Iceland cometh: University leaders explore innovation in Halifax visit

- March 23, 2017

Left-to-right: Dal Dean of Law Camille Cameron, Reykjavík Dean of Law Ragnhildur Helgadóttir, Reykjavík President Ari Jónsson, Dal President Richard Florizone. (Danny Abriel photo)
Left-to-right: Dal Dean of Law Camille Cameron, Reykjavík Dean of Law Ragnhildur Helgadóttir, Reykjavík President Ari Jónsson, Dal President Richard Florizone. (Danny Abriel photo)

Ari Jónsson, president of Iceland’s Reykjavík University, had been thinking about visiting Dalhousie University for some time.

While students at his university — Iceland’s largest private college — have robust exchange/collaboration opportunities in the European Union, many want to also study in North America. When Dr. Jónsson started looking at Canadian universities that could help open more doors for his school’s students, Dalhousie was one of the first that was mentioned.

It was good fortune, then, that Dr. Jónsson crossed paths with Dalhousie President Richard Florizone in Boston last October, under entirely unrelated circumstances.

The two are the champions of their respective regional teams in MIT REAP (Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program), a global program that helps regions around the world develop strategies to improve innovation-driven entrepreneurship.

Read more: REAP – Q&A on Dal and Nova Scotia’s participation in MIT’s global entrepreneurship program

The two presidents quickly found that their common interests extended beyond just university business.

“When we found out Nova Scotia was one of the regions in our REAP cohort, we immediately knew we’d have similarities in some of the challenges, as well as the opportunities, in our regions” says Dr. Jónsson. “Whenever we were talking about Iceland in our presentations, we would see the Nova Scotia team nodding their heads — and we would be doing the same when the Nova Scotia team was talking.”

Like in Nova Scotia, Iceland’s economy has long been dominated by natural resources, and the country is looking to build a more varied, knowledge-based economy for the 21st century.

“There’s a lot of things that we can learn from how Nova Scotia is doing, and Iceland has some insights to share as well,” says Dr. Jónsson. “It’s a win-win collaboration.”

A whirlwind tour of Halifax

Earlier this month, Dr. Jónsson and his Reykjavík University colleague Ragnhildur Helgadóttir — dean of the school’s School of Law and a fellow REAP team member who sits on Iceland’s Science and Technology Policy Council — came to Halifax to explore elements of the city’s innovation ecosystem and meet with Dal researchers.

The itinerary included a visit to COVE (Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship) site on the Dartmouth waterfront; the Nova Scotia Community College’s waterfront campus; Innovacorp; Dalhousie’s Steele Ocean Sciences building and the labs of Doug Wallace (Canada Excellence Research Chair in Ocean Science and Technology); and the university’s Zebrafish Core Facility (located in the Life Sciences Research Institute).

They also made visits to Shaun Boe’s Laboratory for Brain Recovery and Function, met with Dal Computer Science students, got a private tour of the new Discovery Centre and connected with the broader Nova Scotia REAP team over a working dinner. (And, for fun, the guests were able to witness the Dalhousie Tigers men’s basketball team’s thrilling quarter-final win at the U Sports Final 8 at Scotiabank Centre.)

“We visited so many wonderful places, and got so many impressive presentations,” says Dr. Helgadóttir, who also had the chance to meet with her Dalhousie counterpart, Dean of Law Camille Cameron. “People were so kind to us.”

“When we got to the airport on our way back, talking about the trip, we both agreed that this was probably the most useful trip we had been on,” adds Dr. Jónsson. “It’s hard to pick individual highlights. The agenda focused exactly on what we were interested in, learning about the university and the region’s innovation infrastructure.”

Mutual interest

At this stage of the two-year REAP program, the Nova Scotia and Iceland teams are engaging with local stakeholder communities to begin mapping out strategies to strengthen innovation and entrepreneurship. The next workshop session at MIT (their second) is scheduled for this spring, but the commonalities between the Nova Scotia and Iceland teams — not to mention their geographic proximity — opens up additional avenues to learn from one another.

“A great benefit of the REAP program is the opportunity to learn not just from MIT, but also from the other jurisdictions in our cohort — Iceland, Dubai, Madrid, Lagos City in Nigeria and Lima (Peru),” says President Florizone.

“I was so pleased that President Jónsson and Dean Helgadóttir were able to visit us in Nova Scotia. Given the many parallels between our regions, Iceland presents us with a particularly good example to learn from as we try to enhance innovation and entrepreneurship in our province.”

Iceland’s REAP team agrees.

“Being able to talk the same language with someone who has the same premises is great,” says Dr. Helgadóttir. “Seeing what’s happening in different areas is good, too, but being able to share notes where there are such similarities is very helpful.”

Learn more about MIT REAP at its website.


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