From tech clusters to the creative class, innovation is often associated with urban agglomeration. Rural innovation receives less attention. Sometimes, stereotypes and nostalgia locate rural places in the past and forget that rural people need futures. Sometimes, policies situate cities as ‘engines’ of growth and simply assume rural places will be pulled along … eventually.
Rural regions and innovation
Uneven geographies of innovation – and innovation policy – pose problems for regional growth, resilience and cohesion. These geographies leave some places dependent on the economic performance of certain centres or sectors, and neglect other opportunities and ideas that tend to be self-reproducing, with much the same winners every time. How can the benefits of innovation be decentralised?
Clearly, regions are innovative and enterprising beyond urban centres. In England, rural economies contribute over £250bn to GDP and match the value of output from the country’s ten leading cities outside London. But national and regional economic ambitions still all too often reduce rural contributions to, at best, a few generic lines about food and tourism. How can new strategies harness rural potential?
Lately, COVID-19 has prompted a new trend in city-dwellers moving to the countryside. This could bring new skills, ideas and entrepreneurial energy to rural areas. But so-called ‘Zoom towns’ also risk becoming digital dormitories, with city headquarters scooping the most profits. How can rural areas capture more of the value from innovation?
NICRE launched amid global pandemic
I’m part of a team tackling the questions above through the National Innovation Centre for Rural Enterprise (NICRE). NICRE launched in the UK in September 2020, with a mission to foster rural enterprise and unlock the potential in our rural economies. We do so by:
- Undertaking and commissioning new research to fill gaps in current knowledge about rural enterprise and innovation;
- Developing practical solutions with businesses, rural communities and national and regional economic development agencies;
- Providing evidence to inform better policy and support for rural innovation.
Funded by Research England, NICRE brings together academic expertise from Newcastle University, the Enterprise Research Centre at Warwick Business School, and the Countryside and Community Research Institute at the University of Gloucestershire and Royal Agricultural University. We are joined by national business partners Strutt & Parker and Azets, and regional innovation associates.
We never envisaged setting up NICRE during a global pandemic, but starting in challenging times has spurred us on.
In our first months, we have:
- Published a briefing paper on the contribution of rural innovation to ‘levelling up’ regions across the UK.
- Worked with local partners to co-design a range of practical, place-based projects, from innovation in public sector procurement to rural design sprints and a planned digital business resilience toolkit.
- Funded seven new research projects on our cross-cutting themes: productive rural, smart rural, engaged rural and resilient rural.
- Launched a rural business survey, and will be speaking to over 4,000 firms in the North East, South West and Midlands.
Join the conversation and learn more about NICRE
We’re also keen to engage with colleagues from Europe and further afield. In April, I was pleased to represent NICRE at the launch of REInA, the new Rural European Innovation Area. REInA’s manifesto is an important call to action for strong rural innovation ecosystems, and I joined fellow expert panellists to discuss how innovative services can contribute to territorial well-being.
In June, I’ll be convening a NICRE-themed special session, “Rethinking innovation for resilience and recovery beyond the metropole” (SS10), at the RSA’s Regions In Recovery Global E-Festival. The session’s five speakers will cover topics including access to business finance, territorial innovation models, blue-green growth, and rural-urban connections. Registrations are open and the session is free to attend – do join us!
Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins is Senior Research Fellow at the Countryside and Community Research Institute. An interdisciplinary researcher working towards inclusive futures for rural regions, she is operational lead for the National Innovation Centre for Rural Enterprise (NICRE) in South West England, and has contributed to the Horizon 2020 projects IMAJINE and ROBUST.
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