The conference offered an opportunity to discuss how the perception of the periphery has changed, and initiated or accelerated changes, for example, in ways of working, living, providing services, and making decisions in the Northern Periphery and Arctic. The benefits of cooperation across Arctic and near-Arctic regions also emerged, showing how the exchange of knowledge and expertise between the regions plays a key role in building response capacity and preparedness for the future.
A valid opportunity to look far to implement common solutions
The conference opened with a welcome message from Mr Michael McGrath, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in the Government of Ireland. The Minister highlighted the importance of participating in transnational cooperation programmes such as the NPA, where „regions share a range of common attributes and challenges”, and that "it is these very challenges that lead to very pragmatic approaches to developing solutions.” Minister McGrath saw the NPA as a „valid opportunity to bring together researchers, administrators and people across the area to work together cooperatively and look far to implement common solutions.” To conclude, Minister McGrath confirmed an increased support from the Irish government to cooperation across the Northern Europe and the Arctic region.
Peripherality is a term we all understand, but we experience differently
As this year’s NPA Annual event was hosted by the Northern and Western Regional Assembly (NWRA), Director David Minton introduced the topic of the event in his keynote speech: redefining peripherality.
Mr Minton described how despite communities in the NPA experience peripherality differently, geographical and demographical characteristics are similar, and so are the challenges that „exacerbate living conditions and put the resilience of rural communities at risks.” On the other hand, he emphasized that NPA communities share characteristics of „all great places around the world: resilience, tolerance, diversity“, and most importantly they „ share a level of social solidarity.”
Last year’s pandemic forced remote communities to question their traditional experience. „Everything we knew has been rocked“ stated Mr Minton. When people in urban areas started moving back to peripheral areas to wait the pandemic out, the challenges that these communities had faced for years were brought to light. „This exodus has created fresh challenges for rural communities across NPA, in accessing housing, school and sustaining social solidarity.“ Mr Minton highlighted that this has also created an opportunity, „now is the time to tackle the discourse of peripherality.“
One of the biggest resources that the programme has is the proven capacity to deliver cooperation
To showcase the development in the NPA area, Dr Irene McMaster from the European Policies Research Centre (EPRC) at University of Strathclyde presented the trends and changes that occurred since 2014. Dr McMaster reported that despite these changes, „the area remains in a position to pursue longstanding processes of economic diversification and pursuing innovation.“ Notably, NPA regions are leaders in the development and adoption of sustainable solutions and green technologies, low carbon and zero carbon solutions, as well as the blue and circular economy, which according to Dr McMaster are “new jargon for ways that remote communities have been living on for centuries.”
Like Mr Minton, Dr McMaster observed a new view of peripherality and how this is related to the way people are connecting. „How we experience peripherality and connectivity today has changed substantially from 2020. NPA areas have been leaders in the development and adoption of remote services and improved access to public services through remote technologies.“ Digital solutions have offered new ways to overcome some of the development challenges typical for remote and rural areas. For Dr McMaster, the challenges NPA communities faced in the past in terms of physical accessibility have driven innovation and early adoption, which now put the NPA “ahead of the game.”
Dr McMaster highlighted that “in areas where the population is sparse and small, it lacks critical mass to act on its own.” Therefore, “cooperation is key to build and reinforce the capacity to manage change and be resilient.” Her observation is that the „programme area is way ahead of the curve because there is a robust tradition of cooperation.”
Overall, the changes experienced in the NPA area link with the impact of distance and lead to potential new opportunities. This calls for more and better cooperation. “One of the biggest resources that the programme has – continued Dr McMaster – is the proven capacity to deliver cooperation across a variety of areas partners and sectors.” For this reason, Dr McMaster believes, “the programme is in a good position going into the 2021+ period, to respond to challenges and opportunities.”
A new sense of confidence and possibilities for people living in rural areas
Four members of the NPA COVID-19 response group presented the findings and recommendations that the NPA Covid-19 response projects observed when analysing the impacts of COVID-19 on NPA communities: Mr Thomas Fisher, Prof Liam Glynn, Prof. Joan Condell, and Dr Anette Fosse. According to Dr Glynn „the cohesiveness and the coordinated response that many rural communities developed organically, in response to pandemic, really did mitigate a lot of harm of the pandemic. Despite being probably the greatest crisis in the lived memory of many communities, it did bring a new sense of confidence and possibilities to people living in rural areas.”
Dr Fosse described how a new open dialogue between national and local rural representatives had contributed to a successful handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in Norway. Prof. Condell observed the important role and still existing potential for technological applications, and called on innovative companies in the NPA area to build business relationship across the programme area to “get out, be confident and develop new solutions.” Finally, Mr Fisher presented four suggestions for the programme to support NPA communities:
1- To build on the assets, strengths, experience, and knowledge in peripheral areas, which have served remote and rural communities during the pandemic and will serve them even more during the climate change crisis.
2 – To experiment and innovate to find solutions that are radical, genuine and place people at the centre.
3 – To involve more young people, be it leaders, entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, researchers or school children as they grasp new realities better.
4 – To engage peripheral communities as project leaders to deliver on the ground solutions that work for them.
NPA Project solutions for the future
After the break, participants joined three different thematic networking sessions: Innovation Capacity, Climate change and Resource sufficiency, and Natural and Cultural Heritage. Each of these sessions summarised the achievements of NPA projects in the respective topics, and looked at how future NPA projects can contribute to the objectives of the new programme, inspired by the work of three projects: HUGE, DISTINCT and SPOT-Lit. The main points of each session have been summarised by Ruth Graham, a graphic illustrator, and can be downloaded at the end of this article.
While online viewers participated in the thematic sessions, the audience in Sligo joined a panel discussion about participation in the future Interreg NPA 2021-2027 programme.
Periphery and Arctic, a mutually beneficial cooperation
Mr Michael Mann, the EU Ambassador at Large for the Arctic, presented the new EU Arctic Policy and the role of transnational cooperation in tackling the challenges and opportunities arising in the Arctic. „By focusing on the people and the Arctic communities – said Mr Mann – the EU wants to find the balance between preserving precious ecosystems and encouraging sustainable economic development for the benefit of future generations. The Arctic is a good example of international and interregional cooperation and we want it to stay that way.” Ambassador Mann highlighted that “Interreg programmes play a vital role by extending the reach of the EU actions by also involving the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, and Russia.” To conclude, Mr Mann stated that the NPA is “a perfect example of how EU assistance has helped to make the Arctic more resilient and will continue to do so in the future.”
Ireland is the neighbour of the Arctic. What happens in the Arctic matters to Ireland.
When Brexit eventually happened, Ireland found itself in a new position and with the need and ambition of increasing its presence and relations globally. In this new condition, the Nordic and Arctic regions were natural partners for Ireland. Mr Ciarán Byrne, Deputy Director of EU Policy Division at the Department of Foreign Affairs introduced the Irish Government´s Strategy for the Nordic Region, to identify new partners in Europe and to create new partnerships. The strategy aims at working closely on climate action and clean energy, as well as trade, sharing best practices, and building relationships for a sustainable economic recovery.
Dr Audrey Morley, President of the Network of Arctic Researchers in Ireland (NARI), presented the work of NARI and some projects in three working groups: marine sciences, terrestrial sciences, social sciences & humanities, which highlighted the expertise of its members and reflected how NARI is contributing to solving the challenges present in the Arctic.
Looking ahead to the Interreg NPA 2021-2027
Ms Kirsti Mijnhijmer, Head of Secretariat, presented the new Interreg NPA 2021-2027. Ms Mijnhijmer presented the status of the programme preparations, new Programme´s features, priorities, simplifications, and a timeline presenting the Programme´s activities within the next year. Ms Mijnhijmer informed the audience about the first call for projects, which is planned to be launched in mid-March and run until June, in view of the first group of projects being approved in September 2022.
Acknowledgments and Practical information
The NPA programme would like to thank all the colleagues, projects, and people involved in the preparation and realisation of this event, as well as the over 150 participants in Sligo and viewers online. Although the NPA likes to experiment and push the boundaries of event formats, we look forward to meeting all our transnational partners again in a traditional physical conference at the first opportunity!
The NPA Annual Event was recorded and can be watched on YouTube. The links in the texts above will allow interested viewers to access the conference recording at the start of each speakers’ presentations. The ppt presentations are available on this page for download.
A graphic illustrator created a visual summary of the event, which can be found for downloaded below. The thematic sessions were also recorded both on video and visually, which can be found at the following links: Innovation capacity, Climate change and resources sufficiency, Natural and Cultural heritage.