Renowned for their unique ability to collaborate on culture, research, innovation and policy, the Nordic countries build their cross-border activities on networking and knowledge sharing. The Nordic Council of Ministers and its institutions are key actors in the work of linking the countries together into regional networks – an undertaking which also extends to the Baltic and Arctic regions, EU and other venues of international cooperation.
By Páll Tómas Finnsson
Tried and tested methods
Among the Nordic institutions that use networking to promote sustainability and green growth are NordForsk, Nordic Innovation, Nordic Energy Research, NORA, Nordregio and NordGen. They all have systems in place to encourage cross-border collaboration, and the funding they provide is generally predicated on participation from at least three Nordic countries.
“All our research is based on competitive calls, where at least three of the countries have to collaborate to be eligible. In some cases, cooperation with Russia, the Baltic countries or other international partners is also required,” says Jostein Sundet, Senior Advisor at NordForsk.
The institutions make use of their well-established Nordic networks when launching new initiatives. For example, Nordic Innovation works closely with the national innovation agencies, NordForsk collaborates with the research funding agencies, and Nordic Energy Research with the five national energy agencies.
“This cooperation is valuable because the institutions have their fingers on the pulse and know what’s happening in each country. It allows us to identify common needs and the value to the Nordic region of working together,” says Communications Director Bardur Örn Gunnarsson of Nordic Innovation.
Top-level Research Initiative and NordBio
The largest Nordic research and innovation cooperation project to date is the Top-level Research Initiative, responsible for the creation of a variety of networks on climate, energy and the environment. NordForsk has funded and coordinated two sub-programmes on climate change; Nordic Energy Research has led the work on large-scale wind power and sustainable biofuels; and Nordic Innovation was responsible for initiatives on energy efficiency with nanotechnology and carbon capture and storage.
Results of the Top-level Research Initiative will be presented at a conference in Stockholm on 18-19 November 2014. Nordic cooperation’s next main focus area is the bioeconomy, which will be a key issue under Iceland’s chairmanship of the Nordic Council of Ministers in 2014. The three institutions will all contribute to NordBio – the Nordic Bioeconomy Programme – launched in February 2014.
Funding and matchmaking in Nordic energy research
There are many similarities in the ways in which the institutions create and maintain Nordic networks. Funding, the most obvious driver, is designed to encourage Nordic cooperation and involve as many relevant stakeholders as possible.
“In general terms, we facilitate networks where industry, research and policy-makers come together,” says Kalle Bartholin-Nielsen, Communications Manager at Nordic Energy Research.
The institution funds two network types: research networks, receiving up to 85% of total project costs, and industry networks, which receive up to 60%. All funding from Nordic Energy Research requires active participation from a minimum of three countries. Open calls are launched every four years, corresponding to Nordic Energy Research’s strategic periods. The next call is scheduled in autumn 2014.
“Our funding in the upcoming period will encourage the creation of research networks with more industry involvement than previously,” says Bartholin-Nielsen. National workshops will be held to enable stakeholders to provide input into strategy development for the next period, 2015-2019. In addition, a matchmaking portal will be set up, where researchers and industry can find partners for their projects.
“This has yielded good results in the past. For example, the networking we facilitated through the Nordic Energy & Transport Programme has been very successful. Many of the partners are now applying for EU Horizon 2020 projects together,” adds Bartholin-Nielsen.
Challenge competitions to spur innovation
At Nordic Innovation, networking starts with a mapping of the most important stakeholders engaged in the programme topic, often in cooperation with the national innovation agencies.
“After this initial phase we contact the stakeholders to expand the network and locate what we call unusual suspects – people or businesses that are not yet known to our national partners,” says Gunnarsson. Nordic Innovation then teams up with industry organisations and businesses that are working on similar issues.
“We’re very much oriented towards the industry and an important aspect is to locate existing networks. We try very hard to avoid creating parallel networks or competition within topics.”
One of Nordic Innovation’s high profile networking initiatives is Nordic Built, which is aimed at accelerating the development of sustainable building solutions. It has brought together a large number of industry partners – all of which have signed the Nordic Built Charter – and organised a successful challenge competition for the best sustainable building concepts on the market.
“In light of the good results from Nordic Built, we’re now considering applying similar methods on issues like health innovation, entrepreneurship and the bioeconomy,” says Gunnarsson.
Centres of Excellence are powerful networking tools
“NordForsk is by nature a networking institution. All our activities are based on networking and cross-border collaboration,” says Anne Riiser, Head of Communications at NordForsk.
NordForsk works closely with researchers, research institutions, research councils and financing agencies in all five countries, as well as policy makers and industry. Its main financing instruments are the Nordic Centres of Excellence (NCoE), which receive funding for research collaboration, workshops, exchange and mobility.
“The Nordic Centres of Excellence are powerful networking instruments that expand and develop the Nordic research excellence they are anchored in. This is in itself valuable branding, which attracts researchers and generates international interest,” says Sundet.
NordForsk runs several Nordic-Baltic collaborations, such as the Living Lab, a project within the organisation’s health and welfare programme, and a common PhD training programme. NordForsk is currently organising a conference that will take place in Estonia on 22-23 May, to look at ways to step up collaboration between the two regions.
“In addition, NordForsk has a European networking dimension through our Memorandum of Understanding with the European Commission and partnership with European stakeholder organisations. Networking and researcher mobility are important items both on Nordic and European agendas,” says Riiser.
NORA – Nordic Atlantic Cooperation
NORA’s main task is to strengthen collaboration and networking between various stakeholders in the NORA territory, which includes Iceland, Faroe Islands, Greenland and coastal Norway. Sustainable economic development is a key feature of its operations and it supports a variety of projects aimed at increasing green growth in the area. One of its initiatives in 2014 is The Digital Arctic, a conference that looks at ways in which the NORA region could create a more diversified economy.
“We must create a more diversified economy and become less dependent on natural resources. The conference will look at how digital development can create opportunities to establish knowledge-based businesses in the NORA-region and the Arctic,” says Director Lars Thostrup. In addition, a group of the region’s universities is following up on a recommendation from the North Atlantic Think Tank, which NORA facilitates, by developing a North Atlantic Master’s degree. The course will be launched in autumn 2015.
Cooperation on responsible use of genetic resources
NordGen seeks to promote the sustainable use of genetic resources in the Nordic region: plants, farm animals and forests. This cooperation has been on-going for more than 35 years, with the primary task of securing a broad diversity of genetic resources linked to food and agriculture.
In addition to its Nordic activities, the institution has organised numerous collaboration projects with the Baltic countries and Russia. The projects involve NordGen, the Nordic Gene Bank, the use of SESTO, a regional gene bank documentation system, and the widely used breeding software EVA, developed by NordGen.
Regional development based on close dialogue
Nordregio is a research institute engaged in the broad field of regional studies and spatial development. Its main objective is to produce relevant material for policy makers at the local, national and regional levels in the Nordic countries.
“Nordregio’s communication strategy is built on two-way communication, meaning that everything we do should be in close dialogue with relevant Nordic stakeholders in the area in question,” says Anna Lena Schlossman, Head of Communication at Nordregio. The organisation also works closely with international stakeholders, especially in the EU and the Arctic region.
“Often when you here about the Arctic region, the focus is on climate change. Our angle, however, is regional development; we look at issues such as demographic changes and the challenges they create,” explains Schlossman.
Nordregio also acts as the secretariat for four Nordic working groups concerned with demography and welfare; sustainable regional development in the Arctic; green growth, innovation and entrepreneurship; and lastly green growth and sustainable urban regions.
“In general terms, we facilitate networks where industry, research and policy-makers come together”
Kalle Bartholin-Nielsen, Communications Manager at Nordic Energy Research.
“In light of the good results from Nordic Built, we’re now considering applying similar methods on issues like health innovation, entrepreneurship and the bioeconomy”
Bardur Örn Gunnarsson
Communications Director of Nordic Innovation.