Beer, Bytes and Briefs: What I learned at a rural development conference on Sustainable Communities.

Futures of Rural Series

St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador. Photo courtesy of CRRF

What was the event?

The Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation (CRRF) hosted its annual national conference at the start of October in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in partnership with the North Atlantic Forum. The focus of this conference was on Sustainable Communities. It was a fabulous conference full of very informative sessions, fantastic field trips and great networking. Full disclosure, I am a CRRF board member, and I work for the Rural Policy Learning Commons (RPLC), a conference sponsor. With my involvement in CRRF, it is not a shock that I thought the conference was fantastic or that I want to tell you about it. However, I still feel that it’s helpful to share details from the event along with significant takeaways that I brought home.

One of the reasons I and many others enjoy this conference is the intersectoral and multi-disciplinary audience at this conference. You are just as likely to be chatting with a professor in anthropology as provincial or municipal government officials at lunch. In any given session, you can be learning from graduate students to local business operators. This diversity in both the presentations and attendees enrich the learning and make for an excellent atmosphere for discussing rural development and research at a national and international level.

What was the focus?

At this year’s event, many fundamental themes arose, and the ones I focused on were those that were most relevant to both my research and my work. My Ph.D. research on digital rural communities meant that I was paying close attention to discussions on rural broadband and digital skills. I also focused on presentations that included innovative examples regarding digital innovation and adoption in rural communities. Rural policy and rural futures are central ideas in my role as coordinator for the RPLC. These ideas are core research pillars at the Rural Development Institute, the research centre at Brandon University, which hosts the RPLC. On those fronts, several consistent themes focused on the future of rural as well as how to impact policy through research and community projects. While there were lots of excellent presentations and topics at the conference, I want to reflect on those related to the futures of rural, digital rural, and impacting policy related to rural.

Futures of Rural

With sustainability being the core focus of the conference, the future elements intertwined throughout the program. There was a lot of food for thought on this topic with keynotes and numerous panels on the future of rural work, climate, and development approaches for the future. On the economic side, panel presentations ranged from ‘Understanding the Living Wage in a Rural Context’ to ‘Transitioning to the new rural cannabis economy’ to the keynote panel on the Future of Rural Work.

Several innovative development strategies were also shared, including a presentation on youth engagement for future development to the potential for rural philanthropy to drive place-based development. Central to many of the ideas were place-based concepts and the importance of putting people and communities first. Perhaps the most important statement that cut to the heart of the future rural was put forward by Zita Cobb. Zita, a participant in the opening night keynote panel, stated that ‘We need to rewire economies so that communities are at the centre.’

Photo and tweet courtesy of Deatra Walsh

These themes will be necessary for rural researchers and policymakers to explore going forward, and RDI plans to continue the discussion with a future-focused conference and summer institute in 2020.

In my Rural Policy Learning Commons role, I am always on the lookout for comparative rural research and policy from different countries. As usual, CRRF 2019 did not disappoint as one of the keynote panels focused discussed a new regional development initiative in Ireland. The National Planning Framework is looking forward to 2040 and utilizes regional-based development to achieve social, environmental and economic goals across the country. As presenters described, the proof will be in the pudding to see if this more local approach is effective at supporting rural engagement and development. Regardless, at this point, it’s an exciting alternative to urban-centric or economic only development. It will be an essential initiative for Canadian policymakers and researchers to pay attention to the outcomes of this approach and to learn from our Irish counterparts.

One of the highlights of CRRF conferences are the field trips, and this year’s host, Memorial University, did not disappoint! Contributing to the theme of the future of rural, I was fortunate enough to take part in the “Craft breweries and distilleries as drivers of rural development” field trip. Yep, I spent the day touring and learning about the role of beer and spirits in the development of rural Newfoundland and Labrador!

The Newfoundland Distllery Co. — first stop on our field trip!

It was a great field trip, and we did get to explore and experience some of the fantastic offerings available. We also learned that craft breweries and distilleries provide both economic and quality of life benefits for rural regions. These businesses usually fill gaps in rural communities for locals while also drawing tourists to the area as well. All in all, craft breweries and distilleries are an exciting opportunity for future development in rural communities.

Key takeaway: The future of rural development starts with people and communities and must reflect a placed-based approach that takes location and context into account.

Building digital in rural

It’s no surprise that in a conference focused on sustainable rural communities, digital was an important theme. Supporting and fostering digital in rural was the central theme in several sessions, along with the poster competition. Digital tech, impacts, and tips for rural was also a constant point of discussion on the conference’s Twitter hashtag #crrfnaf2019.

As mentioned, this is an area of focus for me, and accordingly, I was involved in both panels and posters related to the topic. Throughout the conference, I also tried, unsuccessfully, I might add, to match Twitter contributions with the esteemed @ashleighWeeden. I presented on both the issue of digital capital as well as exploring what it means to be a digital rural youth. Other presenters in my session focused on the need to understand senior and business tech use in rural communities better. Another presenter documented the rapid and recent changes to island ICT infrastructure in Scotland and Ireland.

Digital Rural Posters and presenters Ashleigh Weeden and myself

Perhaps the most significant digital rural takeaway came from the keynote discussion between Ashleigh Weeden and Bianca Wylie. Their main message was to start building the local digital capacity, knowledge and systems to take back control of digital decision-making in rural Canada. For me, I left the conference with renewed confidence that digital continues to be a critical element for rural to survive and thrive. I also came home with a renewed commitment to support local digital capacity building and knowledge sharing, which I plan to do more of going forward.

Key takeaway: We need to support and build better digital capacity, knowledge and systems to realize the potential of a digital rural.

Rural policy and impact

The final area that I wanted to share was related to the importance of rural policy. Impacting rural policy was a reoccurring theme throughout the conference and is a central focus for us at the Rural Policy Learning Commons. The conference kicked off with the New Researchers Forum, hosted by RDI and led by several members from RPLC. This forum focused on turning student research into impacts with policy briefs being one key option. RPLC’s own Georgette Nyankson shared tips on preparing policy briefs in this session. The forum kicked off a great discussion about student research and policy options, which served to set the stage for the topic of rural policy throughout the conference.

One of the focal points for the conference was a keynote panel with three rural Canadian Senators, the Honourable Robert Black, ON, Honourable Mary Cole, NS, and the Honourable Diane Griffin, PEI. With the Canadian election blackout period in place, the discussion did not focus on issues but instead examined mechanics and processes for engaging with the Canadian Senate. The senator’s session was very informative and included several nuggets of wisdom for interacting with them and their peers. Amongst my favourite tips were sharing your ideas on issues with senators, including volunteering to be an expert witness; as well it was made clear that like rural practitioners and researchers, Canadian senators wanted to deepen the conversation regarding rural issues and appealed to attendees to follow up and visit them in order to create better conversations!

RPLC Executive Council Member Sean Markey

RPLC also hosted a panel at the conference focused on impacting the future of rural policy. RPLC members provided an overview of rural policy and explored turning research into policy some with specific examples from Italy. The panel also discussed policy windows and the importance of having both knowledge and networks ready to respond when policy issues arise, or policymakers ask for input. Finally, the session shared some sober findings from research that explored how policy is often made and how meaningful both relationships and timeliness are in impacting policy.

Key Takeaway: Policy briefs are an vital tool for communicating research ideas and as a resource material, but they are not the only tool and both and networks and opportunity are the foundations for impacting rural policy.

So while I am absolutely biased, I genuinely find that CRRF’s national conferences are a fantastic place to learn and network. This was my fifth CRRF conference and they have consistently pushed rural policy, practice and research across Canada and internationally. CRRF 2019 was no exception and I have come home with a wealth of ideas and new connections and with that being said, I can’t wait till next year!

Community developer, researcher and lover of things rural and outdoors