Bush Prof, The First Year

In May 2020 I began this blog to share practical insights on rural regional development. I started from a desire to share some of the discoveries and lessons learned from a journey of over twenty years of working on economic and social development issues with communities across Australia and Latin America.

The timing was not coincidental. It was May 2020; the world was sweeping into the noise of COVID-19 panic. Top-down government mandates landed in people’s lives, human rights disappeared, and community voices were silenced. I could see the damage coming, but there were no words to name it. The public talk was in another language.

So I resolved to write in the language I know, to say what I could, about what I know well: as an anthropologist who works with rural communities. I felt that it was vital not to lose that other view of the world: the bottom-up view of how communities at ground level work, what they know, what they can do – and how much damage top down efforts to “fix” them can cause. These are topics I know, and evidence I have.

The blog was established for people who care about rural communities and their futures. Its mandate was broad, and its readership has been equally so: from different parts of the world, from development professionals to local leaders, students and former students; colleagues and friends; many of whom live and work in rural regions.

As ‘the Bush Prof’, I claim only two things: I am a professor, with a proper list of academic credentials in anthropology and regional development; and I am unashamedly rural, writing from a stone house in the Tasmanian bush, on the unceded lands of the palawa peoples, caring deeply about rural communities and ever fascinated with how rural people grapple with challenge, change and opportunity.

As a blog, the stated aim was to present Reflections on local knowledge, global knowledge, and a prosperous future for rural regions. “Reflections” is apt; this is not academic writing, though it is academically informed. It is not a policy blog, though it aims to provide practical tips and insights. It is a reflective pool for big questions and useful ideas, and like the lake outside my back door, it may vary in depth, muddiness, or its ability to reveal the world crystal clear but upside-down from the expected.

The first year has covered a lot of ground. The Bush Prof blog started with a series on Rural Economies: Secrets to Success, which identified some common characteristics of rural regions, and then described four concrete strategies that rural communities can use to create economic prosperity – quite simply, by mobilising their strengths. Strengths-based development approaches are a theme that continues through the blog.

From there, we moved on to our series on practical grassroots development approaches, Rural Development From the Ground Up. This series focused on the question of “development” and what is required for rural communities to create the futures they want. In many ways this series maps my own journey to understand social change and grapple with the pointy end that most academics do not engage: how to create change – or help others to do so.

By then it was Spring, and I resolved to tackle the popular topic of regional growth. The Growing Your Region Series identified nine different kinds of regional growth – yes, nine! – three myths about growth, and some key questions about growth to inform regional strategy. Whether or not you bother to remember all nine kinds of growth, I hope this series frees you up to ask the questions.

Finally, in 2021 we have looked at Regional Development Starting Points. This series took a slightly new tack, as I started with an essay on how my own personal background influences how I see rural regional development. Through an exploration of personal, professional, and social starting points, this series discusses the human dimensions of regional development and their practical implications – such as why collaboration can be challenging; and why inclusion matters.

Along the way the Bush Prof posts have introduced a wide range of concepts, from common ones like sustainability, collaboration, and value adding, to deeper forays into local knowledge, culture, exclusion, and the power relations of development work. We have considered frames, hats, crates, people-to-tree ratios, plastic grass, and shiny ideas.

Throughout the journey, we have linked theory with practice, practice with theory, and played with metaphors, graphics, and stories. Along the way, there has been one urgent refrain: to keep alive spaces for communities in local places to act, to create, to take charge of change and make the futures they want.

One year in, this message has not changed. The space is here for conversation and reflections, for questions and next steps. It has been a privilege to speak here, and to try to hold open a hopeful conversation about local communities and prosperous futures. I hope you will continue with me on the journey.

Starting Points, Finishing Up: Practical Takeaways

This series on Starting Points has explored how our personal, professional, and social starting points influence how we see regional development problems and solutions. This final post distills the practical takeaways from this series. How can you use the insights from these posts to make a difference in your own region?

Takeaway #1: Your knowledge matters

Perhaps you’re not an economist, or a policy expert, or a tech guru. Maybe you feel lost in conversations about productivity, or demography, or innovation. It’s easy to focus on what we are not good at, particularly when those are the things everyone is talking about. But stop a minute. Do we really need everyone to be talking about the same things?

Start, instead, with what you know: the things in which you are expert. Your personal background, your training, and the different roles you have played in your life have all given you particular kinds of expertise. Don’t be afraid to look at regional development problems and solutions from the point of view of what you know well. This is where you will shine.

Each of us, with our different starting points, will see things on the regional development landscape that other people will miss: as a teacher, a tradie, a lifelong resident, a farmer, an artist, a grandparent, a volunteer…. Your knowledge is valuable. Economists, policy experts, and tech gurus do not have it. No one else sees exactly the regional landscape that you see.

And if you keep quiet, we will never see it.

Takeaway #2: Exclusion costs – more than we can imagine

When only a few people get to speak and make all the decisions, it is like looking at a landscape, and seeing only a flat map, or a spreadsheet. Part of the story is there. Most of the story is missing.

This is dangerous, in all kinds of ways. Of all the knowledge in the region about how things work, only a tiny part of it ends up informing decisions. The rest of the map of the region is grey: great swathes of not-knowing, here-be-dragons ignorance.

Worse, there are patterns: it’s not just individual voices that are absent, but whole groups of people: the young, the old, those with a disability, or less education, less English, smaller income, more children, less time to spend in meetings. Entire perspectives and knowledge-sets are missing, often from people who know the most about the problem you’re trying to solve.

And it’s not just recent knowledge that gets left out. Deep knowledge from Indigenous communities who have been with this region for millennia is regularly ignored when decisions are made about the future.

Every time someone is excluded, your region is poorer. The grey bit on the map gets bigger.

Every time a narrow group of people makes decisions for everyone else, your region is poorer. Their decisions alter a landscape they cannot see or understand.

And they take away the ground from under people’s feet.

Takeaway #3: Collaboration is powerful – but it starts with relationships

It’s difficult to find someone working in local or regional development these days who doesn’t talk about the importance of collaboration. Working together – across disciplines, and sectors, and communities – is absolutely central to effective regional development.

But it isn’t easy. And it isn’t the place to start.

Most efforts at collaboration fail. Organisations pull in different directions. People become disenchanted. Partnerships sound great but yield little. Working together is difficult, and it is vital to do, for exactly the same reason: we all have different starting points.

Our backgrounds are different. Our training is different. Our roles, and expectations and goals are different. When we look at an issue, or a project, or a region, we see different things. Even when we seem to have something important in common, we still approach it differently.

That isn’t a bad thing. Indeed, it’s a very good thing. Because we see different things, we can fill the gaps for each other. Because we all frame the problem differently, we all have a piece of the solution.

But for collaboration actually to work, we need to be willing to share what we know (Takeaway #1). This means being open about our own starting points – honest about our own positioning and biases – and not afraid to wear some of our less-elegant hats in public.

We need to be willing to listen to what others know (Takeaway #2). This means respecting other people’s starting points when they are very different from ours. And it means listening at a time, and a place, and in way that makes sense for them.

These things are hard. They can make us vulnerable. And uncomfortable. They don’t sit easily on meeting agendas or in board rooms, in the types of environments where regional development collaborations are typically performed.

Collaboration is powerful. But it needs something to build on. It can’t start in the air.

To create a strong collaboration, you must create a base, a starting point for working together.

This is not a meeting, or a committee, or a MOU. Working together starts with relationships. This is Takeaway 3: to reap the power of collaboration, start with relationships.

Spend time on them. Chat in the kitchen. Visit the paddock. Go into each other’s places and out of your comfort zone. Get to know each other’s starting points.

Then, when it’s time to make something happen, you’ll be ready to do it together.

Starting Points #3: A Matter of Hats

This year I started a blog series on ‘Starting Points’ to understand how people look at regional development problems and solutions.¬†

The first post talked about our personal starting points: how the places and communities we are from shape the things we care about today. Our past experiences influence what we think positive regional development is, and what kinds of outcomes we look for.

The second post explored another type of starting point: professional or technical specialisation. What we have learned through our training frames how we see the world in general, and regional development in particular. Our training influences what we pay attention to and what we value.

In this post, we will look a third type of starting point: our social role. ‘Social role’ can mean our professional role, our organisational role, or our role in our community. In regional development work, all of these kinds of roles matter.

All roles are essentially social. Roles are about how others see us: for instance, as an expert, a facilitator, a local person, a business owner, a funder, a volunteer. Roles may include gender roles and other culturally defined roles such as ‘elder’ or ‘matriarch’. They may include formal organisational roles such as ‘CEO’ or ‘project manager’.

People may define social roles by sector (she’s from Government; he’s from Industry) or by profession (she’s an engineer; he’s a planner). We may define our own roles, and these may change: sometimes professor, sometimes board member, sometimes mum. Some roles are elected, some are appointed, some are informally given or adopted. As Sir Humphrey in ‘Yes, Minister’ famously said – ‘It’s a matter of hats.’

Social roles are our hats.

We all have a number of hats. Some of our roles fit more comfortably than others. Some we use more or less frequently. Indeed, some we would prefer to stuff in the back of the cupboard and forget about. Other hats, we may struggle to take off even at bedtime.

When it comes to regional development, hats matter. They matter to how we look at a problem or opportunity. They matter to how others expect us to look at a problem or opportunity. And they matter to what we are actually able to do about problems or opportunities – what anthropologists call our ‘room to manoeuver.’

Imagine, for instance, a committee that comes together for a task in their region. Some members may work for the Council, others for a local business, others may be volunteers. Some are women, or men; some are younger, or older; they may be from established families or ‘blow-ins’; professional or tradie; members of different communities or clubs.

Depending on their roles, and the particular hat they are wearing, each member of the committee will tend to frame their participation in certain ways, and seek certain kinds of outcomes. Others may encourage them to act in that role. So, for instance, the Council worker may feel compelled to mention regulations, and the business owner will query economic feasibility. The young person will be asked to comment on young people’s views, and club members on the opinions of their members.

The hat is a marker of expertise, of position, and ultimately of identity. Larger hats – that is, higher-status social roles – will tend to speak more, and be more easily heard.

However, no person is their hat. Every member of that committee has different hats, sometimes lots of hats – personal and professional. It matters what hats they choose to wear. The business owner may switch hats and mention child care; she is also a mother. The council worker can change hats and suggest a great idea about staging an event; he is also a member of the local theatre group. The young person speaks up and offers to promote the idea through her website: she has another hat, she is an entrepreneur. Hat switching can be powerful.

This simple example of the fictive committee begins to suggest the many different ways that social roles influence the dynamics of regional development work. Where single hats dominate, ideas and resources are limited. Where bigger hats dominate, and cover the ears of their wearers, ideas and insights are silenced.

On the other hand, when people come together and are unafraid to wear their multiple hats, creative solutions tend to follow.

It is interesting to observe that successful place leaders in local regions are often people who wear multiple hats. Busy people. They don’t merely ‘have’ different organisational and community hats; they actively wear them. I’ve often observed how effective place leaders make use of their various social roles to connect people across social boundaries. This enables them to mobilise a wide range of resources and relationships to benefit their communities.

Social roles are the starting point. But the next step is the powerful one: getting to know the person beneath the hat. The person: with all their hats. Because effective regional development is built on relationships.

Starting Points #2: Brain Frames

The same landscape can look quite different depending on who you are. That landscape may be an objective reality, but each person will see it differently. The hiker will observe the terrain, the planner will note the patterns of towns, the agronomist the crops, the artist the light, the forester the trees.

Our training in our chosen field often “frames” how we see the reality that is in front of us. In this series, we’re looking at how our personal starting points influence how we see rural regions, and how we understand regional development.

Our training is a key starting point: it is an important influencer of what we see, and what we fail to see. That is because training – of any kind, academic or professional or technical – teaches us to frame reality in particular ways. We hone in on certain things, and ignore others that are not relevant. We draw a boundary around messy reality, so we can analyse it and understand it.

Things that are inside this frame, we tend to see very clearly indeed. The forester can quickly spot a stand of trees that is sick. The agronomist can identify the best paddock for a crop. The artist can “frame” the most emotive image quite literally, capturing it in the rectangle of their canvas.

Inside the frame of our training, we can each see very clearly. We may, indeed, be experts. Others turn to when they need to be able to see and understand what we see and understand.

But there is often a trade-off. Outside of our training – the way our brain has been taught to frame things – we do not see so well. Indeed, we may miss things that are right in front of us.

This isn’t usually a problem. We don’t need to see everything or know everything; the brain will only take in so much, after all! We can rely on other people to see and know the things we miss.

The problem comes when certain frames become the only ones we use or value… and we start using them for everything.

Then our frames can become dangerous.

Imagine, for instance an engineer who builds an irrigation system without attention to which paddocks require water; or an agronomist who recommends growing a crop which nobody eats, and for which there is no market.

These propositions may seem ridiculous, but they are not far distant from many development fiascos that rural communities over the years have suffered. Experts bring their technical knowledge to rural regions, and they use this knowledge to frame regional development needs and actions. Too often, they fail to notice anything outside the frame.

I am, by training, an anthropologist; this frames how I see rural regions. Anthropologists are good at noticing how local communities work. Anthropologists can explain why local knowledge matters for rural development, and why projects that ignore local people don’t succeed. These ideas are inside our frame, in clear view.

Yet you would not ask us to build a bridge.

Every expert has their frame, and every frame is relevant to understanding rural regions. But no frame, on its own, is sufficient.

As professionals with particular training and expertise, we each have frames that shape what we see and how we can best contribute. But the people who live in rural regions don’t live in a frame.

They live on the landscape.

Local people may not be specialised experts. But going about their daily lives, they can see the connections that experts often miss. This is why local knowledge matters, and why the starting point for regional development must always be the region itself.

Starting Points #1: Home Place

I grew up in a beautiful region that did not know it was beautiful. That is the starting point of this tale, like the ugly duckling. Once upon a time there was a region called ugly. Its language was called backward; its people uneducated. Its ancient green mountains were labelled not-city, and its productive family farms labelled not-industry.

Where you grow up matters. And what you are taught to believe there matters even more.

This series looks at regional development starting points. When working in or for or with rural regions, it’s important to understand our own starting-points. These affect how we see the regional development landscape, and how we frame problems and solutions.

The first starting point is where you are from.

This isn’t as simple as saying “I’m from a rural region.” That can be a point of credibility, of course; I have heard it used by city-based colleagues when discussing rural issues or rural communities. It suddenly become important for them to say:

I grew up in [insert name of rural town here].

Subtext: “I get it”.

Whether or not they actually do “get it” depends. But the point here isn’t about being born “rural” or “not-rural”, or some hybrid of suburban or mobile childhoods. These categories matter very little.

Rather, it’s about our specific starting-places: real physical places with landscapes and buildings, trees and rocks, people and ideas, that formed your first views of the world.

These starting points tend to keep on colouring and framing what we see, even many years later. They make a difference to how we think about concepts like regional development, and the logics we use to create change.

From my own “home place” here are three frames that still influence what I see today.

  1. The Hollow

Hollow, pronounced holler, is West Virginia dialect for the deep valleys between hills. Hollow was a word people used, but it wasn’t a proper word; nor were hollows themselves particularly proper. In the cultural imaginary hollows were wild, wooded places, hillbilly havens, full of pickup trucks and stills. In practice they were very loosely defined geographies: narrow valleys far from town, most with roads and houses. Some people admitted to living “up a hollow” though most did not.

Hollows taught me that we had our own words; I loved the sound of them, though our traditional Appalachian dialect did not fit the rules of grammar. Hollows encouraged me to look at a landscape of streets and trees and wonder what was else was there, behind the surface, down back roads, their banks tumbling wild with touch-me-nots and honeysuckle. I began to wonder what lives were lived behind the hills, right nearby, just out of sight.

Hollows taught me to look at the world from the bottom up.

2. The Shops

I’ve always had a fascination with shops. It might be because shops were where my grandmother went to escape. There was a shop called Hills and she used to take me there with her, in her big car. It was the type of shop that had everything, in the days – when I was very young – when some department stores were still local. Another local shop recycled dolls, people brought in their old ones to trade and my grandmother saved them: gave them new dresses and new hair. I still have some of those dolls.

I remember shops and I remember how they disappeared. The Hills closed, so many years ago, I was maybe five. Then Murphy’s – with the soda fountain – closed, the Parson Sauders became Stone & Thomas, some big city firm, and only the old people kept calling it Parson Sauders. K Mart came in, and another big chain, and one by one the signs went up the hill, big shiny signs in the trees, names from somewhere else. No one owned these shops; and no one seemed to control them. One day, they chopped the top off the hill. That hill became paved, with big names you know: the Walmart, the Lowe’s.

The shops taught me to notice what is local, and what is not.

3. The Roll of Stamps

When I was eight I told the grownups I wanted to be a writer. The grownups told me: Writers don’t come from West Virginia. Years later, I learned that was wrong…but when you’re eight, you believe what you’re told. Right?

Well, no. I wrote, regardless; I sent my manuscripts away to editors in New York – starting when I was about nine. Poor editors! I can only imagine what landed on their desks. Apologies if any of you are reading….

These were the days of electric typewriters, then dot matrix printers. Manuscripts had to be typed double spaced, one sided, no mistakes, and accompanied by a SASE – a self-addressed stamped envelope. That meant for one piece of writing, I needed at least two stamps: one to send it away, and one to bring it back. So all through my childhood, birthday presents and Christmas presents always included the one thing I needed most: a roll of stamps.

My words traveled in envelopes to New York, where books came from. Then they traveled back again folded up in small their SASE, with little notes to say they were not wanted.

Until I was eighteen, when a New York editor said yes.

I learned that if you start on the margins, you need to buy a lot of stamps.

Those stories from the rural region where I was born just hint at some of the ways my own starting points have influenced how I see rural people and places. I remain unshakably convinced that beauty and brilliance can come from places that other people consider poor, or marginalised, or in need of paving-over. I look for the potential on the ground and am suspicious of the shiny signs on the hill. These are my biases, and my strengths.

And what about you? How does your “home place” – where you are from – influence how you see rural regions? How does it colour and frame the causes and ideas that you are most passionate about? Admitting our biases is also admitting what we know, and what we don’t know. It is the first step toward reflexive practice: that is, the ability to see yourself and your role in the regional development story.

2021 Welcome: Regional Development Starting Points

Welcome to a new year, and a new series from the Bush Prof.

Each new year is a start – even when it starts out looking a lot like the old year. So the new Bush Prof series is about starting points.

It turns out that a great deal about how we see regional development depends on where we start.

If you start from somewhere different, you see a different landscape. I see the back of the mountain, you see the front. Same mountain, different shape.

Background, culture, history – these starting points matter for how we see regions, their problems and solutions.

Training, profession, sector, role – these starting point matter too.

Different starting points cause us to see different things, and develop different strategies for tackling what we see.

Many of the debates in regional development can, I believe, be illuminated by paying attention to starting points.

In this series, I will share my own starting points: where I came from, what I saw, why I became the Bush Prof – rather than, say, a regional economist, a policy analyst, or a bus driver! And I’ll challenge readers to consider their own starting points.

We’ll consider what these starting-points mean for what we see, and what we fail to see, when we look at rural regions and imagine their possible futures.

And we’ll identify some practical strategies we can use to fill in the gaps in our view.

It’s a big agenda, but here in Tasmania the days are long and the sun is bright. So let’s see how far we can get.

How Does Your Region Grow?… The 2020 Wrap

When I started the Spring Series reflecting on regional growth, I did not anticipate how quickly growth would appear on the horizon. Yet now that summer has arrived, it is clear that many rural regions in Australia are setting out on a growth path. Observing the sudden influx of population into our rural regions from our cities. I admit to being reminded of the phrase, Be careful what you wish for.

In much of our region, housing demand and house prices have skyrocketed as new residents arrive. I have spoken recently with several families who simply cannot find a rental property. Locals are starting to be squeezed out of the housing market. Friends and colleagues in other regions report similar situations. Housing shortages in regional areas are starting to make the news, as cashed-up city refugees head bush, seeking to alter their people-to-tree ratio.

Clearly for many rural regions, longstanding aspirations for population growth are quickly becoming a reality. Other kinds of growth – such as regional investment in property assets – are booming too. If growth is really a must-have for rural regions, then Christmas has come early. But what does this growth actually mean for your region?

In this series, we have identified 9 kinds of growth; 3 myths about growth; and some important questions to ask when seeking to grow your region. In this final post, I’d like to step back and reflect on what this all means when suddenly, everyone wants to Be Regional.

9 Kinds of Growth

One of the most important questions to ask about regional growth is, What kind of growth are we talking about? We’ve discussed 9 kinds: from population growth, to jobs growth, to growth in community capacity.

Having one kind of growth doesn’t necessarily mean you have the others. Population growth doesn’t necessarily grow jobs, or businesses, or community capacity. It depends on how the growth is managed. And that “management” is not necessarily done by managers. Households and communities play an important role in steering growth in positive directions.

A sudden influx of people from cities to rural regions can do many things, good and bad. It can grow human capital and community capacity, if the newcomers use their skills locally; it can diminish both, if engaged and knowledgeable locals are displaced. Rapid population growth can destroy amenity, or bolster it; it can infuse new life into local businesses, or bypass them.

Much depends on the extent to which newcomers are willing and enabled to engage in the social and economic life of their new region; and the extent to which the region is able to incorporate and accommodate newcomers.

If the region’s new residents ensconce themselves in home offices and spend their talents and salaries in other places, there will be few benefits for our rural regions. If locals don’t spot the business opportunities, and newcomers don’t buy local… if locals aren’t welcoming, and newcomers don’t get involved… then population growth will have few benefits.

The post-COVID digital landscape brings additional complexities. With remote working and online shopping, it is easier than ever to live in one place and create value elsewhere. If newcomers work and spend elsewhere, and locals are crowded out, this risks creating fragmented communities and a new kind of “two-speed” economy. Long-distance jobs can generate wealth in rural regions, but only if there are connections back into local economies and communities. The same goes for other resources that newcomers bring: such as their skills, networks, and ideas.

Population growth doesn’t necessarily grow everything else. What kind of growth does your region need?

What ind of growth thought bubble
Three Myths

In the Spring Series we have also discussed three myths about growth:

  • Myth #1: Population Growth will Solve All Problems
  • Myth #2: Economic Growth will Grow Everything Else
  • Myth #3: Regions NEED to grow (the ‘If you don’t grow, you die’ myth)

Each of these myths highlighted that growth isn’t always positive; and even when it is, it doesn’t necessarily benefit everyone. These three myths lead us to the second important question to ask about regional growth: Who Benefits?

It is possible for regional incomes to grow, while some people in the region get poorer. It is possible for the number of jobs to grow, but many people still be unemployed. Importantly, not only does growth not necessarily benefit everyone equitably, but growth may displace resources from some people to others. For instance, an investment in the region by foreign businesses can displace local businesses. An overall growth in income may drive local prices higher, to the point where some people can no longer afford to buy what they need.

As regions start to grow – in some cases quickly – it is more important than ever to ask Who benefits? And the flip side is at least as important: Who is bearing the costs of growth? When local people start saying they cannot find housing, or they cannot afford the housing they find, this is a warning flag. Growth is displacing resources and making some people worse off than they were before.

Who benefits? thought bubble
Towards the Future

Conversations about growth in rural regions are often about the future: growth is a goal, a set of targets, something positive to work and hope for. When growth starts to happen and we get what we wish for, then it’s time to unwrap the rhetoric and look at what we really have.

In our region…

  • What are we growing… and what are we failing to grow?
  • Who is benefiting from growth… and who is bearing the costs?

Growth has both benefits and costs; these look different depending on who you are. Sustainable regions recognise this. They harness the benefits to mitigate the costs.

How does your region grow? Not just how quickly… but how equitably? How sustainably?

Growing your Region, Myth #3: Regions NEED to grow

This post is part of the series Growing Your Region. Read the full series here.

In the last post, I started by observing how I often sit in meetings and workshops where regional growth is spoken of as something urgent, a matter of survival for rural regions. Yet it isn’t always very clear what kind of growth the participants are talking about. Growth is one of those shiny words that attracts nearly everyone, yet it is slightly blinding when it shines.

When regional growth is the topic, the next question should always be: what kind of growth, exactly? Is it population growth, or productivity growth? Growth in businesses or growth in jobs? When someone starts to talk about growth, ask: Which growth, exactly, do you mean?

In this series we have discussed nine kinds of growth that are relevant to rural regions. We have seen that growth – of different kinds – can be positive, negative, or a bit of both. We have also seen that the impacts of growth may look different depending on who you are.

In none of these conversations, however, have we seriously challenged the idea that growth in some form is central to the future of rural regions. But spring is heating up, we’re on the cusp of summer, and it’s time. Here is the hot question: Do rural regions really need to grow?

Myth #3: Regions need to grow (the ‘If you don’t grow, you die’ myth)

Do regions need to grow, in order to survive and thrive?

There are some lines of thought that suggest they do. A region that does not grow may be portrayed as stagnant, or even in decline. It may be seen as essentially unsustainable, unable to to offer opportunities and so unable to retain people and prosperity.

The old saying goes, if you don’t grow, you die. Is this true for rural regions?

The flip side of the argument is that growth itself can be unsustainable. Growth consumes resources; growth puts pressure on ecosystems. Since most resources are finite, growth cannot be infinite.

So is growth sustainable, or isn’t it? Is it part of the solution, or part of the problem?

The answer is, very simply, it depends.

  • It depends what kind of growth you’re talking about.
  • It depends on what kind of region you’re talking about.
  • It depends on how much growth you’re talking about.
  • And it depends who you are… and what you value in your region.

Take, for instance, population growth. A region with a strong and diverse population probably does not need to grow. A region with a small population on a fragile ecosystem probably should not grow – at least, not much. A region with a small and declining population may need to grow in order to survive – or at least, for local services and businesses to remain viable.

With population growth, it’s often a question of balance: enough people to provide critical mass and vibrancy; not too many for the local community and environment to absorb. But there is no scientific precision behind ‘enough’ and ‘too many’: regions aren’t rated with a carrying capacity! Enough and too many are largely questions of human preferences. What is your preferred people to tree ratio?:

Does this preference change if you are running a retail shop, or an artist’s retreat? Does it look different when you are collecting council rates, than when you are mapping species diversity?

Population growth is seldom a necessity – after all, many rural regions have survived for hundreds and thousands of years with small populations. Population growth may, however, be a preference – even, a preference masquerading as necessity. In the end, what you prefer depends on who you are.

And what about economic growth? Many definitions of regional development put productivity growth at the centre. Successful regions, through a traditional economics lens, are expected to grow their productivity – continually. But how much, for how long, can productivity grow?

Traditional calculations of productivity are problematic when they fail to put a value on the resources that are consumed in order to produce more. This is a recipe for healthy statistics and unhealthy regions. Over the long term, this kind of ‘productivity’ is a race to the bottom as it drains resources from the local place.

Productivity, therefore, must be balanced with sustainability – growth should not deplete the resource base. Some regions may need to grow their productivity; it may be the only way for them to create or buy the resources they need. But it matters what is being produced, what it costs to produce it, and who benefits. Bigger factories don’t necessarily generate more school books.

Similarly, growing jobs or incomes may be vital for regions where people lack secure livelihoods. But be careful of assumptions. Is it really more jobs that are required, or making existing jobs more accessible? Simply adding more jobs won’t solve problems like lack of access to transport or child care.

Growth is a necessity sometimes‚Ķ and sometimes, it isn’t what is needed at all. Growing human capital may be necessary in regions where the population is under-educated. But again, be careful of assumptions. Are more qualifications needed, or more recognition of what local people already know? Are more formal courses needed, or more informal learning opportunities?

The next time you’re in a room and someone says growth is the goal for your region, ask, What kind of growth?

Ask why it is needed, and what it will achieve. Ask, What are the costs?

And importantly, Who will benefit?

If you like the answers… then you’re good to grow.

Growing Your Region, Myth #2: Economic Growth will Grow Everything Else

This post is part of the series Growing Your Region. Read the full series here.

I cannot count how many meetings, workshops and talks I have sat through where the term regional growth is accompanied by words such as must, urgent, and vital. The message is that growth is not an option for rural regions, it is non-negotiable for survival. It is usually unclear, however, which kind of growth is driving this urgency.

In our Spring Series, we have been exploring 9 different kinds of growth relevant to rural regions. Each kind of growth is a process that creates different results – and results can vary quite a bit depending on the local context. In the last post, we saw that population growth can have a range of impacts, both positive and negative.

In this post, we’ll explore economic growth: another topic that can raise urgency and passion in rural communities. Recall that economic growth in practice is not a single ‘thing’; it can take multiple forms: such as growth in jobs; growth in productivity; growth in the number of businesses in a region; growth in regional investment; and growth in incomes.

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All are relevant forms of growth for rural regions – but they do not all happen in the same way, or at the same time. Further, some assumptions about economic growth can be dangerous when seeking to create prosperous futures for rural communities.

Myth #2: Economic Growth will Grow Everything Else

There is a long tradition in development work of expecting that all issues can be solved if only we had a strong economy. A strong economy, a growing economy, generates resources – and rural communities need resources. So economic growth is painted as a motor that will grow everything else.

Despite this logic, ‘economy first’ approaches have generally failed to deliver good results, particularly for regions that start from a position of disadvantage. When economic growth happens, the results tend to be uneven. Some things grow; other things don’t. Some people benefit; other people don’t.

To understand why, it is useful to remember that economic growth actually refers to a number of different processes within a regional economy. Growth in jobs, growth in productivity, in businesses, in regional investment and in incomes are all different economic processes, with different outcomes. Each has different flow-on impacts, and each benefits different people differently.

Jobs growth, for instance, is not the same as productivity growth. Jobs growth means more jobs in an economy; this benefits workers and people who are looking for work. Jobs growth may flow on to support other forms of growth, such as household income. Productivity growth, on the other hand, benefits business owners and investors, but not necessarily workers.

Productivity growth may also flow on to generate other kinds of growth: for instance if the profits from productivity are re-invested in workers (jobs, human capital), infrastructure, or community benefit. But if profits leave the region, productivity growth will not have much impact. In some cases, it can even have a negative impact: if growth is achieved by diminishing other regional resources, such as natural environments or social capital.

Growth in the number of businesses is another kind of economic growth; it is very useful for diversifying regional economies. Business growth may also grow jobs in a region – but not necessarily. Some businesses, even quite successful and productive ones, don’t require much labour. So businesses may grow and jobs not. The relationship between business growth and jobs growth may even move in opposite directions: when jobs disappear, business numbers may actually grow as people look to self-employment to make a living.

Economic growth can generate important benefits – and costs – but benefits and costs vary depending on what, exactly, is growing – and who is in a position to benefit. For instance, is growth in incomes enjoyed by many people in the region, or concentrated in the pockets of a handful of wealthy people? Economic growth can make entire regions more prosperous, or it can widen the gap between haves and have-nots, growing only inequity and disadvantage.

The relationship between economic growth and other forms of positive regional growth is often far from straightforward. It depends a great deal on how the growth is generated, and how the fruits of growth are distributed. Economic growth can create the resources to enhance local amenity; or it can sap resources from the environment and diminish amenity. Economic growth invested in people can grow human capital and community capacity; yet economic growth at the cost of people and communities can diminish both.

In the end, it is unrealistic to expect that economic growth will grow everything in a region. The important thing is to be clear about what kind of growth you are seeking to create; how growth will generate (and not diminish) regional resources; and who will benefit. This is the start of a recipe for regional prosperity.

Growing Your Region: Myths and Possibilities

This post is part of the series Growing Your Region. Read the full series here.

Growth is one of those shiny words that always seems to mean something positive. Children grow, plants grow, and when we learn or stretch or extend ourselves, we say we grow. And what about the places where we live, the places that matter to us? Can our regions grow, too?

In the last post, we identified nine different kinds of growth. All are different – yet all are relevant to rural regions. Here they are again, this time in a picture:

Recognising that there are different kinds of growth makes it clear that growth is not one single, shiny thing. Nor is it necessarily good or bad. Rather, we need to ask the question: What kind of growth? And who benefits?

When politicians or policy makers promise regional growth, what do they mean, really?

Recognising that there are different kinds of growth, that interact in different ways, can give us the tools to challenge some common myths about regional growth.

Here are some of them:

  • Myth #1: Population Growth will Solve All Problems
  • Myth #2: Economic Growth will Grow Everything Else
  • Myth #3: Regions NEED to grow (the ‘If you don’t grow, you die’ myth)

Over the next posts, we’ll look at these myths, starting now with #1:

Myth #1: Population Growth will Solve All Problems

Let’s start with population growth. For rural regions, population growth is often presented as a solution to regional problems – even, as a synonym for regional development. Yet this is not necessarily the case. Population growth simply means that there are more people in a region. This does not lead automatically to other kinds of growth.

How does population growth relate to other kinds of growth? The answer is… it depends!

For instance, population growth can lead to employment growth, if new residents use local shops and services. But if new residents spend elsewhere, growing population is unlikely to lead to more employment. It may even increase competition for local jobs.

Population growth in a region can increase local amenity, when there are now enough local people to support a bank, a footy club, or a university campus. But growing the population can also decrease amenity, when roads become clogged and views blocked by houses.

Population growth can grow investment in the region, if new residents come with money to invest. But ultimately the effects depend on what they invest in. Investment in businesses may have flow-on benefits to employment and productivity, while investment in houses may have little impact… or even drive housing out of reach of locals.

Growing population can build community capacity by adding new skills and networks into the local region; but only if the newcomers join in – and are accepted – as part of the community. Growing population can just as easily lead to fragmented communities.

In the end, population growth on its own is nether good nor bad, and it is rarely a stand-alone solution. Population growth can bring benefits, and it can also bring problems. Its relationship to other kinds of growth depends on the speed of population growth, and its nature. It matters who comes to the region, and why they are there. It matters what do they do when they get there, and how others in the region respond…. Because population growth is ultimately about people, not numbers.