An advocate of Akureyri's Arctic cluster
The Icelandic Arctic Cooperation Network (IACN) in Iceland was established in 2013 and is one of the institutions of the Arctic cluster in Borgir, Akureyri. Embla Eir Oddsdóttir has been the Director of the IACN since its establishment. Along with Tom Barry, the Executive Secretary of CAFF, they developed the initial concept of the organization, which was supported by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, leading to its establishment and ongoing operations. The IACN has been involved in diverse projects, including leading initiatives on gender equality in the Arctic.
How did the Icelandic Arctic Cooperation Network begin?
"The preparations began in 2011-2012, but the formal operation started in January 2013, so we are about to celebrate our 10th anniversary. Tom Barry and I started contemplating how we could enhance collaboration and visibility of Arctic institutions. Initially, we planned to do this as a volunteer effort, but when the Ministry for Foreign Affairs learned about it, they inquired about our plans if we were to receive funding," says Embla.
Subsequently, Embla and Tom drafted a project proposal in collaboration with colleagues from other organizations working on related topics and submitted an application to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. At the same time, there was a similar application process led by Eyþing, a consortium of municipalities. It was decided to merge the ideas and establish a nonprofit organization, which took about a year of preparation. A contract was signed with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and the first three years served as a pilot project funded by the 2020 Sóknaráætlun (Action Plan). Later, the Ministry offered a two-year contract that has been extended twice. When Iceland assumed the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, a four-year agreement was made. "They supported us greatly during our projects while holding the chairmanship, and the latest agreement from September 2021 covers a five-year period, with the possibility of doubling our funding during that time," says Embla.
Mission is to encourage and support cooperation
"The IACN is a collaborative platform for those working on Arctic issues here in Akureyri and throughout Iceland. We have had to evolve our role, and our projects may not always fully reflect our mandate since we have needed to secure funding through various initiatives," says Embla Eir. However, according to the latest agreement with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the IACN will strengthen its role as the face of the Arctic cluster in Iceland and further contribute to its development. The network's projects are diverse, ranging from organizing meetings and events to hosting conferences. There has been significant collaboration with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, particularly during Iceland's chairmanship of the Arctic Council from 2019 to 2021, and continues despite the conclusion of the chairmanship. On March 31 of the previous year, the IACN and the Ministry held a consultation meeting at the University of Akureyri to initiate the formulation of a new Arctic policy for Iceland, which was approved in May 2021. Additionally, the network is currently engaged in three projects focusing on sustainable development within the Arctic Council, with one of them being the Gender Equality in the Arctic initiative. "It is a large international project, and we are entering the fourth phase. As part of the project, we organize workshops addressing various aspects of gender equality. We are also engaged in brainstorming with indigenous peoples, aiming to have thematic online events and possibly interviews on issues that indigenous communities consider important and need to raise awareness about," explains Embla. However, due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, some collaborative projects with the Arctic Council are currently on hold.
Among the IACN’s partner organizations is the Northeast Iceland Development Fund (SSNE), which provided support for the "People in Arctic Affairs" awareness project last year. The IACN has been responsible for collecting information on companies, institutions, and production related to Arctic affairs in Northeast Iceland, as well as conducting interviews with individuals they wish to introduce to the Icelandic public. "We consider it important to highlight the significant work individuals and organizations are doing throughout the country concerning Arctic issues. That has been our focus," says Embla.
Studies at the University of Iceland
Embla's interest in Arctic studies developed during her studies in social and economic development at the University of Akureyri, where she was taught by anthropologist Jón Haukur Ingimundarson and others. The program emphasized Arctic studies, and during that time, the student group travelled to Greenland for a week and later spent a month in Siberia. "It was an amazing and unforgettable experience and the primary reason why I remained involved in this field. Experiencing and witnessing the reality in many of these communities, including indigenous ones, had a profound impact on me and shaped my perspective on the Arctic. Many people perceive the Arctic as just ice, polar bears, oil, and other resources, but they forget about the people and the challenges they face," reflects Embla.
After completing her bachelor's degree, Embla pursued additional studies at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, Canada. She describes this time as a "luxurious additional year" focused on her main interests, such as indigenous studies and anthropology. She found the experience incredible, and although Prince George was not particularly charming, it was an interesting place. "It was a typical boom-bust town with a mix of traditional industries like logging, oil cleanup, and historical mills, but also artistic life and a university. There is also a significant proportion of indigenous people in the town, which was enlightening to get to know, and it provided a stark contrast in values between indigenous and non-indigenous communities."
Master’s thesis in only 10 days!
Embla returned to Akureyri after a year of studying abroad and started working at the Stefansson Arctic Institute. "I have been associated with the institute for quite a few years. Then I went to England for a master's degree at the London School of Economics, where I pursued interdisciplinary studies in law, anthropology, and social sciences." After completing her studies, Embla returned to Akureyri and wrote her master's thesis in 10 days. "It wasn't a clever approach," she says, laughing. Despite her graduation from the master's program, Embla immediately enrolled in the Polar Law program at the University of Akureyri. "I was in the first cohort to go through the social and economic development program and also in the first cohort of the Polar Law program. It was also an interdisciplinary program covering political science, economics, international law, and social sciences." Embla has long considered pursuing a doctoral degree but plans to save it until she reaches retirement age, "for my own pleasure and enjoyment."
New agreement secures the stability of the organization
"With our new contract with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we are in a somewhat new position. We receive significant support from both the ministry and our local community. I believe that's why I will continue to try to establish the IACN on a more secure financial basis. This has long been an insecure situation, especially for staff members who are in temporary positions for short periods. I would like to see this institution have a more secure position and a core of staff members in permanent positions. At some point, it will be good for old dogs to step out, and new blood to come in and take the institution to the next level. But I'm not gone yet," Embla says, laughing.
"The Icelandic Arctic Cooperation Network is a collaborative platform for those working on Arctic issues here in Akureyri but also throughout Iceland in general."