The project advisory group recently reviewed a collection of essays by expert researchers, policymakers and practitioners from around the UK brought together by NESTA – the innovation foundation – into a single report called Rural Innovation.
Although compiled over a decade ago (2007), this examination of ongoing changes in rural areas and the implications for innovation remains relevant today, with important lessons for Carmarthenshire.
For the purposes of this collection of essays, rural innovation is more specifically defined as ‘the introduction of something new (a novel change) to economic or social life in rural areas, which adds new economic or social value to rural life.’
The essays examine how rural areas are becoming less distinct and more aligned with the rest of the economy. Much of rural Britain is close to urban areas, and a decline in traditional industries, such as farming and fishing, alongside in-migration of professional and managerial ex-urbanites, has blurred the distinction between rural and urban economies.
The essays identify three types of rural innovation: firstly, there is rural innovation driven by ‘urban demand’ – such as an increased interest in healthier foods, better food production standards, and the production of renewable energy. Secondly, rural innovation can be driven by ‘rural demand’. This includes improvements in farm productivity, enabled by better equipment and processes, initiated by farmers themselves. The third rural innovation is driven by ‘universal basic needs’, where access to critical public services, be that education, health and social care, or banking and retail, has driven innovation to overcome sparsity.
Broadband is seen as a key driver of innovation – a fact that has been born out in the intervening thirteen years since this paper was published – as is the in-migration of skilled professional and managerial ‘ex-urbanites’. The weak knowledge base identified by the researchers as a barrier to innovation need not apply to Carmarthenshire, which has a university based locally (UWTSD), and close links to nearby Swansea and Aberystwyth universities.
The authors draw some interesting conclusions when identifying the way forward for rural innovation, not least the need to focus efforts on encouraging female entrepreneurs, and even nurturing the entrepreneurial skills and talents of older people. The recommendation to focus on local partnerships and networks is well understood – and long practiced – in the Carmarthenshire context.
The essays provide both food for thought and a rigorous academic lens through which to consider rural innovation, even though not all its conclusions apply to a rural west Wales setting. However, there are some gaps in the analysis: as the research is based largely on English rural areas, the paper fails to consider the impact that language and cultural heritage can have on innovation, factors which we can say with pride have had a positive impact on Carmarthenshire’s economic development over the last decade.
To view the full feasibility assessment and accompanying reports see below: