A Norwegian-Finnish collaboration aims to bring “new educational programs, students, start-ups and businesses to the region.”
A major new development project involving companies from Norway and Finland is underway in Kirkenes. It aims to transform the small Arctic town into an international hub for education and entrepreneurship.
Have you ever been to Kirkenes? If yes, chances are it was on the Hurtigruten coastal voyage. The small Arctic town just a few miles from the Norway-Russia border is a long way from everywhere in Norway.
While tourism thanks to the town being the Hurtigruten turnaround port is important, possibilities for other economic developments are limited.
It's a problem facing Kirkenes but also many other small towns all across Northern Norway. Population drain, difficulty of access, and a relative lack of tourism leaves many communities struggling for a sustainable future.
A new Arctic development project
Somewhat bizarrely named “Nothingness”, the new project aims to increase the area’s international exposure to bring new educational programs, students, start-ups and businesses to the region.
It's a lofty goal, considering the population of Kirkenes is just a few thousand. I've been to the town three times, including one visit to the now-closed iron ore mine that the area's economy once relied on.
The town's remoteness means economic opportunities are always going to be limited, but Kirkenes does have a few things going for it. It has an airport with direct flights to Oslo, and its proximity to the Russian and Finnish borders also creates opportunities.
The development project is led by High North Development Group AS (HNDG), a Norwegian company dedicated to the development of the Arctic. They are working with the Finnish company Finest Bay Area Development OY (FEBAY).
According to the local newspaper in Sør-Varanger municipality, HNDG will bring the real estate and development expertise, while FEBAY has the network and experience in similar projects.
An international education campus
The Nothingness project will be mainly based on its educational aspect. The idea is to follow the so-called ‘Salla' model for secondary education. This refers to the Finnish international-border high school that mixes Finnish and Russian students.
In collaboration with local high schools in Kirkenes, the project hopes to offer international secondary education in Finnish, Norwegian and Russian.
“Kirkenes and the Arctic environment offer a unique setting for education that is of interest to the world. The talent that will come to Nothingness will innovate and create new things in this delicate environment”, said Peter Vesterbacka, Chairman of FEBAY and one of the people behind gaming smash hit Angry Birds.
Transformation of the former Kirkenes City Hospital building has already begun. The result will be a hub focused on “hospitality/tourism, logistics, energy and food.”
Where academia meets entrepreneurship
The building and surrounding area will serve as en education campus for “academic and school programs” and host facilities for businesses of all sizes.
Nothingness also aims to become a base for businesses and universities by offering apartments and housing combined with office space in the form of multi-functional co-working spaces.
Educational institutions will be able to host study programs or full curriculum at the Nothingness campus, according to the press release. “We are excited about all this activity. It will change the future outlook for the whole High North,” said Pål Lund-Roland, HNDG CEO.
It's not a brand new idea in Kirkenes. Local development company Sor-Varanger Utvikling Ltd (SVU) offers “workcation” packages that allow companies to base themselves in Kirkenes for a short-term project.
A science centre is planned for the town in collaboration with the North Norwegian Science Centre in Tromsø.