SECTION I:
INTRODUCTION

Challenges of structurally weak rural regions in the European Union

Structurally weak rural regions are faced with major economic and social challenges. In comparison to predominantly urban regions, they are economically less productive. They provide fewer desired goods and services while the labour market offers few career opportunities. Shops where daily purchases can be made are scarce and it is challenging for the inhabitants to move around the region because public transport is very limited.
Against this background, the respective regions experience considerable declines in populations and, in particular, a brain drain of the young. Downward spirals have been set in motion that have further reduced the number of economic opportunities.

Researcher’s Notebook: Barraí Hennebry
Main challenges in the regions

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Main challenges in structurally weak rural regions in Europe


As part of the RurAction project, I have had the opportunity to visit a number of rural areas across the EU. Some of these were the secondments where I could live and conduct research in the rural areas. Others were shorter visits for the purpose of training seminars or conferences. These experiences have been extremely beneficial, and will undoubtedly influence my research on structurally weak rural regions.

”Relative” rurality

I realised the validity of the idea that rurality is relative. Rural regions across Europe are diverse, in fact the idea of “rural” seems to vary from one country to another, thus the challenges faced by rural regions can be similar but can also be place-specific.

Three main challenges

The main challenges I witnessed were connectivity, lack of investment and an aging population. However, the degree to which these challenges affect life in different rural areas varies significantly.

While connectivity is a wide concept, it was an issue in a majority of the rural areas I visited, be it lack of public transport, deteriorating roads or the need for better access to the Internet.

Lack of investment on the part of the public sector was obvious in many locations, resulting in deteriorating public infrastructure and public services. This results in private investment leaving rural areas, leading to failing businesses and loss of jobs.
These issues contribute to out-migration of the young and the population’s aging.



Social enterprises

Social enterprises are expected to help to tackle problems in rural areas. They are renowned for their achievements in trying new things, finding new solutions and choosing different methods. Social enterprises consider themselves partners of anyone who would welcome improved conditions in structurally weak rural regions. These people have embarked on a mission to support residents when it comes to thinking out-of-the-box.

Social enterprises can be defined as visionary organisations which, by adopting an entrepreneurial approach, develop and implement innovative solutions to social problems. An important feature of social enterprises is thus their ability to generate and implement social innovations.
Typically, these activities are not oriented to profit but rather production of social value added in a specific community or society.

Social innovations

Social innovations are gaining ground in collective action. How are social innovations understood? There is no unique concept of social innovations; rather there are two different research streams. [1] The first stream highlights the fact that social innovations address existing problems by developing more collaborative and cohesive social relations, empowerment of citizens, the development of bottom-up initiatives and more democratic governance systems. [2] The other stream reflects interest in the actual structure of innovation processes and the lessons to be learnt from successful and unsuccessful initiatives alike. This way researchers aim at understanding how social innovations work.

In most cases, novelties are acknowledged as not “absolute” but rather “relative” innovations in the world since they often rely on already existing elements, combining them in a creative way.

In the RurAction project we combine the two streams. Of importance to us is both an understanding of socially innovative processes and how more socially cohesive relations can be forged.

Researcher’s Notebook: Sune W. Stoustrup
Social innovations in Mühlviertel, Austria

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Experiencing social innovations and regional development by hiking through the Mühlviertel in Austria


Our secondment to Otelo eGen was not only an opportunity to get to know the staff members of Otelo but also an invitation to see rural regions in Upper Austria and to meet many of their collaborators. We were introduced to the rural actors behind social innovations and entrepreneurship in their communities by starting novel projects, initiating new processes and building new networks.
Meanwhile, the Mühlviertel region has disproved the stories of a declining countryside that you can easily get exposed to. It was clear to us that rural areas are under pressure, particularly due to globalisation, demographic changes as well as changes in agriculture, and that the Mühlviertel had suffered a lot of them in the past. At the same time we found a strong spirit of community and active residents who all worked hard to make rural areas a good place to live. As one of the mayors from the Mühlviertel region put it: “It was clear for [us] that the only way to have a future for the periphery was that [we] work together. This is the only possibility to look forward to a good future.“

Walking the Johannesweg in Austria

I would like to thank Wolfgang Mader from Otelo (https://otelo.or.at) for wonderful induction. For four days in early October, six Early Stage Researchers from the RurAction project accompanied by Wolfgang walked 60 kilometers on Johannesweg (https://www.johannesweg.at), a walking route circling the Upper Austrian sub-region of Mühlviertel Alm (https://www.muehlviertleralm.at).
Mühlviertel Alm is one of the six LEADER regions in the Mühlviertel and Johannesweg is a recent regional development project launched in 2012. Spanning seven municipalities, it connects many sites, businesses and places of interest. While it is a seemingly simple idea and one that is easily taken for granted when hiking our early results suggest that it is also one that has not always been so easy to implement. Ultimately it has become important to the region’s regular development.
One of the actors pointed out: “When visitors come to the region to walk down Johannesweg, they congratulate us on the beauty of the area which makes us feel proud of our region.”

The Ruttenstein castle ruins

One location along Johannesweg are the ruins of the Ruttenstein from the first half of the 12th century (https://www.ruttenstein.at). It had been in ruin since 1585 until 1999 when a local association started its renovation and has leased it from the owner. It now serves as a location for temporary cultural events including music festivals and theatre performances.

Diversification of agriculture: Weidegans

In 1992, “Weidegans” – a special breed of geese – was introduced to the region (http://www.genuss-region.at/genussregionen/oberoesterreich/muehlviertler-alm-weidegans/index.html). This was done by some upland farmers as an alternative to cows and as a way of diversifying the local farming practices. Some early adopters took up this innovative while others were a bit slower in following suit. Meanwhile, grassing geese are becoming a regular part of the landscape and the practice of breeding ”Weidegänse” has spread to other parts of Austria.

Visiting Otelo in Weitersfelden

The residents of the village of Weitersfelden have launched a local Otelo initiative providing space for a brewery, a cinema, a wood workshop and a radio station. This follows the core idea of Otelo to create ‘open spaces’ for everybody and for all kinds of activities (https://otelo.or.at/standort/muehlviertler-alm/). These open spaces are intended to be free and easily accessible for anyone in the region. This core idea has been repeatedly implemented in each of the Otelo sites.
In this particular example, the space can even be privately owned and connected to a house around a shared courtyard. The owner who lives in the house is a member of Otelo. He or she makes space available to the public without charge.
It was emphasised by some of the actors that at the heart of social innovations is this spirit of generosity and attention to public life.

Visiting the Biohof Thauerböck

An organic farm and farm shop Thauerböck (http://www.thauerboeck.com) is also located along Johannesweg. It produces organic meat and grain and it has made a name for itself for its own award winning whisky and a schnapps distillery. Inhabited by three generations, the farm is a real family enterprise focusing on self-sufficiency and small-scale agriculture with a no-growth philosophy as the most sustainable way to ensuring the future of rural areas.



The RurAction project
and its aims

The EU-funded RurAction project not only analyses the challenges in structurally weak rural regions but focuses on novel solutions addressing these challenges. The project aims at understanding the strategies and measures by means of which socially-innovative approaches have been adopted.

One of the goals of RurAction is to learn how social innovations can be facilitated in the future. The project is particularly interested in how social enterprises have collaborated with other local and regional actors.

RurAction brings together highly acknowledged academic supervisors, award-winning social enterprises and excellent young researchers who conduct intensive research on the subject. It was furthermore accompanied by a team of highly professional photographers in order to support dissemination of the research results.

Researcher’s Notebook: Sunna Kovanen
Experiences in the Alentejo, Portugal

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Experiences of life in the Alentejo region


In my research experience, language is of cardinal importance. In Germany I have had interesting discussions about my observations with the participants in their language. Unfortunately, in Portugal it was not possible. During one of the first field-work days in Alentejo, Portugal, I was helping out in a day care centre. All of a sudden, a teacher asked me to read aloud from a children’s book. I had no idea how to pronounce at least half of the words, let alone discuss the book with the curious audience. I did not feel like a very confident educator but I was honoured by the respect the teacher had shown me.
Working with literature is, after all, a pivotal part of the day care centre´s innovative pedagogy. This holds true to my overall experience in Portugal.

Openness to new ideas

I felt that especially when I was just a short-time visitor struggling with basic understanding, the locals were very supportive and I felt welcomed.
Another teacher told me that hearing a new language, people are torn between curiosity and uncertainty. The older they get, the more often they tend to lean to uncertainty and start to reject what they do not understand.
My experience is proof to the contrary: the practitioners strived for constant openness to new ideas and the participants were willing to connect and tell their stories.
However, this openness is accompanied by equally constant negotiation of the limits of the participants’ capacities, commitment and resources.

Round-the-clock engagement and struggling with limited resources

One example are the frequent village events where local activists talk about their future plans while watching out for their children until late evening or through the weekend. Another example is volunteering on a farm, hand in hand with the employers and owners.
When participating in these activities, I found it inspiring and enjoyable but I also considered myself a privileged researcher with secured income during the project and the right of an outsider to step out when I needed to. At the same time I was wondering if this round-the-clock engagement could be expected from everybody. It became clear that the amount of invisible and often unrewarded work as well as major political and economic obstacles of the capitalist markets exert pressure and may easily push the participants beyond their limits.

Sticking together

However, as long as people stick together, taking one another’s concerns and needs seriously, ready for compromises and showing respect and empathy despite different opinions, small changes can happen. The enterprises I have visited have already achieved quite a lot.



The team of photographers (Michał Sita, Michał Adamski, Paweł Kosicki) was led by Łukasz Rogowski, a visual sociologist. They conducted additional interviews with social entrepreneurs and local residents and took photos and filmed the life and work in the region.

Our “guides” in the regions were selected social entrepreneurs who were partners of the RurAction project and who showed us what they regarded essential for understanding social innovations in structurally weak regions. As for this exhibition, impressions are mainly reported by means of three rural regions in Europe: Baixo Alentejo in Portugal, Phthiotis in Greece and Ballyhoura in Ireland.