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