The Westerkwartier is a predominantly rural area in the province of Groningen (NL), situated between the cities of Leeuwarden and Groningen. The Westerkwartier is one of the case-study areas in the research project DERREG funded by the European Commission (see www.DERREG.eu for more info). Capacity building and governance of regional learning and innovation is one the four research task (see also previous posts on DERREG).
Last Monday, October 18, Rural Sociology Group facilitated a group discussion in the Westerkwartier. The discussion focussed on: a) how the support rural regional learning and innovation is actually arranged in the area and b) how beneficiaries evaluate the quality of the support.
17 representatives from collective (grassroot) development initiatives in the area, from local and regional government and from knowledge institutes participated in the discussion.
The workshop was organised at an inspiring location: the barn of the former farm Hayema Heerd in Oldehove (see www.hayemaheerd.nl), now offering citizens the special countryside experiences to sleep on straw beds. In addition Hayema Heerd also offers to learn more about real-life farming at nearby farms. this has been set up jointly with local farmers and is called In-Boeren, what refers to learning about being a farmer.
Other collective initiatives represented in the workshop were Wichterwest, a group of women entrepreneurs setting up their own business, and the regional Agricultural Nature Association. The collaboration and joint learning-by-doing in these networks is supported by several arrangements. These arrangements can be mapped as operational interfaces between grassroot development activities in the region, supporting public policies and learning and innovation supporting facilities in the framework of what we call a learning region (see the figure), reflecting thus a map of how the support of joint rural regional learning is actually arranged (see picture).
Examples of arrangements operational in the Westerkwartier are:
- The Local Action Group (Leader);
- The Countryside House (Plattelandshuis) serving amongst others as a window for entrepreneurs and citizens with new ideas and development initiatives;
- An Atelier, which is under construction building on previous experiences with the aim to get public funded education and research engaged on a structural base in the support of development activities in the region;
- Three Touristic catalysts, supporting indivudual and collective initiatives of recreational entrepreneurs in the area.
The discussion made clear that these arrangements are important to channel the various types of support to individual and collective development activities: information, financial suport, expertise, feedback, maneuvring within (public) regulations, etc. Especially the Countryside House serves well as an entry to support as it lowers the threshold for initiators, a place were people from the area can meet and find themselves someone who coaches them and get them known in the unknown, complex world of numerous subsidies, regulations and networks.
Prime conclusion of the group discussion, as the alderman of the municipality Zuidhorn and former chairman of the LAG Jan Oomkes has aptly put it: “people in the Westerkwartier have learned to work together”. The arrangements operational in the area have indeed supported capacity building, individuall as well collectively, and stimulated initiative and leadership. In the process of developing ideas, face-to-face contacts, personal networks and serendipity are seen as important. And this clearly marks the tension between learning and innovation as an informal process one one hand and organizing them in formal arrangements as the latter might be contraproductive the the first.
A second conlusion was that intermediate persons operating within in different arrangements play a key role as brokers between development initiatives, policy schemes and knowledge institutes. Thirdly, meeting places in the area such as a Countryside Café (an event open to all citizens to inform them and to discuss issues) and the Countryside House are important, threshold lowering opportinuties in creating and maintaining networks. The Countryside House also combines different types of support for entrepreneurs and citizens, literally under one roof in the midst of the area. Fourth, professional brokers such as touristic catalysts do stimulate the formation of regional and later also of extra-regional networks. Good practices and good experiences create trust and by means of tongue to tongue others are triggered to join and participate as well. Finally, an important way of collective or social learning is the exchange between persons with a common interest. Entrepreneurs for example learn from each other during excursions, business visits and from lectures of colleague entrepreneurs.
Similar groups discussion will be organised in five other DERREG case study areas. The next stept is to exchange our findings with our partners and a consortium meeting at November 29 and 30 in Wageningen.