Coastal innovation Conference

Learning how to create good hiking experiences along the coastlines

Text and drawings by Frits Ahlefeldt,

It’s called coastal innovation and is all about how we can both create thrive, innovation and at the same time face the triple challenge of sea-level rise, climate change and extreme weather. That is likely to hit coastal areas all over the globe harder than anywhere else – here are my drawn notes and thoughts from a conference about coastal innovation in Denmark

There was what looked like more than a hundred people there as I walked in early in the morning, still a bit cold after sleeping on the beach the night before in my small tent. A night much colder than my sleeping bag and I planned it to be.

All around me where experts arriving from all parts of the country. They where experts in coastal innovation, in hiking, project management, tourism, mountain biking, local food experiences, outdoor apps, architects, landscape planners, anthropologists and people in charge of keeping the small fishing villages, harbors and local industries of the Danish coastline above water… in all ways.

Just South of Denmark is a gigantic country – Germany, and every summer, if just a fraction of the Germans went North, the population of Denmark would double in size. A lot of small coastal villages survive on the input from these German tourists over the short and far from always sunny summer.

Explaining why Germans head to Denmark two reasons stood out… everything in between was less the reason. They are called the North Sea and The Baltic Sea – or in German; Die NordSee and Die OstSee.  

Drawing of Denmark as between The NorthSea and the Baltic Sea
The coastline has always attracted us humans in unique ways.

For a lot of tourists and for a lot of people the sea is magical in ways that makes them want to come back again and again. It is not so much about what is five minutes from the beach, but a lot about what is in within five minutes from it. The same can be seen all over the world. People relate to the coast in a very unique way.

Relating the the coastline

Experts love to divide people into groups, target groups, archetypes and stereotypes, personas and segmented customer types – and during the day three classic types came up a lot:

The Outdoor type

The Outdoor type, wanting to go active, hike, sail, dive, run, surf or swim. An active life is good, we are told and as more and more of us spend most of our life asleep or in front of screens as passive vegetables, where active means liking and sharing emoticons at the most… it is a challenged type. But people still and even more and more want to feel like they are doing more with their lives than watching Netflix – at least in their holiday. So it is a type to be considered  – and the type that can make hiking trails, camps, and small villages turn alive with life and stories

The Culture type

Some people want to understand the history, the architecture and stories of where they are heading. They are the cultural type, those that museums and bookstores thrive on. They are those actually reading the text on the information signs. Learning more about how fishing was in the old days, why the dinosaurs went instinct or how the old mill could feed the whole village, till the storm-surge grinned it out to sea in a single winter night.

The Foodie

The last type that was talked a lot about is the Foodie,  those tasting the world as a way of life. passionate about beer,sea salt, herrings, local cheeses and foods so strange people stopped eating them a long time ago… till the foodies came to town.

From a hiking perspectives – they might be one, it is just the same person, that are either on the trail walking in the wind, or stopping to watch an old mill, or building appetite to head into the small fishing village in the afternoon, hungry and ready to get something to eat after a long day outdoors, good food is even better. Still they can be seen as different sub-types:

Drawing of outdoor, cultural and foodie person type
Three hiker coastal archetypes: the Outdoor type, the Culture type and the Foodie

 Coastal places and spaces

Coastlines might be seen as a line, or string, with a lot of things happening in special locations – and then long stretches of walking by the sea, watching the waves. The metaphor of pearls on a string can be interesting to use in coastal innovation. The small fishing villages, the light-houses, strangely huge boulders, beautiful cliffs, caves or gigantic dunes, places where huge trees fall into the water or ruins balance on the edge. These places can be seen and attracts visitors to coastal experiences all over the world.

Drawing of light bulbs along the coastline
Coastal trails and innovation might be seen as a string of experiences, some shining bright, others less so – Like pearls on a string

Creating spaces and places along the coast in unusual ways

Two more not so often mentioned ways to create and celebrate places along the coast was also in focus during the day: The underwater attraction was one of them:

Creating reefs and sinking old ships to make fairytale like worlds for visitors to see, not only helps the local economy, but often these artificial created places helps local nature too. Boosting biodiversity, food production and bird watching as an added benefit.

Drawing of an old ship with divers, fish and dolphins around
Sinking old ships to create artificial reefs and biodiversity hotspots is becoming more normal around the world

Creating space with music

Music and sounds can also create space in unique ways. We are not so used to this today, where most has separated music from the place, by using ear-pods with unrelated sounds flooding the ears, where-ever we are.  But most old churches and many other places actually has a lot of potential, designing a sound experience around them to build up unique experiences related to just this very special place and its history.

Music space as people inside music floating around

How to create trails and build good experiences both for locals and visitors along the coastlines

In the last hundred years or so more and more focus has been transferred from the local places along the coastlines and to the large cities and ports. Taking the life and stories and replacing it with screens and blue lights.  When I hike through small villages in the evenings, after dark I am often surprised how quiet and deserted they feel. Only life I see are a few lost souls on a local bar, listening to songs back from the eighties.

The rest of the locals in they small villages are sitting in couches facing away from the windows, and often when I pass by small villages, I can’t avoid seeing them like they where fish in long rows of aquariums, all sitting with their backs to the windows, looking on huge wide flat-screens mounted further inside their small caves. Sober and on Netfix.

The challenge of overcoming the gaps

One of the words I heard a few times on the conference and that I often hear are silo-thinking. The strange phenomena that we, despite all our fancy technology,  think in small unrelated, isolated worlds, each group trying to figure it all out, all by them-selves. It is often called Group Think – And along the coastlines one of the worst fears is that this Silo way of thinking will end up strengthen itself with an island, isolated way of thinking – to an even worse combination of not knowing and not wanting to cross the open sea to the next silo-island:

Silo and island thinking combined to group think in small isolated towers far out at sea

The challenge of thinking in new ways and relating along the coastlines

As part of the conference we went out in smaller groups of experts to discuss these challenges, and in one of the groups we where asked if we knew of a micro-situation that somehow reminded us of the challenges of innovating and overcoming the silo thinking.  A situation I’ve experienced lighted up in my head, the classic barbecue social get-together. It is a place where things are done according to a lot of rules and where it can be difficult to try new things, challenge the established way of doing things and where you discuss things most have a long and clear opinion about.

Barbecue psychology and interaction, people around discussing with a new person entering and questioning the way things are traditionally done

But as we can change our ways of doing things around the barbecue, so in a larger scale there is good hope we can do the same to better the thrive and ways to relate along the coastlines:

Hiking is so much different – building trails instead of towers

One of the things i really like about hiking is how this nomadic like way of living, in its simplicity, helps us relate to others. The trails, shelters and logic is so good at this. Making people connect along shared trails, instead of isolating themselves in towers. And it was great to see that people are actually finding ways to connect, not only in real life, but also using technology to strengthen this further.

Let me ends this article with the most uplifting example on this. A local community starting to relate to each other and build mountainbike trails together. The concept was half born out of all the resistance the often noisy and fast moving mountain bikes received from other groups when driving through local forests.

Instead of fighting them they had joint forces and was now building better mountainbike-trails, and relationships at the same time. Making good trails will make people use these, so it actually helps direct where people will be and where they will not be. But not only this, it also sparked an understanding for other needs, Both hikers, horseback riders and mountain-bikers, even bird-watchers can need facilities like toilets, water and shelters, to make their stays in nature better and with less impact.

I sketched up a few of the things that had help them succeed building trails:

  • First they included all the locals, even though they had different interests, it meant they could talk things over and realized they also had abilities that could be combined into better solutions for all
  • Second they reached out to all mountain-bikers in the area through local bike shops, so people would know how and where to ride for the benefit of all
  • Third they created an app, that could not only help people navigate the landscapes but would also provide a platform for networking and help give feedback to how people used the trails, facilities and landscapes and how much.
  • Fourth they created zones both for activities and for other interests like biodiversity, bird-watching and protecting wildlife. Something everybody benefits from
  • Last they arranged work sessions where people would join forces and together build the physical facilities, trails and at the same time get to know each other:


Creating better coastal places

It seems like this could be a good way forward, both strengthening the communities, the ways the coastlines are used and protected and also, in case of storm-surges or other challenges to local communities and coastal places. There will be a stronger foundation to innovate, a better local knowledge of what resources is available and not least, the benefit and pride of ones place. A benefit that is very attractive to a place, to locals and also to visitors.

Article, text and drawings by Frits Ahlefeldt,

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