TOOC Module 3

Week 3 Innovation that Affects the Individual

This module’s objectives are:

  • to look at the micro (or family) level at how S&T innovations are changing Circumpolar realities
  • to alert students to the unexpected consequences arising from S&T innovations

National Innovation Strategies are all about high-level government efforts to create a “new economy” based on the commercialization of Science and Technology.  Everyone wants to create a mini-Silicon Valley (even if they have ill-formed views of how the Stanford University-centred innovation super-hub actually emerged.  Hint:  follow American military spending!!).  If government programs, infrastructure investments and commercial incubators are at one end of the spectrum, innovation that matters in the lives of individuals is at the other.

In this module, we are going to look at those innovations that are already affecting and changing Northern life.  Many of these are very familiar, but I hope that some surprise you.  For example, almost everyone in the Far North has access to the Internet — albeit at slower speeds, higher costs and generally with less reliable service than in the South.  And most of you can quickly identify a dozen ways in which the Internet, one of the greatest technological innovations in human history, has changed life in the North. Here is a partial list: instant communications, sharing of large files and photographs, routine access to global news, online games (and gambling!), downloadable movies, access to millions of free books (Google Books) and the undermining of regular bookstores (, translation devices, online shopping, remote health care, remote banking, online education (including this course), distant surveillance (I can control the heat in my house from anywhere in the world), health monitoring, and on and on the list goes. And that is just one type of innovation.

Our goal in this module is not to identify all of the innovations that have filtered down to the individual, the household or the community level.  That would take a long time.  Instead, the purpose is two-fold:

  1.  To alert you to the changes that S&T are having on Northern lives.
  2.  To get you thinking about the impact of these technological changes on life in the North.

Consider a strange combination of examples: improved gas mileage and radial tires.  In the 1950s and 1960s, cars were real gas-guzzlers.  They used a lot of gas to go a short distance.  Gas was cheap, so people did not worry so much.  But the OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) Oil Crisis of the early 1970s changed that, with a great impact on the North, where gas prices spiked.  (This did not happen uniformly; some countries regulated gas prices, including areas in the North.) So, under regulations imposed by governments, auto manufacturers started to produce cars with better gas mileage — a good thing!  At roughly the same time, tire manufacturers made major changes in automobile tires. The introduction of radial tires was pivotal. (For a brief history and description of the technology, see They replaced the old bias ply tires, which were not as strong, less fuel efficient and more prone to punctures.  As late as the early 1970s, most people drove on tires with inner tubes. So, what’s the big deal?

A lot, it turns out.  In the North, where substantial distances typically separated communities, a service station infrastructure developed.  Since cars could not travel very far between fill ups and since tires blew out with surprising regularity, service stations did a substantial business.  Along most highways, there were gas and service stations, typically with a small restaurant, every 50 miles (80 kilometres) or so.  Blown tires and empty gas tanks kept them in business.  Radial tires addressed the first challenge — flat tires were much less common, even on the gravel highways that were more common in the North than the South.  Improved gas mileage made it possible for al vehicles to travel great distances — 300 miles became a fairly common range.

In fairly quick order, these two very positive technological developments reshaped highway life in the Far North.  Many of the smaller, intermediate stations closed down: not enough flat ties and not enough gas purchases, and fewer people stopping to have a meal or to stay over night in the motel while the tires were repaired.  (I drove from Whitehorse to Vancouver in 1974, in a rather old car, and I had four tires blow out on the trip. Like most drivers, I kept two mounted spare tires in the car and stopped to get any flat tire repaired at the first opportunity.)  Fairly quickly, the settlement pattern along northern highways shifted.  Small gas and service stations closed, as did the restaurants and motels.  Work and services concentrated around the larger centres.  The North became less settled, at least in terms of these small service stations.

Consider another example. ATMs (where you can do some of your banking at a machine, often located in a gas station or grocery store) and online banking have been a major benefit to the Far North.  People in small towns can apply for mortgages, transfer funds, pay bills, and perform many other banking services without leaving their home — although, of course, many can now do the same functions from their smartphones.  This is all good. Consider American data: In 2000, only 14 years ago, 20% of Americans banked online; that number is now over 60%.  In 2011, 18% of Americans banked via their cell phone (many did both); that number is now over 35%. Interestingly, in the USA rural people are less likely to use online banking than urban residents, most of whom have a bank within a few blocks.

The online and cellphone banking numbers do not include the ATMs, which are even more common.  There are some 2.2 million ATMs operating globally, ranging from Svalbard (an island far North of the top of Norway) to Camp McMurdo in Antarctica.  All of this is good, providing bank users with ready access to their money and, in many instances, with the opportunity to perform other banking services as well.

But like all technological innovations, ATMs come at some cost as well. Banks used to maintain small branches (often staffed only one day a week or less) in isolated communities.  These banks provided hands-on, personal service and were critical for gaining access to personal loans, mortgages, and business financing.  But with ATMs handling the largest share of banking transactions, many of the banks removed their branches from these smaller centres.  This often meant the loss of a job or two (banking clerks, in the main), but also meant that local residents  no longer had ready access to a banker/loan officer.  For a small town, having access to bank was a mark of status and a key sign that basic services were available.  Those services were still there, to be used online.  But the personal touch was largely lost. For many communities, the loss of a bank, even if it was only opened a day a week, was symbolically very significant.

So, as you contemplate a series of major personal and community-level innovations in the Far North, realize that change often creates other and unintended transformations.  People can benefit enormously from a new technology — such as and, which allow people to buy books online — while not realizing that there is a local impact of considerable significance, such as the closing of the local bookstore.

Another important point to note is that innovation does not impact populations evenly. For example, we are all impacted differently by innovative goods and services, depending on our position within a socio-economic structure. Check out this blog on ‘inclusive innovation’ by Richard Heeks which shines a light on this issue. His blog is part of the ICTs for Development website which talks about information and communication technologies and socio-economic development: 

Modern life is rarely simple — and at times it is very confusing and complicated.


Energy Innovation and Traditional Knowledge

Here are profiles of scientific and technological innovations from across the Circumpolar world. These innovations have been taken from development centres at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.  This short clip — and the ones that follow — will introduce you to the efforts being made to find scientific and technological solutions to some of the challenges facing the North.


Energy Innovation and Traditional Knowledge



Arctic energy independence

Initiatives like the Barefoot College mean that the cultural potential of renewable energies and energy independence is increasingly being embraced even by the world’s most isolated communities. These new sources of energy not only help to mitigate climate change, but they also help keep remote communities alive by encouraging younger people to stay on their traditional lands.

Elena Antipina and Pyotr Kaurgin from The Northern Forum traveled from the harsh and unforgiving environment of the Arctic Tundra to the Cairns workshop in tropical northern Australia, to share their experiences in bringing solar light technology to the nomadic reindeer herders of the Chukchi Nation in Siberia.

“Children are not going into reindeer herding,” says Antipina. “What has to be done? We all agreed and arrived at one important decision, this being the introduction of solar panels.”


To build and sustain the technical capacity needed for this solar venture, the community collaborated with the Barefoot College and Arctic NGO, the Snowchange Cooperative. Tero Mustonen from Snowchange elaborates:

“The engine for this process is two grandmothers, who went from Kolmya to India to be trained as solar engineers. And now, after many twists and turns, the panels are in Kolyma finally and the grandmothers are back…The idea is to solar electrify the nomadic camps and nomadic schools in the region.”

The ‘twists and turns’ of this project were many, ranging from health difficulties for the grandmothers acclimating to the high temperatures and altitudes of the Indian training sites, to years of delays in navigating Russian customs requirements to import the solar panels. But the newly trained engineers and partner organizations remained committed to overcoming the obstacles, and the communities continued to prepare by designing special sleds to transport the solar panels and experimenting with wrapping fragile objects in reindeer skins to cushion against vibration when moving. Finally, two years after completing their training, the panels arrived in the Turvaurgin community.

“You can turn the kettle on, and kids can watch or listen to music, radio, TV…Lately they started to bring notebooks,” says Kaurgin. “The main thing is that our children are with us, because our traditional way of life must be passed on to them, from generation to generation,” he says.

A similar story is told by Chagat Almashev, who lives in the Golden Mountains of Altai, the major mountain range in western Siberia and home to the endangered snow leopard. Almashev shares how the indigenous and local peoples of the Altai Republic have benefited from projects such as supplying herder families with portable solar panels, empowering these families to migrate appropriately (and comfortably), while maintaining their traditional livelihood which is connected to closely observing their lands and seasonal indicators.

On the high alpine Ukok Plateau, another community were trained and constructed a combined solar-wind generator to supply electricity to the training center located at their mountain farming camp, allowing them to train young unemployed people from surrounding camps and villages. “…We are giving opportunity to traditional cultures to lead their traditional style of life,” says Almashev. “Having new technology and sources for energy, and to have access to Internet, even just light in their houses… [this is] stimulating young people to stay on their lands.


Both Sides of Science & Technology Innovation

It is important to understand the innovations, practical and human-level, that already exist and are changing lives and communities. Many students use on-line banking or ATMs (Automated Teller Machines).  It is obvious that these machines are convenient, safe to use, reliable and effective.  But have you considered the other side of the balance sheet?  How many jobs were lost as a result of the introduction of ATMs?  And in northern areas, how many local banks and financial institutions were closed down?  The answer is: in the hundreds around the Circumpolar World. When a bank closes, small communities lose a great deal: local jobs, an important business, a key business leader (the bank), access to local decision-makers on business and personal loans, and the status that goes with having a bank in the settlement.

It is important to explore some of the technologies that may change lives in the near future. Here are some websites to check out: