An expert team from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) arrived in Piteå on February 25, to participate in a joint seminar of the Europaforum North Sweden (EFNS); this seminar was attended by members from the 14 regions in northern Sweden included in the Northern Sparsely Populated Areas (NSPA), northern Norway, eastern and northern Finland. The OECD is an international organization comprising 34 countries. One of their main tasks is to conduct territorial reviews of countries and regions, in order to provide them with recommendations on how to create sustainable growth. The NSPA and OECD have together agreed on initiating a study; the seminar was held in Pite Havsbad as part of the process of writng this study.
The seminar in Piteå is part of the OECD’s collection of data from the 14 regions which the study seeks to cover, and will take into account previous studies in the Finnish and Norwegian regions. The focus of previous studies was on business development and innovation in Finland, and infrastructure and accessibility in Norway. The seminar in Piteå centred on a discussion of demographics and opportunities for community service and competence in the sparsely populated areas. The latter discussions are also themes of the OECD study’s overall focus.
Common opening seminar session
The seminar was opened by José Enrique Garcilazo, project manager of the Unit for Regional Development in the OECD and the NSPA study. He started by expressing his appreciation of all efforts being made on the intensive study mission for the OECD team in the four Swedish regions.
- Regions of Northern Sweden are facing tough challenges. It is about communities that have long distances, climate challenges, an ageing population, and they must fight to retain their skills while there is high youth unemployment. The region must become more efficient and needs smart solutions concerning the resources, said José Enrique Garcilazo.
David Freshwater, professor in rural development at the University of Kentucky and one of the OECD experts participating in the study mission in Sweden, noted that various political efforts must be made where access to good service is particularly important in isolated regions. He highlighted the need to better match demand skills to the labour market.
- Regions with more services and better service have advantages and can as a result help get more people wanting to settle there. If the region fails to create jobs for younger people there is no reason for them to stay, stressed David Freshwater.
Sverker Lindblad, from the Ministry of Industry and head of the Long-Term Survey's latest report on Sweden's demographic development, showed a growing trend of the demographic challenges in the Nordic countries and above all the difficulty of the small municipalities in maintaining service for their citizens in the future. The elderly population will increase in rural areas, which will result in increased costs for the region. He pointed out that more people need to find employment, work longer and further create better conditions to attract more immigrants to the labour market in northern Europe.
Stephane Pronovost, Chief of Research, Canada Economic Development for Quebec Regions, together with his colleague Marie-Chantal Girard as an external expert, spoke about the importance of building structures for enterprise development and the importance of cooperation and knowledge sharing between different sectors.
- There is not a single model that fits all, but strategies must be developed from the needs that exist at a local level. To meet the challenges, it is more important to create different incubators that include various stakeholders from industry, public organizations and citizens, said Stephane Pronovost.
Erik Bergkvist, Region Västerbotten and Chairman of the EFNS, concluded that policies must be coordinated on the regional level. He brought up the issue of the existence of many parallel systems for regional development and also raised the lack of infrastructure and housing in northern Sweden; he specifically addressed rules pointing out that it is forbidden to build houses near lakes and rivers.
In Canada, as in many other countries, the government has a limited fund for investing in regional development. Therefore, it becomes increasingly important to ensure that the work is really paying off, stressed Marie-Chantal Girard, Vice-President for Policy and Communications, Canada Economic Development for Quebec Regions.
- We need strong leadership at all levels to create regional development. By encouraging new reforms to create an attractive labour market we will achieve regional development, and then it is important to have strong partnerships, said Marie-Chantal Girard during the first part of the NSPA seminar that brought together around 100 representatives from Sweden, Finland and Norway.
Parallel workshops and integration with Europaforum Northern Sweden
The participants later divided into three parallel seminars in order to have a briefing by OECD expert’s followed by regional representatives such as Agneta Granström from the County Council of Norrbotten and Anne Atkins from Akademi Norr, and lastly there was an in-depth open discussion of three different themes with a focus on skills, social services in rural areas and developing effective leadership for regional development.
After lunch, NSPA representatives and OECD experts reconvened to continue the discussion in the aftermath of the opening session at the Europaforum Northern Sweden, which was also part of the OECD arrangement, with speakers from the OECD team and Mikel Landabaso from the European Commission (who were also present throughout the day) and Gunilla Nordlöf, Director General of the Growth Board.
Mikel Landabaso, Director, Urban and Territorial Development, DG Regio, European Commission, said that Northern Sweden is not alone in the challenges of contending with issues relating to skills, emigration and an ageing population. Creating new jobs and meeting the challenge of an ageing population will be among the biggest challenges in the European Union, he said.
- Cohesion policy, if it is designed in a good way to support smart regional specialization, can be part of the solution, pointed Mikel Landabaso.
The Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth will focus on two areas in the future: one is the small and medium-sized enterprises and the other is precisely regional development and growth, said Gunilla Nordlöf, General Director of the Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth.
- We need to work together, we cannot solve all the challenges by ourselves and Europaforum Northern Sweden is a great opportunity, stressed Gunilla Nordlöf.
(Translation: Aida Mehrazin)