The Science Year 2015, which was devoted to the future viability of cities, has come to a close. The idea behind it was not only that the large conurbations need sustainable concepts for ecological, social and economic development, but also that answers to urgent questions about the future for all of society can be sought and found in the cities themselves. The current edition of the “IRS aktuell” newsletter dares to propose a change of perspective: can rural areas, in particular peripheral and structurally weak regions, also be the source of innovation and offer solutions to social challenges?
Demographic change, structural economic change, climate change and energy transition – rural areas seem to be effected by many important transformation processes without being able to influence them. They suffer from migration of young, well-qualified people, feel the effects of an ageing population particularly acutely and they are becoming the places where conflicts over renewable energy are being played out. The feeling of powerlessness for communities in structurally weak rural regions seems simultaneously to be a reality, a prejudice and a stigma. “Of course, the big challenges that these areas are facing cannot be denied”, says Prof. Dr. Gabriela Christmann, head of the “Dynamics of Communication, Knowledge and Spatial Development” research department.
But the particularly ressing nature of the problems and certain freedoms have also given many of the local stakeholders the impetus to explore new avenues and look for innovative solutions. These solutions are as diverse as the stakeholders who initiate them and the problems on the ground: in one municipality, traders are organising a cultural week that is intended to contribute to a change of identity in the area. In another municipality, farmers and residents are coming together to create a bio-energy village. In a third, a social enterprise is making an open-access laboratory available in which anyone can use technologies that are otherwise difficult to access.
The local contexts and constellations of stakeholders in the municipalities and the social processes and courses of the innovation projects are the subject of the current lead project in Christmann’s department. The article that begins on page 6 of this issue provides an insight into the six municipalities, the design of the study and the initial observations from the project, which has been running since the beginning of the year 2015. A separate article is devoted to bio-energy villages (beginning on page 8).
Innovation as a research topic is also a central focus of the IRS beyond its work on rural areas. In the past, academics from Prof. Dr. Oliver Ibert’s “Dynamics of Economic Spaces” research department and from Christmann’s department have carried out detailed research into the process and spatiality of innovation and into social innovations. The particular conceptual features of the context of rural space for innovation are the topic of an interview with Christmann and Ibert that begins on page 3 of this issue.