Europe is increasingly becoming one big marketplace. It is easier than ever to produce, sell, and buy goods across international borders as a result of modern transportation and digital communication. Therefore, business travel is on the rise, and according to GTBA, global business travel spending is forecast to expand to USD 1.7 trillion by 2022.
The increase in travel and transportation obviously has some negative effects – the transportation sector accounts for more than a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions globally. At the same time, international collaboration can drive the next generation of ideas and exciting partnerships crucial to solving the problems of our time, like the climate crisis.
Hoping to facilitate such collaboration is Eli Wærum Rognerud from Innovation Norway— helping those who start small to think big.
If your passport defines your home, Norway is by definition Eli Wærum Rognerud’s home. After living and working in more than a dozen different countries, however, the answer is not straightforward. ‘We recently moved from Oslo to Paris, and my daughters were quite upset. My five-year-old kept yelling at us that she wanted to go home, when one day – out of the blue – she asked me what home actually is. We agreed that home is where you have people who love and understand you.’
She believes that approach is equally important in business. ‘There is no better recipe for international understanding than bringing people together. It is not just about idealism, but security and economic growth. If you want to do business with someone, there needs to be a minimum level of understanding and trust, and for that, you need to meet,’ Eli says.
‘At Innovation Norway, one of our main jobs is to help Norwegian businesses onto the international market. Here, you really see the importance of investing in personal relationships and actually understating cultural differences – and common interest.’
In travelling, she has met friends for life, some of whom she does business with today.
There is one particular experience that taught Eli the importance of understanding different cultures. It came in 2005, while she was working in Kashmir, Pakistan, after the earthquake. She dressed in traditional clothing while working with the local educational staff because she thought it would be the respectable attire. An elderly man complimented her ‘shalwar kameez’, but asked Eli why she thought she had to ‘go local’. He pointed out that they were all educated and well aware of western dress codes. ‘He taught me several lessons. Tolerating and accepting differences goes both ways. And it is better to get to know the locals by asking questions — not by making assumptions,’ Eli laughs.
Eli’s current address is in Paris, France – the world’s biggest entrepreneur and start-up capital. ‘Norwegians tend to think of the French as a bit conservative, but French technology leads the world in several areas. France was the first country to develop a national strategy for artificial intelligence, for example, and Paris has really become a European hub for growing companies, ideas and innovation,’ she says.
Norway, on the other hand, is known to the French mainly for its beautiful nature, its oil and its natural gas. Norway also has a lot of exciting innovation, but is not as good as the French in bringing the technology to scale and onto international markets, Eli explains.
‘This is actually an exciting starting point for collaboration. France looks to Norway for our clean energy, our advanced maritime and off-shore industries, and our success with electric cars. France, on the other hand, has something Norway doesn’t: large industrial groups that can take ideas and innovation that have been tested small-scale and bring them to the global market. We can complement each other,’ Eli emphasizes.
Innovation Norway offers financing, advice, and networks for businesses that want to take on this challenge.
A recent example of such efforts is the Sustainable Future Forum in Oslo. Here, Innovation Norway Paris partnered with the French-Norwegian Chamber of Commerce to match Norwegian start-ups with large French corporations within the energy sector, green transportation, and smart city development. Sustainability is high on the agenda for both countries, and the response from both sides was overwhelming. Fifteen Norwegian start-ups and fifteen French market leaders signed up, resulting in over fifty quality business meetings in just one day. ‘How often does a small smart-charging company from Norway get to present its technology for the leadership of a global energy giant like EDF? At Innovation Norway, we can take on that unique matchmaking role. For a market leader like EDF, this was an opportunity to scout new ideas that normally would not have made it to the top of their big system,’ Eli explains.
Eli thinks increased awareness of the climate crisis is changing consumer behaviour, and businesses will be forced to find new solutions. She is certain they will, and that the result will change the way we trade, transport goods and travel. Connecting people who hope to find those solutions is something Eli considers a privilege.
‘The future is obviously about electric cars, and eventually also electric planes, but we have to think bigger. Many flights are already being replaced by a Skype call. And who says you need to own your own car and park it in your garage at night if a combination of public transportation and self-driving vehicles can take you from point A to B. Goods will move from trucks to autonomous boats that run on hydrogen and electricity. The concept of transportation as a whole will change,’ she says.
In order to make a fundamental change, however, people need to understand what’s in it for them, Eli explains. You need to start by explaining why. That might seem basic, but it is often forgotten by change-makers, whether it is about adopting a new IT system, or going from gas-powered to electric cars.
‘I never stop asking the child-like question why. Why are we doing this? Why can we not fix this problem, or why are we doing it this way? It can drive my husband and boss mad at times, but it is a powerful question and gets people moving,’ Eli laughs.
It is about finding opportunities in a challenge, and right now the challenge is the climate crisis. For Eli, opportunity lies within electric power, hydrogen, autonomous solutions and digital communication. ‘I am extremely pessimistic about the climate, but very optimistic on behalf of business. Those who refuse to adapt will fail, but the solutions to our global challenges are out there.’
Eli envisions the future of mobility to be different, but what will remain the same is that people will continue to travel:
‘People have always travelled, and they always will. That is how the world evolves and prospers, and no president, no trade war or border can change that. And whether you are travelling because you are fleeing a war, closing a business deal, or meeting loved ones, travel always has an element of aspiration and hope – which I find very beautiful,’ she finishes.