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How will rural areas be in the future?

BLOG – 27/07/2020
by Giampiero Mazzocchi and Gianluca Brunori, University of Pisa

To understand the rural areas and the phenomena that affect their development, it is necessary to look at the major trends in progress and the scenarios that they open for the next 20-30 years. As part of the SHERPA project, a review of a sample of foresight and scenario studies was conducted at European and global levels. The document unfolds in three main sections: the review of foresight and scenario exercises, high-level megatrends and trends, and drivers and impacts of particular relevance to rural areas.

This review considers two groups of reports: foresights from EU (ESPAS) and international research (WEF Global Risks Report 2020 and OECD Regional Outlook 2019 and Rural 3.0), and EU-funded projects. Scenarios for rural areas with different reference periods have been taken into consideration: from 2030 for EDORA to 2050 for SALSA, SoilCare and TRANSMANGO. Besides the projects mentioned above, the review analyses H2020 projects VOLANTE and LEI Wageningen’s meta-analysis Alternative futures of rural areas in the EU.

Overall, the document shows that the EU will be impacted by a variety of trends over the next two decades, which will produce their effects differently over urban and rural areas. Population aging and migration, the urbanisation processes, climate change, digital technologies, the health sector and the governance of territorial balances are the key aspects that would have an effect on rural areas’ future. Their persistence, scope and entity depend on some decision-making points on which the EU is today forced to provide answers, as well as on dramatic exogenous and endogenous game-changers.

In addition to this scenario, there are the uncertainties related to the long-term impacts of COVID-19. This represents an unexpected and dramatic situation, which, if accompanied by adequate territorial policies, can reverse or at least reduce the development gap and the economic divide that afflicts rural areas. As stated in the document, “this creates a new context for some probable or plausible futures. They do not change all assumptions or forces that shape the long-term future, and thus the basis of most foresight or scenario exercises. However, it could change the short- or medium-term pathways towards those futures”.

The foresights pose a particular emphasis on how new technologies will affect rural areas. Technological change presents a threat and an opportunity in equal measure to rural areas. The constraining factor is not technological availability, but institutional factors such as awareness, administrative capacity and political will.

One of the main evidences of the document is the profound interrelationship that exists between rural areas and the various sectors of the economy and society. What emerges clearly is that it is necessary to think about the development of rural areas looking not only at the agricultural sector, but identifying the solutions that can make rural areas attractive and sustainable in their complexity: from access to services to the management of natural resources, from migratory and demographic flows to urban-rural links (recognition of ecosystem services, commuting, agricultural markets). These aspects need to be tackled with targeted policies, which take into account the different degrees of remoteness of rural areas and their economic performance. Furthermore, the richness of natural, social and cultural capitals needs to be maintained and improved through a systemic combination of technologies, business models and governance models.

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