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The Higher ED Blog: What does regionalism mean for innovation in rural communities?

Tamara Bangura / December 16, 2013

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The Higher ED Blog: What does regionalism mean for innovation in rural communities?

In October 2013, The Economist released a special report, “The Gated Globe”. It got me thinking about my recently completed major research paper (MRP), “Rural Innovation and Regional Economic Development: Policy Lessons from the Research Triangle Park and TechBelt Regions”. The Economist’s report highlighted how nation states are moving from multilateral agreements to regional ones with like-minded counterparts, focusing on regional collaborative initiatives to attain market advantages and innovative leads, thereby proliferating the role of regionalism in local economic development. As a result of this trend towards what might be called ‘Global Regionalism’, many nation states have enacted protectionist policies, both as a safeguard technique to mitigate global shock implications to local markets and as a proactive strategy to position local economic actors ahead of external ones.

This raises an interesting question. If we are shifting towards a ‘Global Regionalism’ paradigm, what does this mean for government and economic development practitioners in navigating the waters in support of rural communities? Typically, rural communities face greater challenges compared to more urbanized communities in revitalizing their economies, particularly in the face of global shocks, like the 2008 global recession or the US government shutdown. One key strategy that has come to the foreground is on integrating rural communities into regional innovation clusters– diversifying local economies and mitigating global shocks by fostering rural innovation.

In my research, I examined the North Carolina Research Triangle Park Region and the Ohio-Pennsylvania-West Virginia TechBelt Region.  These two regions provide comparative examples of regional collaboration initiatives involving both urban and rural communities, with the goal of moving towards an innovation-based economy; the North Carolina Research Triangle Park Region represents a shift from a primary agricultural-based economy to a growing biotechnology cluster and the TechBelt represents a shift from the Rust Belt to growing innovation clusters of advanced manufacturing, energy, life sciences and software/IT.  To understand the regional approaches being used, I interviewed more than 30 key individuals and studied each area’s characteristics, policies and economic development practices in great depth.

My research revealed that these regions have taken differing approaches to regional economic development, using different models of regional collaboration to support and develop innovative clusters. The North Carolina Research Triangle Park Region exemplifies a state directed/top-down approach, where there is a focus on business and resident attraction to the Research Triangle Park (the region’s urban core) while the TechBelt Region represents a community driven/bottom-up approach where community stakeholders collectively collaborate on various government funding acquisition projects.

Rural communities in both case study regions faced barriers, challenges and opportunities but the key difference between them was the level of rural engagement. Where the Research Triangle Park Region’s top-down approach included rural communities in the overarching regional economic development initiative, the TechBelt Region integrated rural stakeholders. This is a key point of difference since while inclusion may allow the opportunity for stakeholders to engage, integration refers to the extent to which information, activities and resources are shared in order to create enhanced capacity (a factor necessary to shift stakeholder engagement from simple networking to actual collaboration). In other words, the extent to which institutional barriers limiting rural communities’ participation in broad regional dialogues are removed results in whether rural communities are integrated, and can therefore benefit from enhanced capacity encouraged through regional innovation clusters.

Based on my analysis, I concluded that regional economic development policy and practice that supports the integration of rural communities in regional innovation clusters during the changing era should consider the following:

Model for Regional Collaboration – The approach to regional economic development that is reflective of local stakeholders and regional context (evolution and historical factors) in setting the stage for regional economic development initiatives. Understanding whether policy directive is better achieved through a top-down versus a bottom-up approach is therefore achieved through an evaluation of the Region’s historic and current economic situation.

Inclusion – The action of including various stakeholders in regional collaborative initiatives. Inclusion therefore can be the catalyst for rural innovation. However, due to the nature of innovation, simple inclusion does not always lead to desired development outcomes. The case study regions highlighted that collaboration is two-fold in nature. On one hand the simple act of extending a hand to a community can act as an initial step of inclusion, however desired outcomes are only attained through effective integration.

Integration – the extent to which information, activities and resources are shared in order to create enhanced capacity. Integration is therefore the key component variable to rural innovation. Although this variable intrinsically deals with autonomous organizational and individual attitudes, beliefs and motivations, policy directive can be effective in changing the propensity for entities to be engaged. Through a top-down approach, intrinsic and extrinsic motivations can influence actors, while a bottom-up approach directly affects intrinsic motivations and attitudes.

Supporting Innovation – Support systems are a necessary ingredient to sustain regional collaborative initiatives. However, the most effective policy directives recognize the specific regional context, thereby fostering organic collaborative processes that – in turn – can facilitate both inclusion and integration to facilitate innovation-based economic development.

Ultimately, networking and collaborative processes are key ingredients for the integration of rural communities in broad regional development initiatives and innovation clusters. Policy and government directive can significantly impact this process – particularly in developing a culture of collaboration in both urban and rural communities. Governments and economic development practitioners need to both include and integrate stakeholders, involve key economic actors (local and external), and respect that local economies are not always bounded by traditional borders. These strategies will create positive economic development outcomes for rural communities during this new and evolving era of ‘Global Regionalism’.

About the Author

Tamara Bangura is a recent graduate of the University of Waterloo’s Master’s Program in Local Economic Development. Her research was part of a broader project, Evaluating Regional Economic Development Initiatives (EREDI), led by Dr. John Devlin (University of Guelph) and Dr. Tara Vinodrai (University of Waterloo) and funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food / Ministry of Rural Affairs. Tamara is a Consultant at Sierra Planning and Management – an economic development, strategic planning and management consulting firm. Tamara is a member of the Economic Developers Council of Ontario (EDCO) and the Economic Developers Association of Canada (EDAC). Tamara also holds a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from the University of Toronto and is currently in the process of attaining the Ec.D. designation through EDAC.

About the series

Higher ED: Ivory Tower Insights for Economic Development Professionals was conceived as a way to share research completed by Local Economic Development (LED) students at the University of Waterloo. It features blog articles by current and recent LED students with cutting-edge insights.

Established in 1988, the LED program is the only Masters program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.


2 responses to “The Higher ED Blog: What does regionalism mean for innovation in rural communities?”

  1. […] A final report is almost done and will be shared by Higher ED. Previous blogs related to the project include Six lessons for improving collaboration across the urban-rural divide and What does regionalism mean for rural communities. […]