The Northern Sparsely Populated Area (NSPA) and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and Scotland Europa, hosted a seminar and debate together in Brussels where over 100 people attended during the European Week of Regions and Cities (EWRC), on 11th October 2017.
The topic of the seminar was boosting smart innovation in remote regions for all of Europe. Examples and tools from different regional stakeholders were presented in the seminar in order to take advantage of the innovation potential in all of Europe. Mikael Janson, director North Sweden European Office, moderated the seminar.
Introductory remarks were given by Mike Neilson, Director of the Scottish Government in Brussels, and Erik Lövgren, Chair of Region Västernorrland, Sweden. They highlighted the specific challenges of remote regions, challenges that have to be considered when designing policies for growth and innovation. Smart specialization can be one method for driving innovation, by recognizing the specificities in regions and creating place-based tools. Thereafter, key speakers from different fields held presentations on the topic of strategic aspects of smart specialization and innovation strategies in remote regions.
Chris McDonald, Policy Analysts, the organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, talked about growth in low density economies specifically concerning the case of the Northern Sparsely Populated Areas with starting point in the OECD-report about NSPA that was presented in March 2017. He mentioned the assets of rural areas which can create economic activity for the global market in areas such as forestry, mining and renewable energy. But the challenge is the heightened exposure to international competition and the vulnerability to shocks. To generate benefit and enable growth, McDonald identified the importance of skills, the quality of the infrastructure and human capital among other factors. He also pointed to smart specialization as a significant field, where NSPA regions could collaborate in order to amplify generated benefits.
Jukka Teräs, a senior researcher from Nordic Council of Ministers research centre, Nordregio, talked about smart specialization strategies in Nordic regions. In his speech Teräs said that remote and sparsely populated areas should not be seen as less developed regions. Instead we should speak about regions and their special strengths and weaknesses. He said:
"Remote and sparsely populated areas should not be seen as regions lagging behind by definition but as an area with specific characteristics including challenges as well as opportunities."
Teräs pointed out, that remote areas are the ones that especially need international networks because of the long distances and limited human capital. He spoke about the Finnish Lapland as one of the leading remote territories that has been able to build a successful smart specializations strategy. Lapland has succeeded in focusing on its arctic strengths and on strong implementation of the strategy. Teräs concluded his speech by stressing the fact that the Arctic has made a promising start in smart specializations, but that there still is a lot of work to do.
Håkan Ylinenpää, Professor Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Luleå University of Technology in Sweden focused in his speech on the innovation possibilities in each individual. He pointed out that distributed innovation systems need to be linked together through digital solutions. Ylinenpää also underlined the fact that innovation not necessarily need to be radical and new, but also can concern development of existing strategies and innovations. To meet the potential in rural areas one needs to focus on Entrepreneur Regional Innovation Systems and not only Institutional Regional Innovation Systems.
"We might not have very large institutions in our regions but rather individuals full of innovation", Ylinenpää stated.
Donna Chisholm, Regional Head of Sectors, Innovation and Programmes, Highlands and Islands Enterprise in Scotland delivered another side of the innovation strategies in sparsely populated areas. Chisholm underlined that the bottom-up way to carry out innovativeness is the only way to go for remote areas. To support the enterprises through this process capital is important to supply but she also highlighted connections, which according to her is ever so important.
Panel about smart specializations and the role of the EU
The seminar ended with a debate on smart specializations and the role of the EU in remote less densely populated areas. To start the discussion Kristiina Jokelainen, Regional Council of Lapland raised the importance of regional collaboration in smart specializations, especially in the sparsely populated areas. The panelists and audience shared their experiences from working with the issues raised in the discussion. Problems concerning smart specializations were raised, as well as good examples from the regions present.
Erik Bergkvist, Chair of Region Västerbotten and Europaforum Northern Sweden, concluded the seminar with his final thoughts and food for further discussion on smart regions in all of Europe. He expressed the importance of seeing failure as a learning experience and to celebrate the fact that an attempt is a sign of courage. Erik also brought up the fact that being innovative and appreciating all the features of different cultures is highly important for especially smaller areas and communities.
Satu Vihreävesa, Chair of NSPA network, welcomed everyone to the reception. The core message from her was that the cooperation between the NSPA areas is the key-element when trying to bring added value to all the areas. Satu highlighted that we should not waste our mental or financial resources by working on all the issues by ourselves, but instead we should focus on developing the crucial issues for our areas together.
Important conclusions to be drawn were
• Sparsely populated and remote areas have some specific challenges, but at the same time the areas have unique potential concerning the smart strategies and making the most of every region's capacity.
• The importance of economic development in areas such as infrastructure and digital progress is a key feature for the Northern Sparsely Populated Areas to be a part of the global market and to be able to make use of the globalization.
• Support for entrepreneurs and individuals that work for innovation is one main part to progress and capital, connections and networks is needed to do so.
• Collaboration and communication between the remote and sparsely populated regions can help the process toward boosted innovation for remote regions in all of Europe.