Thinking about new year resolutions… thinking about rural futures  

During this end-of-year period as most of us consider what we can do better in 2023, policy makers are thinking about how to create a better future for rural citizens. It’s hugely important in the aftermath of COVID-19 and the rapid economic, ecological, demographic and geopolitical changes that are underway in rural communities.

Sweet dreams are made of this

A linear view of the future would leave rural areas ill prepared to succeed, especially in an increasingly digitalised world. Rural communities are a compilation of different landscapes, people and economic realities – from thriving workforces to declining populations. As technology, communication and logistics in rural areas improve, they become less isolated and could become more attractive places to work and live. This shines a light on local leaders — including governments business and individuals — and how to put rural regions on track to thrive.  

The capacity to quickly adapt and anticipate will determine the degree of impact and the pace of recovery from the COVID-19 crisis and the effects of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. It is important to foster the practice of “futures thinking” among leaders and stakeholders who are working to strengthen rural communities.

Thinking is…

“Futures thinking” includes a wide range of actors from policy designers, decision-makers, public administrators in national, regional and local authorities to organisations. They represent farmers, landowners, forest managers, rural businesses, environmentalists, researchers, local rural community and disadvantaged groups.

Exploring future scenarios can be a key factor in successfully designing and implementing stronger and sustainable policies in rural communities. Actively thinking about different futures is a means to recognise social patterns, identify emerging trends, broaden our strategies for change and imagine something better that does not yet exist in order to agree upon actions today.

… what’s in your field of vision

A range of tools, foresight and futures literacy can be used to think about future risks and opportunities. Futures thinking and foresight aim to explore, analyse and articulate changes 5-50 years (and beyond) into the future.

Including rural stakeholders in foresight processes provides much-needed capacity development opportunities for rural leaders. This leads to a co-construction of futures based on how changes in the most relevant trends affecting rural communities – like climate change, digitalisation or demographic shifts – might shape the future configuration of settlement patterns and the characteristics of rural regions. Below is an overview of how rural stakeholders are exploring different futures for rural regions.

Based on the inter-connection of the different worlds coming out from the above stress-testing exercise of the trends, three scenarios emerged on the impact of settlement pattens across the territory – see below. These scenarios are useful in exploring multiple versions of the future and can help clarify main directions. They offer strategic options for rural development over the long term by exploring the policy issues that arise in different futures.

Other exercises focus on the future of rural manufacturing, based on an exercise around probable and desirable news headlines by 2042. It revealed a range of hopes and fears.

Anticipation for Future
Group of participantsHope and FearsProbable and Desirable
1Hopes: Higher valuation of rurality.   Fears: Rural interests are ignored in policymaking.Probable 2042: Mixed self-sufficiency and dependency of rural places.   Desirable 2042: Rural innovation advantage
2Hopes: Self-sufficiency

Fears: Inability to meet challenges.
Probable 2042: Fiery heat waves, urban/rural conflict
Desirable 2042: Effective, prosperous, happiness, and tradition-rich
3Hopes: a greener tomorrow.
Fears: rural population loss and energy shortages.
Probable 2042: Depopulated, Expensive, and Disaster-prone   Desirable 2042: Circular, green, self-sufficient lifelong learners  
4Hopes: nature, jobs, economic participation, and ties to urbanity
Fears: fears of inequality among regions, homogenization, and absence
Probable 2042: Circular economy, but rising unemployment due to automation with diversity crisis   Desirable 2042: Youth flock to the rural lifestyle, characterised by self-sufficiency in terms of energy and food

Equipping and preparing rural communities to make the most of future scenarios and to define their future can benefit from a number of policy actions today.

Dream catching better policies…

Adopting a policy framework that fosters anticipation and adaptation can help governments meet their development goals regardless of shocks.  They need to discover new ways to provide local well-being. Trickling down this anticipatory mind-set from government to society will incentivise business and communities to take risks and try new ideas to address problems.

… for better lives

Policies to support this anticipatory approach need to ensure that rural regions have in place the enabling conditions for development. These include strengthening skills and life-long learning, access to public services and greater digital and physical connectivity to financial. Collective rural thinking among actors in urban and rural areas, and with private and public stakeholders can boost rural futures and resilience against shocks today and tomorrow.

Read more on the OECD work on Rural innovation here.

Senior Policy Analyst at OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities (CFE) | + posts

Betty-Ann Bryce is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in the Centre for Entrepreneurship, Regions, and Cities in the Regional and Rural Unit. She joined the OECD from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), where she served as a Special Advisor for Rural Affairs. She was detailed to ONDCP from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture where she held different roles including Senior Policy Advisor, Rural Health Liaison, and Financial Investment Specialist in the Rural Development Agency. Betty-Ann is a licensed Attorney with a MPA in Economic and Territorial Development from The Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences-Po) in France, and a MPA in Economic and Political Development from Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) in the United States.

Policy Analyst at | Website | + posts

Andres Sanabria is a policy analyst at the Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities at the OECD where he leads the Mining Regions and Cities Initiative. He has conducted economic and policy analysis for urban and regional studies, co-ordinated rural country reviews and supported the development of the OECD rural policy framework. Andres is also an invited lecturer on rural development in Paris-Dauphine University and Sciences Po, Paris. Prior the OECD, Andres worked as a principal economist in the financial and oil industry. He holds a Master’s degree on Public Affairs from London School of Economics and Sciences Po.