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Social Enterpreneurship in Structurally Weak Rural Regions: Analysing Innovative Troubleshooters in Action

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - RURACTION (Social Enterpreneurship in Structurally Weak Rural Regions: Analysing Innovative Troubleshooters in Action)

Reporting period: 2018-12-01 to 2021-01-31

A downward spiral has been set in motion in many structurally weak rural regions of Europe in the past decades. While the precise economic and social conditions of individual regions in Europe often diverge significantly the same pattern nevertheless tends to appear: Compared with cities, the conditions of everyday life in structurally weak rural regions is – due to its limited economic productivity, career perspectives, and a worsening provision of infrastructure – rather unfavourable. This has led to ever more rural inhabitants leaving the countryside. In the face of such challenges, actors in some parts of the countryside have become active and are taking things into their own hands in order to improve their situation. Several have even founded small companies and creating workplaces for themselves and others. Throughout Europe there is an abundance of innovative initiatives to be seen in the countryside, advanced by rural inhabitants, social entrepreneurs, or both in collaboration. At the same time, it can be observed that many promising initiatives had to fail because the actors encountered hurdles that they could not overcome. Often they lacked the knowledge and support to continue successfully. Also social enterprises sometimes reach their limits.

Against this background there were still many questions about how the development of socially innovative initiatives and the work of social enterprises can be fostered.

The overall objectives of RurAction were accordingly to address these questions, i.e. to
- (i) empirically analyse critical junctures as well as favourable factors for both the creation of innovative solutions and the work of social entrepreneurship in the countryside,
(ii) close the research gap at the interface between rural development, social entrepreneurship and social innovation research;
- train 10 Early Stage Researchers both in order to enable them to conduct excellent research in this field and to professionally support socially innovative initiatives in the future;
- derive recommendations for action from the research results;
- disseminate the results.

RurAction was successfully completed with regard to all these aspects. Content-related conclusions that can be drawn from the project are presented in the next sections.
Based on the empirical investigation of socially innovative initiatives and the processes through which their innovative solutions were successfully implemented, one of the main results is that social innovations in rural areas take place in typical phases. Since there are specific critical junctures in each phase, it is important to know what is required in order to progress to the next phase and ultimately to lead to success. RurAction informs about each phase with its specific requirements. To name just a few results: In the latency and problematisation phase it is important that publicly accessible meeting places are available to the community free of charge, equipped with certain basic amenities, in order to enable the creative collaboration of the local residents. This is a very basic means of support, but given rural conditions it is by no means a trivial one. Furthermore, it turned out that in the implementation phase, key persons or a key group as the coordinators of an initiative are crucial for the whole process. However, they often need support, i.e. they should receive coaching and counselling as needed when hurdles arise in the implementation of their approaches.
Innovation occurs in creative exchange, co-creation, intensive networking, and governance processes. Social enterprises often take on the role of initiating, advising, and accompanying creative exchange. Our research revealed that they function as catalysts, shaping the exchange effectively. However, there is no funding available for such work. Often, it becomes difficult to maintain this support.
Against this background, the main message for political decision-makers is: create budgets for modular funding programmes in line with the phases of an innovation process, for which the actors can apply. Another conclusion is that the innovation expertise of social enterprises must be more systematically utilised and that the specific needs of social enterprises need to be better recognised in order to support their work in a targeted way.

The following exploitation and dissemination measures were central:
- So far, 31 publications, 30 presentations at international conferences, symposia and workshops as well as two RurAction conferences addressed the scientific community in order to critically discuss the results.
- The policy paper addresses decision makers and shows very concretely which support and financing strategies are necessary to promote the creation, implementation and spatial spread of socially innovative solutions to existing problems, but also how social enterprises can be supported, and how a more favourable regional development in structurally weak rural areas can be made possible.
- Five regional policy roundtables and one policy roundtable on the EU level were carried out in order to discuss the results and the recommendations for action of the policy paper with policy-makers. The main results of these discussions are documented in the annex of the final version of the policy paper.
- The handbook for practitioners addresses social enterprises and helps them to reflect their roles and strategies in rural regions.
- The documentary film addresses a broader public and raises awareness of the potentials of social enterprises in rural areas. It shows how SE work and how they develop socially innovative solutions for their regions.
- The portable exhibition also addresses a broader public, in order to inform people about the work in RurAction and also to raise awareness of the potentials of social enterprises in rural areas. It shows how social enterprises work in rural areas and how they develop socially innovative solutions for their regions. The PDF version of the exhibition allows us to show the exhibition as a slide show during the breaks of important events (e.g. in the context of workshops, conferences and other events)
Until recently, rural communities were only seldom viewed in relation to (social) innovation. They had more of a reputation for their remoteness from innovation. As a result, there has been only very little research on (social) innovation in rural areas. What also can be observed is that social enterprises discovered rural areas as their field of activity which has not been reflected much in previous research. RurAction is one of the few research projects that takes this seriously and conducted systematic innovation research in the field of rural areas.
Another innovative aspect is that the RurAction policy paper addresses not only policy-makers on one scale, but on the municipal/regional, the state (for federal systems) and the national level, as well as the level of the EU. RurAction can thus contribute to policies of integrated territorial development. Starting out with requirements on the local/regional level, it shows what national as well as EU funding strategies should look like in order to effectively support social innovations in rural areas.
RurAction can contribute to the current interests of DG AGRI in the field of ‘cooperation, social innovation, innovation systems and networks’ as well as in that of 'integrated territorial development’.
Spring School excursion in Zeitz, Germany
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