The 2020 Arctic Innovation Lab

Nov. 03, 2020

Caring about the future of the Arctic region: Meet this year’s Arctic Innovators

Since 2014, the Arctic Innovation Lab has brought together students, politicians, and leaders from across the globe to discuss innovative solutions to Arctic challenges. The Lab’s goal is to build a global community of innovators, that can help contribute to solutions in this fast-changing place on our planet.

Since its founding the event has brought together hundreds of people from around the circumpolar Arctic and beyond for the annual pitch competition, usually held at the Arctic Circle Assembly in Iceland. This year the COVID-19 pandemic stopped the Arctic Circle Assembly from convening, but it couldn’t stop the Arctic Innovation Lab from going forward. 

Ambassador Kenneth Howery
The event opened with remarks by Ambassador Kenneth A. Howery, U.S. Ambassador to Sweden and Co-Founder of PayPal and Founders Fund who talked about the importance of innovation in the Arctic. Ambassador Howery remarked; "As prospective policy makers I challenge you to look for new and better ways to solve old problems" and stressed that the Arctic should remain a "peaceful area of low tension with close collaboration between Arctic nations"

Convened by the Arctic Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, this year’s event brought together 17 students from seven universities to share their innovative ideas for a better Arctic. 

All students had two minutes to pitch their ideas, and then the opportunity to workshop them in breakout rooms with the audience. Pitches were judged by an expert panel from the Arctic and beyond including representatives from, Harvard’s iLab, The Association of World Reindeer Herders, Greenland’s Language Secretariat, Arctic Today, and the Icelandic Chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Most students had participated in the Arctic Innovators Program taught by Halla Logadóttir, Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Arctic Initiative at the Kennedy School that provided a foundation for student’s learning and innovation tools to develop their work.

Student ideas ranged from sustainable seaweed, to increasing media representation of Indigenous communities, to naval enforcement of the Central Arctic Ocean fisheries agreement, to language preservation.

Here are some examples: 

Rosa-Maren Magga, Association of World Reindeer Herders: Coming from a Saami Reindeer herding family in Northern Finland, Rosa-Máren deeply cares about cultural conservation and the future of young people in the region. In her lifetime she has witnessed loss of traditional language in her community. To address this challenge Rosa-Máren’s idea focused on creating an open access voice sample library of Arctic languages. The library would make it possible for voice recognition tools such as Google Voice to create software, games and other platforms in local languages, both encouraging their use and safeguarding the traditional knowledge embedded in that language for future generations.

Taylor Lam, Harvard Kennedy School: As a National Security Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School from the US Coast Guard, Taylor was interested in how maritime transit of the Arctic can be made safer for operations in the region.  Drawing on his expertise in other regions, Taylor recommended the creation of an online data sharing platform which can be used to develop a common operational picture (COP) for the Arctic. Creating this platform would allow for pan-Arctic cooperation between governments and private sector companies who could contribute data to make Arctic maritime activity safer for all parties.

Allison Agsten, Harvard Kennedy School: As a former journalist Allison explored how the Arctic region is represented in media. She found that often the first images of the Arctic are pictures of polar bears or glaciers. In her review of media about the Arctic rarely were Indigenous or Native people ever mentioned. This led Allison to ask the question “What about the over 4 million people of the Arctic, why don’t we know their stories.” As a way to bring stories of Arctic people to the forefront of the Arctic dialogue, Allison proposed creating an Arctic Cultural Reporting Initiative, which would research the challenge of lack to representation of Arctic people in the media, create a set of best-practices for journalists writing Arctic stories, and give Arctic photographers and writers support and skills building trainings to help them tell their own stories. 

Harris Weber, Harvard Kennedy School: With the spread of COVID 19 impacting Arctic towns, Harris was interested in understanding how to address the health needs of Arctic residents, when in-person doctors visits are not safe or viable. He came up with a proposal for Improving the Health of Alaska Native Communities: The Urgent Need for Broadband. As Harris explained, telemedicine is an important tool to address public health needs during the pandemic. However, many rural Alaska communities lack the broadband necessary to make this kind of solution possible. Harris recommended launching a public private partnership with telecom companies, federal government funding, and local healthcare providers, to expand broadband capability in rural Alaska to address this issue and make telemedicine opportunities accessible. 

Kristoffer Sundström, Lulea University of Technology: Being from a mining town in Northern Sweden, Kristoffer saw firsthand the lack of local opportunity available to him outside of entering the field of mining. He was interested in understanding how to revitalize towns like his, that are traditionally mining towns dependent on a single industry, who are losing their young people as they leave their homes looking for opportunity. Kristoffer recommended creating a Policy for Arctic Resilience, Innovation, and Sustainability. This policy would create a fund based on dividends from the mining operations, which would be set aside to support higher education, start-ups, and other innovation and entrepreneurship of young people from the local town. Giving mining towns the opportunity to expand their industries and support local, sustainable growth. 

Nathan Huey, Harvard GSAS PhD:  As a microbiologist Nathan is interested in understanding how traditional Sami ways of slaughtering and preserving reindeer meat compare to more modern meat processing techniques. Currently traditional methods of slaughtering have been deemed by the Norwegian government as ‘unsanitary’ thereby limiting the sale of traditionally harvested reindeer meat, despite fact these methods have been used for generations. Nathan proposed funding a study, co-created with Sami reindeer herders, to make a case for the safety and sustainability of traditional slaughtering practices. Nathan explained that preserving traditional methods of food production opens the door to greater food sovereignty and economic opportunity for Indigenous communities. 

Maatalii Okalik, Ilisimatusarfik (University of Greenland): As a young Inuit woman growing up in Canada, Maatalii has seen threats to her homeland from colonial governments and corporations who do not consider the impact of their business on the environment. The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) has a created a plan to address these sustainability challenges rooted in Inuit stewardship called Pikialasorsuaq, but currently ICC needs more investment to operationalize their plan.   Maatalii proposed making an increased investment into ICC to accelerate this Indigenous led sustainability work and asked all attendees to take a pledge to stand in solidarity with the Inuit to have them lead in addressing sustainability on their homeland. 

Ulla Hemminki-Reijonen, Harvard Graduate School of Education: As an education technology enthusiast with a background in cultural studies and a parent of a child growing up in Finland, Ulla was interested in thinking about how to use technology to better connect kids to life in the Arctic and ways to have an impact. She shared the story of a neighbor’s child who had a nightmare about climate change, and drawing on her expertise in childhood development asked, what can she do. Her proposal, Take Action by Interaction, partners Arctic youth with UNESCO to jointly develop an app that tells stories about real life in the Arctic. These stories would be presented along with easy ways for kids to take action locally to address things like climate change. Helping to connect people to Arctic communities and reduce eco-anxiety by giving people a way to act to help the environment. 

Morgan Bell, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy: After spending a summer working in the sustainable seaweed industry, Morgan has found that sustainable seaweed can provide significant economic opportunity, an opportunity she thinks could work well for Arctic communities. Seaweed is a superfood that can be grown under the ice and can already be found in Arctic waters. Morgan proposed organizing a summit between local Arctic communities, Indigenous leaders, and people in the sustainable seaweed industry to explore how seaweed farming can be developed in the Arctic.  

Matthew Villante & Arkaitz Manterola Donos, Iceland School of Energy Reykjavik University:  Matthew and Arkatiz talked about the significant risk methane emissions from permafrost melt poses to the global climate system. Methane is a climate accelerant, three times more potent than carbon in contributing to global warming. As the Arctic rapidly warms, huge amounts of methane are being emitted from the melting permafrost further accelerating warming.  Drawing on work being done in Germany capturing methane coming off landfills, Matthew and Arkaitz recommend re-purposing that technology to capture methane coming off melting permafrost in the Arctic. Empowering local communities to detect where permafrost is melting, local entrepreneurs can become “Methane Hunters”, finding where methane is being released from the permafrost, capturing it, and using that methane as a sustainable fuel source for their community.  

In the coming weeks, student's will have the opportunity to share more on their work in Arctic Today, the comprehensive news source reporting on the Arctic, from the Arctic, and apply for funding to advance their work. We are excited to experience more young people wanting to make difference in this field and look forward to seeing ideas develop further. 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:The 2020 Arctic Innovation Lab.” News, , November 3, 2020.