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Rinne-Koski, Katja

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[katja.rinne-koski] - 19. Apr 2021, 07:54

Networking and collaboration in rural social enterprise

In April’s ViSEnet blog, Ailsa Higgins from Inspiralba in Scotland describes how digital access has widened access to peer support, learning and knowledge across rural and remote areas.

Scotland is a recognised world-leader in the social enterprise sphere, and in 2019 had over 6000 social enterprises in operation. Most social enterprises are borne from the need to address a social or environmental issue, and statistics[1] show that social enterprise is particularly prevalent in the rural context.

In Scotland, at least 33% of all social enterprises are located in rural places, and commonly exist to fill market gaps, provide essential services, or take forward community action and aspirations. Rural areas show the fastest rise in social enterprise activity – particularly in remote rural communities, which contain 20% of all social enterprises, but account for only 6% of Scotland entire population.

The social enterprise model is proven to succeed in remote and rural villages and communities, as it offers a way of meeting needs, sustaining services, and fulfilling ambitions which is inclusive, rooted in the local community, and focused on deepening positive impact for local people and planet.

Across Scotland, social enterprise networks have been established to connect organisations within geographic boundaries, or across thematic sectors – who can come together to share learning, challenges, and benefit from a network of peer support and advice.

Scotland’s Rural Social Enterprise Network was established in May 2020, responding to the increased isolation experienced by rural social enterprises created by the Covid-19 pandemic and national lockdown.

The Rural SEN exists to connect and support social enterprises across our rural and remote mainland and island areas, recognising that while social enterprises in Orkney (closer to Norway) and Dumfries (closer to England) couldn’t be farther apart – they share many of the same contextual challenges and opportunities, and benefit from a mutual network of peer support and learning.

Since setting out the Rural SEN has grown steadily in membership and in reach, and despite zoom fatigue, ongoing busy schedules and the prolongment of lockdown measures, there is an ongoing and increasing desire to connect with people from far afield to share news and learning, offer emotional support, and discover opportunities for partnerships and collaboration.

The Rural SEN also offers opportunities to develop partnerships and work collaboratively, as well as engage in peer to peer learning – a valuable collective asset for our rural social and community enterprises.

Knowledge Exchange
We have a keen focus on supporting peer to peer knowledge exchange, and to that end have secured funding from the Scottish Community Alliance[2] to run two series of Community Learning Exchanges in 2020 and 2021 on themes identified by members as “vital for their sustainability and development”.

A community learning exchange is like a study visit, and is essentially an opportunity for individuals, groups, and communities to visit other places, and learn through the exchange of ideas and sharing common solutions. Learning exchanges are generally held in-person, but we have moved these online during lockdown to allow learning to continue.

Themes for our online exchanges have included Resilience and Adapting Services (due to Covid), Involving Young People, E-commerce, and Digital Engagement – reflecting the growing focus on digital outreach and participation, and how we ensure accessibility across demographics, platforms, and within our communities.

Legacy resources[3] from the sessions have been created from the 2020 cohort, and are in production for the 2021 series. These include ‘virtual tours’ of the social enterprises, presented via Zoom and an overview of their main challenges, opportunities, and key learning to date. The focus of these virtual community learning exchanges has been very much to replicate the traditional in-person sessions, and allow people from similar geographies or thematic areas to share what has and hasn’t worked, fostering a culture of openness and learning.

Research Focus Group
The Rural SEN also comprises a Research Focus Group, made up of SEN members who are geographically spread across Argyll, Highland, Ayrshire and The Uists. The aim of the Research Focus Group is to start a wider conversation about the questions that are important to rural social enterprises and rural places, and over the past year, the group has worked in partnership to produce a future agenda for research into rural social enterprise. The agenda asks what types of communities do we want in the future, what kind of local economies will support that and what is the contribution that social enterprise makes to this?

Key values and principles inform the work of the group, with a focus on the protection of local knowledge, which will be used to develop impact and voice for the communities at its heart, rather than being extracted by external agencies to develop their own profiles and agendas.

Silver Lining of Covid – Digital Collaboration
The main silver lining of Covid has been the improvements to equality of access for residents in more remote and inaccessible rural and remote places. In a pre-Covid world, video conferencing into a meeting could be a pretty isolated experience, and was only utilised by remote residents. The new norm has created a much more inclusive and accessible environment for people to participate and contribute virtually.

Furthermore, the shift to online has opened up a breadth of opportunities for people to access training, networking, and support, as well as highlighting potential partnerships and collaborations. Our community learning exchanges have shown that with the cost and time of travel negated – many more people are able to be involved. Learning exchanges from rural Scotland have grasped the interest of people from as far as Australia – bringing new and valuable perspectives.

The new culture of working from home has opened up new opportunities to access online education and employment opportunities, which would not previously have been offered. This is likely to boost the numbers of people seeking to relocate from urban to rural locations – in search of tranquillity, access to the outdoors, and improved wellbeing. It may also have a positive effect on retention of young people, who may be more disposed to engage in distance learning and remain rooted in their local communities.

Taking a Global View
We are looking forward to the upcoming Rural Social Enterprise World Forum[4] , and considering how best to tap into the collective wealth of knowledge and expertise that exists globally, as well as furthering international collaboration, including through networking opportunities and knowledge exchange.

The Rural Social Enterprise Hub[5] will continue to provide a focal point for research and development activity on rural social enterprise. The site is home to international, European, and national policy summaries and research papers, and also hosts a global directory of rural social enterprise – you can connect with others and add your own entry.

The Hub is also proudly home to the ViSEnet learning materials[6] – designed to support social enterprise in the rural context. Village Social Enterprise Network (ViSEnet) is a European project which aims to promote social enterprise in rural areas through learning materials, guidance, and networking.

Our carefully crafted suite of resources are aimed at individuals who are interested in developing and sustaining their rural communities, who are willing to consider socially enterprising solutions or who already have an idea for social enterprise.

You can access there here, and get in touch for more information – ahiggins@inspiralba.org.uk

[1] https://socialenterprisecensus.org.uk/wp-content/themes/census19/pdf/2019-key-facts.pdf
[2] https://scottishcommunityalliance.org.uk/
[3] https://www.ruralsehub.net/community-learning-exchanges/
[4] https://sewfonline.com/
[5] https://www.ruralsehub.net/
[6] https://www.ruralsehub.net/visenet-overview/

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