Arctic views from Frode Mellemvik, a pioneer at the High North Center

By Marybeth Sandell - July 1, 2024
Frode Mellemvik (Adrian Bensvik)

After a big conference, it is all too easy to rush home, and jump back into everyday life. All the more reason to take time to reflect on the recent Arctic Congress in 2024 with director Frode Mellemvik, who joins us for an in-depth Q&A to share his views. 

Dr. Mellemvik, 70, has been the director of the High North Center for 17 years and previously served as the dean of the Business School. He retires this month. 

Q: In the last year, two Arctic nations (Finland and Sweden) joined NATO. Can you explain how this has impacted discussions?

The Arctic Congress Bodø 2024 did not explicitly focus on security issues in the Arctic. The plenary sessions were devoted to issues connected to People of the North, Sustainable Economic Development, and Climate and Environment. Now when Finland and Sweden as Norway are NATO members that opens for even more collaboration in the North between these three countries on a wide range of topics, but that was not explicitly raised as issues for discussion. However, topics related to the increased cooperation in the North between these three countries will probably be part of the program of High North Dialogue 2025 which takes place in Bodø at the March 26-27 conference. 

Q: One country (Russia) remains excluded from participating in events like this. How is this affecting collaboration, both for research and policy activities?

It means that we do not have the opportunities to discuss challenges in the Arctic with Russian researchers. In some fields dealing with for instance climate issues, this could imply that we don’t have access to all information that may be important to create a common understanding of the situation. This could also imply that we as researchers are not able to give as precise and commonly discussed advice for political activities (for instance, regulations and other actions) as we would have wished. In some areas, lack of cooperation in research may create huge problems.

In Norway and maybe in some of the other Arctic states, it is still possible to have person-to-person cooperation with Russian researchers. In addition, some windows for cooperation with Russia have opened within the Arctic Council. It is now possible to have meetings in a virtual format both within the Working Groups and the Expert Groups.

Q: How do you see the topic of security developing in future years based on what you saw this year?

Because of the war in Ukraine and the overall geopolitical situation, security will be of utmost importance and influence a lot of activities. Security is, however, multifaceted, and not only about military security. I expect we will see much more effort – politically, publicly and from the business sector – to develop strong regional and local communities, and that many actors will do what is possible to secure business and societal activities. And let us not forget that societal development including strong welfare systems, social inclusion, job opportunities, education and upbringing are also fundamental aspects of security.

Q: Mental health and well being was a point of interest this year. Tell us about what we learned and any concrete ideas or take-aways that came from discussions?

I was not taking part in the discussions regarding mental health and cannot comment much on that. However, let me add that at the High North Center for Business and Governance we work with societal development in the Arctic. Although the term ‘High North’ is often used interchangeably with the Arctic, we use this concept to signify that we work with people, societies and businesses in the North. Social wellbeing, although not mental health specifically, is a very important part of this. The High North Center has many efforts towards the younger generations. Recently, we have begun working on a 12 million NOK project called “YoungArctic”, with the aim to connect, motivate and support young researchers and other professionals living in the Arctic region. The funding for this project will mainly be spent on networking activities to improve contact across borders and institutions and supporting young entrepreneurs financially and professionally to boost creativity and new ideas. To help young people thrive, is highly important for the future development of the High North.  

Q: Tell us about the state of mind in the audience regarding climate change? Is it more Pessimistic? Optimistic?

It’s a mix of perspectives reflecting both concern and proactive stances. Of course, there is an emphasis on the urgency in regards to making efforts to handle climate related issues, but there is also an element of optimism driven by the focus on sustainable development and hope for the future. At the High North Center, we have projects related to sustainable development and collaboration in the High North. For example, the ArcBlue project, which focuses on enhancing blue economy collaboration across Alaska, Greenland and Northern Norway. Our own High North Dialogue conference, which is happening next on March 26 and 27, 2025, is also important in that regard as it aims to engage young stakeholders in discussions about sustainable development and societal impacts.

Q: Is there a topic that you felt was missing this year? One that was discussed more in the hallways than on stage?

I think that the Arctic Congress Bodø 2024 handled very many important topics.  Besides the plenary sessions, there were lots of parallel sessions. Therefore, I do not think that there was a single topic that I can say I heard many say were missing. However, and as mentioned above, it is a demanding situation when we cannot discuss important relevant research questions connected to the Arctic with Russian colleagues. The uncertainties have increased in many areas during the past years and therefore open discussions about these uncertainties are important. Arctic Congress Bodø 2024 was a success and gave opportunities for lots of dialogue connected to many important areas. Many of these dialogues, of practical reasons, had to find places in parallel sessions where most participants had some of the same background. Maybe what we need now is to make some common dialogues that cover perspectives and interests from different backgrounds. We will try to do that at the High North Dialogue 2025.

Q: What was your biggest unexpected lesson from this year, professional or personal? And how might it change your planning for next year’s event?
To be honest I am not so sure that there were many unexpected lessons. The reason is that those who were doing all the practical planning of the Arctic Congress did a fantastic job. The biggest challenge – not unexpected – was to put three conferences (ICASS, UArctic Congress, and High North Dialogue) into one Arctic Congress – but we succeeded very well. I think the Congress was beneficial for the participants not least because they had the opportunity to attend outside of their usual comfort field of expertise/practice. The Arctic Congress Bodø 2024 was huge and a one-time event that was great. I know however that we will see both IASSA and UArctic also in High North Dialogue 2025. The Arctic Congress Bodø 2024 made a platform that I think will influence all the three conferences the year to come, and the first time to see it will be in Bodø at the High North Dialogue 2025, March 26-27.

Frode Mellemvik (Markus Thonhaugen)

Q: What are your fondest memories, or best advice for your successor as you retire?

There are so many great memories from my work as Director of the High North Center for Business and Governance that it is difficult to choose. However, let me try:

The meetings with students in many of the educational activities we are involved in are always of much inspiration. These are the future leaders of businesses and public sector organizations in the Arctic, and the meetings with these students always make me believe in a strong future for the Arctic.

At the High North Dialogue, we annually honor a person who has contributed extraordinarily to the development of the High North. It is an international High North Hero Committee that decides who shall receive this award, and I am the person to inform the High North Hero about that s/he is a High North Hero.  I have done this 7 times and all of these times have created memories that I will bring with me.  

We have also the past 5 years awarded a High North Young Entrepreneur. Each of these High North Young Entrepreneurs gives me inspiration symbolizing the strengths of the youth of the Arctic. 

In 2007 companies and public sector entities trusted us in such a way that they invested in us and we could establish the High North Center for Business and Governance, and this is something I will always remember with much fondness. As well as when the Norwegian Parliament decided that we are an international center to develop and communicate knowledge about opportunities for businesses and societies in the north, and from that year we received our basic funding from the Norwegian State Budget.

Each article and book published by colleagues at the High North Center create memories. Each PhD candidate that I have supervised has given me many wonderful memories.

I think the new head of the High North Center first of all should try to find out how s/he could strengthen the Center. Be action oriented, create networks and do what you can to draw attention to the importance of strengthening businesses, societies and people in the North. Fight for more business related education and research connected to the North and for strong cooperation locally and internationally between all who work to create value and good societies in the North.