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Building Smart Arctic Communities

From Carbon Emissions to Colonization

Bearing the brunt of others’ footprints, from carbon emissions to colonization, is not a new concept for those who live in the Arctic. Additionally, climate change is impacting the Arctic most severely, despite the fact that Arctic communities are not the largest contributor to the problem.

Imagine a warm sunny day in New York City, New York where the sound of blaring horns and the smell of exhaust pipes permeate the air creating a cocktail of greenhouse gases. That same summer in Nunavut, Canada, the sound of thunder reverberates through the air despite no clouds in sight, as a large piece of glacier breaks off into the ocean. Glacial calving and similarly the disappearance of sea ice continue in light of rising temperatures from those greenhouse gas emissions and most severely impact the Arctic.

Arctic communities have continued to face and adapt to multiple health threats throughout much of their history. While not exhaustive, these threats include the increased prevalence and severity of extreme weather events, changes in sea ice resulting in water and food insecurity, limited access to healthcare resources, and the negative impacts of settlers or colonizers to include racism, genocide, displacement, and restrictions on food sovereignty. As such, it is important to recognize the knowledge and experience these communities have to offer the rest of the world as it relates to the approaches they’ve adopted to survive and maintain a vibrant social infrastructure despite these challenges.

Finding Truth: A Troubled History for Arctic Communities

Before we explore which innovations and promising solutions we can exchange with these communities, we need to educate ourselves on their history. First, we must consider the vast diversity that is the Arctic as home to over fifty Indigenous languages, with a rich diversity of culture and tribal ethnic background. Furthermore, many Indigenous communities have experienced a colonial past where other conditions were imposed impacting the wellbeing and continued development of their people. The relationship between colonial authorities and Indigenous people, including assimilation or attempts to “civilize” these communities over hundreds of years based on a false belief of Western culture as superior must be addressed in the context of any solution being proposed. One example of these attempts is the “sixties scoop” where in the 1960s, Indigenous children were removed from their families or communities and placed with non-Indigenous families. It was during this same time that First Nations patients and particularly many children, did not receive as high quality healthcare, faced physical and sexual abuse including forcible confinement to beds at Indian hospitals, which were run by the federal government. Some patients sent to Indian hospitals even may have been subjected to medical experiments or forced to be admitted to hospitals if they were suspected to have the infection and that they could not leave treatment without facing arrest and re-admittance. While the governments have engaged in reconciliation efforts or settlements in class-action lawsuits for this unethical behavior, this breach of trust runs deep in these communities and must be addressed through adequate reconciliation as defined by the Indigenous communities, and involvement, leadership, and ownership of any solutions designed to improve their health or wellbeing.

Giving Back: Empowering Smart Arctic Communities

One concept to consider is that of smart cities as the governance model relies heavily on community or city leadership and therefore empowers those communities to own their solutions. Smart city solutions implemented around the world have already demonstrated positive impacts such as increased revenue, improved health and wellness through redesign of the built environment, and increased accessibility to resources in other regions or cities.

While the body of knowledge is still growing, several pilot implementations and definitions of what smart cities entail, have emerged. In the United States, the National Conference of State Legislators defines a smart city as one that improves the quality of life, economic opportunity, and security of those living in the city and its surrounding areas. On the other hand, the work of Chris Gibbons, CEO of the Greystone Group, has unearthed a different definition where residents of the smart community engage with smart services, often through a digital ecosystem, designed to improve their health. The global non-profit, Health Information Management and Systems Society (HIMSS) has defined smart communities as the accelerator of government modernization and innovation by leveraging public-private partnerships to address population and wellness goals through trusted, secure and innovative technologies.

To ensure buy-in and ownership, how smart cities have been defined and used to address the problems of a community should be shared in open forums with Arctic community leadership. Before embarking on a smart city project in the Arctic, the goal should always be to reach a point where trust and support is gained from the communities that stand to benefit. Enough time and resources allocated in the beginning will encourage strong partnerships and stakeholder management through predefined roles and responsibilities.

Case Study: Finland

There are several smart city solutions already being implemented in the Arctic, including the country of Finland, which boasts some of the longest distances between cities. One such example is the Get Home Safety project in the community of Jatkasaari, Finland where the Internet of Things (IoT) is linking street lighting in various geographic locations with sensor technology to ensure residents who walk in these areas can feel safe or get home safely amidst the darkness of winter. Another example includes the robust work of the Health Capital Helsinki team. The Helsinki University System started providing information and self-help tools for the population in coordination with various service providers to include a shared digital platform called Mentalhub, to address mental health. The Mentalhub is a free service to the population and provides education on mental health issues, solve problems and ensure a faster start to treatments, and improve prevention efforts. It was also Finland’s most successful state-financed IT project in Finnish healthcare. Finland’s success can be attributed to the involvement of multiple stakeholders, each with a defined role/responsibility to include: the community as owner/leader, the government as investor, and private companies or universities as a pool of resources or expertise.

While there is still much to be explored and desired as it relates to expanding the concept of smart cities and communities, the initial work in Finland will serve as a blueprint for what is possible in its Arctic regions and provide opportunities to translate these promising practices to other Arctic communities.


Priyanka Surio, MPH, PMP, CHES, serves as the Senior Director of Public Health Data Modernization at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) where she manages the data and informatics project portfolio across ASTHO. Ms. Surio co-lead the Data Management and Surveillance Taskforce as part of ASTHO’s COVID-19 response to assist health agencies. She also works with health agencies to improve data sharing and governance, interoperability, electronic disease reporting, the public health workforce, strategic planning, and data needs. Ms. Surio is an accomplished leader with over 8 years of experience in healthcare systems process improvement and expertise in project management, research methods, data analytics and informatics, and health policy. Prior to ASTHO, she consulted for the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) on the Diffusion of Excellence Initiative, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on a STEM diversity and inclusion strategy. She completed fellowships with the American Medical Group Association and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Ms. Surio is also an author of Third Culture Kids of the World: Exploring Sustainable Travel Mindsets, where she weaves together stories and research from scholars, industry representatives, travelers, and her own journeys around the world, consisting of 40 countries and 44 U.S. states. Buy the Book

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