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Rural innovation ecosystems for resilience and well-being

Rural innovation ecosystems for resilience and well-being

27 January 2022

Building thriving rural economies

NICRE’s Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins spoke at the launch event for the Startup Village Forum – part of a flagship action under the European Commission’s Long-Term Vision for Rural Areas. Here, Bryonny, who's based at the Countryside and Community Research Institute provides a written version of her talk.

Thriving rural economies are key to supporting good lives, in ways that are meaningful to people, and in places that matter. But, as the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us, rural thriving means more than macroeconomic metrics. Making good lives must link economic ambitions with societal well-being.

In rural development, however, well-being can be a trap. We often presume that rural places and people have well-being automatically – after all, idyllic rural life is celebrated from TV nostalgia to relaxing cottage holidays. The trouble is that these rosy visions can lead policymakers to presume that rural places need less materially and do less economically.

We also tend to consume rural well-being, especially through leisure activities and the visitor economy. Of course, being able to access and enjoy green space is an aspect of rural-urban relationships that brings many benefits. But it’s limited and limiting to view rural economies as though all they have going for them is food and tourism.

Role of innovation ecosystems

We need our economies to support equitable outcomes so that rural places and people can flourish. To do that, we need to cultivate diverse economic opportunities in and for diverse rural places. Understanding and supporting rural economies through ‘innovation ecosystems’ can help.

The idea of an ‘ecosystem’ comes from ecology, and describes how different organisms interact within their environment. There is a growing academic literature on what innovation ecosystems do, why they work (or why they don’t), and how policies can support them. What can we learn from this for Startup Villages? Sticking with the ecosystem metaphor, I want to offer four lessons from research and practice.

Picture-postcard view

First, design for living systems, not scenic postcards. Often, those of us who live in urban areas visit rural places for leisure and holidays. We form pictures of what rural places are like, but tend to forget that we’ve carried away a mental ‘postcard’ of our visitor experience rather than an accurate representation of real lives and economic opportunities. When policymakers work from these static views, only some parts of rural economies get seen and supported and it’s hard to make space for innovative ideas.

Local people can be stuck with postcards, too. For example, in her research in rural Cornwall, Joanie Willett found that many residents had outdated views of the region’s economy. Although they knew that new employment opportunities were available, they didn’t know what these were or how to find them. For an innovation ecosystem to function well, information and resources need to effectively circulate.

Know the nutrients

Second, know the nutrients. Innovation ecosystems need a combination of skills, resources, knowledge, capacities, institutions, and infrastructures. The right combination might not be the same everywhere – and might not be what we immediately assume, either.

I had my own lesson in knowing the nutrients when I recently spoke with a rural business working in R&D. I immediately assumed that their biggest challenge would be recruiting local staff with specialist skills, and I wondered how better links with colleges and universities might help. I quickly realised I was wrong: the business actually needed support in marketing and internationalisation. There was still a role for universities, but the business needed the right kind of help to succeed.

New ideas

Third, think beyond the bird box. Just as it’s tempting to apply a ‘magic formula’ fertiliser, it can be easy to slip into a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality. But simply installing a new asset or infrastructure is rarely enough to attract entrepreneurs – let alone ensure their success or generate local multiplier effects.

We can see the ‘bird box’ effect in the recent rush to create rural co-working hubs. Plenty of empty spaces are being repurposed with office furniture and an internet connection and … well, that’s it. Other authorities and agencies are taking a more strategic approach, consciously designing hubs according to user needs, and integrating them with existing initiatives and business support services. These are likely to gain better results because they are embedded in an ecosystem, rather than simply tacked on.

Symbiotic relationships

Fourth, look at what flourishes together. Ecosystems are never monocultures. In nature, different species grow together, like mushrooms on a tree trunk or saplings growing strong within a sheltering canopy. Although this metaphor might make us think of value chains and complementary sectors, we can also look for space where social innovation or new business models can thrive.

Take the example of Cletwr, a community run shop and café in Ceredigion, Wales. Cletwr has developed a business model in which profits from the café are used to support a community worker, tasked with developing the space as a community hub. The partnership between Gloucester Services and the Gloucester Gateway Trust is another great example of building connections between business and society.

This last point brings me back to well-being. At the Startup Village Forum launch, I was asked for my top piece of advice to policymakers. It’s this: the purpose of innovation should not be innovation itself, but better futures for rural people and places. So, when we’re developing policies or detailing practices, we need to keep asking ourselves who is this ultimately for, and why?  


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