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The hunt for innovation knows no borders

| Text: Gunhild Wallin, photo: Photo: Sverre Chr. Jarild

Today, all countries are seeking the ultimate environment for innovation and creativity. The Nordic countries are looking to each other for help. In January this year the Nordic Innovation Centre, NICe, was established in Oslo. Financed by the Nordic Council of Ministers, its ambition is to make the Nordic countries leading innovators in Europe

Kjetil Storvik"I believe we've got a very good chance of success. The co-operation between the Nordic countries is unique, and creates added value. Standing alone, we probably won't succeed. But when we pool the Nordic competence on specific areas, we become interesting and worth listening to", says Kjetil Storvik, managing director at Nordic Innovation Centre.

He is confident the Nordic countries can achieve a lot if they work together. One example he uses concerns food safety. The Nordic countries have been co-operating on foodstuff research since 1992, and one year ago they established a committee to develop and intensify this cross-border research. Their goal was to create interest among at least five more EU countries for a common project on safer food. The result was beyond all expectations. The network now consists of 17 countries altogether, and the hope is for the project to be included in the European Research Area Net (ERA-net).

"This is a model example, where you can see the value of Nordic co-operation. By working together we have a stronger voice and can push the causes closest to our heart even further," says Kjetil Storvik. 

NICe has at its disposal 15 staff from all the Nordic countries, as well as 7,5 million Euro. That makes them the largest business project within the Nordic Council of Ministers right now. The idea for NICe grew out of the Nordic Industrial Fund and Nordtest, two institutions which were both working to support innovation and business projects. They reckoned they could achieve more together, and got support from the Nordic Council of Ministers. The new centre has now chiselled out ideas, business areas and management models, says Kjetil Storvik. The goal is to stimulate Nordic trade and industry, with special focus on small and mediumsized businesses. There are many methods, and they change according to needs.

"You can't separate innovation from commercial success. Creating new things is not necessarily innovation, you must also create value," says Kjetil Storvik. 

He disagrees with those who talk about innovation and research as if the two are automatically interlinked. In his view, that is not the case at all. Research does not necessarily lead to innovation, and there is also a lot of value creation going on which does no stem from research – for instance in areas like design, marketing, leadership and organisation.

The goal is to be on the forefront in both research AND innovation. That's why NICe are developing an "innovation book", together with trade and industry. It is due in May, and is supposed to complement the white paper presented at the Nordic Council session in Oslo last autumn.

A further ambition is to merge the processes, but it is important to create a system with which trade and industry can identify, says Kjetil Storvik. 

"When talking about research and innovation, what people often have in mind is natural science research. That research is important, but does not cover everything. Large portions of trade and industry are not dependent on that type of research, for instance tourism and finance." 

NICe initiates concrete projects. One such project is the safe removal of lead and other heavy metals form electronic products produced in the Nordic countries. It is supported by several large players in the field – Bang & Olufsen being one. There is another project of co-operation on robotic submarines, a third looks at ways of building a network for sustainable tourism, yet another concentrates on waste management for treated wood. Invitations to seminars and networking initiatives are fighting for space. These are but a few examples, and the list goes on. 

NICe is also involved in the exchange of knowledge between research and business. What is being done, and where? Is there parallel research going on without people knowing what others are up to, or is there an important area of research which is missing? Another priority for NICe is networking. A lot of NICe's work is about "best practice" and "matchmaking". 

Kjetil Storvik has one example – a project called "Business Angels", which tries to link people with risk capital to interesting ventures. 

"Our task is to stimulate individuals to invest in different projects. People who do have money to invest are often rooted quite locally, but we can put them in contact with similar trade environments in other Nordic countries," says Kjetil Storvik.

NICe uses "think-tanks" for inspiration, which consist of experts and professionals from the different countries. Through them, NICe wants to help setting the agenda for innovation. This is where they bounce new ideas and innovation strategies around, for instance for areas like tourism, nano-technology, environment, e-trade and IT – to mention but a few.Another task is to link creative professions to innovative projects. Last summer, for instance, they went to all the large Nordic rock music festivals to make contact with young entrepreneurs. NICe has also been financing projects aimed at increasing the number of female business leaders, in the belief that diversity fuels innovation. Each project getting economic support must consist of people from at least three Nordic countries, and the two other countries must have been invited. That is not always easy. Some are reluctant to look to their Nordic neighbours, and it is not rare to find a lack of knowledge about what is going on in the other countries. 

Another of the three main points for NICe, is to create a borderless Nordic area. Even after many years of co-operation, there are still many obstacles for businesses and people who want to move across the borders. Work is underway to find out what has been done, and what needs doing. 

"It is basically smart to expand your immediate surroundings. No matter your international ambitions, it is good to make use of your neighbour. If you want to paint a house and haven't got a ladder, you go to your neighbour and borrow one. You don't find one though shopping through the whole of Northern Europe," says Kjetil Storvik. 

"It is not about creating an alternative to the EU – on the contrary. A Nordic co-operation is about having more alternatives than your own national starting point. If all the Nordic countries were EU members, the Nordic co-operation would have really taken off," reckons Kjetil Storvik.

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