Structurally weak rural regions are faced with major economic and social challenges. In comparison to predominantly urban regions, they are economically less productive. They provide fewer desired goods and services and the labour market offers few career opportunities. Shops where daily purchases can be made are scarce, and it is challenging for the inhabitants to move around the region because public transport is very limited. Against this background, the respective regions have experienced considerable declines in populations and, in particular, a brain drain of the young. Downward spirals have been set in motion that have further reduced the number of economic opportunities.
Social enterprises are expected to help tackle problems in rural areas (Pless 2012, Schwarz 2014). They are renowned for their achievements in trying new things, finding new solutions, and choosing different methods. Social enterprises consider themselves partners of all who welcome improved conditions in structurally weak rural regions. The people who run these social enterprises have embarked on a mission to support residents when it comes to thinking “outside the box”. Social enterprises can be defined as visionary, as they adopt an entrepreneurial approach to develop and implement innovative solutions to social problems (Christmann 2014, 45). An important feature of social enterprises is, thus, their ability to generate and implement social innovations. Typically, these activities are not oriented towards producing a profit, but instead focus on the production of additional social value in a specific community or society.
Interestingly, there is no unique concept of social innovation, rather there are two different research streams. The first stream highlights the fact that social innovations address existing problems by developing more collaborative and cohesive social relations, empowering the citizens, developing bottom-up initiatives, and encouraging the existence of more democratic governance systems (MacCallum 2009, Moulaert and Mehmood 2011). The other stream reflects interest in the actual structure of innovation processes and the lessons to be learnt from successful and unsuccessful initiatives alike (Gillwald 2000, Howaldt et al. 2018a, Christmann et al. 2018). In this way, researchers aim to understand how social innovations work. In most cases, novelties are acknowledged as not “absolute” but rather “relative” innovations since they often rely on already existing elements that are combined in a creative way.
In the following, we will report on results from a research project entitled “Social Entrepreneurship in Structurally Weak Rural Regions: Analysing Innovative Troubleshooters in Action (RurAction)”1 where the two streams of understanding related to social innovation were combined. Of importance to us is both an understanding of socially innovative processes and how more socially cohesive relations can be forged.
Meanwhile social actors build their hopes on the “transformative power” of social entrepreneurship and socially innovative solutions (Harris and Albury 2009, Osborne and Brown 2011, Jessop et al. 2013, Moulaert et al. 2017, Nyseth and Hamdouch 2019, Nyseth et al. 2019). Additionally, policy makers make use of the concept of social innovation. The European Commission, in particular, aims to empower people and drive change through social innovations (Bureau of European Policy Advisers 2010, see also Jenson and Harrison 2013, Visvizi et al. 2019). There are, however, still many questions about the conditions in which social innovation emerges and spreads in rural areas, how its potential can be developed, what support strategies can be used to assist it, and what impacts it has on rural development.
The RurAction project aimed to tackle these questions by empirically analysing social enterprises and innovative initiatives in structurally weak rural areas in Europe and by understanding critical junctures that could pose a threat to their further progress, as well as favourable factors that are needed for the creation, implementation, and spatial spread of innovative solutions.
For the selection of the rural regions, we referred to the EU definition of a region on the NUTS 3 level.2 These are the smallest units of the territorial nomenclature of the EU, with a population size between 150,000 and 800,000 inhabitants. The regions were selected according to the following criteria: they had to be predominantly rural, with a low population density of less than 300 inhabitants per square kilometre and lack an urban centre with more than 200,000 residents (European Commission 2019, 49f.). They are regarded as being structurally weak in their respective countries because their infrastructures are in decline, with consequences for the quality of life of the people who live there. Compared to other regions in the respective countries, they are faced with significant deficits in the provision of desirable goods and services. The regions show activities of social entrepreneurship, whereby, one of the focuses of the social entrepreneurial activity was regional development. In this contribution, we will refer to three of the selected regions3 and their social enterprises as examples of the way in which social enterprises work: ADC Moura in Baixo Alentejo (Portugal), Otelo in the Mühlviertel (Austria), and Ballyhoura Development in the Mid-West region of Ireland. Thus, the presentation of our analyses and findings will not remain abstract, but will be illustrated with examples from concrete practices observed.
The contribution is meant to be a “Handbook for Practitioners”. It is part of the dissemination strategy of the RurAction project and addresses the target group of social enterprises, as well as of other practitioners active in problem solving in the context of structurally weak rural regions. The main aim of the handbook is to help practitioners – both on the basis of our own empirical research and a literature review – to reflect with greater awareness on rural conditions with their specific challenges; potentials; dynamics; organisational forms and the hybridity of social enterprises; and their ways of doing things, i.e. of problem solving and innovating, while particularly looking at social innovation processes, helpful and impeding factors in the creation and the spatial spread of social innovations, and at different kinds of impact their actions may have. The handbook is not meant to be a toolbox with a list of recommendations.
Against this background, the RurAction “Handbook for Practitioners” is structured as follows:
in Chapter 2, the “Challenges and dynamics of structurally weak rural regions” are outlined. There, we analyse the specific economic, political, and cultural framework conditions of rural regions, knowing that they may diverge significantly from country to country and even within an individual country. These conditions are considered to be the socio-spatial contexts of social entrepreneurship. We will focus on the development of specific regions, looking at the changes that may occur and future prospects, along with challenges and potentials for action. In Chapter 3, entitled “On a mission for the region. How social entrepreneurial actors tackle problems in structurally weak rural regions,” it is discussed how social entrepreneurial initiatives institutionally organise their work, how they collaborate with others, and how the sustainability of problem solving is ensured. In Chapter 4, we examine “The emergence, spread, and impact of social innovations in rural regions”. Only little is known about the conditions of creating and implementing innovations in the countryside. We sketch how social innovations emerge and how they spread spatially. A neglected topic that we look at is how impacts on regional development can be tracked more systematically as an effect of socially innovative initiatives. The contribution is rounded off by the conclusions, where the main insights are summarised.