Extensive transformation and industrialisation affect universities

20 January 2022

This week, Region Västerbotten started their annual event "Västerbotten at Grand Hôtel", online of course. Together with thirty or so representatives from the Swedish business sector and politics, I had the opportunity to participate in an inaugurating activity – a conversation with Peter Larsson, government coordinator of industrialisation and transformation in Northern Sweden.

Peter Larsson labels the ongoing challenge as ‘a doubly disruptive development’, suggesting an unexpected reindustrialisation with investments likely to exceed SEK 1,000 billion, and also, an extensive transformation of society with an expected population growth of over 100,000 inhabitants in the upcoming decade, which is a population increase of 20 per cent.

Dieter Müller, Deputy Vice-Chancellor

Photo: Mattias Pettersson

I can still remember the day in 2017 when I was sent to Skellefteå to help the municipality in a meeting with a new company – Northvolt – that was planning on establishing a battery factory in Northern Sweden. It turned into an interesting meeting where Skellefteå municipality skilfully presented the benefits the municipality had to offer, and the representatives of the northern universities described their education and research. To be quite honestly, not even in my wildest dreams could I have envisaged the sudden boom that the northernmost part of the country is now experiencing. It stands in sharp contrast to the debates on emigration, unemployment and dependence on social welfare that had previously characterised public debate regarding the Northern Sweden that surrounds Umeå.

Green transformation also makes way for challenges. Two of the challenges that were brought up during the conversation were the slow policy processes regarding land use putting a stop to the building of accommodation, and the need to increase the appeal of societies to attract new inhabitants. Northern universities are also faced with challenges as we are expected to contribute to the ongoing green transformation of society both in education and research.

Even if expectations are huge, it is key that Umeå University delivers high quality. To achieve such quality, education must be based on research, and research must be peer-reviewed and up to date. That is why research takes time. Simultaneously, the University of course already has a lot of research and education relevant to green transformation. For that, it is important to consider how it can come to good use and, needless to say, it is now high time to look into further collaboration opportunities on all levels.

From an academic perspective, I see green transformation of society primarily as a huge opportunity. To many researchers in the arts, medicine or social sciences, it offers a unique opportunity to study extensive social, financial and cultural changes right where and when they take place. And to some researchers in technology and the natural sciences, new industrial processes may also constitute exciting incentives. I would like to believe that many employees at Umeå University share this view and are now contemplating new research projects based on the transformation that can be seen in Northern Sweden. This is in line with the Vision for Umeå University and is one way to take responsibility for the future.

“You benefit from stating who you want to become,” said Peter Larsson at the Region Västerbotten seminar regarding the prospects of Northern Sweden, and he urged people to aim high. If you ask me, this applies to Umeå University as well when it comes to the developments that are taking place. The time has come to consider what role the University wants to play in the ongoing developments, and personally, I think Umeå University should follow Peter Larsson’s example and set our aim high.

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