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Arctic Innovation Lab: 12 Bright Ideas for a Sustainable, Secure Arctic

A dozen international graduate students identify ways to address some of the most pressing problems facing the Arctic now and in the future – and turn them into opportunities.

Written by Halla Hrund Logadóttir, Cristine Russell Published on Read time Approx. 10 minutes
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What solutions can create a sustainable and secure Arctic?Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0/thinkpublic

The ongoing rapid changes in the Arctic pose significant dangers to its natural and manmade environments, and to the people who live there. To address these daunting challenges, a dozen graduate students from universities in the United States, Iceland and Greenland launched the Arctic Innovation Lab to identify possible solutions that could establish a sustainable and secure Arctic.

They pitched their ideas – from clean energy technology to science diplomacy – to a standing-room-only crowd at the recent 2016 Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavík, Iceland.

Dialogue about the Arctic often gets stuck discussing the dramatic challenges we face, with too little time spent on developing possible solutions. The goal of the Arctic Innovation Lab is to create a platform where students and young professionals can pitch and develop ideas and work with experienced practitioners. The Arctic Innovation Lab aims to facilitate an ongoing dialogue between generations to speed up knowledge transition and build capacity for the future of the Arctic.

In Reykjavík, the lab kicked off with a friendly competition. Each student delivered a two-and-a-half minute presentation to an audience that later voted on their favorite innovation. The student presenters then engaged in a dozen lively roundtable discussions with close to 200 participants about how best to move each innovatiive idea forward.

Here are the 12 ideas. A video with highlights of the event is also available online:

Carbon Fiber From Arctic Energy

Carbon fiber can be made from carbon extracted from the atmosphere. (Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0/Christine Twigg)

Global demand for carbon fiber – a high-tech material that is stronger than steel and lighter than aluminum – is booming. But manufacturing it is highly energy intensive. Massive supplies of reliable and affordable renewable energy give Iceland and Greenland the opportunity to gain economic benefits at home and supply the world with lightweight materials. Even better, the development of technology to pull carbon out of the atmosphere to make carbon fiber is on the horizon. With the right investment partners and local buy-in, carbon fiber manufacturing could give Arctic nations the chance to export materials, made from clean energy, to the rest of the world. Cole Wheeler, Harvard Kennedy School

Connecting the Dots Between Global Risks and Building Resilience

By building resilience Arctic communities can mitigate the risks of climate change. (USFWS/Dave Menke)

By building resilience Arctic communities can mitigate the risks of climate change. (USFWS/Dave Menke)

How can we “future proof” the Arctic to make the most of current opportunities while mitigating the risks? We need a better understanding of how the economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal and technological risks for the Arctic will play out and, more importantly, interact with each other over the next decade. What are the socio-economic implications of the loss of biodiversity? What risks do interstate conflicts pose for economic development in the Arctic? What role does technology play in all of this? A consultation of governments, business, civil society and the Arctic population could produce a shared analysis to identify which risks are most significant and how best to build resilience by mitigating these risks. Such collaboration would also identify what each stakeholder could bring to the table today to safeguard the Arctic of tomorrow. – Caroline Galvan, Harvard Kennedy School

Better Education and Scientific Opportunities for Greenlanders

Greenlanders need better access to scientific and academic opportunities. (Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0/mariusz kluzniak)

Greenlanders need better access to scientific and academic opportunities. (Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0/mariusz kluzniak)

Greenlanders are experiencing rapid lifestyle changes from several outside pressures. First, our culture is based on sea ice, and climate change is affecting the environment and ecosystems. Second, globalization and the global market are affecting our livelihoods. Finally, Greenland is still fighting for greater autonomy from Denmark, increasing the demand for a well-educated labor force. In order to guarantee sustainable management in Greenland and other Arctic regions, Greenlanders must have access to scientific and academic opportunities. This will encourage more positive human development and inform guidance for a mutually beneficial journey in dealing with regional issues. – Ulunnguaq Markussen, University of Greenland

Creating a Narrative: Communicating Arctic Issues

The melting of Arctic sea ice will have widespread impacts in communities throughout the world. (Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0/baldeaglebluff)

The melting of Arctic sea ice will have widespread impacts in communities throughout the world. (Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0/baldeaglebluff)

What happens in the Arctic has outsized impacts on the global climate, as well as international relations and climate policy. The Arctic is a unique venue for science diplomacy, where the values of science – rationality, transparency and universality – can foster trust among nations. As economic development grows and science cooperation continues, stakeholders should leverage opportunities for public and private collaboration to communicate the Arctic’s global significance – such as the widespread impacts that Arctic sea ice loss have on other parts of the world – and advance the movement for solutions around climate change. Too often the serious adverse effects of global greenhouse gas emissions on the Arctic are seen as a distant problem. Instead, to use a common meme, what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. – Jennifer Helfrich, Harvard Kennedy School

Electric Car Shares in Iceland: An Opportunity for Early Adoption

Iceland's abundant renewable energy and healthy tourist population could support electric car sharing. (Flickr, CC BY 2.0/Keoni Cabral)

Iceland’s abundant renewable energy and healthy tourist population could support electric car sharing. (Flickr, CC BY 2.0/Keoni Cabral)

The electric car has two key roadblocks: the high upfront cost and anxiety about the driving range. But we can turn those weaknesses into strengths by coupling the electric car to the booming sharing economy. No more upfront cost for consumers, and charged cars would be ready to switch along your route. Iceland is particularly well suited to become the vanguard of an electric car-share movement – electricity is abundant, clean and cheap. In addition, Iceland’s small size and abundance of tourists would enable quick deployment of charging stations and a built-in customer base in the capital city of Reykjavik and environs. – Shauna Theel, Harvard Kennedy School

Powering the World with Arctic Renewable Energy

Undersea cables could link large European and North American cities to renewable energy produced in the Arctic. (Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0/Chris Hunkeler)

Undersea cables could link large European and North American cities to renewable energy produced in the Arctic. (Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0/Chris Hunkeler)

The Arctic has tremendous renewable energy capacity and is flanked by major load centers, including New York City and London. Imagine the potential of an energy grid that links the U.K., Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Canada and the U.S. through undersea cables. For countries looking to serve new demand and reduce carbon footprints, the Arctic is capable of filling this gap. Norway already exports power to the Netherlands and discussions about a U.K.-Iceland sea cable are under way. By thinking bigger, while appropriately addressing economic and geopolitical factors, strong leadership across these different countries could help make this grand vision feasible. – Rahul Srinivasan, Harvard Kennedy School

Tackling Arctic Community Energy Systems

Wind power could revolutionize energy production for remote, off-grid communities. (Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0/Benjamin Dumas)

Wind power could revolutionize energy production for remote, off-grid communities. (Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0/Benjamin Dumas)

Many remote Arctic communities remain isolated from an energy grid. They rely on diesel fuel to generate electricity because of the low capital cost and the ease of transportation and installation. The cost of producing electricity in these communities can reach 100-150 cents/KWh, and there are also negative environmental impacts. As a renewable alternative, wind power is one of the least expensive energy technologies, with costs as low as 6 cents/KWh. Wind, abundant in the Arctic, could revolutionize energy production for off-grid communities. Adding energy storage to the solution would make it dispatchable and reliable. – Alexander Moses, Iceland School of Energy at Reykjavik University

The U.S. Coast Guard and the Emerging Arctic

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice in support of scientific research in the Arctic Ocean. (U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer Prentice Danner)

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice in support of scientific research in the Arctic Ocean. (U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer Prentice Danner)

As Arctic maritime use increases, the capacity to carry out search and rescue missions is crucial. However, in the past 40 years, the U.S. Coast Guard has gone from six heavy icebreakers to one. Leasing is a costly and marginally effective interim solution. Instead, the U.S. Coast Guard should engage more energetically with partner countries, especially Canada, while cooperating internationally. The 2015 establishment of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum provides opportunities for the U.S. to build relationships with other countries to conduct frequent and meaningful search-and-rescue exercises, share maritime capabilities and establish common interoperating procedures. Doing so would help fill the gap, given the high cost and lengthy process of building new icebreakers. – Earl Potter, Harvard Kennedy School (Potter serves in the U.S. Coast Guard; this does not represent the agency’s official view.)

Build Human Capacity to Ensure the Sustainability of Remote Energy Networks

Renewable energy projects in the Arctic will need local experts to remain sustainable in the long term. (Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0/wistechcolleges)

Renewable energy projects in the Arctic will need local experts to remain sustainable in the long term. (Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0/wistechcolleges)

Despite consistent investments in renewable energy technologies and isolated micro grids for remote Alaskan communities, there is a gap in human capacity to make this technology work for the long term. Remote villages often depend on outside technical support, which can be economically unfeasible. Educational programs intended to create these experts are similarly constrained by transportation costs. With effective partnerships and federal and state support, a nonprofit organization could bridge this gap and connect educators with remote communities. With success in Alaska, this organization could provide a model for building local human capacity throughout the Arctic. – Riley S. Newman, Iceland School of Energy at Reykjavik University

Managing Risk: The Case for an Arctic Treaty

The Antarctic Treaty banned all mining, oil exploration and military presence. (Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0/Ben Hutchison)

The Antarctic Treaty banned all mining, oil exploration and military presence. (Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0/Ben Hutchison)

The “soft law” body of international legislation common in the Arctic is insufficient to address the environmental risks that will emerge over coming decades, such as commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean. Such agreements lack the legally binding force of a treaty. Lessons could be learned from the precautionary approach to science and governance in the Antarctic. The Antarctic Treaty banned all mining, oil exploration and military presence and required strict monitoring of environmental hazards. The political, economic and sovereignty contexts differ between the two poles, but adopting a precautionary approach – with sanctions for transgressors – could be effective in reducing the threats to the Arctic’s vulnerable ecosystems. – David Cook, University of Iceland

Sustainable Infrastructure Development Through Partnerships

Sustainable infrastructure development across the Arctic could have positive impacts on Arctic communities. (Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0/psychogeographer)

Sustainable infrastructure development across the Arctic could have positive impacts on Arctic communities. (Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0/psychogeographer)

Arctic residents (and others) will benefit from increased economic activity in the region, but the real impact will come from regional development. As a new step forward for the region, the Arctic Council, the Arctic Economic Council and the Arctic Coast Guard Forum should launch a partnership to coordinate a deliberate and methodical approach to advancing sustainable pan-Arctic infrastructure development. These three groups represent the right mix of expertise, resources and relationships to build a successful partnership. As Finland assumes chairmanship of all three in 2017, it has a unique opportunity to lay a strong foundation for the next chapter in Arctic and world history. – Molly Douglas, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

Creating Common Grounds: Science Diplomacy in the Arctic

Scientists can be diplomats, too. (World Meteorological Association, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Scientists can be diplomats, too. (World Meteorological Association, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Can Arctic scientists be diplomats? The answer is yes. And is there a need for new roles for scientists in international scientific cooperation? Definitely. While there are a few science diplomats now, we need to train more scientists who can talk policy and politics. And we need policy makers who understand scientists as diplomats and communicators. Against a backdrop of a changing Arctic, where political tensions may follow the environmental disruptions from global warming, scientists need to adopt broader roles, as agents of peace, stability and shared knowledge in the quest for mutual benefits among Arctic nations, be they economic, political or environmental. – Dennis Schroeder, Harvard Kennedy School

And the winner is…

After the presentations, the students engaged in a dozen lively roundtable discussions with close to 200 participants. (Harvard Kennedy School/Arnthor Birkisson)

As the Arctic Innovation Lab session drew to a close, we announced the crowd-sourced winner: Electric Car Shares in Iceland: An Opportunity for Early Adoption.

The Arctic Innovation Lab was the third annual event that the Environment and Natural Resources Program (ENRP) at Harvard Kennedy School’s (HKS) Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs has helped organize to provide an opportunity for students to participate in the annual Arctic Circle Assembly conference. The HKS Center for Public Leadership’s Bacon Environmental Fellowship Program co-sponsored this year’s 25-member HKS delegation. In addition to HKS, the Iceland School of Energy at Reykjavík University, the University of Iceland, the University of Greenland, and the Fletcher School at Tufts University participated in the event.

The Arctic Innovation Lab graduate students; HKS students Karishma Patel, Shira Miller and Arohi Sharma; and ENRP deputy director Amanda Sardonis contributed to this article.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Arctic Deeply

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