Sustainable rural development is an important topic across the Nordic Region, as all geographic areas are affected by change. Changes and challenges are inevitable in the global world, so how can solutions be found and how can change be transformed into a factor for success in rural Nordic areas? The development of rural and peripheral areas is important not only for economic development as such, but also for coherent development throughout the Nordic region.
In the Nordic region, there are increasing regional imbalances between urban and rural areas in terms of population change, economic development, access to services, and social outcomes. When we conducted the background work for the new Nordic collaboration program for the regional sector of the Nordic Council of Ministers, it was evident that rural development is a truly important topic that covers most of the core aspects for regional development today. For instance, the “State of the Nordic Region” report shows that the 30 largest urban regions in the Nordic region have absorbed more than 97 per cent of the region’s total population growth over the past 20 years. However, looking at the big picture, there are national and regional differences – some municipalities have turned population decline into growth again – and much is accentuated today when it comes to migration and demography by large movements of people to and within the Nordic countries. But the potential of the rural Nordic areas varies widely depending on the concentration of the population, distance to major markets and cities, and natural and human resources. To put it mildly – many things are happening both nationally and regionally – and in recent years, local initiatives, social innovations, smart specialisation and new sectors such as the bioeconomy have entered the vocabulary in discussions on rural development.
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Nordic collaboration as an asset
Nordic cooperation is generally considered to be extremely important and an asset when working with rural development. There are similarities that enable stakeholders to learn from each other when facing analogous challenges, and we now have a unique opportunity to compare how issues are dealt with in different ways at both the regional and national level. It is also important to bring this Nordic added value to the local level. As stated by one of the interviewees for the collaboration program, ”Nordic regions are interested in and looking for the kind of information and results that exist in Nordic cooperation. We always need examples and inspiration, and the time is ripe to work more with the regions.” Therefore, we are now working with a larger group of stakeholders in 2017–2020 and a thematic group comprising both national and regional representatives, as well as representatives from cross-border collaborations. Together we are covering many of the actors and associations in rural Norden. The work of the 2017–2020 Nordic thematic group for Sustainable Rural Development is organized around four major themes. The first theme is demographic challenges, the second is social innovation, the third is competences and skills necessary to boost economic growth, and the fourth is strengthening cross-border cooperation. It is also clear that the thematic group will take on other issues, for instance, topics related to urban-rural interactions and issues related to attractiveness, regional innovation and economic development, to facilitate interaction with the other thematic groups. In addition, cross-cutting topics such as immigration, the Arctic and children and youth will have an influence on the project throughout this period. In 2018, the thematic group will also closely follow the Swedish chairmanship program, which will include an aspect of sustainable rural development. Sweden has recently conducted a parliamentary investigation into rural development and will soon launch a new political agenda related to this topic, which will bring about interesting reflection and discussion among all regions and countries. The objective of the Nordic thematic group for Sustainable Rural Development is not only to contribute to policy development and new solutions, but also to make sure that knowledge, tools and policy advice find their way to practitioners and policy makers. Therefore, projects and activities shall contribute to the continued development of knowledge by highlighting concrete examples, statistics and policy-relevant conclusions. It is equally important to highlight organizational and structural aspects of regional policy implementation and to contribute to an understanding of how results can be utilized in practice. The thematic group activities and results are not only the meetings and projects conducted by the group, but also the projects conducted by the organizations represented in the group, new projects initiated because of individuals collaborating in the group (for instance, Interreg or cross-border projects) and seminars and events organized with other regional and national actors. The goal is to produce knowledge, to stimulate and facilitate knowledge production and to make sure that we contribute to development processes and policy development throughout the Nordics. Thematic group’s work and projects can be followed on Nordregio’s website.
SUSTAINABLE: SOCIALLY, ECONOMICALLY AND ENVIRONMENTALLY
Column by Sigurður Árnason
Sustainability is an important goal for the future of rural, remote and sparsely populated areas in the Nordic region. However, it is highly probable that depopulation will continue in the upcoming years, resulting in increased challenges to delivering services and reduced prospects for economic growth. The Nordic thematic group for Sustainable Rural Development focuses on social, economic and environmental sustainability in remote and sparsely populated areas of Nordic countries. Over the next four years, the group’s work will be divided into four main themes: 1) demographic challenges, 2) social services, 3) economic growth and 4) cross-border cooperation. First, demographic challenges will be analysed in relation to declining and ageing populations, as well as gender imbalance caused by higher female out-migration. Second, focus will be placed on the need to find new ways to deliver social services and cope with demographic structure changes. The third objective will be supplying necessary skills to boost economic growth and increase labour force participation, especially among young people and immigrants. Finally, the thematic group will discuss how increasing cross-border cooperation could leverage pooled services to address issues common among remote and peripheral rural regions. Time never stands still. Circumstances in the Nordic Region will change according to the other global regions. Therefore, adapting to demographic changes will be a longterm challenge. Sustainable rural development, and the ways in which it may be achieved, will be the primary topics of discussion in the upcoming years.
This article is part of Nordregio News #2. 2017, read the entire issue here.