In September, I gave the keynote talk at the Radically Rural Summit in Keene, NH. The program brought together people from rural areas interested in economic development, journalism, and community revitalization. It was the first chance to unveil some of the new work that the IC2 Institute has been doing on small and overlooked communities around the world.
The main theme was the role of cooperation and collaboration in the success of rural communities.
When we talk about collaboration, it applies both within and across towns in a region.
One central aspect of collaboration within rural communities is that these communities have a limited number of people who can participate in economic development activities. In cities, it is possible to craft a coalition of the willing to accomplish big goals, but rural communities must make do with a coalition of those present. And so, people need to find ways to work together—even when they don’t necessarily get along personally or when different members of the community have significantly different goals. As a result, conflict resolution skills are critical for members of small-town business ecosystems.
A second critical element of collaboration is a willingness to work regionally. Many economic development coordinators focus on attracting jobs to a specific town. However, communities that take a regional approach can often create jobs across different towns by leveraging their strengths. One community might bring in a factory while having companies relating to other elements of the supply chain in nearby towns. Housing for jobs in communities may also have to be spread out across several towns in a region depending on the existing supply.
Collaboration is also important between communities and institutions of higher-education. Local colleges and community colleges can play a significant role in helping the local workforce to develop skills for a changing economy. This collaboration requires coordination between local businesses who can project their future needs and education institutions. Not only do higher-education institutions have to ramp up degree programs to match local needs, but they should also consider certificate programs and other avenues for providing additional skills to mature workers who need to retrain.
Finally, local colleges and universities need to partner with communities to develop non-transactional internships that introduce students to communities so that they consider moving there after graduation. A non-transactional internship is one in which the company hosting the intern does not expect that student to work for them after graduation.
For example, the Home to Texas program we developed in collaboration with the School of Undergraduate Studies focuses on internships for first- and second-year students. These students generally have not figured out what they want to do for their careers yet, so the internships are more focused on general tasks and on giving the student a good experience in the community. Students in Home to Texas also study the community by interviewing civic, government, and business leaders in order to give them a sense of how they might participate in that economy after graduation. The companies that participate in Home to Texas benefit by increasing the number of college graduates who consider that community as a home after graduation, which increases participation in the local workforce overall.
Ultimately, rural economic development hinges crucially on the ability of communities to collaborate internally, externally with other towns in the region, and with other key institutions like community colleges and local colleges and universities. Fostering this collaboration is a key focus of the programs we want to develop at IC2 in the future.