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Region building

Northern cities looking to grow should look first to Tromsø for inspiration. To make it last, they will need to look inward
An uncommon denominator

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Tromsø can thank Hillary Clinton. The story goes that, during a 2012 visit, Ms Clinton, while serving as America’s secretary of state, described the Norwegian city as “the capital of the Arctic”. It is a name that has stuck, if mostly locally.

There is, of course, no Arctic capital. Yet, if there were a drive to declare one, Tromsø would be a good candidate. The establishment of the Arctic Council’s permanent office here in 2013, and the Arctic Economic Council, in 2015, already make it an Arctic Brussels of a sorts.

In addition, the city is home to a university and to research institutes, all of which are heavily involved in Arctic research. Hosting the annual Arctic Frontiers conference, currently taking place, rounds out a strong list of credentials.

“It is not a coincidence we are all here,” says Anu Fredrikson, the director of the Arctic Economic Council, “Tromsø has the brand, and it has established institutions.”

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This is not something other cities would dispute. Still, any claim to the title would likely be contested; Nuuk, for example, in 2016, released a development strategy titled Arktisk Hovedstad (Arctic Capital).

Reykjavík, meanwhile, has its own big annual conference, Arctic Circle, which attracts a more commercially minded crowd and has a reputation of being more welcoming to people from outside the region. Serving as the home port for Eimskip, a regional ocean-going cargo shipper would also count in its favour.

Discussions of an Arctic capital are strictly a mental exercise, of course. Worse, Ms Fredrikson suggests they may run counter to the development of the regional collaboration that has been a major theme during this year’s Arctic Frontiers.

She suggests that putting more effort into building up a regional identity would be more beneficial, especially for Norway, Sweden and Finland, which already share much in common.

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Others, however, argue that discussing Ms Clinton’s outburst has merit, since it helps show other Northern cities what Tromsø did to deserve it.

“Tromsø went from being economically subsidised by Oslo to having growth rates that surpass the rest of Norway,” says Nils Arne Johnsen, the Arctic director for Rambøll, a consultancy. “Other cities can learn from that.”

His advice to cities: identify what is unique to them and find the catalyst that will allow them to benefit from it. He points to the example of Portland, Maine, on the east coast of the US. Ever since 2014 and the arrival of Eimskip, representatives from the state have been fixtures at Arctic events, promoting the city as the link between the Arctic and a market of 60 million people. Interest for the region, officials say, is noticeable.

“All it took was for one company to show up and it turned its view of where it fits in upside down,” Mr Johnsen says. “Before, they were at the end of the transport corridor. Now, they are a hub.”

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Until now, discussions of what Europe’s Arctic is doing to pull closer together have been watched with detachment by Alaskans and Canadians. Geographic distance makes it all but impossible for them to join in, while vastly different conditions make it hard to apply the Scandinavian model locally.

The task of finding out whether there is a North American variant has fallen to Rambøll, Mr Johnsen announced today. His firm will provide consultancy to the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, an Alaskan organisation, to help it find its own path to development. 

Richard Glenn, one of the ASRC’s directors, expects there will be little from Tromsø that can be reused in North America. Enthusiasm for the region’s potential, he says, is perhaps the common denominator.

“The Arctic is drawing a lot of attention right now. Our aim is to take advantage of that, before it takes advantage of us.”