Research by the European Spatial Planning Observation Network (ESPON) has explored some of the dimensions of change in peripheral rural regions. Population ageing is a long-term process. It affects Europe as a whole, but is especially a problem in rural areas. The drift of younger people to the larger urban regions strips the life out of a rural community. The risk is that the aging population becomes less and less able to sustain essential services, and that farms and other businesses close as they struggle to find successors when their owners reach retirement age. The risk of a downward spiral is compounded by the tendency of older people to resist, rather than embrace, innovation. Yet innovation is needed - from businesses and from local and regional governments, to mitigate these powerful trends towards regional decline. The problems are broadly similar across all of the Baltic region, but one consequence of EU membership has been particularly high levels of international migration from Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Within these countries, the capital city regions have experienced strong growth, but the rural areas have seen key workers drain away.
I have worked on a number of INTERREG and INTERACT projects in recent years. It is evident that many of them find that it is very hard to develop a shared understanding of aims and concepts, especially in the early stages. Some projects move slowly, as partners who thought they had a common set of concerns become bemused by differences in national and institutional outlooks and practices. The more abstract the concepts, the greater the risk that the project will have such difficulties. Similarly, the worlds of academics and practising governmental officers are very different. Academics tend to be rigorous but obstinate as they pursue their own version of scientific “truth”; practitioners are more pragmatic and better at finding compromise solutions, though such solutions may mask misunderstandings and important differences. IC was remarkably successful in steering a course between these potential hazards. This owed a lot to the project management and also to the experience that many partners had of working together on the PIPE INTERREG project. It is also greatly to everyone’s credit that new partners brought a positive frame of mind and were quickly accepted. The result was a rare balance with all partners, new or old, large or small, Scandinavian or more recent EU members, making a positive a contribution.
My own work in the IC was tied to the Innovation Academy. I was co-author and editor of four of the work packs and facilitator at the first three workshops. Explaining theories of innovation to an audience whose first language is not English, and who came from different countries and backgrounds was not easy. However, the commitment of the readers and participants in the workshops made it a rewarding experience. The workshops were the highlights for me. We began in Cesis at the end of the summer of 2005, with some anxiety. Would it work? Could we manage to create a sense of excitement that would fire enthusiasm amongst participants faced with a demanding work schedule? Thanks in particular to the then local organiser, Inese Suija, the event went better than we had dared to imagine. Inese proved an excellent organiser and workshop leader. She repeated this role in the second IA workshop three months later. She then moved on to further her career elsewhere. IC had been fortunate to have the benefit of her talents. The Robertsfors workshop was memorable. The deep winter snow, the short daylight hours, the twinkling lights at the windows of the cottages, the sheer sense of the magic of the northern winter is something to treasure. However, I also remember that I lost my voice here, and by the end of the first performance of the Governance Rap, I was really struggling to speak, let alone to rap! Nevertheless, the strong experience of European work and of sustainable development in Robertsfors gave the workshop a strong foundation. Angéla Ekman-Nätt played an invaluable role in making everything work well. Suwalki in the spring of 2006 was another great experience. My role this time was to lead a group working on the town’s identity. We had only 2 days to do the kind of work that could take a consultant 2 months. This was daunting enough, but, this being IC, the challenge was then to present our findings in an innovative way. A hastily assembled script was performed by a cast, every one of whom turned in a star performance. Swedes and Poles re-enacted ancient battles, Alfred Wierusz Kowalski the town’s most famous artist painted an instant masterpiece, the cavalry galloped, trains and lorries careered across the stage, fish from the nearby lakes swam by, young stars showed how empty buildings might become dance clubs. Learning and teaching is easier if you are having fun. The Innovation Academy was fun. There was a definite buzz at every workshop. Some activities worked better than others. Experimentation is about failures as well as successes. The important thing is to try out new approaches and to learn. I was pleased to include the IC as a case study in the book Making Planning Work: A guide to approaches and skills which I wrote with others as a UK input to the World Urban Forum in Vancouver in 2006. What has been done in IC is well worth sharing with a global audience. In a rapidly urbanising world, IC shows the potential for mobilising talented people to think creatively about the challenges facing small towns and rural areas that are distant from a major metropolis.
The literature on innovation stresses the importance of trust, tacit knowledge and iterative processes in which knowledge is exchanged and re-worked between diverse actors such as researchers, designers, marketing people, customers, production workers and so on. IC has built mutual understanding and trust amongst people from different countries in the Baltic Sea Region who also come from quite diverse professional and political backgrounds. This is a significant asset. The seeds have been sown for continuing co-operation. The hope must now be that a culture of innovation becomes embedded in the partner authorities. The evaluation studies show that members of those partners who have been active participants in IC have gained significantly from the project in terms of understanding and confidence. However, these activists now need to become agents for change within their own organisation. They need to spread the message to colleagues with whom they work. Perhaps some materials from the IA can be translated to make this sharing easier. Could local workshops be run to “de-brief” about the lessons from IC and to explore how they might be developed locally? Hopefully IC can continue after the project has ended. Certainly innovative actions by local authorities in the rural regions around the Baltic Sea will still be needed. Nowhere stands still.