Rural Innovation — Communities As Engines Of Change

by Rupert Downing, June 1, 2018


This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Highland and Islands Enterprise (HIE) in Scotland, one of the most impactful examples of community partnerships for change in rural areas anywhere.  It was fitting that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) chose to hold its 8th international conference on rural development, Enhancing Rural Innovation, in Edinburgh in April, 2018.

And what a conference it was.  Rural innovation that is place-based, generating new sectors and opportunities, creatively associating urban rural value chains, and transforming public policy for sustainable development is happening everywhere. The Edinburgh conference provided an opportunity to learn from one another. Crucial takeaways included a recognition that economic policy based on sectors has failed – place-based development is the new mantra, with social, economic, and environmental well-being as the key objectives.

But perhaps the key message emerging from the global discussion I participated in, was to strengthen networks like the BC Rural Centre for driving rural innovation, using successful examples like Highlands and Islands as models.  Government often needs to be pulled along kicking and screaming, but don’t wait for that to happen.  Do it, together.

The conference produced some outstanding resources, ranging from the excellent Edinburgh Policy Statement on Enhancing Rural Innovation to a range of presentations that provide great examples of rural innovation initiatives.  The EU Network for Rural Development is also a valuable source of useful information.

While in Scotland, I learned about a dynamic range of innovative rural enterprises, from harvesting wild yeast, to bio-energy social enterprise networks, to community enterprise drones for farm and forest management.  In many countries “Rural Parliaments” are being used to create non-partisan, citizen-led voices for rural communities.

The experience of HIE should be of particular interest to rural stakeholders in British Columbia. They are co-producing rural policy with the Government of Scotland, based on solid evidence of what is needed to create sustainable livelihoods for rural citizens.  They invest in local trusts and social enterprises that are now the engines of resilience in their communities.  They are entirely place-based in their development approach, while keeping apace of the new sectors local entrepreneurs create.  They co-operatively own land and assets that help communities achieve self-sufficiency.  They have more revenue from their enterprise and land assets than from their government transfer.

Would a Coast and Rural Development Enterprise that operates on a place-based basis be a fit for BC?  Transferring Crown land, and revenue and asset management to a Community Contribution Company that is collectively owned by rural and indigenous stakeholders, linked to regional development trusts, might be an idea worth pursuing.  It couldn’t be worse than the current fragmented approach to rural development in BC.  It could also lead to what the Government of Scotland’s Minister for Rural Development described as, “co-producing rural policy in a fully committed participatory democracy.”


I welcome discussion and questions – let’s build a rural innovation strategy for BC.




Rural innovation most be place-based says Rupert Downing



Rupert Downing ( has worked in community economic development for the last 40 years in Canada, South America, and the UK.  He was the Executive Director of the Canadian CED Network and currently serves on the Network’s National Policy Council.  He is the Executive Director of the Vancouver Island Community Investment Cooperative, runs a Learning Community for rural and urban social enterprises in BC, and owns a fair trade social enterprise with his wife in Sidney, BC.