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Building Arctic Futures: Transport Infrastructures and Sustainable Northern Communities

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - INFRANORTH (Building Arctic Futures: Transport Infrastructures and Sustainable Northern Communities)

Reporting period: 2022-07-01 to 2023-12-31

The Arctic has become a hotspot of global attention, due to increased resource extraction pressure, growing militarisation and a rise of tourist demand, all in the context of rapid climate change. Many if not all of these activities necessitate the construction or upgrading of transport infrastructures in this relatively remote, inaccessible and scarcely populated part of the world. While these large-scale infrastructures are mostly sponsored by outside interests, they can have profound impacts on local residents. The novelty of our approach is not to focus on those powerful outside actors, whether they are mining companies, state agencies, tour operators or the military. Instead, we want to know how local and Indigenous residents of the Arctic engage with these infrastructures, and to examine the intended and unintended consequences these projects have on their lives. Our challenge is to understand whether existing and planned transport infrastructures will support permanent human habitation and sustainable communities in the Arctic, or whether they will strengthen a trend of substituting permanent residents with “temporaries” like shift workers, tourists and military personnel. Or to put it another way: What is the role of transport infrastructures in sustaining northern communities?

These questions are not only of vital importance for the Arctic communities concerned but for humanity more broadly. With the ongoing global trend of urbanization, remote rural communities are under pressure in many parts of the world. Transport and transport infrastructures play a critical part in the imaginations of many of them. Thus, one important element of our project – the co-creation of future scenarios through local workshops – might be relevant beyond the Arctic. These workshops and associated activities also point to the applied dimension of the project. While we aim to understand some more theoretical questions mentioned above, we also intend to provide examples of success stories – or lessons learned – to the communities we work with so that they can make informed decisions about their futures.
The first half of this 5-year project had to deal with two major challenges: the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian attack on Ukraine. Both of them severely impacted the ambitious fieldwork plans of the project. Because of the pandemic, no fieldwork in the remote communities of the Arctic was possible during year 1. Preliminary fieldwork started in February 2022, while more extended stays had to wait until summer of 2022. As of June 30, 2023, 1 research trip to Alaska, 1 to the Faroe Islands (Denmark), 2 to Churchill (Canada), 2 to Nunavut (Canada), 2 to Kirkenes (Norway), 2 to Kiruna (Sweden) and Narvik (Norway), as well as 3 research trips to Rovaniemi (Finland) have been conducted by core members of the project team. In addition, fieldwork in West Greenland has been conducted by an associate researcher of the project.

In the first 30 months, three InfraNorth project workshop have been conducted: one devoted to the geopolitics and global economics of Arctic transport, one to the history of Arctic Infrastructures, and one devoted to ethnographies of infrastructure. At this point, 12 peer-reviewed articles have been published by InfraNorth team members. Most of them are based on data that were already available at the beginning of the project. New data collected in 2022 and 2023 are being analyzed and prepared for publication right now – the first of them will appear in the second half of 2023 and many more in 2024 and beyond. Currently, contributions for three special issues of journals are being collected and reviewed. Two of them result from InfraNorth project workshops, while one is the outcome of a dedicated conference session. A lot of effort has been put into developing future scenarios for the communities of Churchill (Canada) and Kirkenes (Norway), as well as into preparations for local scenario workshops in these places, which will take place during the second half of 2023. More workshops might follow in 2024 and beyond.
The project uses an innovative mix of qualitative and quantitative methods. These include in-depth conversations with community members, expert interviews, focus groups, questionnaires, scenario workshops, as well as socioeconomic and geopolitical contextual analyses. While none of these methods as such is novel, the specific combination as used by InfraNorth provides the basis for achieving results that go beyond the state of the art.

At this point, the project is only beginning to produce results. Those results will be both of theoretical and practical relevance. On the one hand, we will produce in-depth case studies of different local and regional constellations regarding the impact of transport infrastructures on community wellbeing. There are examples of such infrastructures benefitting local communities, or at least parts thereof, and examples of the opposite. The theoretical challenge is to identify the factors leading to positive or negative impacts. In order to do so, the diverse local case studies will be brought into a shared comparative framework with a limited number of parameters. While most of that comparative work remains to be done, local financial and planning control over infrastructure projects seems to appear as a promising candidate for positive outcomes.

We are certain that the local scenario workshops, the first two of which are scheduled for summer and fall 2023, will produce important results, both methodologically and content-wise. Our specific method of constructing future scenarios externally and then deconstructing and co-creating them locally is novel; thus, we will devote a number of academic articles to its documentation and discussion. At the same time, these workshops will result in a variety of locally meaningful products beyond the academic realm, ranging from local exhibitions to online portals and physical brochures, thereby giving back to the communities with whom our research results are being co-produced.