A substantial number of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), in the Barents region, with the intension of expanding are restrained by limited resources for international marketing and research into innovative business models, products and services. For some of them, an open innovation approach in a pre-defined network and, with minimised risk and costs might be a solution to overcome this hindrance. On the other hand, dwindling population of rural areas is a major hurdle for the development of the region, as well as the lack of a cross-border and cross-culture competent workforce. The need for strengthening entrepreneurship as a main power in regional development points to the problem of an underdeveloped entrepreneurship education. Therefore, beyond small local firms in the region, target groups are entrepreneurship students at partner universities as well as academic and administrative staff, and local intermediaries such as municipalities and business associations. Final beneficiaries are future entrepreneurs in the region who can use the business–university open innovation network; local communities profiting from internationally active local business and municipality partnerships; future entrepreneurship students, using a developed international learning and developing environment; academic staff and programme designers, building future efforts on an approved tool of entrepreneurship education.
Objectives and partners
A Kolarctic financed project Practice Future is an open innovation for local business and students’ network in the Barents Region. The idea for the project originated from the negotiations between higher education institutions (HEI) partners from Norway, Finland and Russia who were already involved in an enterprise project. The project partners are:
- Small local enterprises in Finnmark County; Murmansk oblast, Lapland, and Karelia
- Business associations related to the firms and local municipalities
- HEI partners: The Arctic University of Norway – UiT, Murmansk International Institute of Business Education, Murmansk State Technical University, Petrozavodsk State University, Lapland University of Applied Sciences.
A pilot project in 2011conducted for a small enterprise in Finnmark County, Norway revealed the potential of Practice Future for firms. The outcome of the pilot project was immensely promising as the commissioner got to pursue one of the proposals presented by students. Using another cross-border channel opened by the student network, first steps of valuable cooperation with a Russian partner has already been realised. SMEs in the Barents Region and, students and faculty staff from five universities cooperate in the open innovation project to meet the two-fold aim: firstly to develop practically relevant business ideas and business models for commissioner enterprises and facilitating the enterprises’ access to markets abroad; secondly to develop and implement a practice proven internationally applicable tool of entrepreneurship education to (non-business) students.
International projects are tools in creating cooperation between partners and a school project such as Practice Future do provide such a platform. The collaboration between the partner HEIs not only provide an opportunity for students to be involved in dealing with issues related to “real” enterprises but also to those enterprises to widen dimensions in possible future expansion of their businesses. This is a right platform for students to be innovative and creative with their business ideas. Further the staff in charge also has a chance to discuss and exchange ideas on issues ranging from coaching students and future plans. According to Yle News publication, a Finnish online media, Finland churns out about 15,000 new inventions each year (Problem-solving Finns… 2014). This enormous figure is only made be possible with an enabling and innovating society that believes in innovation as the bedrock of sustainable human development. Lapland UAS being a partner in this project finds this arena an opportunity for its students to showcase their innovative talents on an international platform. Based on the feedback from business students of Lapland UAS, this project is “beneficial” in their studies.
Thus far there has been four semesters of workshops that has been implemented and during each phase on average nine students from Lapland UAS has participated. The students involved are both Finns and non-Finns. Being part of this project the students not only gain insights into real enterprises’ day to day dealing but also acquire cross-border and cross-cultural skills since the partner HEIs and commissioners originate from three different countries. High North being a strategic region of Lapland UAS, this project serves the strategic vision perfectly. Students and staff from Russia, Finland and Norway collaborate to tackle regional enterprises’ assignments. It is not a farfetched aspiration to believe that an innovation hub could be created through such collaboration. A hub for multidisciplinary teams of various cultural and economic backgrounds joins forces in creating synergy for innovative output. Such international collaboration and networking could be tapped to acquire maximum gain for the regional enterprises and organizations. Such an evolving and productive network nurtures a platform where Russian, Finnish and Norwegian knowledge and competences are exchanged fluidly across national borders. Such exchanges also foster and support entrepreneurship education in partner HEIs and entrepreneurial activities in regional enterprises.
Semester based activities
Each semester, international student-teams work together on a virtual platform dealing with tasks assigned by regional enterprises or municipalities. After the online period teams and representatives of enterprises and/or organisations meet each other for a week-long Business Innovation Workshop, where business proposals and plans are completed and presented to the commissioners. The Business Innovation Workshop each semester also incorporate representatives of local business associations and municipalities and serve as a platform for evaluating and successive advancement of the entrepreneurship education tool, cost-benefit optimization for participating firms and development conference of cooperation between municipalities and higher education. Each partner HEI is given the opportunity to a workshop week at its own premises.
The workshop circle began in Alta, Norway at the commencement of the project in the autumn of 2012. During this phase the enterprises involved were Sorrisniva, a tourism enterprise from Alta and Arts from Barents, an online art enterprise from Murmansk, Russia. This was followed by the Murmansk workshop phase in spring 2013 student-teams dealt with assignments related to a youth house, Mr. Pink from Murmansk, Russia and EU Park commissioned by Tornio City, Finland. The following workshop phase in Petrozavodsk, Russia the student-teams had to deal with a couple of challenging assignments: Kirkenes Port case from Norway and a shipbuilding enterprise from the host city, Varyag. Lapland UAS had the pleasure to host the workshop in week in Tornio during 17.-21.3.2014 during which saw student-teams delivering solutions to two case-assignments commissioned by jointly Outokumpu Stainless and Tornio City, and Kvalsund Commune from Norway. The workshops strengthen the relationships between HEIs and relevant regional businesses and enhance the sustainable knowledge and competence exchanges among the relevant parties involved. With such collaboration it is possible to build individual cross-border network that could possibly retain youth in the region.
When students from different countries meet during the workshop weeks and compete to propose best solutions for commissioners’ tasks, the environment fosters communicative, creative, entrepreneurial skills along with cross-cultural competences that are indispensable for international business professionals who need to communicate in a persuasive and compelling way. This could be illustrated by using the latest workshop week held in Tornio. Student-teams worked on the Tornio Port case, co-commissioned by Outokumpu Stainless which rents the port and Tornio City which is the “landlord”, where they had to find ways to improve the attractiveness of the port for other customers than the current tenant. A panel of jury, consisting of the commissioners themselves, the RDI director and the director of Scholl of Business and Culture of Lapland UAS, and the chair of Tornio City Council, heard various ideas and solutions being proposed. They ultimately selected as best ideas based on cost efficiency and feasibility scale. The winning proposals will be reviewed by the commissioners for possible future implementations. Generally the Tornio workshop was a success based on the feedback received from the participants
The Practice Future project still has two phases ahead to be held in Alta and Murmansk. Thus far close to hundred and fifty students and twelve teaching staff has been involved. The student numbers are expected to increase with the upcoming workshops. Without doubt such a project, besides being an entrepreneurial arena, nourishes a fertile ground for intercultural interactions, creation of friendship and networking. The students get more out of each semester then just functioning as entrepreneurs. Each semester involves an intensive sessions of brain storming, frustration, collaborations and results.
Peter Fischer, Assistant professor, The Arctic University of Norway, firstname.lastname@example.org
Teresa Chen, Senior lecturer, International Coordinator, Lapland University of Applied Sciences, Teresa.email@example.com
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Problem-solving Finns create 15,000 new inventions each year (2014). Yle news. Updated 16.2.2014. In address: http://yle.fi/uutiset/problem-solving_finns_create_15000_new_inventions_each_year/7092140.