The fresh air and quiet of Europe’s rural areas increasingly come at a cost. With each year that passes, living conditions seem to deteriorate in the structurally weakest of these regions. Shops disappear, local bars can hardly maintain profitability, post offices close down, and job opportunities become scarce. But grassroots resistance is growing. It just needs a little help and guidance, which the project RURACTION (Social Entrepreneurship in Structurally Weak Rural Regions: Analysing Innovative Troubleshooters in Action), undertaken with the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme, aimed to facilitate. “Europe sees an abundance of innovative initiatives by people we have come to call ‘social entrepreneurs’. These are actors who, with support from fellow campaigners, have set for themselves the goal of promoting innovative problem-solving approaches for common problems in their region. But it has come to our attention that many such initiatives fail in the face of unforeseen hurdles, even though they were promising,” explains Gabriela B. Christmann, professor and head of department at the Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space. With RURACTION, Christmann, 10 early-stage researchers as well as other academic members of the consortium, wanted to investigate under which conditions social innovators operate, how they organise solutions, how they network and empower residents, and what impacts they have on rural development. But most importantly, they wanted to find out how these innovators can be supported in their problem-solving activities – which is also one of the key targets of the European Commission. The project specifically focused on seven European regions: Phthiotis in Greece, Baixo Alentejo in Portugal, Mühlviertel in Austria, Uckermark in Germany, Pilski in Poland, Sjælland in Denmark and the Mid-West of Ireland. Each case brought up different stories of social innovators, such as CareBright in Ireland – a social enterprise which cares for people with dementia – and ADC Moura in Portugal which creates new forms of social activities for the inhabitants of the small village of Moura.
The right nudge
In its 4 years of research, the project team analysed social innovation actions in these regions and used what they learned to provide recommendations for action. The RURACTION policy paper entitled ‘How Social Innovation can be Supported in Structurally Weak Rural Regions’ shows very concretely what support and financing strategies can be used to promote socially innovative solutions and create more favourable regional development in structurally weak rural areas. “The most important insight from our research is that social innovations in rural areas take place in processes typical of the rural context,” Christmann adds. ”They can be described in four specific phases: a latency and problematisation phase; an emergence phase involving the planning and realisation of a novel practice; an adjustment phase; and a stabilisation and dissemination phase. There are specific critical junctures in each phase that could lead to stagnation or, indeed, a rupture in the process.” The message for policymakers is clear. Informed support programmes and strategies are helpful as long as they are tailored to the respective phases of the innovation process. The project also recommends capitalising more on creative development instigated by local residents, to better understand mechanisms of social innovation, to set lower thresholds for funding amounts, and to promote the de-bureaucratisation of EU support. Following these steps could lead to a great leap forward in a field where very little research is available. But that’s not all there is to RURACTION, as Christmann points out. “Another innovative aspect is that our policy recommendations address not only one, but four policy levels: the municipal/regional level, the state level (for federal systems), the national level, and the EU level. RURACTION can thus contribute to policies of integrated territorial development,” she says. There are some lessons to be learnt by social enterprises, too. The key one being that communication and networking are key to successful social innovation processes, and so is the need for adequate resources. As Christmann concludes: “Innovation occurs in exchange, in co-creation, in co-working, in intensive networking, and in governance processes.”
RURACTION, social innovation, rural regions, rural development