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The Nordic countries at the top of their game

On October 14-15 2013 the first Nordregio Forum was held in Saltsjöbaden, Stockholm. The theme was Nordic Attraction and the key questions discussed were connected to Nordic competitiveness, strengths and challenges. The forum's keynote speakers, Adrian Wooldridge from The Economist and Jose Enrique Garcilazo from the OECD, gave much appreciated outside perspectives on what makes the Nordic countries unique.

The programme covered five topics: demographic challenges in the Nordic countries, Nordic integration in border regions, green growth through innovation, women's entrepreneurship and gender equality as a way to promote sustainable development, and the interaction between economic development and physical planning initiatives. In addition to presentations and discussions, the forum served as a networking platform, which was appreciated by the participants, who had gathered from all the Nordic countries.

Voices from the forum:

"Meeting so many Nordic experts was great!"

"The possibility to network with Nordic colleagues is very valuable."

"One of the best things was the diversity of participants from across the Nordic countries"

Jan-Erik Enestam

Nordregio Forum was opened by Marita Ljung, State Secretary at the Ministry of Enterprise, Energy and Communications and Jan-Erik Enestam, Director of the Nordic Council (pictured above).

Nordic attraction and competitiveness

After opening speeches, the two keynote speakers kicked-off the forum by providing outside perspectives on the Nordic countries as role models in a Europe marked by an economic crisis.

In February 2013, Adrian Wooldridge, Management Editor & Schumpeter Columnist at The Economist wrote a special report for the Economist titled Northern Lights. During his keynote he joked how his view of the Nordic countries before writing the special report was mostly based on information gleaned from Nordic crime novels. However, after his three week research tour throughout the Nordic region Wooldridge's perception was changed greatly. Through writing the special report he discovered that the Nordic's economic success can be attributed to a number of factors. Among the most important he mentioned the relatively high degree of trust by in the public sector as a key driver of economic development, as well as the ability for existing and new Nordic firms to generate growth by transitioning existing production skills into new, export-oriented "niche sectors". The Finnish gaming industry as a spin-off of Nokia in the mobile technology sector was mentioned, along with the Norwegians ability to export their underwater drilling competencies worldwide.

Jose Enrique Garcilazo, Head of Unit for Regional Growth and Policies at the OECD, presented new outputs from the OECD's work on regional growth analysis. Findings from that work stress the importance of institutional and political factors for promoting growth, along with the development of unskilled labour. Another important result from the OECD's work on regional competitiveness is that even though overall growth is dominated by urban areas, the so-called "tail of growth" in smaller regions is still important for nations in their economic development.

Jose Enrique Garcilazo & Adrian Wooldridge

Keynote speakers Jose Enrique Garcilazo & Adrian Wooldridge

Demographic changes in the Nordic countries – Mitigation or adaptation to challenges?

The remainder of the first day was dedicated to the demographic situation in the Nordic countries. Different strategies to cope with demographic challenges faced by Nordic countries were presented during the session; focusing on labour mobility, education, cooperation and innovative solutions presented by using new technologies.

An increasing share of elderly population that is both wealthier and healthier than previous generations is both an example of the success of the Nordic welfare policies, but also a great economic burden. For instance, when the labour force share compared to total population decreases, the ability to provide and maintain desirable service levels is strained, and recruitment of qualified labour force is increasingly challenging, especially in rural Nordic regions.

Increasing human mobility, especially regarding immigration to the Nordic countries, is a crucial factor driving labour force increases in Nordic regions. The highly educated labour force in the Nordic countries is seen as a great potential, but in relation to high demand on welfare service production, especially regarding health care and education, more flexible education solutions were underlined during the forum, such as faster graduation and upgrading the skills of existing low-skilled workers.

Local preconditions should also be better taken into account when coping with the challenges of organising welfare services, both concerning funding and the supply of qualified labour force. Improved cooperation across regional and national boundaries was also highlighted as a strategy for border regions, whereas for sparsely populated areas different web-based services were seen as an opportunity.

Green growth and innovation

The second day of the forum was opened with a session on green growth and innovation, starting with a presentation on renewable energy as a tool for regional development. It was discussed how the regional impacts of renewable energy production can be complex and it is not always certain net increases in regional employment will take place when all the all direct and indirect effects are considered. Yet for biomass production, the impact is likely to be positive since jobs are created earlier in the production cycle (e.g. in collection, treatment, transports, etc). Other benefits for regions include the potential for attracting innovation and exchanging knowledge, to improve local engagement in regional development and to reduce the costs and vulnerability of imported energy.

The potentials for sustainable development and economic growth through bioeconomy and green innovation were other topics of the session. The importance of Nordic collaboration on bioeconomy was emphasized, while a Finnish example illustrated the role of clean technologies as an important vehicle for green innovations and economic growth.

Gender equality for regional development

Within the second theme of the day, presentations focused on gender mainstreaming and women's entrepreneurship. According to gender mainstreaming, the question of gender shouldn't be lifted as its own issue, but instead be factored into all aspects of regional development policy.

Interestingly therefore, the session created some controversy among participants, as some questioned why gender was lifted as a topic of its own, instead of integrating it as a part of the other sessions, i.e. gender mainstreaming.

A question was raised on how, and if, a gender perspective could contribute to challenging the dominating policy discourse on regional development, which is increasingly focused solely on economic growth.

After the session there was discussion on whether there should be a specific focus on women in regional development strategies to ensure that this consideration does not disappear under the umbrella of diversity. Initiatives to support entrepreneurship were also discussed. Policy measures directed to different sectors could be a better solution, instead of policy measures directed solely at women.

Physical planning and economic growth

The forum was concluded with a session on the integration of economic development and spatial planning, with presentations covering both regional and national perspectives.

The first presentation focused on Region Skåne's strategic work with bridging the gap between regional development programmes and municipal comprehensive planning through spatial representations (leitbilder). It was emphasized that although Region Skåne's spatial representations are not legally binding, through time and increasing trust they have a uniting effect - creating a common vision for the region.

The second regional case came from Finland, which is the only Nordic country where regional development plans are legally binding. It was described how in North Karelia the regional and local community is facing a complex interplay between opportunities and challenges due to the new boom in mining activities. The presentation stressed the importance of the regional plan in defining and demarcating potential areas for mining, and in pursuing strategies for sustainable/green and responsible mining.

The potential conflicts between growth, environmental concerns and the roles and responsibilities of different levels of government were the topic of the third presentation in the session. With a national perspective from Norway, it was stated how local and national levels of government sometimes have different and potentially conflicting interests, and rationales.

"Is it reasonable that local communities should have the responsibility for implementing national environmental goals?", was the question of presenter Erik Vieth Pedersen.

The last presentation also started off with a discussion on the importance of different scales of interpretation, but expanded the discussion to include the Nordic and even the global perspectives. It was emphasized that to create attractive and competitive cities it is important to provide strong regional visions – ones that clearly outline local political strategies and recognize the unique qualities of each city.

Nordregio Forum 2013

Focused participants in the beautiful surroundings of Vår Gård in Saltsjöbaden

Looking forward to Nordregio Forum 2014

Nordregio Forum 2013 gave interesting insights into the theme of Nordic Attractiveness, and offered several practical examples from across the Nordic countries. In addition, it served as a valuable networking arena and platform for discussions and questions.

More strategic analysis produced by Nordregio was sought after by attendees, as a complement to the cases presented. This provides us with valuable insight that we will take into consideration when planning future forums. Thank you to all the participants and we look forward to seeing you at Nordregio Forum 2014 in Iceland!