Mary Doyle
Jan 11 · 8 min read

You’re in a room with a table pushed against the wall. On it is a box of thumbtacks, matches, and a candle. You must attach the lit candle to the wall in a way that the wax won’t drip onto the table or floor. How do you complete this task?

The famous candle problem was a psychological experiment created by Karl Duncker and published in 1945 to test a person’s problem solving ability. In order to solve the problem the participants had to overcome their tendency toward functional fixedness (a mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem.)

The object in this case was the box holding the thumbtacks, which could be tacked to the wall and used to hold the lit candle. When the problem was presented with the tacks on the table beside the empty box participants were much more likely to figure it out. When the tacks were inside the box, the box had only one function — to hold the tacks. It was not immediately perceived that the box could have any other function and could be used to solve the problem.

You’re on a planet with a population that is growing rapidly (current 7.6 billion, projected by 2050–9.8 billion.) Conservative estimates suggest that by 2050 global resident distribution will be 68% urban and 32% rural resulting in increasingly overcrowded cities and shrinking towns, and creating sustainability and viability issues for both. You must create a future for people and planet that ensures the health and wellbeing of all while addressing rural and urban realities. How do you complete this task?

Up until now, we’ve been trying to solve this challenge like it was the candle problem with our functional fixedness blinders on. The “tack box” is our rural communities. Through a lens of functional fixedness they have no real purpose anymore as people are leaving and moving to cities. Our current solution to the global population challenge is to focus on building bigger and better urban centres, redirecting all of our resources to that end.

Yes, densification is logical in order to meet basic human needs as we continue to urbanize. Densification creates a smaller ecological footprint (energy efficient multifamily dwellings and public transportation requiring fewer cars.) Cities also currently account for 80% of global GDP. But none of that means that rural communities don’t have a role to play.

The candle problem as we are living it is unsolvable without rural community participation.

Our future will be dominated by technological innovation in areas like robotics, artificial intelligence and the Internet of things as part of the 4th Industrial Revolution. 65% of children today will be working in jobs that don’t yet exist. By 2030 there will be 39 megacities with populations of over 10 million people. The scale and speed of change will be staggering. How can we imagine a future where our natural environment is only a corollary consideration? Our rural communities are established connection points with nature. The people living in these communities are there by choice and are like human wayfinders. (Wayfinding refers to information systems that guide people through a physical environment and enhance their understanding and experience of the space.) A short sighted solution that disregards our rural communities will severely limit human potential and growth.

Perspective can be binding or liberating. Functional fixedness is not limited to urban participants. Rural advocates in the room have to start exploring new perspectives and solutions as well, and stop yelling “but we hold the tacks…we just need more tacks!”

Know Your Worth

Not to diminish “intrinsic value” as it describes our natural environments, but when in the candle room, it’s easier to make a case (and be heard) when value is tangible. We can protect our intrinsic assets best by attaching a dollar value to them. As offensive as that sounds, “priceless” in this room, at this point in our evolutionary history, means valueless. It’s easy to take. It’s easy to abuse. It’s easy to reject. And it’s easy to discard.

Instead of Intrinsic Value we should be talking about Natural Capital. Natural capital can be defined as the world’s stocks of natural assets, which include geology, soil, air, water and all living things — assets that occur in nature and can be used for economic production or consumption. (Street trees in California provide $1 billion per year in ecosystem services through atmospheric regulation and flood prevention.) According to an article by the World Economic Forum, the answer to the question “How much is nature worth?” is $125 trillion US dollars! That’s a lot of intrinsic value.

To be a steward of nature has traditionally precluded financial gain. The two have been mutually exclusive, even antithetical. For the health of our people and planet, that has to change. The guardians have to become businesspeople. The good news is that there is a framework for it: the Triple Bottom Line. Instead of focusing solely on the bottom line (profit/loss) business value is determined based on a social, environmental and financial framework.

This is where entrepreneurial thinking and entrepreneurial ambition are so important. Solving next generation human problems with our natural capital is our rural advantage. Doing so in a sustainable, respectful way is living Rural on Purpose.

Let’s go back to our problem

You must create a future for people and planet that ensures the health and wellbeing of all while addressing rural and urban realities.

Here is one (of many) potential rural candle problem responses:

If progress is the legacy of urban, wellness is the legacy of rural.

From studies in happiness such as the World Happiness Report and national studies like the recent Canadian survey that look at the geography of wellbeing, people are reportedly happier in small towns than in urban centres. Other studies report that nature relatedness is a significant, distinct predictor of happiness. In fact, a whole new field of Ecopsychology has emerged exploring the relationship between personal health, wellbeing and nature. There is a mountain of evidence that connects nature with wellness.

Human Wellness

Let’s look at the numbers:

  • the global wellness industry is a 4.2 trillion dollar industry and growing twice as fast as the global economy
  • Wellness expenditures ($4.2 trillion) are now more than half as large as total global health expenditures ($7.3 trillion)
  • The wellness industry now represents 5.3% of global economic output


Workplace Wellness

The current and future workforce challenges are set to disrupt every single person in the workforce in some way. The speed at which change is happening is creating greater stress in the workplace and will continue to result in productivity losses associated with employee wellness. Workplace wellness solutions are going to be in urgent demand. The workplace wellness industry is currently valued at $47.5 billion dollars.

Wellness Tourism and Travel

This industry is currently a $639 billion dollar industry and is more than double the growth rate of tourism overall. Wellness tourism appeals to travellers interested in taking care of their mind and body as they vacation and travel. Consumers are looking for opportunities that combine a healthy environment with a unique experience that promotes physical and mental health.

Wellness Real Estate

Valued at $134 billion dollars and 1.5% of the total annual global construction market, wellness real estate is a hot market. It is “real estate that incorporates intentional wellness elements into its design, materials and building, and its amenities and programming.” Entire wellness communities are being developed according to a recent Fast Company article.

Rural communities can become the centres for human wellness in all of its forms. (healing, support and recovery — addictions, loss, stress, anxiety, trauma, spiritual and artistic services and retreats, proactive health services — yoga, adventure, nature, food.) These are real opportunities to use our natural capital to benefit rural communities and solve big urban challenges.

Rural/Urban Divide or Partnership?

More and more we look to government to fund and support our communities, leaving us vulnerable to shifting perspectives and priorities. It’s true that there is greater global consensus around the need to measure and value our natural capital and governments are starting to include it in their policy and decision making process, but the faster moving cities and corporations are the ones best positioned to act first and build unique and powerful partnerships with rural communities. Cities are making decisions that are in their own best interest and are, in some cases even diverging from the position of their country. New York and San Francisco have committed to the Paris Agreement even though their country has rejected it according to a World Economic Forum article entitled, “Here are 5 predictions for the future of our cities.”

From the United States’ National League of Cities to the international Global Parliament of Cities, mayors across the world are forging partnerships that derive their power from shared interests rather than geographical proximity or political collegiality.

In a world where staying ahead of the curve is a competitive advantage, looking beyond your own cohort for innovation is essential. Cross-industry innovation is all about seeking new solutions that may be outside of your own area of expertise. Cities investing in the preservation, curation and development of natural spaces for wellness, by strategically partnering with rural communities, may be one of the smartest value-driven disruptions we see in the coming decade. Investment in wellness means investment in rural.

So, if people and production are all in cities, why invest in dying rural communities? Whether it’s hubris or a measure of functional fixedness, our current, limited perspective has to change if we are going to solve our global candle problem. Rural is not a dead expense; it’s a critical and valuable asset that needs to be protected and developed to support the wellbeing of all people, especially our growing urban population.

Are you living Rural on Purpose?

In future blogs I will continue to look at the role of rural communities in the 4th Industrial Revolution as I examine workforce development and education.

Mary Doyle

Written by

I build and pilot programs that support and promote entrepreneurship in rural communities.

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