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Changing economies in rural and peripheral regions

Changing economies in rural and peripheral regions

8 February 2022

Insights from Joanie Willett on new book

NICRE’s Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins has reviewed the new book ‘Affective Assemblages and Local Economies’ by Joanie Willett, which looks at how economies change and adapt in rural and peripheral regions. Bryonny, who's based at the Countryside and Community Research Institute, caught up with Joanie to ask her about the book, and what NICRE can learn from her research in rural Cornwall.

What motivated you to write the book?

It was becoming clear that it was hard to find any regional development research that addressed the ways that regular members of the public felt about their region, finding work in their region, and on what kind of impact regional development measures had had on their lives. 

This started to shout out loud after the Brexit vote, when (except for Northern Ireland) everywhere that had received the highest amounts of EU structural funding voted disproportionately highly for Leave.  A lot of public discourse equated this with ‘cutting off one’s nose…..’.  But there was little curiosity in the debate about why people in recipient regions thought the way that they did.  Instead, there was a lot of anger directed against these regions.  It seemed important to me to understand much more deeply people’s subjective positions and how their lives feel for them. 

I’ve also been working with theoretical tools drawing from assemblages and complex adaptive systems for many years, and they were getting too big and unwieldy for journal articles.  I needed the space provided by a book to give the theory room to run free and explore. 

What did your theoretical tools help you to learn about local economies?

These theoretical ideas are not new - they’ve been kicking about in various guises, for some time.   But what I was noticing is that when researchers were using (for example) evolutionary economics or resilience, they were looking at the interconnectedness within one or two systems.  What the idea of a ‘complex adaptive assemblage’ does for me, is that it connects the multitude of different systems that all contribute to a particular object, practice, economy, person.  This provides a lens to explore the relationships, connections, and flows of information between important things that we’re looking at. 

In my research in Cornwall, the lens also showed where things didn’t connect.  This could be a lack of connections about ideas – people often had a really outdated version of what was important to the local economy. Or it could be a lack of connections between practical things – like the massive difficulty that some people had travelling to any job, let alone the kind of job where their talents and skills were best utilised.  These are important things, which have an enormous impact on the ability of individuals, communities, and the region to adapt to changing economies.

Could you give us an example of how the learning from your research can be translated into policy or practice?

Right now, I’m pursuing how people come to ‘know’ things about their localities, and whether these knowledges are current or not.  When you ask people about the Cornish economy, usually you get: “Well, fishing’s gone, farming’s gone, mining’s gone.  All that’s left is tourism.” They don’t know that we are doing great in maritime engineering, digital tech, renewable engineering, the creative industries… and even fab and international clothing brands! Also, fishing and farming have morphed, adapted, and still do significant things. 

We’re working now with a consortium of local schools and the Local Enterprise Partnership Careers Hub to bring primary school children together with local businesses to have conversations about the kinds of jobs Cornwall offers and the kinds of subjects they match.  It’s about finding spaces to effectively share information.

NICRE works to foster rural enterprise and innovation. What ‘takeaway message’ from your book would you hope we could learn from?

I’d like to see more thinking about innovation that includes transforming the ways we connect people up. That could be about rural transportation and how to get talented people to the jobs that need them. Or, it could about innovations in helping rural people to know things like: Where are the skills gaps? What are the marketable skills? Where do you go to find those skills? Where are jobs requiring those skills advertised?  More could be done to share innovative ways of addressing contemporary business challenges, drawing on best practice locally or further afield.  Rural areas have some massively talented and amazing people.  But we need to find better ways to connect that talent with the organisations and enterprises that can enable it to flourish.

Joanie Willett is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Exeter, and Co-Director of the Institute of Cornish Studies.





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