Defying tradition and perception barriers, the project Northern Connections forges cooperation among regional energy clusters to shape new synergies. This approach is now showing some interesting results.
Energy clusters in the North Sea Region involve enterprises located within a specific area to work together and help each other innovate and develop.
These clusters play a central role in each region by creating business links and opportunities for their member companies. Traditionally, this is done through initiatives to develop individual business or export opportunities. Collaboration between clusters is rare, implying missed opportunities for growth and foreign market entry.
We developed the Northern Connections project to tackle observed huge difficulties for clusters to work together across borders. The lack of cooperation was due to both a lack of awareness and competition. The clusters saw each other as fierce competitors and were afraid to share information about their member companies and how they help them.
This has changed significantly in the course of the project – and maybe more or in a different pace than we anticipated. Through open and trusting cooperation, the clusters have developed a joint toolbox by presenting and looking into each other’s working methods. The tools are disseminated through various channels including the innovation of the month videos presenting ways of assisting companies to innovate.
Creating more than connections
Reflecting on project progress, we find that we are not only achieving what we wanted, but are also reaching additional, unplanned results and significant spin-off effects:
Our approach to Living Labs as a “shortcut” to a mini innovative public procurement process, focusing on the phase where the buyer investigates the market and what can be offered by new and nearly market-ready technology from all countries around the North Sea. This is unique and was not done in any of our regions before. It was almost unthinkable. In addition, the very focused approach makes the companies see each other as potential business partners instead of competitors.
As an example, the Living Lab session in Gothenburg provided easier access to the Swedish construction market, a market known to be difficult to enter. The living lab set-up provides the clusters with tools and opportunities to cooperate and invite companies from other regions to solve their local challenges. At the moment, the cooperation is very much based on personal relations, so the project will build more structural relations continuing after the end of the project.
The Living lab owners experienced added values that we had not seen coming: Not only did they get the opportunity to see various solutions to their challenges – they even gained new input on challenges or angles which they were not aware of, adding new value and input to their visions.
For example, Sten and Strøm, owners of the Oslo Living Lab, had not thought of water savings or water treatment issues. Through the Living Lab session, new ideas and visions were developed to integrate this aspect in the planning of the city area.
Northern Connections also facilitated relations-building between Flensburg, Germany and Aalborg, Denmark with regard to district heating – adding value to Flensburg’s coming investments in district heating of a new area along the fjord.
The City of Aalborg inspired Stadtkraft Flensburg to interact with the users and citizens in a new way to reduce heat consumption: Aalborg is working with a user-interface, where each consumer can follow their heat consumption via an app – measured in DKK, not kwh. This gives the consumer ownership and clearly shows the potential for saving money – and energy.
As a spin-off, a joint project proposal for electrified ferries has been developed between the cities of Gothenburg and Aalborg. This project is pending approval.
From competition to collaboration
Much of the project’s success so far rests on the evolution of trust between the energy clusters, developed through meetings face-to-face, allowing social aspects to mingle with the professional agenda, and learning about the competences and knowledge of each organisation through the practical work of developing the toolbox and the living lab concept.
As Leon Aahave Uhd from our partner CLEAN expresses it: “Trust is something intangible. It is created over time. It is created by meeting one another. It is created through immediacy – seeing the synergy in collaboration with others changes our perspectives […] we have developed and nourished the trust between us.”
While the competition element exists and is still present, through our activities, we are proving that it is by working together that we find the best solutions to our public sector challenges.
Scottish Enterprise, partner of Northern Connections, sums it up: “Through cooperating, we can assist in fast-tracking “green tech” innovation that drives efficiencies in energy use. Northern Connections provides a platform to highlight local sustainability challenges and invite SMEs across partner countries to showcase clean tech capabilities and solutions to address them. This process provides opportunities for SMEs to enter new markets, identify collaboration opportunities and gain insights from emerging technologies in the North Sea Region.”
About the authors
Alex Søgaard Moreno manages the Northern Connections project on behalf of the the Lead Beneficiary, the Municipality of Aalborg, Denmark. He is also a project manager at Energy Innovation Cluster in the Northern Region of Denmark. Christina Zinck Folmand Knudsen is International Project Coordinator at the Municipality of Aalborg.
About Northern Connections
The project is a partnership of 22 clusters, cities, regions and knowledge institutions working together to create innovation connections between enterprises and clusters in the energy sector. Through Living Labs, they develop new practices for involving SMEs in meeting the energy challenges of cities and regions. The challenges are made accessible through open-solution pitches organised throughout the North Sea Region, creating a ‘mini marketplace’ where SMEs can meet public and private sector challenge owners and show what they can offer.
Pictures © Northern Connections.