TOOC Module 1

Week 1 Innovation in the Circumpolar World

This module’s objectives are:

  • To introduce students to the speed, nature and extent of scientific and technologically-driven change in the 21st century
  • To provide a brief overview of technological change in the Circumpolar World over the past 50 years

The world is changing. It is likely that 90% of scientists who have ever lived and worked are alive today. The pace of scientific and technological change is breath-taking and continues to accelerate in ways and with implications that we barely understand. We can see this in our private lives, through the Internet, smart phones, apps, online services, and even something as simple as this course. We will be linked globally, working together to make sense of the fastest, most dramatic and misunderstood technological revolution in world history.

Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten Photo Date: 25/03/2014

The Circumpolar World, which we will define as the Arctic and Sub-Arctic regions of the world, including northern Canada (territorial and provincial Norths), Alaska, the Russian North, the northern and Arctic regions of Finland, Sweden and Norway, Iceland, the Arctic Islands, and Greenland, has had an uneasy relationship with the scientific and technological revolution.

We will see major advances and changes in the resource sectors; many of the mines and off-shore oil and gas development that is underway in the North would not have been economically viable and technological possible forty years ago.

But at the community level, the signs of innovation are less noticeable. There are changes: The North has ATMs in isolated locations. Online shopping is changing the commercial dynamics of the North. Tele-medicine and tele-health have significant potential for long-term transformation of these critical sectors.

But the commercial and S&T (Science and Technology) communities are not much interested in the Far North. The populations are small and, outside the high-paying resource operations, comparatively poor. The costs of operation in the North are very high, a function of cold weather, vast distances, small and isolated communities, an often transient non-Indigenous population, marginalized Indigenous peoples, and limited regional S&T capabilities.  The largest universities and research centres are in the South. While there are exceptions — like Oulu in Finland and Fairbanks, Alaska, both of which have areas of world-class expertise — few communities have mastered the complicated and expensive processes involved with commercializing S&T. South-based companies are drawn, commercially, to densely populated urban environments and, philanthropically, to the impoverished and crisis-ridden peoples of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

In this first module, we are going to meet some of the leading thinkers of the Age of Science and Technology.  We will not focus specifically on the Circumpolar World, but instead will emphasize the conceptual issues associated with the commercialization of science and technology. This is not an exercise in science fiction, however much fun that would be.  We will focus on practical matters–transformations and developments that have occurred or that are under active consideration.  Properly done and fully implemented, S&T innovation could result in new jobs, a growing economy, and major improvements in the quality of life in the North.  This is all possible.  Handled poorly and without due attention, S&T innovation could result in large scale job losses, the undermining of the northern economy, a growing “innovation divide” between North and South, and a relative decline in the Northern standard of living.  Neither outcome is pre-ordained; both are possible.

The course begins with two sets of speakers:

  • The first group consists of several of the leading thinkers in the world on issues of S&T innovation. They will, in a series of short talks, provide you with a sense of the excitement, concern, enthusiasm and nervousness about the impact of science and technology on the 21st century world.
  • The second group includes Laurence Smith, a leading observer of the modern North. In two brief commentaries, he talks about the pressures facing the region as the world’s attention turns sharply northward.

I conclude the first module with a few thoughts about innovation in the Circumpolar world and reflect on what we will cover in the rest of the course.


Charles Leadbeater: “Innovation By Whom and With What Impact”

So, the national view is interesting and the international comparisons are fascinating.

But the next question is critical:  What does this mean for individuals–and for companies and community?

Innovation is not just for major universities, big companies and global innovators, like Bill Gates. This focus on the big players tends to make it harder to develop sustained interest in the commercialization of S&T. It seems too big, too hard, too technical and too scientific. Not true. Now, more than ever, S&T innovation is incredibly democratic. Anyone can innovate. Much of the new technology is readily accessible, increasingly easier to use–or, you can find or hire someone to help. Charles Leadbeater is a critical thinker about the power of the innovation society. He makes the case that the commercialization of S&T reaches everyone and is accessible to all.  A great deal of innovation comes from the bottom up, not from major research laboratories.  Take a listen.

Robert Gordon: “A Pessimist’s View of the Future”

There is a lot of excitement about the digital revolution and the commercialization of S&T.  But not everyone is quite convinced.  Listen to Robert Gordon, a leading economist, who looks closely at the United States of America and argues that the road ahead is at best uncertain and potentially unsettling.

Peter Diamandis: “the Innovation Optimist!”

The global economy has had a rough ride in recent years–from the 2008-2009 economic crisis caused by the collapse of American financial institutions to the current Euro-zone challenges. Not to mention Russia’s economic downturn and the rapid decline in global oil and gas prices.  Add to this, climate change, demographic and social crises in Africa, and uncertainties about the world’s capacity to adapt to difficult times, and we have a formula for depressing views of the future.  But Peter Diamandis, co-author of Abundance, is an innovation optimist. He thinks S&T will change the world, for the better, and faster and more dramatically than we have ever thought possible.


The State of Innovation Among Circumpolar Nations

Let’s explore the language and details of innovation. The links below provide you with access to reports by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), one of the world’s leading agencies for economic research. Each nation on the planet has an innovation strategy; there is general agreement that S&T innovation is one of the keys to long-term economic prosperity.

But don’t accept this as fact.

It’s unlikely that all nations can follow the same strategies and achieve comparable outcomes. There will be innovation winners and losers.

Right now, the former includes countries like Finland, Sweden, South Korea, Taiwan and Israel. The latter includes nations like Russia, many central Asian countries and even Canada, which has spots of real achievement, but is not staying competitive.

To get familiar with the field, click on at least three of the links below. The OECD provides an overview of the state of innovation in the named country.  As you read through the report, see if you can differentiate between:

  • The emphasis, if any, on the Far North
  • The emphasis, if appropriate, on the country itself
  • The emphasis, if any, on global competitiveness and international markets

By the end of this work, you will have a much better sense of how countries define and approach innovation–and you will likely understand much better the degree to which S&T innovation is central to national prosperity.


  1. Canada
  2. Denmark and Greenland 
  3. Finland
  4. Iceland
  5. Norway
  6. Russian Federation
  7. Sweden
  8. United States


Innovation Challenge Facing Rural Areas

We know that innovation will not unfold evenly. There is already a substantial “digital divide” between those areas with ready access to the Internet and digital technologies and those without. We can now see the development of an “innovation divide,” between those parts of the world with the key elements of a modern scientific and technological society and those who lack infrastructure, educational facilities, economies and scale and the other critical elements required for global technological competitiveness. Here are my thoughts on the unfolding of the innovation challenge facing rural areas.

By the time you have been through these speeches, you will have heard a variety of interesting perspectives on the innovation economy and the opportunities for prosperity based on the commercialization of science and technology.