Mon 13 May

Live Case 2: Can A Living Lab Go On A Road Trip?

Over the past month, the Mid Wales team at Aberystwyth University have clocked up many miles across the countryside. We’ve been doing more than sight-seeing. Our mission has been to explore the challenges that different parts of rural Wales currently face, and to learn about the practical initiatives and innovations that hold promise for the future.

We’ve taken our envisioning process out of the office and onto the road because we need to understand what’s happening across the region in order to imagine what rural-urban synergies in Wales could look like.

From our journeys so far, we’ve identified three main areas where ROBUST’s conceptual approach is particularly relevant:

  • There is no single region called ‘rural Wales’. Different places experience rurality in different ways. However, rural areas often understand the opportunities they have for growth in relation to their physical proximity to cities. How can we use rural-urban connections to foster inclusive growth in localities without a city on their doorstep?
     
  • Although rural regions in Wales are very diverse, they also share many common challenges. But these challenges won’t be tackled by urban-led policy, which often sees rurality as exclusively about the environment or agriculture. Governance arrangements don’t always help – boundaries can stifle cooperation, yet cooperation brings challenges of its own. What kinds of network governance are needed? How can we use these to strengthen rural participation and inclusion?
     
  • Innovative strategies are needed for rural growth. Rural places in Wales can boast beautiful landscapes, but places need more than scenery to keep them liveable. For rural places to thrive – and the Welsh language with them – future generations need opportunities, not just retirement options. How can smart development strategies help us create thriving rural futures?

We get some rural-urban advice via a thought experiment run by Public Health Wales. (Photo by Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins)

Envisioning hits the road

The Welsh Local Government Association’s (WLGA) Rural Forum represents the nine – out of 22 – local authorities (counties or municipalities) in Wales that are predominantly rural. These authorities cover all of Mid Wales, and include some of our northern and southern neighbours.

Rather than draw a strict line around Mid Wales, our Living Lab is working with all the Rural Forum members, using research to inform and enhance their shared agenda. But, reaching a shared agenda starts with separate conversations.

The nine rural authorities are geographically diverse: from Monmouthshire, in the commuting corridor between the Welsh capital of Cardiff and Bristol over the English border, to ‘deep rural’ Gwynedd, which is largely in a national park.

The ROBUST envisioning process provided an opportunity to explore what makes these different rural regions unique, while honing in on what they have in common. To do that, two Aberystwyth University researchers hit the road.

We visited most of the local authorities on their own patch. As well as building academic-practitioner relationships face-to-face, we were able to see some promising initiatives in situ – like the ‘incredible edible’ garden that hosts a pollination project (Mid Wales is part of ROBUST’s sustainable food systems community of practice) or the potential site of a new harbour development (we also participate in the public infrastructures and social services community of practice).

During our visits, we met with senior representatives from each local authority, both elected officials and practitioners with expertise in rural development, economy, regeneration, planning and transport. Talking together around a table proved an opportunity for honesty, aspiration, and debate. Animated conversation flowed, and we were surprised by how rarely we needed to refer back to our pre-prepared questions! All the talks covered topics including:

  • What matters for fostering local culture and liveable community?
  • What kinds of infrastructures are needed for future growth?
  • What part can local food play in sustainable growth?
  • What could an inclusive future look like?

The famous Welsh Cakes – fuel for good conversations. (Photo by Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins)

Shared challenges in distinctive places

Our discussions regularly returned to the challenges that rural areas experience or perceive. The three ROBUST communities of practice that our Living Lab participates in help us to focus on some of the similarities that different parts of rural Wales share:

Cultural connections

In Welsh Government policy, ‘rural’ is largely equated with environmental or agricultural issues. These really matter – but their predominance suggests that policy is being led by an urban perspective, which overlooks cultural and community life in rural places. Indeed, supporting the ‘liveability’ of rural places, including through thriving culture, is a long-term challenge. The challenge is all the more acute since the Welsh language is an integral part of community life in many rural areas.

Public infrastructures and social services

Rural areas in Wales are often under-served by infrastructures. Increasingly, concerns are shifting from inadequate roads to poor digital connectivity and ‘not-spots’. Both provide vital rural-urban linkages, including access to markets and opportunities for business innovation. Yet, infrastructures are often associated with market failure, with blunt economics meaning that rural areas continue to miss out on the investment they need. Amidst neglected infrastructures and market failures, facilitating connectivity remains a challenge.

Sustainable food systems

Food is an issue of growing concern. There is an increased engagement with sustainability and food chains at a local level. Brexit also looms large, with the likelihood of reduced agricultural payments and potential disruptions to export markets. Rural areas do not only grow food, but are often sites for research and development facilities, and processing and packaging plants. These can be important local employers – but with risks ahead, the challenge is to support their development.

Aberystwyth is the largest town in Mid Wales – but not all of the region is coastal. (Photo by Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins)

Envisioning rural-urban revitalisation

ROBUST aims to connect rural and urban, for mutual growth and benefit, towards a shared and sustainable future. Mutual benefit – allowing both rural and urban to grow – is crucial here. Creating mutual benefit requires innovative approaches and policy support. But, it’s clear from the conversations we’ve had since taking the Living Lab on the road that rural Wales isn’t an equal part of the policy equation.

When both dominant growth models and government mindsets are urban-oriented, rural areas are left lagging. For many parts of rural Wales, the challenges are compounded by long distances from the centres of economic development. While there are plenty of arguments to be made for better funding for rural areas – especially due to continued cuts to council budgets and the impending loss of EU regional investment – redistributing finance is not in itself a recipe for rural-urban relations, either.

We need innovative strategies to support and sustain inclusive growth. Although we’ve talked about plenty of problems in our road-trip around rural Wales, we’ve also learned a lot about positive opportunities, including:

  • The potential for new forms of cooperation to bring stakeholders and resources together across administrative boundaries.
  • An increased willingness among rural stakeholders to take on the risks that new ideas bring and to be open to failure as part of the innovation process.
  • The role local authorities can play in innovatively responding to market failures.
  • The possibilities that digital infrastructures and smart development offer for overcoming the distance between rural places and urban markets, and for generating new employment opportunities.
  • Envisioning is not about reaching final conclusions. Instead, we’ll be unpacking these possibilities in the coming months as the Mid Wales Living Lab returns from our road-trip, and starts experimenting.

Related Communities of Practice

Wed 16 Jan

Live Case 1: Going "Off Script" in Mid Wales

How can we grow positive rural-urban connections at a distance from the city? We are trying to answer this question through our Living Lab in Mid Wales. As a region which doesn’t have a dominant urban centre, models of city-led growth are not always the answer in this part of the UK. These models also leave us stuck with the assumption – historically put forward by academics and policymakers alike – that predominantly rural regions like Mid Wales will always be left behind, or at least disadvantaged in some way. It’s easy to put Mid Wales in a box marked ‘rural development’, and to seek funding on the basis of being a ‘problem area’, but it is a lot harder to imagine more positive alternative futures.

Experiment

In the meetings and consultations we’ve attended in Mid Wales, we have often heard the same issues come up: young people are leaving, shops are closing and other services are being lost, and the roads are bad. These are real problems and they cannot be simply overlooked.  However, they’re a bit like a script that people repeat when they hear the word ‘rural’. And, the more people repeat these same scripts, the less they tend to think about the complex causes underneath and about the differences between places. What’s more, repeating these truisms means that the issues that don’t fit get left out of the conversation. So, our first experiment in the Mid Wales Living Lab is simple: what would happen if we worked without the usual rural script?

Opportunities

In the coming months, we’ll be working through the Welsh Local Government Association’s Rural Forum to talk to local authority stakeholders about their localities. We’ll be asking what needs to change and what can grow – but we won’t be asking stakeholders to think "rurally". We want them to surprise us! These talks will help us build a new picture of Mid Wales: one that might still have bad rural roads, but also one that has local food networks, book-a-bus services, and innovations over the radio waves. Rethinking the rural script in this way isn’t about a new definition of the rural, or the kind of academic rethinking that ends up in articles nobody reads. The Mid Wales Living Lab gives us real opportunities to understand our region in new ways, and to turn that knowledge into practical action.

Challenges

Admittedly, the UK will face many challenges in the coming year. Whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, there will be implications that domestic legislation, policy and funding will need to address. It will be critical that the needs and aspirations of rural communities are front and centre in the design of new funding approaches that replace what we’ve traditionally known as EU funding. It’s certainly a challenge to try to tell new stories about Mid Wales when we don’t know what the economic future holds in three months, let alone three years. Let’s remember, though, that politics in Brussels, London, or Cardiff is also a rural-urban connection … what matters for Mid Wales is that the traffic isn’t one way.

Related Communities of Practice

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News about Rural-Urban Europe and the ROBUST project is published regularly in the INFORMED CITIES newsletter.

ROBUST is a European research project involving 24 partners from 11 countries. ROBUST receives funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 727988.

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