Smart Villages as a framework for inclusive regional growth

Inclusive Growth

The headline message of the Scottish Government’s new economic drive is ‘Inclusive Growth’.

Smart Villages offer a technology-driven platform for achieving this across rural Scotland.

At the most basic level Smart Villages provide a relatively simple technology to small communities, their own web site with a directory, e-commerce features and more; widely available for many years but still, requiring skills that not many have easily available.

However their ultimate purpose goes much deeper than that, intended to act as a wholesale catalyst for economic and social transformation, what can be defined entirely through a model of Inclusive Growth.

Inclusive regional growth – Bottom up vs top down

Last year the Improvement Service published this RFP, a request for research to identify how best to achieve enhanced inclusive growth across Scotland, driven at a regional level by Local Government.

The fundamental challenge with this is that very core premise, that economic growth can be driven in a top down fashion by government.

This challenge and alternative approaches is articulated very effectively through this CommonSpace report ‘Mapping Economic Potential in North East Glasgow‘.

The report describes chronically deprived areas of Glasgow and how traditional Economic Development strategies have failed to address the issue despite decades and huge sums of investment:

“A toxic combination of neglect at local authority level and macro policies pursued by successive distant governments has seen potentially beneficial policies being overlooked in favour of ‘topdown’ regeneration policies which encourage gentrification and the pushing of marginalized people further to the fringes of the city, with too much reliance on multi-national companies to create jobs.”

Instead what has proven successful is a highly localized, bottom up model capable of incubating and supporting lots of small local projects.

The report describes examples such as the Barmulloch Community Development Company, started from nothing and led by the community in establishing itself as an institution providing services for everyone in the area to enjoy.

In short government needs to think more in terms of providing tools and financial support to enable communities to self-generate their own success, rather than it be something that is achieved through their own direct efforts.

Accelerating the Broadband Digital Economy

The nature of the challenge is further explained in research work from Scotland’s Centre for Regional Inclusive Growth. In their analysis of North Ayrshire they provide a detailed analysis of what causes deprivation arising from exclusion.

This tells a story repeated across Scotland – An area fallen into poverty following the decline of it’s legacy industries and a lack of adaptation to this trend resulting in communities with low rates of new business startups, productivity, health and inclusion.

They identify what’s missing in addressing this situation, such as slow roll out of digital infrastructure and poor coverage (mobile) and lack of appropriate business premises.

The lack of digital infrastructure and associated skills is the big stand out, as this has cascading effects. For example the lack of these skills is a primary cause of failing to attract new business investment, and consequently there is a lack of jobs resulting in the highest rates of unemployment support for any local authority.

“The lack of confidence in using the internet affects the employability of people overall, as better digital skills may be beneficial for the individuals both at a private level and in the workplace. The ability of using the internet would also counterweight the issue of physical distance (e.g. less need of travelling).”

The report makes it clear that there is simply no getting away from the root issue – A lack of adequate broadband and Internet access services and associated digital skills.

The central challenge for the government is the definition of insanity – To keep using the same old economic approaches but expect different results, to hope for inclusive growth from approaches that have consistently failed to achieve them.

For example the £250m investment deal for the region is yet more top down, major infrastructure works and enterprise programs intended to generate jobs from large employers, exactly what the Commonspace report describes as previously failed approaches for local economic regeneration.

At the same time the Scottish Government is failing to roll out broadband nationally at an effective pace and so the very causes of social deprivation remain unaddressed.

Digital Tourism As A Catalyst for Local Economic Regeneration

Our Smart Village initiative offers an alternative paradigm for local economic development, one that enables a bottom up, self-sustaining model. Rather than being reliant on government and a few big employers to create economic prosperity, it enables the community to self-generate it.

Instead of a small number of large employers this approach builds lots of little, local employers, entrepreneurs drawn from the community itself, empowered through online capabilities and digital skills.

Lanark is a great example, an epitome of the economic challenges faced across Scotland whole, and highlights the role that key activities notably ‘Digital Tourism’ can play in catalyzing and accelerating local economic growth.

Today the town is symptomatic of these broader economic difficulties, with the high street a showcase of deprivation, such as the derelict Royal Oak hotel and similarly run down old Regal cinema across the road.

Tourism is a key driver that can reverse this trend, but as the Carluke Gazette reported, a byproduct of Scotland’s increasingly centralized approach to tourism marketing has resulted in a loss of localized resources for this purpose.

This is a chronically sad situation, when you consider the heritage assets the town is blessed with.

With a deep involvement in the history of William Wallace, Scotland’s most iconic, globally known hero, the town has a goldmine of rich content ideal for online digital marketing campaigns, linking local folklore to global audiences, aka “Harnessing the Outlander Effect“.

However currently the town takes no steps towards exploiting this asset. The Braveheart movie is a brand that hundreds of millions of potential tourist visitors from across the world are familiar with and inspired by, but there is no online campaigning to connect that to local tourism packages.

Smart Villages not only make this possible, eg. check out Smart Strathyre’s promotion of their local history icon Rob Roy McGregor, easily produced by the local residents themselves, but it makes this capability widely scalable – Our platform is ready to provide a Smart Village to each and every of Scotland’s 2,000+ rural communities.

Conclusion

As well as the content marketing tools each Smart Village site is equipped with key features like travel tour booking, so that this traffic can be translated into business for local tour operators, hotels etc.

And this is just one of the features. It can also cater for ‘Virtual Farmers Markets‘, enabling local crafts people, those who typically have not yet mastered online sales, with e-commerce tools to do exactly that and within this context of local heritage branding.

When combined with other key programs, such as setting up a local co-working centre and entrepreneurship support program, then it makes possible the bottom up, locally-driven economic development model essential to truly realizing Inclusive Growth.

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