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What are the impacts of social innovation? Addressing the challenges of marginalised rural areas in Scotland and beyond

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Blog picture: What are the impacts of social innovation? Addressing the challenges of marginalised rural areas in Scotland and beyond
Vicky Stonebridge is an artist & potter; this is her representation of the community relationship with the environment. (Image: Carla Barlagne)

By Carla Barlagne and Richard J. Hewitt

Social innovation is a phenomenon that manifests itself in new social relationships and collaborations. It seeks to promote the development and uptake of new services and new fields of activity, such as social entrepreneurship and social enterprises that improve the quality of life of individuals and communities, particularly in rural areas. Yet the evidence base of the impacts on the sustainable development of rural communities remains scarce.

These themes lie at the heart of Social Innovation in the recently completed Social Innovation in Marginalised Rural Areas project (SIMRA), a € 5.9m research initiative supported by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme, led by a team at the James Hutton Institute.

SIMRA researchers recently coordinated a special issue of the journal Sustainability focussed on the impacts of SI on rural communities. The Special Issue’s editors, Prof Laura Secco, Dr Elisa Ravazzoli, Dr Elena Górriz Mifsud and Dr Elena Pisani, all members of the SIMRA team, observed that:

“Despite [the] positive premises [of social innovation as a means of] responding to specific social needs or broader societal challenges, very little is known regarding what works best nor how social innovations impact and determine the sustainable development of rural areas across the world.”

Rural areas are of particular interest because of the growing recognition of the major challenges these areas face. Rural areas have been increasingly left behind by market-driven policies of recent decades, resulting in poor public services, depopulation, population ageing, and decreasing quality of life for rural dwellers. Social Innovation might be expected to offer a response to these challenges – but if so, what kinds of impacts would be expected, and at what scale of governance would they be most clearly felt?

In Scotland, our team, composed of scientists, from the James Hutton Institute, the European Forest Institute and University of Padova set out to find out. We carried out an in-depth analysis of the impacts of one particular social innovation initiative, at Lochcarron, in Wester Ross the Scottish Highlands. The initiative we studied was centred around a new community body, the Lochcarron Community Development Company, which was established to manage the acquisition of a local woodland (Kirkton woodland) on behalf of the community, with the specific aim creating positive outcomes and well-being for community members by increasing the amenity value of the woodland. As one community member noted:

‘The community agreed that they wanted to buy the woodland and that if a private landowner or speculator had bought it then the community would have no input into it, and it would not benefit the community. They [the community] didn’t want another blanket Sitka Spruce green area rather than the amenities that we are developing’ (LAG005)’.

The results of our case study work were published just last month in the Special issue, under the title “What are the impacts of Social Innovation? Insights from a Community Forestry case study in the Scottish Highlands”.

In the paper, we explain the types of impacts that social innovation produces and discuss whether the impacts of community forestry, as a special case of SI, can foster the empowerment of rural communities and increase their well-being.

The study provided valuable insights into the type of impacts that would be expected from social innovation initiatives of this kind.  Key to the success of the initiative was the process of reconfiguration which led to the acquisition, and subsequent community management of Kirkton woodland. By managing the woodland themselves, the community were able to address a wide range of different objectives, with benefits for human health and well-being, ecosystems services, as the provision of new products and services to the community.

Community stakeholders learning traditional skills at Kiki’s craft corner. Credit: Carla BarlagneThose services include wood fuel and timber for local households and a recreational area for children and the wider community. Positive impacts continue with new initiatives such as the creation of a heritage trail within the woodland and a scoping study for affordable housing on some of the woodland plots. Collectively, these benefits provide evidence of increased local social capital, leading to strategic, operational, and instrumental impacts of social innovation.

The initiative also led to the revitalisation of a rural area and the empowerment of the local community. Within the governance structures of the SI initiative, members of the community now discuss project ideas, identify opportunities for grants, and apply for funding.

The wider community is involved in the processes of decision-making regarding the future use of the woodland through processes of community consultations. Since the acquisition of the woodland, the community has established new connections with a wider network of organisations involved in woodland management and community development. They contract experts and expert knowledge to address technical issues where the relevant human capital within the community is lacking.

Beyond the specific case of Lochcarron, the study was able to identify some wider policy recommendations to help policymakers support these kinds of initiatives more broadly. The recommendations include providing financial support for individual community innovators and helping build capacities and partnerships to sustain social innovation initiatives over the medium to long term.

Many rural communities across the world face accelerating processes of marginalisation as scarce resources are diverted to larger population centres. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made the problem more acute. While only part of the answer to unmet social needs, the Lochcarron example studied by Carla Barlagne and her colleagues, sheds useful light on how a community-based COVID-19 recovery strategy might look in marginalised rural areas, and what its benefits might be.

The Tree house in Lochcarron. Credit: Carla BarlagneFinally, while the study shows the importance of community empowerment, community resources are limited, and social innovation should not be seen as a “magical recipe” allowing those in power to evade their responsibilities to socially disadvantaged rural communities. While social innovation provides an optimistic perspective on what can be achieved, it also sheds light on past policy failures and in particular, the limitations of market-driven and “small-government” approaches to achieving equitable outcomes for rural communities in marginalised areas.

For further information:

Learn more about SIMRA and the Social Innovation Evaluation Guide.

See more of Vicky’s creations and order them online.

When we are allowed again, book your next crafty workshop at Kiki’s craft corner.

Treat yourself to some delicious Local and Traditional Food at the community owned Café Ceàrdach.

Finally book the Tree House or learn more about the activities led by Lochcarron Community Development Company.

Acknowledgements: Mariana Melnykovych, David Miller, Laura Secco, Elena Pisani and Maria Nijnik.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.



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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.