What we found is that due to their entrepreneurial professionalism, social enterprises enjoy the confidence of other influential people in the region and are able to win them over for collaborations. What they do is strategically initiate bottom-up activities that would not have come into being without the contributions of the social entrepreneurs.

Above all, however, it is a key characteristic of social-entrepreneurial practices to provide other (entrepreneurial) regional actors with help for self-help in regional development and to empower them. This means that once an initiative has been started, they serve as catalysts for the subsequent bottom-up process. Typically, social enterprises provide or organize the following resources: [1] useful contacts and information about social networking technique, [2] expert knowledge in the form of educational offers, counseling services and/or coaching.

Researcher’s Notebook: Marina Novikova
Socially innovative regional development in Mühlviertel and Baixo Alentejo

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What the actors of the Mühlviertel and Baixo Alentejo think about the challenges and potential of socially innovative regional development in their region – a collection of statements.

In the course of two secondments in Austria and Portugal (October 2018 to May 2019), I had an opportunity to talk to various actors being involved in the development of two regions, the Mühlviertel and Baixo Alentejo. The interview partners were heads of municipalities, leaders of local development associations, members of Local Action Groups (LAGs) as part of the LEADER programme, social entrepreneurs as well as regional policy makers. When asked about their perceptions of the regional development, mainly the challenges and the solutions to them, our partners touched upon several crucial points. Interestingly, they were true for both the Austrian and the Portuguese regions. Below we present typical statements.

Perceived challenges

Parochial thinking

“Although thinking about a region as a whole [and taking care for its needs] has already gained in strength, the problem remains. The actors are wondering if they should only keep an eye on the ‘church tower,’ i.e. their own municipality or perhaps consider the entire region. Slowly, heads of regions are focusing on their municipalities but also realise what is good for the region and what makes it possible to make any progress.”

Decision-making not anchored in the region

“I am convinced that people who don’t live in the countryside, who are not in contact with people in rural regions like ours, who only act from their office in a city, have no basis for devising a programme or making decisions for a respective region. Instead, it is necessary to listen to, to see and to understand the opinions coming from people who live there and who know what is working and what is not working.”

The role of the historical background / lack of competencies in entrepreneurship

“In the past, an average person’s main experience was to work for someone and not to think about establishing one’s own company or showing initiative. This is mentality based on an expectation that someone has to give [that person] a job. Now it is no longer a big farmer, it is the municipality, or the local entities [that can provide job opportunities]. In the municipalities in which we work but also more generally in Alentejo, the spirit is that “someone needs to give me a job”. When we say that today people are still under-qualified we do not mean only professional qualifications; the emphasis is on competencies that people lack in terms of the entrepreneurial spirit.”

Bringing change to the regions – some ideas

Empowering people

“I think our main task is to bring ideas and innovation, to serve as a bridge in the search for solutions to problems, even in other places. We attempt to and we do this in our area. This is more or less our task. And we always attempt to continue a process, we identify the problems together with the people, we try to collaborate on potential solutions and, when the time has come, we let them continue solving the problems by themselves. We empower them in the process, aiming at enabling them to do things by themselves […], we prepare them for becoming totally independent in the future.”

Change of attitude from problem-driven to opportunity-driven social innovation

“Another thing that we should look for is looking at an issue not only as a problem that needs to be changed but rather as an opportunity which allows to create things anew. We are already doing this. Let me give an example: when it comes to the low density of the population, houses and companies, it results in space in the region with no light pollution, the so-called dark sky places. This is an example of how we can use low density as an opportunity to promote other activities. The environmental opportunities are a result of not having many companies or lots of people. It’s a very good thing that we have and should keep but we need to find out now how we can keep it.”

Developing an integrated approach to regional development

“We always pursue a long-term and integrated approach. This means that we try to integrate several different sectors and stakeholders. We also develop a concept for a specific project, try to get the financing and try to implement things. When we want to do more [beyond the framework of an individual project] we always know that it can be done as a combination of different specific projects. When the parts of the puzzle come together, we can more or less implement most of the things that are strategically required for more comprehensive regional development.”


It was conspicuous in the interviews, both in the context of the Mühlviertel (Austria) and the Baixo Alentejo region (Portugal) that the interviewees saw collaboration as the main source of potential to overcome problems in the regions. The actors think that priority should be given to more collaborative activities. This holds true for authorities, local associations, social enterprises and the local population. Engaging in a dialogue, bringing the actors together alongside with providing new insights into the opportunities in the regions, culturally, spatially and economically, seems the right path to follow.

The RurAction network

The RurAction research and training network offers a unique opportunity to ten early stage researchers to do research on highly relevant topics of social innovations and social entrepreneurship in rural regions. It aims at fostering social innovations and social entrepreneurship in rural development.

The early stage researchers are employed as junior researchers in relevant leading research institutions and enrolled in PhD programmes in the contributing universities of the RurAction network. They are supervised by highly acknowledged academics and benefit from transnational, high quality training on the theories and methodologies organised by RurAction.

At the same time, practical skills trainings are ensured. Social enterprises have provided the early stage researchers with great expertise in innovative rural development. In total, the project encompasses five European regions where highly experienced and award-winning social enterprises of the RurAction network are located: in Baixo Alentejo in Portugal, Ballyhoura in Ireland, the Mühlviertel in Austria, Phthiotis in Greece and Uckermark in Germany. Each of the early stage researchers was seconded to two or three regions in order to experience the work on the part of the enterprises. In the section that follows, the early stage researchers will tell you about their experiences in these regions.

Social enterprises

ADCMoura (Moura/Portugal) / Ballyhoura Development (Kilfinane/Ireland) / Otelo eGen (Vorchdorf/Austria) / Social Impact (Potsdam/Germany) / Stevia Hellas (Lamia/Greece).

Research institutions

Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space (IRS, Erkner/Germany; coordinator of RurAction) / Adam Mickiewicz University (AMU, Poznan/Poland) / Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography (IfL, Leipzig /Germany) / Roskilde University (RUC, Roskilde/Denmark) / Technical University of Berlin (Berlin/Germany) / University College Cork (UCC, Cork/Ireland) / University Institute of Lisbon (ISTE-IUL, Lisbon/Portugal) / University of Leipzig (Leipzig/Germany) / University of the Aegean (UAE, Mytilini/Greece).

Early stage researchers of RurAction

Jamie Scott Baxter (IRS, Erkner/Germany, and TU Berlin/Germany) / Georgios Chatzichristos (UAE, Mytilini/Greece) / Holle Gruber (Otelo, Vöcklabruck/Austria, University of Passau) / Barraí Hennebry (AMU, Poznań/Poland) / Sunna Kovanen (IfL, Leipzig /Germany, University of Leipzig) / Marina Novikova (ISTE-IUL, Lisbon/Portugal) / Lucas Olmedo (UCC, Cork/Ireland) / Sune W. Stoustrup (IRS, Erkner/Germany, TU Berlin/Germany) / Mara van Twuijver (Ballyhoura, Kilfinane/Ireland, UCC, Cork/Ireland) / Anna Umantseva (RUC, Roskilde/Denmark).

Researchers‘ notebooks

Along the main narrative of this site you will find researchers‘ notebooks – personal notes, comments and observations shared by early stage researchers. These are short excerpts from their field-notes, presented in the form of independent stories, scattered throughout the webpage.


We would like to thank all the people who helped us in the preparation and implementation of our visual documentation, also those who accompanied us during our visits to Portugal, Greece and Ireland.

The assistance and hospitality extended by Clara Lourenço (ADC Moura), Christos Stamatis (Stevia Hellas Cooperation) and Catherine Smyth (Ballyhoura Development CLG) made it possible for us to visit places crucial to the regions and to learn about the local social innovations.

However, we are most indebted to the local communities of the researched and documented regions. They are the main protagonists of this exhibition. The pictures show people involved in promoting and implementing innovations for the benefit of rural regions: farmers, social entrepreneurs, local activists and educators, coordinators and beneficiaries of social assistance. We also present ordinary inhabitants of these regions at work and in their free time. These people were asked for permission to be photographed. Their openness and willingness to cooperate is a contributing factor to this exhibition.