Helping social entrepreneurs improve rural life
Challenges facing rural regions include few higher educational opportunities and lack of public transport, healthcare and shops. An EU-funded project combines research and training to help entrepreneurs improve life in such areas so as to encourage young people to stay and persuade those who have left to return.
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Lack of services in rural regions leads well qualified young people to move to cities. In such a situation, social enterprises which combine a social mission with an entrepreneurial spirit have a vital role to play in driving change.
However, knowledge gaps exist regarding the effectiveness of such enterprises in fostering innovation and solving problems in the countryside. Moreover, there is little training and support to help them fulfil their potential.
The EU-funded RurInno project brought together research institutes and rural social enterprises from Ireland, Greece, Austria, Germany and Poland to investigate whether and under what conditions such enterprises facilitate change.
Based on field research findings, RurInno launched training for entrepreneurs from the four countries. This allowed them to learn from each other and improve their ability to encourage innovation.
During training, entrepreneurs shared methods for empowering people in rural communities. It became apparent that involving communities in innovation is crucial for fostering change, explains Ralph Richter of Germanys Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space, the projects coordinating institution.
Sharing sparks inspiration
RurInno benefits entrepreneurs and academics alike.
Social entrepreneurs learn about new participation methods and get inspiration for new products and services to meet needs in rural regions, for example getting long-term unemployed and disabled people back into work, Richter says. Social enterprises understand their solutions as open source. Rather than exploiting them for their own benefit, they strive to inspire imitators to gain the bigger benefit of a new solution for society.
The training draws on achievements of the enterprises in the consortium. NIDA from Poland established a museum village, which is both a tourist attraction and a means of helping people with few prospects find employment. This has made it a model for other themed villages across the country.
OTELO from Austria tackles the lack of well-qualified people in rural areas by setting up technology labs in villages and small towns. By providing spaces for meeting and honing skills, they attract creative people. OTELO has helped establish 24 such labs in Austria, Germany, Spain and Italy.
For Richter, by bringing remote regions together via this kind of network, social enterprises provide ideas and resources that would otherwise not be available. They also find innovative solutions by adjusting ideas identified in one place to other local needs.
As for academics, RurInnos combination of research and practice has led those involved to spend long periods with rural social enterprises, sensitising them to rural needs. The training then gives them the chance to use this knowledge to enhance entrepreneurs skills. This can cover things such as overcoming time and financial constraints to develop enterprises, or exchanging knowledge with entrepreneurs in similar businesses.
Communication is key
Communication is a key part of the project, which received funding through the EUs Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions programme. A tool called Tell the Benefit aims to motivate others to follow suit and draws policymakers attention to achievements of rural social enterprises so as to ensure the widest possible impact.
We expect to get indirect effects through publication of our insights and results in a policy brief and a practice toolkit, says Richter. Raising awareness among politicians can improve conditions for rural social entrepreneurship, such as by getting it legal status which recognises its benefits.