practices. At the same time, working together with the local residents, outsiders to the region would learn how society can develop and implement climate solutions using both STI and local traditions.

SmartICE illustrates the how STI can contribute solutions to problems facing Arctic Indigenous communities. The technology integrates the Inuit traditional knowledge of sea ice with remote sensing technology, which provides sea ice thickness and local ice conditions in near real time. It has created values for the local community: Supporting safe on-ice travel, creating jobs, training local youth, and strengthening other industries, including fisheries and mining. SmartICE is a model of STI-driven adaptation that achieves both economic development and preservation of Indigenous lifestyles.

How was SmartICE developed? The initiative came from university research to a social enterprise (The Palgrave Handbook of Arctic Policy and Politics). A 2010 survey in Nunatsiavut, the Inuit region in Canada’s Newfoundland and Labrador province, revealed that 75 percent of people were not confident in the ice, and one out of 12 had fallen through the ice. Dr. Trevor Bell is a geographer at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. He developed sea-ice monitoring technology, working together with the Inuit community, industries, and governments in the region. After the team won the Arctic Inspiration Prize in 2016, they launched a social enterprise, SmartICE. The Nunatsiavut government and the Canadian federal government funded the project. Today, SmartICE is expanding its activities and partnerships in the Arctic.

The involvement of regional stakeholders, especially the Indigenous community, is imperative for developing STI adaptation measures. SmartICE benefitted from an innovation ecosystem built around the Memorial University of Newfoundland. The ecosystem implemented an innovation cycle: polling community needs, generating ideas with technology, conducting research and development with local industries, fundraising, and implementing in collaboration with communities and local governments.

While there are some regional ecosystems that foster such STI adaptation measures, there are limited pipelines to bridge international STI resources to the needs of Indigenous communities. Meanwhile, non-Arctic countries are also conducting diverse scientific research and technology-implementation projects with focuses on agriculture, engineering, and medicine, among other topics. They could contribute to the Arctic adaptation issues, such as food security in changing ecosystems, infrastructure replacement on thawing permafrost, and health risks posed by new diseases. The international scientific community has been developing mechanisms for sharing data and infrastructure for Arctic observations. The MoSAIC expedition, with participants from 20 countries, highlights the rise of international cooperation in the Arctic. Taking advantage of this momentum, the international scientific community should work to ensure cooperation to develop adaptation measures as well.

Now is the time to develop an international STI collaboration effort to foster adaptation measures, given Indigenous communities are suffering the impact of climate change. TO do this, we need to build an international STI network around regional innovation ecosystems, including universities that have pipelines connecting Indigenous communities, local industry, and local governments. I call this concept the “Global Arctic Innovation Hub.”

The hub would introduce new ideas, knowledge, and opportunities to the Indigenous communities. The hub would support a “needs-pull” innovation process by creating matching opportunities between the Indigenous communities and international ideas. The hub would accelerate research and development by using existing practices in foreign countries. Developing standardized protocols would ensure environmental sustainability. It would increase opportunities through access to foreign capital. Having both regional and international channels maximizes the potential to invent adaptive measures, which would help to fill the gap between indigenous communities and changing environments.

Some existing efforts may resonate with the Global Arctic Innovation Hub. The Arctic Council promotes the “Arctic Adaptation Exchange” that is an online platform sharing knowledge between communities, researchers, and decision-makers. The hub would complement this platform by expanding real cooperation. Many Arctic multilateral actors such as the Arctic Science Ministerial share visions for utilizing STI for sustainable development. Cooperation between these actors would enhance the international STI network to promote adaptations.

The climate crisis has raised the sense of urgency in people in the world. A Global Arctic l Innovation Hub would systematically mobilize its power to work for developing adaptations of Indigenous communities. Simultaneously, the hub would provide non-Arctic people with learning opportunities for how people live together with a fragile environment — which is an inevitable issue for the rest of the world as well.

Koshi Murakoshi is a Master in Public Administration candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and is from Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

This piece is one of a series of op-eds written by the student-scholars of the Arctic Innovators Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Arctic Initiative. You can read the full series on this site.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Arctic Initiative or ArcticToday, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at) arctictoday.com.