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How can social innovation help rural communities?

Hannah Rich, Young Foundation

On 30th March, I attended a seminar in Brussels, organised by the European Network for Rural Development, on the topic of innovation in rural areas.

The day began with José Enrique Garcilazo, head of the Rural Policy Unit at the OECD, reminding us of the importance of including rural regions and communities in policy-making. Whilst individually, rural areas may seem small and therefore are not considered a policy priority, they represent 26% of the OECD population on aggregate and so, as Garcilazo pointed out, they cannot be written off. It was also highlighted that the narrative of rural areas as being in decline is not universally true. There is little evidence of widespread depopulation of rural areas; many areas of low population density are both dynamic and productive, and have large economic growth potential.

Does innovation happen despite policy or because of it? The answer which emerged during discussions throughout the day was that it is a combination of both. There were many examples of innovation resulting from communities “not just waiting for policy to be done to them,” as one speaker put it.

One inspiring case study came from the Arctic Smart Rural Community Cluster in Lapland. Communities in this area were spending over half of their income on energy and food; this meant that a village of 116 people was sending on average €1m outside of Lapland per year. Local stakeholders from different sectors have come together with the aim of creating a circular bioeconomy in Lapland, promoting collaboration between food and energy companies and encouraging people to keep their money locally. So far, this has proved successful and it was great to hear about such an effective example of innovation and business co-operation in a region of Scandinavia where reindeer outnumber people and the average population density is two inhabitants per square kilometre.

Another example showcased during the day was Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen, County Cork. Skibbereen is a small town of 3000 people, a hundred kilometres from any 24 hour services. Through the establishment of the hub and the employment of a digital strategy, the town has become the first rural town in Ireland to have 1GB connectivity. The hub has sustainably repurposed an existing community asset in the form of a town centre warehouse, rather than building something new on the outskirts of the town. In doing so, it has created jobs in the local area and also established the town as a destination for businesses.

It was striking to see the crossover of the challenges faced by places in differing contexts across Europe; through SIC, we have recently worked with the city of Parnu in Estonia to develop strategies to encourage young people to stay in the city rather than moving elsewhere. Similarly, the CEO of Ludgate Hub, Grainne Dwyer, spoke powerfully about how the town’s young people are educated there, leave for cities and often don’t come back. For Skibberreen, its distance from other places has proved to be a difficulty whereas for Parnu, its proximity to Tallinn has led to the outflow of population; in both contexts, however, the power of social and digital innovation to overcome societal challenges is evident.

These examples, and the many others discussed during the programme of the seminars and workshops, showed how regardless of policy, innovation can be transformative for rural areas. However, there is also a clear need for integrated, joined-up thinking when it comes to addressing the challenges faced by rural communities, from policy-makers, businesses and social innovators alike. This was emphasised by several of the speakers, who suggested that business and policy should collaborate to create an enabling environment for innovation.

Disjointed sectoral approaches can have unintended negative consequences on communities. For example, investing in digitalisation without the accompanying education and support for access can lead to growing inequality rather than greater connectivity. Technology and innovation can serve as an equaliser within society, but can be a divider if it is not mobilised effectively.

I came away from Brussels convinced that the relationships of mutual help and social proximity which exist in local communities are as important to the development of social economies as the policy frameworks they sit within. People and communities, with the right tools and infrastructures, have the power to co-create sustainable innovations in rural areas.

More information about the seminar, including presentations from all the speakers, is available here.