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Social innovation for stronger rural regions in Europe

Social innovation in marginalised rural areas takes on a new dimension thanks to efforts under the SIMRA project, which has been the first big project to closely study social innovation in rural areas. The project’s theoretical framework, databases, solutions and recommendations could prove life-saving in regions heavily impacted by climate change and limited economic opportunities.

Food and Natural Resources

Marginalised rural areas across Europe commonly suffer from weak regional economies, transport, infrastructure and housing, as well as ageing populations – all this in the already challenging context of climate and demographic change. The Mediterranean region is particularly exposed, with additional pressures from overseas migration to urban areas. Local populations are increasingly abandoning some areas. Reverting this worrying trend was the key objective of the EU-funded SIMRA (Social Innovation in Marginalised Rural Areas) project. Since 2016, the 26-strong project consortium has been thinking outside the box. They’ve been in search of social innovation ideas that would revitalise rural regions in general and Mediterranean ones in particular. “The situation in some rural areas of the Mediterranean region is deeply concerning,” says Maria Nijnik from the James Hutton Institute and SIMRA scientific coordinator. “In places we see failures of markets and the state. This has left civil society with no other choice than taking the lead in providing services such as child and healthcare, education and training, and volunteer firefighting. However, strong systems and different forms of ‘informal solidarity’ keep slowing down the promotion of innovative social practices.” Social innovation is, by definition, a response to societal challenges that are traditionally not well addressed by markets or existing public institutions. But how does it currently contribute to addressing the challenges facing marginalised rural areas? Before SIMRA, we just weren’t sure whether or not social innovation in these areas had the desired outcomes and impacts.

An opportunity to go by the (new) book

“SIMRA has advanced the understanding of social innovation and innovative governance in agriculture, forestry and rural development. We found out how to boost these sectors to enhance societal well-being. All in all, we have created new theoretical and context-specific knowledge, provided a proper definition of social innovation, and used these to evaluate actions on the ground,” adds David Miller from the James Hutton Institute and head of SIMRA management and administration. SIMRA’s whole approach is based on case studies. Project partners investigated 24 regions and seven innovation actions so as to provide actual solutions addressing challenges faced in marginalised rural areas. Topics include the likes of forest management, social farming, local development, energy, child and healthcare, and social networking. Project partners effectively built a systematic collection of empirical evidence of the driving factors, processes, outcomes and impacts of social innovations across Europe, North Africa and the French Caribbean. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. “We built the first spatial database characterising marginalised rural areas. This goes along with a unique database of over 400 examples of social innovation in rural areas – 243 of which have been fully validated with stakeholders using the SIMRA definition and criteria of social innovation,” Miller explains. Taken together, all the knowledge gathered by SIMRA partners is set to serve as a basis for policy and best practices over the coming years. It’s an unarguable demonstration that strong social capital can actually contribute positively to development, whereas weak social capital undermines civic engagement and good governance. Transformative social innovation is not an option – it’s a must. Policymakers and practitioners looking to put social innovation at the heart of rural areas will find help in the project’s sets of recommendations, evaluation manual and master course. Meanwhile, the SIMRA team will continue to engage with social innovators and their initiatives and hope to contribute to the development of communities of practice in social innovation.

Keywords

SIMRA, social innovation, rural regions, agriculture, forestry, database

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