Social innovation as a driver for rural innovation – highlights from the OECD conference

The 11th OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Rural Development Conference was held in Edinburgh on 9-12 April 2018. Prior to the main conference, a series of interactive sessions, led by the European Network for Rural Development, showcased projects and approaches already launched by rural communities to face 21st century challenges and opportunities.

Although the conference did not focus on social innovation, but rather on technological innovation and entrepreneurship, the concept was central to explaining community-led rural innovation emerged and how deficient rural policies can sometimes be locally supplemented by rural stakeholders. Indeed, it was surprising in how many sessions social innovation was referred to and the conference also showcased EU or national policy initiatives supporting and enhancing social innovation in rural areas such as the Smart Villages initiatives, the Inner Areas Strategy in Italy, or the network of Broadband Competence Offices.

One prominently used example of social innovation was the Isle of Eigg community. Eigg had a population of more than 500 during the early 1800s but, like other island communities, it steadily fell as landowners increasingly turned over crofts for sheep farming. However, this Scottish community is celebrating this year after the population surpassed 100 for the first time in at least half a century. Indeed, in 1997, the islanders took it upon themselves to develop their community and bought out their island for 1.5 million pounds, after creditors put Eigg up for auction, when their last laird[1] fell into bankruptcy. The Isle of Eigg is the first community-owned estate in Scotland’s history. The island since then has developed a renewable energy grid for the island, a microbrewery, a music label and festival, and various other ventures including tourism activities. For instance, Eigg Electric is a community owned, managed and maintained company which provides electricity for all island residents from the renewable sources of water, sun, and wind.  Since Eigg’s purchase by the community, many other Scottish estates have passed into community ownership Since 2003 legislation has supported this trend which has enabled 70% of the land area on the Western Isles Council area to pass into community ownership and many other estates to be transferred to their communities.

  👉Read the long story here: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/sep/26/this-island-is-not-for-sale-how-eigg-fought-back (The Guardian, 26 September 2017)

bill_oecdBill Slee, a SIMRA partner, moderated a session on ‘Social Innovation and Community-Led Initiatives’ which give him the opportunity to introduce the SIMRA definition of social innovation.

  👉Read Bill’s introductory context paper here

Speakers at this session included Hanna Leena Pesonen, a Finnish LAG leader whose LAG covers twice the size of Belgium; Phil Barnes from a Canadian fisheries cooperative off the Eastern Canadian shores staring right at the Iceberg Highway; Alessandra de Renzis from the Tuscany regional government to explain how the Inner Areas Strategy is implemented in her region, and finally Jane Atterton, a researcher from Scotland’s Rural College. Although the backgrounds and professional horizons of all speakers were very different, they all mentioned how community empowerment through an enabling policy framework is crucial to support social innovation and not subvert it administratively even further when the lack of confidence, critical mass or skills match can already make social innovation in the community a major challenge.

While  many discussions during the conference circled back to the need for more flexible policies, a place-based approach and more partnerships among public, private, not-for-profit and education organisations, the Edinburgh policy statement issued at the end of the conference included a call for the promotion of “societal approaches based on social innovation with a proactive role for local communities contributing to climate change adaption and mitigation while ensuring sustainability in rural areas”, in order to build robust policies.

Now that the deluge of information and good practices which tumbled down on the participants of the OECD conference are being processed, some new questions rise up again for SIMRA partners to chew on: are we certain we all have a common definition of what social innovation is, or even broad agreement?  To what extent does the ability of civil society agency to make a positive impact through social innovation depend on the institutional architecture and the regulatory and governance structures? What are the contributory factors to wellbeing as a performance metric? How can we overcome the fact there is not a level playing field geographically of human and social capital skills to initiate social innovation? How can we take into account the complexities and realities of a highly variegated map of socio-economic performance and recognise the extent of market and public-sector retreat from deeply rural and remote areas, when the emphasis of bodies like the OECD is so much on productivity enhancement and export-led growth?


[1] A laird is the owner of a large, long-established Scottish estate. In the Scottish order of precedence, a laird ranks below a baron and above a gentleman.


Bill Slee (The Rural Development Company Limited)
Bill Slee (The Rural Development Company Limited)
Lauren Mosdale (Euromontana)
Lauren Mosdale (Euromontana)

Smart Villages: For a Smarter Future of Rural areas

On 13th April 2018 in Bled, Slovenia, a joint conference between the European Commission and the European Parliament was organised on “European Action for Smart Villages: for a brighter future of rural areas in the EU” (for more information and to see the streaming of the plenary session, click here).

This high-level conference shows an appetite for Smart Villages to be developed in the future programming period and the wish to put the concept into practice, as shown in Slovenia. If an EU project is currently developing a proper definition for Smart Villages (our blog post here), several high-level speakers shared their views about this concept and how to develop it in the coming months.

EU Commissioner for Transport, Violeta Bulc, supports the idea of smart villages and considers that connections are important: they can be physical or digital, but they should help to connect people. She encouraged the concept of Smart Villages to be developed in a systematic way, integrating the mobility aspects.

For EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Phil Hogan, Smart Villages are about people. This new concept is an invitation to create new alliances and new cooperations and to use digital solutions for developing smart eco-social villages with improved living conditions. Digital solutions and high-speed broadband are some tools to catch up with the current connectivity gap between urban and rural areas. They should be used for precision farming, but also to develop new local markets, e-health solutions or local energy production. In the new CAP legislative proposals that will be presented on the 1st June 2018, the Smart Villages will be a priority for the future rural development.

Smartening villages mean ensuring appropriate connectivity in rural areas, for EU Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Mariya Gabriel. Several actions are developed to encourage the broadband roll-out, including the recent launch of the Broadband Competence Offices all over Europe or the broadband platform developed with the Committee of the Regions. The Wifi4Eu initiative also helps supporting free wifi access in towns and villages. She thus encouraged rural areas to seize these opportunities.

MEP Franc Bogovic and Tibor Szanyi have prepared a “Bled Declaration for a Smarter Future of Rural areas in Europe” which was signed by the Slovenian Prime Minister during this conference. In this declaration, they recognised the importance of digital technologies and social innovation. They encouraged to introduce different initiatives such as precision farming, digital platforms for e-health, shared economy, renewable energy solution or rural tourism to facilitate a value-added transition for rural employment opportunities.

During a workshop on smart farming, it was detailed that new technologies varies between big and small farms and also cannot be applied in the same way. Specially for small farms collective use of the digital packages has to be available through cooperatives or advisory services and the corresponding education for farmers has to be introduced.

SIMRA and Euromontana stand during the Bled Conference.
SIMRA and Euromontana stand during the Bled Conference.

For Dejan Židan, Slovenian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food, maintaining agriculture in areas with natural constraints, especially mountain areas, should be maintained. Thus, he explicitly asked for new digital technologies to answer to mountain farming’s specific needs.

This enthusiasm for Smart Villages is hopefully just the beginning. Even if the concept is not really new, the political attention to better take into account rural development and to try to develop digital technologies as enablers for more socio-economic development of the countryside is worth mentioning. The discussion on this Smart Villages concept will continue during the ENRD seminar on Smart Villages on 22nd May.


Marie Clotteau (Euromontana)
Marie Clotteau (Euromontana)

Smart Villages: Participate in the consultation on the definition and share your good practices

The concept of “Smart Villages” is gaining more and more attention at EU level and is likely to play a role in future policy. In light of this, a Pilot Project has been launched on smart eco-social villages or “Smart Villages” in short. The aim of the Pilot Project is to explore strategies to become a “Smart Village” and refine a definition to clarify what a “Smart Village” is or can be.

Within the EU Action for Smart Villages published by the European Commission together with the European Parliament, “Smart Villages” have been described as “rural areas and communities which build on their existing strengths and assets as well as on developing new opportunities”, where “traditional and new networks and services are enhanced by means of digital, telecommunication technologies, innovations and the better use of knowledge”.

If you wish to participate in the shaping of the Smart Villages definition, now is the right time. You just need to fill in this form before 27th April.

In addition, if you wish to share good practices on social and digital innovation in rural areas on topics such as health, quality of life, connectivity, education and culture, energy, environment, mobility, you can share them by filling in this form.

For more information, do not hesitate to contact the coordinator of this project at Smart.Villages@ecorys.com


SIMRA’s newsletter just published!

SIMRA’s newsletter has just been published. The partnership has been busy over the past few months working hard on a policy brief for DG Agri, training the case study teams and publishing collections of examples of social innovation. So, stay tuned to learn more about interesting social innovation initiatives all over Europe and the Mediterranean area! You can read the newsletter here (also available in French and Spanish).

SIMRA (Social Innovation in Marginalised Rural Areas) is a four-year project (2016-2020) funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme. It aims to advance understanding of social innovation and innovative governance in agriculture, forestry and rural development, and how it can be boosted, in marginalised rural areas across Europe and around the Mediterranean, including non-EU countries.

What other opportunities are there to get involved in SIMRA?