Earth Day is a time to reflect and be thankful for everything the Earth does for us. It is also a time to strengthen our relationship with nature, to give back, and to think of ways we can work to better support the Earth for future generations.
The long-term goal of global sustainability lies at the root of Earth Day. Every day, we make decisions about what to consume, and how much of it to consume, and what to do with what we consume when we’re done. These choices, big or small, have an impact on our future. Acting sustainably implies that our decisions will ensure that social institutions, the economy, and the environment will be well-supported for future generations.
The IC² Institute is UT Austin’s think tank for exploring innovation and entrepreneurship. We have a unique opportunity to work with rural communities and entrepreneurs across the United States, and internationally. This earth day, we were curious to understand the link between rural communities and nature, and wanted to understand how nature plays a role in the creation of rural innovation ecosystems. We reached out to a few entrepreneurs and scholars to see their thoughts.
Sarah Goforth is the Director of Outreach at the University of Arkansas Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation. She is involved in many aspects of the Northwest Arkansas innovation ecosystem. She describes the mindset many business owners have in the region as follows:
“Entrepreneurship is not separable from nature. Every business decision we make, from where we host data to how we market products, has consequences for the planet. In largely rural states like Arkansas, we have a special connection to the land, whether through farming or floating, biking or hunting. And more and more, I am seeing in our entrepreneurial community a motivation to consider environmental impacts alongside profit and other factors involved in starting and growing a business. The question, for many of us, is not why think about business this way, but why would you not?”
Staying in the Northwest Arkansas region, we reached out to the Northwest Arkansas Council to see how their organization thought about the link between nature and entrepreneurship. The council is a nonprofit organization that aims to ensure a successful future for the region by working with partners to advance quality of life, improve the region’s workforce, create job opportunities, upgrade infrastructure and keep up with the region’s impressive growth.
“Earth Day reminds those of us who live in Northwest Arkansas that we have the incredible advantage of access to nature that exceeds many regions of the U.S. Certainly, this is a region where entrepreneurs can thrive and hone their businesses in an urban setting, but every inch of our urbanized area is within 15 minutes of incredible outdoor amenities”. – Rob Smith, NWA Council
Thus, in this particular setting, the presence of a “special connection to the land” is enough for entrepreneurs and business owners to consider how their operations are impacting the land. The close proximity to nature allows members of the innovation ecosystem to design their company and their products in a sustainable way. For instance, a few companies have demonstrated their commitment to the environment in the region. Fayettechill makes the outdoors an essential part of their website and advertising. Further, they create “Goods for the Woods that are Good for the Woods” using built to last and eco-materials to reduce their impact on the environment. Another example is the company Livsn who also make nature and protecting the environment a large part of their company. Their core company values are intentional minimalism, hedonistic sustainability, and good corporate citizenship. Finally, a local beer company, Bike Rack, names their products based off the bike scene in the region.
In the Keene, NH region, there seemed to be a similar sentiment. Mary Ann Kristiansen, Executive Director of the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship had this to say:
“It is hard to say whether our proximity to nature affects our core values or whether people in the region self select because living in a region where you are always a short walk from the natural environment is an important core value. Or perhaps it is both, a self-reinforcing loop. Regardless, the longer I work with entrepreneurs in this region, the more apparent it is that rural is different from urban entrepreneurship. Living in the slower pace of a rural region, with plenty of opportunity for quiet recreation and reflection, I think generally produces businesses that are more rooted in place and focused on community benefit than on scaling, replicating and selling”.
Also in the Keene, NH region, Paul Bocko, Teaching Faculty in the Department of Education at Antioch University states:
“Nature in southwest New Hampshire is vitally important. Being in it fuels artistic expression, business, and education. Educators here thirst for support to engage their students in exploring the natural, built, and cultural environment. One example is that Antioch University New England supports a group of teachers who self-organized the Place-based Education Committee. Check them out here.
This provides a great insight on the impact rural entrepreneurs can have in a community, not only with nature, but on all aspects of the innovation ecosystem as well. Brian Rushing, the Director of Economic Development Initiatives at the University of Alabama, offered some similar insight to how Alabama entrepreneurs are interacting with nature. He spoke to some of the common challenges facing Alabama such as maintaining population and providing employment opportunities among others. To combat these problems, he suggested the growing opportunity of nature-based tourism. He mentioned millennials, who value experiences rather than material possessions, as well as a large population of active retirees, are traveling to seek adventure. Brian spoke about why nature-based tourism could play a large role in economic development for Alabama:
“The demographic trends are probably a big reason why the outdoor recreation economy now supports $887 billion in consumer spending in our country each year. And it’s only getting bigger! Such a large and growing demand for outdoor recreation creates a wonderful chance for rural communities to get in on the action. If these communities have a river, mountains, wetlands, or other intriguing natural features nearby, they have an opportunity to turn such natural assets into tourism assets – often requiring only modest investments in parking and trail infrastructure and signage. If these communities can get the word out about the unique experiences they have to offer, they can begin attracting nature-based tourists to their doorstep. As word spreads and people come, the door begins to open for entrepreneurs to invest in restaurants, lodging, equipment outfitters, guide services, and other small businesses…we at The University of Alabama Center for Economic Development believe that nature-based tourism has a lot of room to grow in our state and tremendous potential to benefit and sustain our rural communities”.
Another entrepreneur, Deb from OKC, noticed similar patterns. Additionally, she spoke of the great opportunity rural entrepreneurs have to implement new solutions.
“I have seen a large push for appreciation of nature or environmental friendly products across the board. I do not see rural as the initiator, but I do see rural areas finding solutions that urban areas roll out. There is lots of opportunity to engage with rural entrepreneurs to roll out new ideas.”
Additionally, I reached out to Mabel Vélez Aspiazu, an entrepreneur and engineer from Ecuador for her thoughts on the relationship between nature and entrepreneurs:
“We need entrepreneurs with a high awareness of corporate social responsibility, a government that plays a good reference role, especially a citizen’s awareness that we are sharing the same place and that each of our actions affect others. In Ecuador, compared to decades ago, there is a greater awareness of the role of nature in our life, for example before they did not teach children in school to grow plants, we did not celebrate with fairs the day of earth, water, and so on. On the one hand, people are more aware of the use of their resources: water, energy, vehicles, but on the other hand, we increasingly enter an atmosphere of comfort, everyone wants to have their own vehicle, a house with more appliances, more technology is consumed that in the past and we are generating more garbage. Now that we know how to better manage our waste, which should be accompanied by lower consumption and better disposal of garbage”.
Finally, I spoke with Eliot Tretter, Assistant Professor in the Geography Department and Urban Studies Program at the University of Calgary. He offers insight saying that people in a non-urban context are more dependent on non-humans and appreciate natural processes in a different way. He also noted that “we all have strong links to the natural world… but, people are differently attuned to different aspects of non-human world, and so their many different ways it is appreciated.
These examples show rural entrepreneurs with a great appreciation for the environment. They have implemented their products in a sustainable manner, that not only preserves the environment, but showcases the importance, and beauty, of it. This holiday serves as a friendly reminder each year to respect the Earth, and show a little gratitude to Mother Nature. Further, these are only a few examples of how entrepreneurs are focusing more on the earth and sustainability, and treating every day like it is Earth Day.
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Further sustainable initiatives across Rural America:
- This article details a few sustainability initiatives from small town America: Bringing Sustainability to Small Town America
- Through projects with the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO), the U.S. EPA, and others, International City/County Management Association (ICMA) provides technical assistance and knowledge resources to the small towns and rural communities that are engaged in regional sustainability planning. Further reading here.
- Check out the Austin Technology Incubator for their sustainability initiatives