Conferencing the Arctic: Some reflections on Arctic Frontiers 2018

By Klaus Dodds and Duncan Depledge

In recent years, as a number of scholars have noted, the Arctic has inspired a portfolio of international conferences to emerge, including Arctic Circle (in Iceland), Arctic Frontiers (in Norway), and The Arctic: Territory of Dialogue (in Russia).

Various descriptors have been used to account for this profusion of people, sites and venues dedicated to Arctic-themed meeting and exchange. We used the term ‘bazaar’ to discuss Arctic Circle, which was initiated in Iceland in October 2013. Our choice was deliberate because we wanted to capture something of the organized chaos manifest in the physical organization, conference atmosphere and speakers and sponsors that prevailed in the Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik.

Others such as Beate Steinveg at the Arctic University of Norway have spoken about conferences being spaces for and of meaning including where the Arctic begins and ends, who and what are legitimate stakeholders, and how the Arctic gets articulated and performed.

In our experiences of Arctic Circle and Arctic Frontiers, ideas about the Arctic were freely traded and session organizers competed with one another to draw in crowds. Big names, big companies and big states continue to participate in these annual affairs as along with an array of academics, journalists, non-government organizations and representatives from permanent participants and northern communities.



BBC Journalist Stephen Sackur at the 2018 Arctic Frontiers Conference


Arctic Frontiers (AF) is a bit different to Arctic Circle. Established before Arctic Circle, it is hosted every January in the northern city of Tromsø. Supported by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other national and local stakeholders, AF attracts about 3000 national and international participants including commercial and industry stakeholders, journalists and academics and an array of national and international political and diplomatic representatives.

What could we take away from this year’s AF conference? Six themes stood out for us.

First, the location of AF matters greatly. Tromsø is presented by the Norwegian government, and local and county-level political figures, as the ‘Paris of the North’ and Norway’s Arctic capital and gateway to Svalbard and the European Arctic. The University of Tromsø was renamed the Arctic University of Norway. Relationally, much of what transpires is about how northern Norway leverages national and international recognition and commercial advantage at AF.

However, the location also has a downside. While you might get a more ‘authentic’ urban Arctic experience in Tromsø than say Reykjavik, it is not quite so easy to get there from outside Norway – it does not go unnoticed, particularly among international participants, that much of the discussion is dominated by Norwegian scientists and companies, despite the best efforts of the organisers to attract diverse international perspectives.

Some of the conference sessions are held in Norwegian, which will perfectly reasonable given the location, but it sets it apart from the overwhelming domination of the English-language proceedings of Arctic Circle.

Participants are also required to expose themselves to frigid Arctic air as they shuffle from hotel to hotel to attend various meetings. We suspect that part of the distinctiveness of AF is seasonal – it is cold, icy, dark, and quite different to the main Arctic Circle event which is held in a milder, autumnal Reykjavik. Participants are constantly queuing for the hotel cloakrooms as outerwear is discarded and winter boots swapped for business shoes. Being formal requires more work.

Second, AF is organized around distinct themes – this year they were connectivity, innovation and blue growth – determined by the conference organisers and divided into policy, business and science sessions.  Smaller breakout sessions are less choreographed but still support the same themes. The plenary sessions perform a particular function for high-profile speakers to bring together those elements into a more coherent whole. Repeatedly, speakers emphasize points of intersection and overlap.

As an aside, Russian speakers are often the only ones not speaking English as their first or second working language and thus there is also the additional hum of translating commentary originating from widely distributed headphones. Notably, they are often allowed to speak a little bit longer than non-Russian speakers.


Duncan Depledge (far right) moderating a panel discussion at 2018 Arctic Frontiers held at the public library of Tromsø (one of the few events held away from the main conference hotels)

In that sense, rather than simply serve as a bazaar for the exchange of ideas – as we have framed Arctic Circle – the intent behind AF seems to be to drive the conversation towards the potential for change, problem-solving and solutions to particular regional and Nordic-Russian challenges such as pollution, economic diversification and scientific collaboration.

Over the past decade interest in the Arctic has often focused on the region’s oil and gas potential but at AF this year, oil and gas never really took centre stage – instead the emphasis was on the opportunities likely to be brought about by aquaculture, services, electrification, urbanisation and the digital economy – thus the Arctic was presented as a gateway to a low carbon, sustainable future capable of supporting global growth.

Third, the organization of AF is meticulous. Each time you entered a session your conference badge was scanned so that it would be possible for the organizers to download data and analyze the overall popularity of sessions and the movement of individual delegates.  What remains unclear for most is how that information will be used to inform future planning and post-conference reflection. Yet this interest in collecting big data suggests that Arctic Frontiers is looking to understand and guide the conversation about the Arctic – it is not simply a marketplace for exchanges.

Fourth, a session on regional development in the Arctic brought to the fore a spatial tension. How to define the Arctic as a region? For some Norwegian speakers, the regional made itself manifest at a county level in northern Norway or cities in northern Finland. For others, the regional Arctic was the European Arctic, the North American Arctic and or the Russian Arctic. Others spoke of the Arctic as something shaped indelibly by its contact with the global and extra-territorial. All of which inevitably raised challenges in terms of which scale and site to prioritize? Could we speak as the US Arctic Council chairmanship (2015-2017) did of ‘One Arctic’?

On balance, most speakers appeared sceptical of this appeal to unification. And what was notable how statements such as ‘we have the experience’, ‘we live here’ and ‘we have the expertise’ were often uttered by northern speakers as a pre-emptive strategy to position their particular regional understanding just as other stakeholders used climate change, sustainability and commercial opportunity to mobilize a different view of the Arctic as a contact zone for global investment flows, environmental shifts, and political interest from elsewhere.

Fifth, AF clearly puts a lot of effort into creating a platform for youth to network with each other, build their confidence, and make their own contribution to Arctic affairs. In addition to giving a 17-year old youth politician the chance to talk in the last plenary session about her experience of growing up in an Arctic city, AF also ran PhD workshops, careers seminars, student forums, and other events facilitating meetings between young scientists and professionals and more senior figures from academia, business and the public sector. There is sense then that AF is trying to harness the energy and optimism of young people perhaps to show that there is a future for them in the Arctic.

Sixth, and finally, however choreographed and organized a conference is, there is always potential for the spontaneous. For many conference attendees what makes a conference memorable is the unexpected even the outrageous. For us, the most notable incident in AF 2018 came at the end of a well-attended plenary moderated by the BBC journalist Stephen Sackur. After a free-wheeling panel session, it was time for question and answers. The final intervention from the audience came from a representative from the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC). She described herself as ‘shaking with anger’ at what she had heard in the preceding discussion.

What had provoked that reaction? Our guess was that the conversation got rather side-tracked by non-Arctic affairs with insufficient attention paid to the everyday and historic struggles and demands of indigenous communities to have their own rights and wishes respected.

As a fleeting moment of anger, it captured an underlying tension that no international conference on and for the Arctic escapes from. Generating an exchange of ideas about the Arctic – present and future- requires one to be attentive to the way in which the living past haunts those conversations. Just as any conversation about the Arctic needs to recognize that we are not talking about a singular Arctic.

Organizing conferences, at any scale, carries with it logistical complications, political sensitivities, and the potential of the unexpected and the spontaneous.

The Arctic, in all its complexity, is surrounded by conference talk and action. But there are some experiences and things that cannot be easily conferenced away.



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