Authored by current and former Memorial University alumni it ostensibly starts off to provide guidance for advancing the rural “knowledge economy,” but quickly reverts to a more general course outline for Rural Community and Economic Development 101.
The amusement partially arose from the epistle being put forward as a “new” model when, in fact, this regional economic approach has been practised in this province for decades.
Some may recall Community Futures areas initially introduced by the federal government in the 1990s. These multi-community development zones overseen by regional committees covered all parts of the province and provided for professionally developed economic plans, local governance and skilled staff to direct their implementation. In addition, they included local banks (Business Development Centres) with millions of dollars to provide not only loans but business expertise.
Then the province established Regional Economic Development Boards with complementary aims. Additional Industrial Adjustment Service Committees took on the responsibility of creating strategic plans in various sectors followed by Business Retention and Expansion projects (a model imported from the U.S.) which helped many sectors and regional geographic areas develop plans to assist and grow existing business.
Many of these programs/projects operated simultaneously and were staffed by dedicated, skilled staff and volunteers. They were handmaidens of government and further supported by countless regional, provincial, national and international conferences, training opportunities and workshops. More than a few events were more akin to narcissistic echo chambers coasting on rhetorical fumes.
Later, MUN established the Harris Centre, with the avowed and laudable aim of connecting the university’s vast resources to the already esconced business and community development outreach.
Nothing I read in the article was “new,” with the possible exception of “knowledge economy” — it having emerged from past iterations of new economy, information economy, digital economy, etc.
My mortification stemmed from the juxtaposition of this purported panacea with recent disclosures that in the next 20 years 40,000 fewer people are expected to live in rural areas of the province due to death and outmigration. Meanwhile the Northeast Avalon’s population is expected to rise by 30,000 (expect double lanes to Galway).
So, what have all the regional development approaches produced? Unfortunately, not much from a quantitative, sustainable perspective, unless one argues it would have been worse had no such interventions existed.
The article states that “recent approaches to regional innovation systems have focused on 'quadruple helix’ relationships: an inclusive multi-scale collaborative approach to innovation governance...” Again, amusement and mortification as I envisioned the authors telling the assembled crowd in Bung Hole Tickle (a nod here to Ray Guy) that “we are from academia and came to save you with the quadruple helix”!
It would appear rural economic development is alive and well in our ivory towers. Unfortunately, we have not been nearly as successful in entrenching it broadly in communities where it needs to take root. The main problem has always been connecting available expertise with entrepreneurs willing to take big risks. Connecting the dots between inspiration, perspiration and implementation. But how do you create a culture of rural entrepreneurship when potential candidates are leaving cash-strapped, already hemorrhaging communities in droves?
This is not an easy task. The future of small communities, therefore, looks bleak — political rhetoric, puffed up clichés and the high-falutin’ “quadruple helix,” notwithstanding.