Aerial view of sea bay with turquoise water and a small white beach. Beautiful lagoon and volcanic island covered with dense forest

View of lagoon and volcanic island covered with dense forest. Photo: galitskaya / iStock / Getty Images .

I recently led a pre-summit webinar titled “Islands as spaces of innovation” as part of The Youth for Ocean Digital Summit held from 25–27 November 2021.

The session proposed seeing islands as spaces for innovation that offer an opportunity to think beyond the established paradigms and ways of organizing society and building our cities. Below are key insights from the session.

Every landmass, no matter how big, is surrounded by ocean waters

An island is a piece of land surrounded by water and essentially every landmass, no matter how big, is surrounded by ocean waters.

The Stockholm Archipelago is the world’s largest island group, consisting of 30 000 islands and cobs that extend over 1680 square kilometres in the Baltic Sea. Islands are a huge tourist attraction and in recent years, they increasingly host second homes.

An illustration showing the highest concentration of second homes in Sweden. Source: Eeva Turunen / Nordregio

Illustration showing highest concentration of second homes in Sweden. Source: Eeva Turunen / Nordregio .

Islands are facing challenges

While tourism is an important source of income in islands, including in the Stockholm Archipelago, like many other parts of the world, demographic fluctuations exert serious pressures that in the face of climate change become amplified. As a results, islands risk running out of fresh water. This is partly due to the risk of saline intrusion and groundwater extracted at a faster pace than it is replenished. This extraction has increased in recent years due to demographic changes that are extremely challenging to manage.

Places and landscapes are usually planned in relation to projections of human activities. However, in a setting with constant fluctuations, planning and financing investments, for example of water or wastewater infrastructure, become very difficult. These types of infrastructure go hand in hand with the taxpayer base. In other words, the larger the population, the greater the needs, but at the same time, the more taxes available for covering large and expensive infrastructure. In the case of the Stockholm Archipelago, the taxpayer base does not correspond to the needs on a yearly basis. There are around 10 000 local inhabitants and about 50 000 temporary homes that pay for services used by themselves and 2 million visitors per year. The systems are obviously insufficient, but the taxpayer base is not enough to cover expansion.

Other challenges that islands face include drought, sea level rise, marine pollution, vulnerability to hazards, limited resources, shortage of infrastructure and services, demographic fluctuations, seasonal economic activity and lack of connectivity. These pressures are particularly acute for the 65 million people living in Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Due to high exposure to risk and a lack of capacity to manage effects in the short term – as well as adapting to a changed climate in the long term – many island nations are not prepared to deal with the effects of climate change.

Islands can trigger innovation to build resilience

Systems that are often worst hit are also the most critical, often provided through centralized grids, wires and pipes. There is a need to think differently about the ways we build cities and organize our societies. Resilient infrastructure is key for mitigation and adaptation, and in the case of SIDS is fundamental for survival and development.

The urgent need to find more resilient solutions is not just to make islands less vulnerable: they can trigger innovation and contribute to adaptation and building resilience.

Participant responses to the question on how islands can innovate.

Participant responses to the question on how islands can innovate.

Innovation in islands is already taking place. The results from these innovations are relevant beyond the context of islands.

Nature-based solutions. On the largest island in the Swedish Archipelago, Gotland, water retention ponds are used for multiple purposes. They create better irrigation opportunities, ensuring more equitable production for farms while providing water for animals. At the same time, these dams collect nutrients that return to agricultural land and reduce nutrient loads on the Baltic Sea when irrigated. In addition, ponds often become attractive wetland areas for many bird species that nest or rest.

Decentralized solutions. Microgrids power entire islands through solar energy. Decentralized solar panels designed to withstand more extreme weather could hinder the massive power cuts experienced after hurricanes, like in Puerto Rico , where the power grid was in its worst shape nine months after Hurricane Maria.

Multifunctional solutions. Islands are becoming more effective in how they use the land and several upcoming innovations are increasingly expanding traditional land-based activities offshore, for example through multi-use platforms. In coastal areas and island states such as Singapore , multi-use platforms are already used for addressing growing demands in limited spaces through the integration of various functions into a single unit.

Floating solutions. One of the most concerning impacts from climate change is sea level rise, which is encroaching societies and infrastructures to even more limited land areas. This highlights the urgent need to start using water rather than to fight it. Floating solutions for the provision of basic services like power, desalination or cooling services are likely to be play a bigger role in coastal and island settings.

Learn more

SEI’s Initiative on Gridless Solutions explores mobile, multifunctional, modular and marine solutions for providing critical services in marine spaces.

Courtesy of Earth Advocacy Youth. Video: SEI / YouTube.

The Youth for Ocean Digital Summit held from 25–27 November 2021 was an initiative organized as part of Youth for Our Planet in close partnership with Earth Advocacy Youth , Reserva: The Youth Land Trust and other youth organizations from around the world.

The summit was a powerful space where 200 young change-makers co-built 8 bold campaigns to demand tangible implementation of the targets defined through the High Seas Treaty, the Convention on Biological Diversity COP15, UNFCCC COP26 and the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

The initiative included three inspirational and informative pre-summit webinars with knowledgeable researchers to provide young mobilizers an overview of the state of the ocean and how it relates to the above-mentioned gatherings and agreements.