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Lessons from Cornwall and South West Virginia on the Complex Adaptive Region Assemblage

RSA Blog
RSA Blog South West United Kingdom United States Virginia

Whether we call it cohesion, levelling up, lagging regions, or place-based policy; regional inequality has been a long-term persistent problem.


I started to become really interested in how places adapt, and what we would find if we begin from the starting point of adaptation – particularly using the Deleuzian Assemblage and the complex adaptive system.

The assemblage is a deeply interconnected network or clusters of things, ideas, practices, and institutions.  It’s the physical, territorial space which exists both independently, but also as part of a nation state, and is an assembled cluster of human activity situated in a particular environmental context (for example geology, climate, geography, biodiversity). This shapes how any specific community developed over the centuries, and the kinds of means of subsistence – or economies – that emerged in that space.

Fluidity is vital.  The flows of things, information, and ideas enable ‘spaces of possibility’ and evolutionary or transformative potential. Bergson introduces the ‘elan vital’ or the ‘vital force’ which impels and energizes adaption, evolution, and becoming. The complex adaptive regional assemblage invites an analysis of regional policy which examines the ways that things, objects, ideas, people, the environment, and knowledges are connected. Focusing on exploring the spaces of possibility through which the region assemblage can successfully adapt.


Case Studies: Cornwall and Southwest Virginia

In my book, I look at Cornwall in the SW of the UK, and the SWVA in the USA.  Both are rural regions which have experienced massive economic change in recent years.  I interviewed 50 people, both members of the public and policy-makers over an 18 month ethnographic project. There are three interconnected phenomenon which stood out.

Firstly, that people haven’t caught up with the changes in their economies so new jobs are either invisible or feel inaccessible. Secondly, there is a really important talent pool that is under-used because of the difficulties that people have accessing information about their localities. Thirdly, that there are important infrastructural problems that mean that people are not physically able to connect with new opportunities.

The experience of rapid economic change meant that people did not actually know what is emerging in the new economy, and instead were nostalgic for what they felt had been lost.

Both regions had a skilled and available labour force.  In fact, in SWVA Marsha felt that there was a high under employment rate, and in Cornwall, people reported having to upskill to survive in the labour market.

Other problems were infrastructural.  In SWVA this was about telecommunications and severe difficulties getting internet outside of the towns.  In Cornwall, it was about rural transportation and that if people had no access to a car, it could be impossible to get to the job opportunities.

Why do people put up with this?! Because they love their regions.  People in both places had a deep attachment to where they lived – and gained an energy from that.


New Perspectives on Regional Economies

In the outset of the book I set out to explore what imagining the region as a complex adaptive assemblage has to offer our post-pandemic build-back, beginning with participant positionality. The case studies show examples where systems have been put in place in order to improve local economies, but that these systems are unable to work as intended because important connecting spaces have become overlooked.

Decision-makers easily tell a story of forward movement and increasing opportunities.  But this story is often not visible to regular people, who consequently experience struggle, precariarity, and decline. For many, the spaces of possibility do not exist in the assemblage which they themselves are connected to, so they miss out, and lag further behind.

Although the complex adaptive regional assemblages that we have showcased are likely to continue to adapt and develop one way or another, currently many people in these regions are being left out of this adaptation.  As a consequence, existing inequalities become more deeply entrenched which risks building up resentments and frustration. Additionally, we see that in both regions, talent is wasted comprehensively because the infrastructure is not sufficient to operationalise what Bergson calls elan vital or ‘life force’.

At a strategic level, we also see that the connectors and flows required to help people to navigate these changes have yet to be put in place.

This book shows that we need to begin looking at regional economies from different starting points.  We can see where vital connections are, or are not happening.  Consequently, we are much better placed to be able to understand how to apply the lessons from evolutionary economic geography and resilience, in order to be able to help regions to flourish. This is the lesson that we need to learn as we recover from the pandemic.  We need to step outside of strategic, and development assemblages, and really explore and understand the assemblages within which the broader population live.


Joanie Willett (Twitter @JoanieWillett) is a Lecturer in Politics at the University of Exeter, UK. 


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