In an abundance of Arctic conferences, it takes something special to stand out. The High North Dialogue conference in Bodø undoubtedly adds new substance to the Arctic conference table. Going forward, it would benefit from further cultivating its strong features, making use of the participation of students, the emphasis on dialogue, and the location of the conference itself.
Set in Bodø, the second largest city in North Norway located just above the Arctic Circle, the High North Dialogue celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, but it is only in recent years that it has grown to rival the other annual Arctic conferences held at various locations around the world. However, one should not assume that it is aiming to compete with Arctic Frontiers – held in Tromsø in January – or Arctic Circle – held in Iceland in October – based on size or glamour.
Instead, the High North Dialogue focuses on exactly what the title implies, namely the aspect of dialogue. Whether you like it or not, cooperation within the Arctic community is needed to tackle some of the arising (security) challenges in the region. In today’s current political climate, including all Arctic states and actors, with an emphasis on Russia, in the process is integral to avoiding the emergence of mistrust and potential deterioration of regional relationships in the north.
As highlighted by the Norwegian deputy foreign minister, Glad Pedersen, Norway maintains a strong overarching response to Russian actions in Ukraine, adhering to the EU’s sanction regime and disbanding military-to-military contact in general. However, dialogue on low-level practical issues, like search and rescue, environmental protection and border guards, has not been disbanded with Norway’s Arctic neighbor.
This was also the mantra repeated by the Russian Consul General to Kirkenes (Norway) and by several other speakers from both academia and the industry. Regardless of high-level politics and sanctions, cooperation between industry, scientists and students has to be sheltered from broader political concerns in order to avoid unraveling decades of meticulous relationship building.
Apart from the introductory statements obligatory at conferences like this, the main weight was on panels dedicated to the various dimensions of the conference’s theme “Arctic Business and Security”. However, there are limitations to how much there is to say on Arctic development – ranging from maritime to land-based industry – from year to year. Although development has by no means halted in the north, the drop in natural resource prices is bound to affect development in the region. The panels were therefore dedicated to inform on the Arctic’s status quo: where are we now and how do we see the future?
For anyone just joining the Arctic conference circle, such introductions and descriptions are welcomed. Particularly the students, many of whom come from the north but do not deal with Arctic topics on a daily basis, highlighted the value of learning about Arctic issues. For those more accustomed to Arctic conferences, on the other hand, the most interesting aspect was not the panels themselves – although there were exceptions in every panel – but the interaction with fellow Arctic practitioners, and in particular the participating students. The distinct setting and focus of the High North Dialogue undoubtedly allows for close collaboration between the various attendees.
The key to a successful conference is to capture both crowds. It is at this point that the dialogue aspect comes into play. With 150-200 students coming from the Nordics, North America, Russia, Ukraine and Europe at large, the conference may further benefit from including the voices of the attending Master- and PhD-students. These participants will define the future of the region. Giving them the floor, either through presentations in specifically student-oriented panels or through in-depth Q&A sessions, can be an additional value of the High North Dialogue in the future.
The High North Dialogue is not organized – like most Arctic conferences – by a company looking to earn money or an interest group promoting themselves or a specific topic. Instead, the organizer is the High North Center at the Bodø Graduate School of Business, under the umbrella of the University of Nordland. With a venue driven less by profit and interests, involvement of the students can take priority. This would not only add value to the conference itself, but also help relieve some of the growing tension between Russia and the ‘West’ in the north, due to the University’s multiple collaboration agreements with renowned Russian universities.
Finally, even those who are not Arctic enthusiasts could agree that there are not many places in the world that can rival Bodø on surrounding scenery. The conference is strongly encouraged to further make use of this, by organizing adjacent excursions, cutting back on the long days spent inside the University auditorium, and maybe even move the conference further into spring (and closer to the midnight sun).
For the whole conference visit www.highnorthdialogue.no