Co-Designing Resilient Arctic Coastal Communities Through Research Partnerships

Ninth International Congress on Arctic Social Sciences (ICASS IX) | 8 -12 June 2017 | Umeå, Sweden


ICASS IX – People & Place | 8 March -12 June 2017 | Umeå, Sweden | by Michelle Slaney

Michelle Slaney |

Finding the ‘Bright Spots’ in these unsustainable and challenging times

The Ninth International Congress of Arctic Social Sciences (ICASS IX), “People & Place”, organized by the International Arctic Social Sciences Association (IASSA) is taking place this week in northern Sweden. ICASS, an event held every three years, brings together people from all over the world to share ideas about social science research in the Arctic. Hosted by Arcum (Arctic Research Centre), Sámi dutkan (Language studies) and Vaartoe (Centre for Sami Research) at Umeå University, this conference is expected to draw hundreds of Indigenous peoples, northern residents, decision-makers, politicians as well as academics.

Representing the Arctic Node of Future Earth Coasts, I will be there, taking part in some of the workshops and sessions, and expanding the ‘coalition of the willing’, or individuals who wish to share their stories and experiences on the Do’s and Don’ts of building community partnerships to address sustainability challenges in northern communities.

Co-Designing Resilient Arctic Coastal Communities Through Research Partnerships

These are times of rapid and unprecedented environmental and social change, a statement that is particularly true for the Arctic. Indigenous traditional knowledge (TK) and wisdom is increasingly being challenged and/or found to be insufficient in the face of such rapid change. At the same time traditional research methods and practices of western science are also being found wanting when it comes to reconciling complex sustainability challenges whilst recognizing the needs and cultural setting of Arctic communities.

As the coordinator of the Circum-Arctic Coastal Communities KnOwledge Network (CACCON), the Arctic engagement partner of Future Earth Coasts (FEC), I am fortunate to work with researchers and program leaders who, through their research approach, have tangible and resilience-building effects on the lives of community members. The CACCON approach is to respond to community-identified research priorities, rooted in TK of the local environment and shaped by community values and priorities. This makes the research more relevant, solutions-oriented, and impactful.

There are examples of projects that have had international recognition and awards for demonstrably having a societal impact, however, this is often difficult to measure. In contrast to the accountability and monitoring and evaluation requirements for international development efforts, research funders do not always require the transformational societal impact be measured or demonstrated. Being well acquainted with a number of such projects, I started to wonder what was it about these projects and the people involved in designing and carrying out the research, that makes them successful? Why doesn’t everyone undertaking research in Arctic communities understand the importance and necessity of conducting themselves in this manner, whereby communities are equal partners in co-designing and conducting the research, to create new knowledge ? What are the elements of these resilience building research projects that resonates with community members, other researchers, research funding providers, and governments?

Scientists as service providers

The one thing that all of these ‘bright spots’ have in common, is that the projects are based on strong research partnerships in which all partners are equal. The research agendas have been co-designed by community members, academic researchers, representatives of government, and sometimes industry. This has resulted in new knowledge being generated from combining different types of knowledge and ways of knowing and different research approaches and methodologies; Is this the only way to address the sustainability challenges we are all currently facing?

There is a growing recognition among many academics of the need for a transdisciplinary approach to research that engages communities and includes different ways of knowing. However, methods and means for engaging/interacting with communities, which come down to building relationships that requires time, trust, mutual respect, and often times, a common goal, are still poorly understood and practiced. This ‘new’ research paradigm requires an iterative mutual learning process that comes from engaging, in equal partnership, with a broad range of rights- and stakeholder groups throughout the entire research process. But how does one embark on this journey?

Guidance on doing research and how to Build new partnerships

There is a range of literature and guidance on collaborative participatory research or community-engagement, especially for academic audiences – everything from blogs on the Dos and Don’ts of Conducting Research up north, to official Guidance documents from Indigenous representative organizations, such as Inuit Taprit Kanatami (ITK), to numerous scientific articles and publications, and a few notable books. There are papers written on the practical tools and techniques to help facilitate relationship building, and documents on why a collaborative process to research is a way of producing “meaningful research”. But meaningful for whom, and by whom? One should always consider what is ‘Meaningful’?

Guidelines to help communities navigate research relationships have also been drafted, but there is very little material written from the community perspective. Material on how community-researcher relationships/partnerships should be approached and developed, or how the community defines ‘relationship’, ‘trust’, ‘mutually beneficial’, ‘community consent’, what is ‘appropriate’ and ‘meaningful research’, is lacking.

Proof of concept

A number of months ago, I embarked on a journey to determine if there was sufficient interest in learning more about what makes these ‘Bright Spots’ unique. I was also curious, given the heterogeneity of communities and diversity of challenges, to explore how these approaches and processes could perhaps be replicated in order to increase the number of projects that are having transformational change in these unsustainable and challenging times.

I have spoken with many academic researchers, community leaders and research champions, regional research coordinators, and others who are involved in community-led, transformational research projects, to get a variety of perspectives on how to communicate their approach to research partnerships and examples of partnerships and projects that lead to more sustainable communities. Each and every person I have interviewed had something new to tell about their experience, and what guidance or advice they would give to others. Yet, there is a clear thread of commonalities that ring through.

As this is a purely bottom up, co-designed effort, it is still very much an unfolding document and process. I am merely the facilitator for those who wish to share their experiences, knowledge and advice.


Following my experience at the Arctic Science Summit Week, I wrote a blog in which I alluded to my relative shock and disappointment at the [small] number of people with whom I spoke, and presentations to which I listened, where co-designed research with the purpose of addressing community priorities was mentioned. Despite the research, ‘bright spots’ and obvious impacts and benefits of conducting research in this manner (ie. through community partnerships) seemed to be largely absent from many people’s minds.

I would expect that at this upcoming ICASS, with social scientists, the balance will be tipped in the other direction, with more people walking and talking the same walk as myself and all of the research partners within the CACCON and FEC networks.

Representing the Arctic Node of Future Earth Coasts and continuing my journey to find more ‘Bright Spots’ please drop me a line at or if you are at this year’s ICASS stop me in the corridors if you wish to discuss this further, and be a contributor, over a coffee (or as we say in Sweden, ‘fika’).