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Report presented by Marie-Jose Zondag and Bart van Herck
Among the 204 INTERREG IVC projects, there are nine that focus on rural development. All of these nine projects aim to improve the effectiveness of regional/local rural development policy by exchanging experiences, identifying good practices and, where possible, transferring good practices to other regions. This report aims to capitalise on – that is, draw lessons from - the achievements of these projects by analysing the results that are available at the time of writing in 2013 (three projects were completed in 2012, but results are not yet available for five of the nine projects which started in 2012).
The INTERREG IVC rural development projects focus mostly on:
- the diversification of rural areas through tourism (RURALAND and B2N by exchanging a broad range of rural development initiatives, ICER, CesR, DANTE and e-CREATE by stimulating tourism, Robinwood Plus through forest management);
- using/stimulating ICT as a means to strengthen rural areas (Micropol by developing Smart Work Centres to facilitate employment, GRISI+ uses ICT to facilitate the arrival of and to attract new inhabitants to villages, DANTE and e-CREATE both use ICT to stimulate rural tourism);
- sustainable development and economic development, pursuing all the targets of the Europe 2020 strategy;
- stimulating development instead of tackling barriers.
- All main drivers and barriers of rural development as reported in the latest EU research on growth and employment in rural areas
Table 0 - Nine rural projects contribute to 3 INTERREG IVC thematic sub-objectives
Broadly speaking, all the projects appear to operate on the partner-level, and seek to improve the quality of life and ‘liveability’ of local communities through relatively small-scale interventions (e.g. the eco-lodge Urnatur under B2N). For instance, GRISI+ has managed to attract 50 new families to the region, and the ICER project has resulted in new investments and an increase in tourism in the region. Other projects have generated outputs that directly support their localities, such as the introduction of working groups to supervise 50 forest sites (Robinwood Plus), smart offices and teleworking to maintain local employment opportunities (Micropol) as well as 28 local action plans and 5 pilot actions on different topics (renewable energy, gender mainstreaming, local gastronomy, GPS guided tours) (RURALAND).
It is recommended to firmly ‘embed’ the projects within the region in order to ensure that the impact of their actions endures. Building strategic alliances between the different rural partners will broaden the projects’ scope, help to build capacity within the project and turn the direct short-term effects into a long-lasting, sustainable impact on the regional socio-economic situation.
For instance, the good practice Nattitude within the ICER project has a clear networking approach, aiming to benefit the whole Auvergne territory and which can easily be transferred to other regions. Actions undertaken within the Robinwood Plus project are also encouraged to involve, on a continuous basis, the local tourist, economic and cultural stakeholders linked to the forestry system, with a view to creating a public/private network to meet the demands of the territory. Furthermore, the projects Micropol and GRISI+ are trying to ensure the sustainability of their efforts by establishing themselves as nodes around which regional networks can be developed.
Clearly, projects and measures with a relatively limited scale can often make a direct difference to the local community (directly involving partners), and work as catalysts for wider community development (throughout the region).
What has proven to be more difficult for the projects so far, however, is to ensure an impact across the whole of Europe, which would entail disseminating and enabling the transfer of these good practices to other regions (including those not involved in the partnership) and to exert a direct impact on EU objectives and policy. Obviously, projects in rural areas have to cope with certain structural barriers: the socio-economic structure is spread out spatially, and activities and functions are dispersed. This means that, often, there is no critical mass of human resources, investments, services etc. to generate substantial impacts within single projects. The wide heterogeneity of rural areas is also one of the possible reasons.
A number of more general recommendations can be made concerning rural policy and the INTERREG IVC rural projects:
- ICTs are an essential tool for improving the accessibility of rural areas, and for facilitating the development and maintenance of internal and external networks. ICT applications can certainly help to unlock the potential of rural areas, thereby making them more attractive places to live, work and visit. This is widely understood by the rural community, and being achieved by several projects (DANTE, e-CREATE, GRISI+, Micropol).
- Upgrade and up-scale the efforts undertaken within rural projects, as they mostly have a relatively small scope. To achieve this, a number of recommendations can be made:
a. Rural regions should continuously reinforce local partnerships between public and private regional stakeholders (including NGOs).
b. At the same time, contemporary rural development would benefit from strategic collaboration and mutual relationships with different types of region/territory and stakeholder. By mutually benefiting from each other’s strengths and efforts, stakeholders and regions would be better placed to actively participate in the increasingly integrated dynamics of smart specialisation at the EU-level.
c. More specifically, rural stakeholders should build strategic relationships and networks with relevant knowledge institutions in any shape of form, within or outside of the region (e.g. ENRD, ERRIN). These would provide the necessary complementary competences and skills to further develop their activities, and enhance the effectiveness of these activities for the region.
d. Furthermore, external private stakeholders should be invited to participate both in programming and in separate projects. Projects should be market-oriented and develop strong cooperative public-private stakeholder partnerships. Attracting new external resources and risk sharing (between the public and private stakeholders) are ways to achieve more sustainable results from investment.
- Business diversification should be strongly advocated as a means for businesses to resist the negative trends affecting agriculture and rural areas, to exploit strong inherent resources in new ways, and to adapt economic capacity. Successful rural SMEs are generally small scale, but do tend toward multiple business activities, not limited to a single sector. Such SMEs draw upon distinct regional characteristics, and focus on important niche markets (examples: RURALAND, ICER, & e-Create).
- As all European regions, rural regions should work towards a smart specialisation strategy. However, the governance capacity and entrepreneurial mind-set are currently not sufficient in public sectors to offset the necessary innovation-oriented entrepreneur-driven renewal processes in European rural settings. Therefore, knowledge-based renewal processes should be promoted and better use should be made of learning models, so that people involved in projects and stakeholders can learn from each other. Capacity building, training, technical assistance and coaching of local stakeholders will help to unlock the development potential of rural areas (examples: B2N, Robinwood Plus, and DANTE).
Another recommendation in this respect is to adopt multi-measure approaches, whereby projects do not only focus on their own partners but also actively involve other regions and operate on a European level. By not only focusing on actions and measures for their own regions but by also identifying what is relevant for other regions, there can be a bottom-up input into European policy as to what works and what does not work in rural development. This will however demand projects to adopt a clear focus not only on their own regions/partners but also on the potential for other regions and EU policy level, which is currently not an objective of INTERREG IVC projects.
To facilitate the development of smart specialisation strategy, and to discern the opportunities and needs of these territories, a continuous needs analysis and foresight work is required.
- A final recommendation concerns the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, and particularly the link between the notions of smart and sustainable. The European Commission has assigned specific meaning to these terms, and has even published guidelines on how to connect smart and sustainable growth through smart specialisation. Rural areas offer particular opportunities to link smart and sustainable growth within a general growth strategy. As they depend substantially on natural resources for their economic activity (e.g. agriculture), rural areas integrate sustainability into their development much more than urban regions, and could therefore make a strong contribution, providing smart perspectives on how to achieve this link.