Maritime Affairs and Fisheries
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Interview with Barbara Jackson, CEO Race for the Baltic, established 2013, based in Stockholm

Interview with Barbara Jackson, CEO Race for the Baltic, established 2013, based in Stockholm

Thank you for giving me this chance to share some thoughts and engage with your readers/viewers. Just a few days after attending EMD, I had the opportunity to participate in the UN Ocean Conference in New York. I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that this is a historic year for our oceans!

Tell us about the mission and work of your organisation “Race for the Baltic”.

Race for the Baltic is a foundation that brings entrepreneurs, innovators, funders, politicians, and scientists together to identify, incubate, share and scale solutions to clean up the Baltic Sea. The organisation was founded in 2013 by the Swedish entrepreneur and co-founder of Skype, Niklas Zennström, who is passionate about the Sea, and eager to speed up action and make an impact. 

© Barbara Jackson

Our main programme is the Baltic Sea City Accelerator, a platform for public and private actors and science to explore and co-create innovative approaches to local water challenges and meet sustainability objectives.

Among a number of other projects and initiatives, we have recently helped to kick off a digital innovation award with the Bank of Åland. This competition has been designed to spur interest in the tech community to work on a key issue of sustainability. We’re hoping to see a number of innovative digital solutions to solving water challenges in the Baltic Sea region. Applications are accepted until September 30!

Could you describe your personal driving motivations, having moved from a career in business into environmental advocacy?

I graduated with a degree in business administration in 2005. I was passionate about business and enjoyed working in the corporate environment, with clear strategies and commercial objectives. However, I started to see that many of the issues that our planet is facing were not being addressed – and the need for action became very real and urgent to me. This led to a growing interest in sustainability and all the possibilities that technology, innovation and design also bring to the subject. I was hooked – and it was clear to me that this is what I wanted to pursue.

First, I tried to convince the company I was working for at the time to allow me to expand my role to include working on sustainability issues. For various reasons – and bear in mind this was before “everyone” was working on sustainability – they were reluctant to support this development, so I decided to move on. I ended up being very fortunate in that Niklas offered me an opportunity to help build up Race for the Baltic. It was – and still is – a dream job. Today, I am the CEO and Chair of the Board of the foundation and we have an incredible team. Every day is exciting, new and rewarding.

Sustainable use of our seas is dependent on all stakeholders working together. In your view, how can the private sector and civil society best play their role? And how can a major international public organisation such as the European Commission best help to facilitate this?

Citizens in the private sector, like all on this planet, have a deep responsibility to future generations to leave it in a better state than they found it. The private sector often has resources and capacity (and ability to take on risk) to innovate and incubate new ideas in a way that the public sector may not.

The European Commission can play an important role by collecting and defining the most pressing water challenges and presenting them to the business community in a way they will understand and respond to. While entrepreneurs are often experts at identifying niches for developing a business, I’ve also seen some examples – especially in the area of water and sustainability – where helping entrepreneurs who want to solve social and environmental issues gain a better understanding of the challenges has led to remarkable results.

One great example of an initiative that did this is ‘Securing Water For Food’.

Launched by the Swedish and US development agencies, they hit the nail on the head in framing the challenge in a way that mobilised the private sector to show up and help. Wow!

When you addressed this year’s European Maritime Day in Poole, 18-19 May, you spoke about “redefining activism”. Explain your ideas.

The word “activism” – particularly when it comes to environmental issues – often conjures up images of posters, protesters and chaining oneself to things. And, in fact, that’s why I’ve never thought of myself as an activist until recently. That’s partly because I’ve chosen to redefine the term. You see, activism is just about getting engaged and involved – and that can and should come from anywhere! 

One example that I think does a great job of explaining what I mean by this type of activism comes from the serial entrepreneur Johan Attby. His latest venture is the online sport fishing community Fishbrain. Fishbrain has collected more environmental data about the fish in our seas than some entire countries have! And this data is being used for research and decision-making. Now if you were to ask Johan whether he considers himself to be an activist, he would probably look puzzled – but I would argue he represents the new face of activism.

Another example is Swedish Deputy Prime Minister Isabella Lövin, who spearheaded the first Ocean Conference at the UN. Her efforts led to over 1,000 voluntary commitments being made by companies, governments, NGOs – all kinds of stakeholders – to take action to improve our oceans. This shows that forward-thinking politicians within government can be global agents of change.

The European Union is hosting the fourth Our Ocean conference in Malta, 5-6 October. What are your expectations and hopes for the conference?

I’d like to see a list of top-priority issues that need to be solved, with the actors around the table that can determine what the next steps need to be to solve them. The challenges need to be framed clearly, and communicated to the actors that are in a position to make the necessary changes. The EU is uniquely positioned to be a global leader in ocean innovation. Now is the time for us to leverage the momentum of this historic “Ocean” year – and step up our efforts to clean up the Baltic and the Med.

For more information on the Our Ocean conference in Malta, please visit

Past Issues
June  2017 - Issue 75
March  2017 - Issue 74
November 2016 - Issue 73
August 2016 - Issue 72