On the 21st and 22nd of September 2020, the RurAction Final Conference took place. Almost four years after the official start of RurAction, it was time to share the research findings of the network with a wider audience. This was done through a conference in which presentations from the early-stage researchers in the RurAction project where complemented with keynote lectures and presentations from academics from outside the network. Travel restrictions in relation to the Corona-pandemic prohibited a physical meeting in Germany but the ‘virtual venue’ did not prohibit an inspiring exchange of research and thought-provoking discussion.
The final conference also marked the premiere of a documentary film on socially innovative solutions in rural areas that are supported by three social enterprise partners of the RurAction Project: ADC Moura (from the Baixo Alentejo region in Portugal), Stevia Hellas (from the Phthiotis region in Greece) and Ballyhoura Development (from the Mid-West in Ireland). The documentary illustrates how the social enterprises promote networking between different stakeholders, how innovative solutions are anchored in local traditions and how local communities are supported in developing solutions for their needs. It provided an illustrative prologue for the academic research discussed in the remainder of the conference.
The premiere of the documentary film was followed by a keynote lecture provided by Prof. Mark Shucksmith (Newcastle University, UK), who elaborated on social exclusion in diversified rural contexts. In his keynote lecture, Prof. Shucksmith drew the attention of the audience to the importance of understanding the localised and multi-scalar context in which the dynamic, multi-dimensional, relational processes of social exclusion take place. He brought to the fore that in order to fully grasp social exclusion, one needs to consider a myriad of processes by which resources are distributed within our societies. Prof. Shucksmith introduced the audience to a framework including the different dimensions of markets, the state, voluntary and community organisations and communal relations (neighbours, family, friends), stressing that each of these dimensions will operate differently in different places and that the ability of group and individuals to engage with them also varies. His lecture showed the importance of understanding the rural context from a diversified perspective.
This notion was also reflected in the first presentation session of the conference, titled “Challenges and dynamics of structurally weak rural regions”. This session focused on among others the cultural, economic and institutional framework conditions of rural regions. During this sessions, Ariane Sept (Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space, Germany) showed us a timely insight into changing perceptions in the media around rural areas in the light of the current Corona pandemic. Furthermore, Andreas Klärner (Thünen Institute Braunschweig, Germany) provided the audience with insights into social disadvantage in rural peripheries in Eastern Germany and the Czech Republic. During this session, three RurAction early-stage researchers, Barraí Hennebry, Georgios Chatzichristos and Sune W. Stoustrup, also presented their findings from research conducted through the RurAction project. They highlighted the possibilities of breaking through circles of decline in rural areas by fostering social innovation that contributes to institutionalising novelty and the anchoring of alternative planning agenda. They identified social entrepreneurs as actors that leverage resources in order to change existing institutional structures. The importance of positive, empowering discourses in supporting regional development was also emphasized.
The second session was titled ‘On a mission for the region. Social enterprises at work.’ In this session, the activities of rural social enterprises were the focal point of attention. Artur Steiner (Glasgow Caledonian University, UK) provided evidence from rural Scotland in his presentation titled ‘The role of social enterprise in addressing social isolation’. Furthermore, Darina Zaimova (Trakia University, Stara Zagora, Bulgaria) provided the audience with insights into the Bulgarian context of social enterprises during her presentation titled ‘From theory to practice – why social entrepreneurship matters?’. The session was concluded by a presentation from three RurAction early-stage researchers, Mara van Twuijver, Sunna Kovanen and Lucas Olmedo. They showed that rural social enterprises are able to engage with different elements of their rural ‘places’ as well as networks and resources from multiple scales. Their work also showed that this provides the backbone of the enterprises’ social and material sustainability. Yet, the empirical material presented also highlighted the increasing risk of instability and tension caused by this hybrid nature. It emphasized the need for a patient learning process in order to create synergies from the plurality of socio-economic relations utilized by rural social enterprises. These synergies can aid the transformative power of rural social enterprises.
The second day of the conference started with the second keynote lecture, provided by Brian Dabson (research fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA). Mr. Dabson was so generous to sacrifice a good night of sleep to join the conference audience at a for him nightly hour from his home office in the USA. His keynote lecture focused on “Regional solutions for rural and urban challenges in the United States”. During the keynote, it was stressed that in order to understand rural areas, one has to understand their relationship with the urban as well. Hence, to build effective regional collaborations, the nature of rural and urban connections in a region should be taken into account. Furthermore, power disparities relating to different policy contexts and collaboration across different degrees of formality where themes stressed in showing how building and sustaining effective regionally focused institutions is an important part of effective regional collaboration.
The third, and final, session of the conference was titled “The creation, diffusion and impact of social innovations in rural regions”. This session focused on questions of emergence, spread and impact of socially innovative initiatives. Jennifer Eschweiler (Roskilde University, Denmark) provided a presentation titled “Context and reciprocity. A conceptual framework for the analysis of processes and outcomes of social enterprise”, in which she highlighted the importance of distinguishing different types of reciprocal relations related to social enterprises. Luis Portales (University of Monterrey, Mexico) provided the audience with insights into the process of impact formulation and theory of change in his presentation on “Social impact in social innovations”. The sessions was concluded by three RurAction early-stage researchers, Anna Umantseva, Jamie-Scott Baxter and Marina Novikova, who presented their combined work under the title “The emergence, spread and impact of social innovations in rural development practices”. Their presentation visualised the different pathways through which rural based socially innovative initiatives spread, based on a typology including three dimensions: emergence, spread and impact. The typology made visible how impact is understood differently according to the types and spatial scale of innovation.
The conference was drawn to a conclusion by reflection from Lars Hulgård (Roskilde University, Denmark) and Nikolaos Nagopoulos (The University of the Aegean, Mytilene, Greece), both member of the RurAction consortium.
A generous thanks should go to Gabriela Christmann (Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space, Germany) for the wonderful organisation of the conference and the interesting set of speakers she has brought together. We would also like to thank all the conference speakers and participants for their contribution to the inspiring exchange of experience and ideas. Over the past four years, the RurAction network has grown into a fruitful collaboration between practitioners and researchers, stimulating mutual understanding and learning in an open and enjoyable atmosphere. The conference provided a platform to show the work conducted through the collaborative relationships build up during this time. It also illustrated many avenues for future collaboration, not only between members of the RurAction network, but between all those present at the conference. Even though the official RurAction consortium will soon come to a close, the spirit of the experience gained through the project will certainly find its way into both sustained and new collaborative relationships and future research initiatives. Rural areas, with the right support, provide fruitful areas for collaboration and for innovative initiatives, something the RurAction consortium wholeheartedly endorses.
Mara van Twuijver