Lessons learned from PoliRural: the PoliRural pilot Apulia ex-ante evaluation

In the PoliRural project, the ex-ante evaluations were done while developing the Foresight packages of twelve pilot regions. The main task of ex-ante evaluations is to support the planning process of Regional Action Plans to help improve them and thus enable transformation processes these plans are aiming for.

During the Apulia ex-ante evaluation, different essential findings were found that helped to reformulate the Apulia Action Plan. The collaboration with stakeholders was helpful because some initial problems were individuated, such as:

  • The difficulty in understanding the vision of the Action plan;
  • Too long and dispersive list and descriptions of policy challenges;
  • Policy measures were not very clear.

In general, it seems that the stakeholders consider that the participation in the evolution of Foresight packages/Regional Action Plans has increased cooperation among involved stakeholders; the participation in the elaboration of Foresight packages/Regional Action Plans has increased insights by building alternative visions and scenarios, complementing information needs and reducing uncertainties; the involvement in the development of Foresight packages/Regional Action Plans has promoted learning and gaining skills at individual, organization, community (regional) level. At the same time, the stakeholders are satisfied with the involvement in elaborating foresight packages; the stakeholders trust in the process results and approve the elaborated Foresight packages/Regional Action Plans. In conclusion, they understand responsibilities for implementation, ways of performance, and readiness of the Action Plan implementation, but not completely.

The Foresight packages/Regional Action Plan elaboration process favoured the context of knowledge and cooperation within and between the Puglia pilot and the stakeholders. For this reason, the Apulia pilot has decided to involve the stakeholders more by increasing the meetings to draw up the final version of the action plan in the best possible way.

The work done so far by the Apulian pilot has undoubtedly had a positive impact in terms of research e collaboration with the Apulia stakeholders. The ex-ante evaluations made so far have allowed us both to understand the needs of the stakeholders and how to meet them. The future impacts we hope to achieve starting from the point to the attractiveness of rural areas by targeting young people, a current and future resource, followed by investment in knowledge of the importance of digitization in agriculture. The two points are linked because, as shown by various studies in Italy, whoever uses technological innovation in agriculture is a young person. The covid-19 pandemic has also allowed many people to work from home and return to rural areas, and it is undoubtedly one of the most critical opportunities to be seized.

Lessons learned from PoliRural: new entrant in Monaghan

The rural economies in the twelve pilots of the PoliRural project are characterized by their own challenges and dynamics. To illustrate the diversity and complexity of the rural economies in the twelve PoliRural pilots, case studies on new entrants and new activities in the twelve PoliRural pilots are gathered. The case studies on new entrants and new activities in the twelve PoliRural pilots are available on the Best Practice Atlas and are interesting examples from practice that are fully or partially transferable to other regions or serve as inspiration for partners in the value chain.

A good example is the one from Monaghan: Siolta Chroi Co-operative Society Ltd, which is an environmental education and retreat centre, formed in October 2020 at an old farm in County Monaghan. They are a collective of educators, environmental activists and holistic practitioners who work together to bring opportunities to people in Ireland for deepening their connection with ourselves and wider nature through courses, workshops, retreats and projects. They carry out training and deep group work to help people explore their own selves and relationship with wider nature, they offer courses on and advocate for regenerative and resilient food systems, and they carry out ecosystem restoration work on the island of Ireland.

Lessons learned from PoliRural: new entrant in Häme

The rural economies in the twelve pilots of the PoliRural project are characterized by their own challenges and dynamics. To illustrate the diversity and complexity of the rural economies in the twelve PoliRural pilots, case studies on new entrants and new activities in the twelve PoliRural pilots are gathered. The case studies on new entrants and new activities in the twelve PoliRural pilots are available on the Best Practice Atlas and are interesting examples from practice that are fully or partially transferable to other regions or serve as inspiration for partners in the value chain.

A good example of a new entrant in Häme pilot can be visualized here.

PoliRural pilot Central Greece: The regional community is actively involved in the development of the Regional Action Plan

The Region of Central Greece continues running the pilot activity and is elaborating the Regional Action Plan. The overall vision of Central Greece is to become a digital transformation pioneer region, where people and businesses can reach their full potential and embrace the assets of technology in the key economic sectors of the region such as agriculture and tourism. To this end, three online meeting were conducted with key stakeholders of the region, including high profile members of local community, members of administration of public and private bodies and experts with a high level of knowledge in both agri-food and tourism sector. The first version of the document was discussed in detail, analysing the possible ways of improving the action plan. Most comments were received on topics such as tourism development, and pathways to connect tourism with agricultural sector.

Mariana Liaskou, Regional Tourism Officer points out: An important challenge of Central Greece is the modernization of accommodation and quality services. Special emphasis should be placed on upgrading tourist services, infrastructure, and certainly the education of the employees, while the promotion must be targeted per thematic tourism product. Synergies with local population, companies and organizations that specialize in tourism are necessary for strengthening existing tourism products (hiking, religious, spa tourism).

Vasilis Karachristos, Agronomist/ Farmer points out: Research, business and policy organizations are available, however, they should join forces and set clear goals to generate higher value.  It is not going to be an easy road, but this can be a start.

Author: Nicoleta Darra (Agricultural University of Athens)

Tools for Regional Foresight: Guide to Deep Dives on CAP Reform

One of the challenges in a Foresight exercise is to go beyond platitudes and trivialities and dig deep in efforts to understand specific challenges that each region faces the real-world options available to address them. This is why it is important to carry out a series of exercises often described as “deep dives.” A well-executed deep dive requires good preparation. To help the regional teams and shorten their workload, a series of “guides” to deep dives were prepared on key issues of concern for rural regions in general. The hope is that this will help each regional team to deepen their awareness of issues and options, that support their development of regional action plans.

The Common Agricultural Policy is currently undergoing its fifth major reform. It is in a period of transition and the new CAP will not come into force until 2023. Many of details remain to be ironed out. The most significant differences between the new CAP and previous CAPs, is that EU member states are now responsible for:

  • Defining important aspects of local CAP implementation;
  • Financing a significant part of the CAP based on a blend of EU, national and regional funding.

This means that each member state now has a certain amount of freedom in the design of the CAP and its implementation. It also means that each member state must now find the money to implement large parts of the policy. The funding provide from the EU CAP budget will not be enough and members states must now find the extra money it needs from other budgets. This is unprecedented. Arguably few member states have fully grasped what this means for the future.

So far, the EC has relied on national authorities to develop and provide them with their new CAP strategy. It expects that member states will adequately consult with its regions and local stakeholders on the nature of their proposed reforms. The reality is that for many member states this has been a chaotic and incomplete process. Arguably, there is great tension between national and agricultural visions of the green transition and how to achieve it. Farmers and the associations that represent them have been slow to accept that agriculture is like any other industry sector and must now play its part in the transition to a low carbon-economy.

Regions would be well advised to take charge of CAP reform, and make sure that it harnesses the many opportunities that the green transition will provide. The good news is that there is considerable scope for new thinking about farming and rural economy. The framework for CAP reform provided by the European Commission is quite broad. It affords great freedom in the kind of reforms that are possible, and there is a real opportunity for regions to introducing new thinking at national and EU level, if well-argued and if introduced through appropriate channels. A first step they can take in ‘shaping the narrative’ is to proactively develop a dialogue with local stakeholders via a regional Foresight initiative and a well-prepared deep dive on CAP reform.

The guide does not cover all aspects of the reform program. Many of these are a continuation of existing and well-established trends, and there is arguably little added value in reproducing what is already known and acted upon on traditional issues such as farm practices and productivity. The guide focuses on a sub-set of issues that are either new to the CAP or which are now being given much more importance than before.

Of the nine policy objectives the guide focus primarily on the objective of ensuring “a fair income to farmers” supported by objectives that seek to:

  • Rebalance the power in the food chain;
  • Increase competitiveness of the food system;
  • Create vibrant rural areas;
  • Support generational renewal.

The guide is structured around the suggestion to conduct deep dives on CAP reform that:

  • Put the prosperity of farms and farm families at the center of the discussion;
  • Recognize the essential role these play in achieving the other 8 CAP objectives;
  • Recognize the full set of public goods and services that farming provides;
  • Reinvent the rural economy based on a vision of sustainability which puts natural capital and biodiversity at the service of the entire economy and society.

Other PoliRural guides are on their way. The guide for the Green Deal has already been circulated and a guide on biodiversity is on its way. In the meantime:

  • The ‘Guide to Deep Dives on the Regional Impact of COVID19’ can be downloaded here;
  • The ‘Guide to Deep Dives on CAP Reform can be downloaded here;
  • General information on the 12 Foresight initiatives available here.

More and more people are moving to countryside – what changes they make in rural areas, if any?

On 31st January, in the framework of the Conference on the Future of Europe, a discussion was held with and about newcomers to the countryside, where Latvian Rural Forum shared results of interviews and surveys held with newcomers within the framework of PoliRural. Regional remigration specialists, representatives of Latvian Local Action Groups, researchers and newcomers themselves with their own experience stories took part in the discussion. 

The discussion covered the reasons why people choose to move to the countryside today; the challenges they face in changing their lifestyles and places of residence; how to integrate into local communities; what are the factors determining the successful integration of newcomers. Also, the benefits of local communities through the accession of young people to the established traditions of small village communities were discussed.

During the discussion, it was concluded that the contribution of newcomers is multifaceted and, in a sense, still underestimated. Newcomers to the countryside bring both new small business models and new cultural and social expressions. Newcomers are indicators of community vulnerabilities, but at the same time they work as catalysers of alternative directions for local development.

Although the reasons that motivate young families to move to the countryside are often also romantic, in the face of the challenges of real rural life, mostly connected with practical issues like road quality, access to services, they do not lose optimism and deal with everyday life creatively and innovatively, which also gives an important aspect of rural attractiveness.

Whether the countryside will be overcrowded in 50 or a hundred years, this will be shown by time, but the fact that the contribution of newcomers to rural communities has been very strong in recent years is undeniable. The results of this discussion were also published on the platform of Conference on the Future of Europe.

Progress so far in the application of SDM to Regional Foresight

The 2021 EU Conference on “modelling for policy support”, organized by the European Commission Competence Centre on Modelling, takes place during the week of 22 to 26 November 2021. Antoni Oliva Quesada and I will present a (very) short case-study of the work being done in the POLIRURAL project on the application of System Dynamic Modelling (SDM) in regional Foresight processes. So, this is good time to briefly outline the history of SDM, what it is good for, its major successes so far, and how we are trying to extend its use as a tool to support learning and decision making in participative governance process such as regional Foresight.

Very briefly, SDM has its origins in the work of Jay Forrester, a computer scientist and systems engineer at MIT, who not only invented key computer technologies such magnetic core memory but pioneered the domain of SDM. In 1961 he published seminal work on “Industrial Dynamics.” This was followed by a major publication on “Urban Dynamics” in 1969 and in 1972 by “World Dynamics,” arguably the first serious attempt to model how social, economic, and environmental factors interact with each other and the natural world, evolving over time to drive population growth, resource consumption, and prosperity at the level of the entire planet.  One of the most important lessons from his work was a demonstration that our usual “models” of how the world works, fail to capture important aspects of world dynamics, complex non-linear behaviors, which if left unchecked, could lead to the collapse of entire earth systems and an end to ever increasing growth and prosperity.

While all of this was going on, the Club of Rome commissioning a study by a team at MIT, as an input to its “Project on the predicament of mankind.” The team, led by Denis Meadows, included experts from the US, India, Germany, Norway, Turkey, and Iran, with expertise in domains such as population, pollution, agriculture, natural resources, and capital. This work relied heavily on the use of SDM, and a summary of its findings for the layman was published as “Limits to Growth” in 1972. Its main finding, supported by the use of SDM, was that “even under the most optimistic assumptions about advances in technology, the world cannot support present rates of economic and population growth for more than a few decades from now.” The use of SDM showed that only “a concerted attack on all the major problems at once can man achieve the state of equilibrium necessary for his survival.” At that time, this statement came as a shock to mainstream thinkers in economics and economic development, yet it was highly influential in helping to establish on the basis of the best science available, the basic ideas about what is required for “sustainability” and establishing “sustainability” as the state to which all who work in economic and social development need to aspire. It will come as no surprise that the report was seen as controversial and even bitterly opposed by vested interests. Nevertheless, and despite various shortcomings of the SDM approach and the modelling technology available at the time, follow-up reports showed that it was in fact very accurate in its ultimate insight that “human beings and the natural world are on a collision course”.

The first SDM was created two decades before the internet was invented. “Limits to Growth” was published half a decade before the age of personal computing started, in 1977 with the creation of the Apple II, the TRS-80 and the Commodore PET. We have come a long way since then in terms of a tremendous increase in the power of computing, the availability of data, and ease of access to sophisticated tools and communication platforms. So, it is time to make SDM tools and the explanatory power of the SDM approach ore widely available to those involved in policy development processes, ultimately concerned citizens and stakeholders involved in regional development processes. This is precisely what Antoni, and our colleagues are doing, by conducting experiments related to the use of SDM in the 12 regional Foresight pilots of the POLIRURAL project.

Our initial idea was to explore the link between SDM, and a typical Foresight process called “drivers’ analysis.” The idea was that the output of a drivers’ analysis could provide the basis for a system dynamics model that better captures the range of forces driving change in the region, how they interact and evolve over time. We quickly conclude that it is too early to try this approach and should come back to it when we have better tools, avoiding the bottlenecks that would inevitably arise in using the discovery of drivers as an important part of the design process for region specific model.

Finally, we settled on an approach based on concerns that a model be accessible and easily usable by a non-expert user, enabling them to carry out important task. Antoni has developed a general model for rural regions based on 8 interconnected modules, containing over 300 parameters. This general model has been customized or adapted to each pilot region, based on discussions with each pilot leadership team. Each regional team has provided data sets needed to populate the model. Antoni has fitted each model with their data sets, and he has made any other requested changes.

Clearly it is neither practical nor feasible for a general group of users to work with a complex model containing more than 300 parameters. So, we have proposed creating a series of relatively simple windows on the general model, composed of 3 layers. The example we have been using in our early discussions has been this. It has provided as an example of how one might approach exploring policy options for the development of rural tourism.

The first layer corresponds to a set of model parameters that reflect the performance of the system. We refer to these as the KPIs. The second layer consists of parameters that reflect the internal workings of the system. The third layer is made up of a set of parameters whose values correspond to different policies and policy choices.

In this way, the user is presented with a simple window on the model, which largely remains in the background. interface that allows him or her to make policy choices see their effect on the working of the system and the impact this all has on the system as measured by the KPIs.

Our hope is that users will be able to use this to compare different policy choices, how different policies interact with each other over time, and how different policy mixes will affect the evolution of the KPIs over time.

Based on the 3-layer model shown above, we developed the following simple interface allowing the user to interact with these parts of the model, and explore different policies and policy mixes, by making different choices of parameter. We refer to the different choices as the policy or policy mix scenarios. Running the model for the different parameter choices allows the user to observe the impact this has on the KPIs and how these evolve over time. Using the Stella tool, we have developed simple examples such as the one below to explain the principle.

So far, we have asked each team to propose a series of policy modelling scenarios for which we will design new 3-layer diagrams and user interfaces. Instead of presenting these to the user in Stella, we will make them available via web-pages in the project Innovation Hub. Our hope is that the users will be able to interact with the models via these “windows” for the purpose of exploring a variety of policy scenarios.

This is pioneering work and we are anxious to capture as much feedback as possible for these experiments, in order to make improvements and get a much deeper understanding of what might be really useful. For this reason, we have helped each team to “design” a series of experiments where they compare what they tried to achieve using these tools, with what actually happened. The results of these experiments are an important output of the project. We expect that they will enable us to get a much deeper understanding of the potential for the use of SDM in regional Foresight and support the formulation of a strategic research agenda to drive the next phase of development of this idea.

Innovating Communities in the Monaghan PoliRural pilot region

In the Irish PoliRural pilot region, Monaghan Integrated Development (MID) is leading Innovating Communities, a LEADER Cooperation project, which aims to strengthen resilience, local development and community-led action, and further PoliRural focus on improving rural attractiveness and making our rural areas more sustainable and viable. This is achieved by training community groups, businesses, and individuals in Design Thinking. The free training and mentoring in Design Thinking, which is a Creative Problem-Solving process, is being delivered through a series of free facilitated Courses formed around a locally identified Challenge.

Design Thinking is a 5-stage problem solving process: at Stage 1 a person learns how to EMPATHISE with the people affected, at Stage 2 they DEFINE the challenge, at Stage 3 the person is supported to develop IDEAS, at stage 4 they TEST these ideas and then finally, at stage 5, they MATERIALISE the solutions.

Innovating Communities invites local people to submit their local needs in the form of Challenges in a ‘Challenge Bank’ at www.innovating.ie/ideas. From there, people can view the challenge, agree, ‘like’ it and perhaps get involved in addressing it. If a Challenge is securing enough interest, it will be turned into a free facilitated Design Thinking Training Course to help the group work through the Challenge and reach a solution. Some Courses that are currently running and directly tie in with PoliRural are; ‘Attracting People to Live and Work in County Monaghan’ which addresses the idea of rural attractiveness, ‘Attracting Tourists to Sliabh Beagh’ which focuses on tourism in the area and ‘Tackling Climate Change’, which is a secondary school course with young people examining how to make a local sustainable impact in combatting a global issue.

The training uses a ‘person centred design’ approach to identify topics important to an area and the training support helps people explore ideas and the best possible sustainable (socially, economically, environmentally) solutions. The Innovating Communities team provides high level support to community groups and would-be innovators to move more confidently and creatively in the discovery and distillation of community needs, idea generation and solution testing.  The process is very democratic and aims to animate and facilitate the rural population to solve the most pressing issues relevant at the time. Innovating Communities welcomes and offers an opportunity for new community people, who may not yet be part of a formal group, to join in on a project idea with like-minded people.

To learn more visit: www.innovating.ie

The Slovak “Vision for more attractive rural areas” endorsed by stakeholders

Slovakia has long lacked a concrete long-term and binding vision for rural areas, which are undergoing gradual decline and need a strong revitalization boost. Therefore, the focus of foresight exercise in the Slovak pilot was to contribute to reversal of the current negative trend by elaborating the document of “Vision for more attractive rural areas”. Thus, the output of this project will serve as an input into further processes of broader public consultations, which kick-started already during the running of the project and will continue onwards. The process of its elaboration was equally important as the text of the Vision itself, which is also reflected by the fact that the Vision document is divided into two equal and balance parts. It is publicly available only in Slovak here.

The Zero Draft of the “Vision” document, prepared over the period of more than to 2 years in the broad participatory and co-creation process with stakeholders, was presented for the first round of discussions in two workshops in August and October 2021 and then for the final round of discussion and endorsement by stakeholders at the dedicated conference in December 2021.

This conference was very well attended by many interested rural actors, including representatives of civil society, agricultural and food organizations, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, National Council of the Slovak Republic, Presidency of Regional Governments SK8 and representatives of MEPs. Although the conference took place online, it attracted the attention of a very wide range of more than 70 actors and stimulated a constructive and interesting discussion with many stimuli. The Zero Draft “Vision” has gained an overall support and appreciation for its elaboration. The unanimous endorsement proves that the topic of rural areas can be unifying one across all political spectrum, different institutions and our society. The process of developing this draft was appreciated as a unique and exemplary model in Slovakia. The conference also created the preconditions for sharing the knowledge and experience of various actors, as well as mutual information about activities.

At the same time, the first draft of the Action Plan and Roadmap was presented for information and first round of brainstorming. Further consultations will continue, especially with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, which opened its doors to this agenda broadly. A letter to the minister was sent immediately after the Conference to appreciate his participation and request a nomination of the contact point to discuss the way how to put the “Vision” into life. A contact point was nominated shortly and the negotiations are about to start and the research team hopes that it will find a fertile ground.

During and immediately after the conference an online survey was conducted over the period of one week to find out the level of engagement of stakeholders in the foresight process and the level of their satisfaction with it. Results are encouraging since more than 80% of the total 42 respondents plan to participate in the implementation of the Vision. But there is still a place for improvement in engagement and dissemination about the Vision and process how it will be implemented.

In parallel with the Slovak “Vision” was prepared the European one orchestrated the European Commission to which the Slovak stakeholders contributed and we continue to be part of the working group on rural revitalization. It is proposed to create Rural Pact and Action Plan to make Europe’s rural areas stronger, interconnected, resilient and prosperous.

By working together, we have a chance to fill a big hole in Slovakia by adopting a clear vision for rural areas for the next period of 2040 on the basis of a society-wide consensus and thus ensure continuity, stability, clarity and strategic direction for our countryside.


PoliRural Ex-ante Intervention Case Study has been completed

The team of PoliRural has done considerable research and analytical work to develop the report “Ex-ante Intervention Case Study” under the WP6 Regional Rural Change – Pilot Phase 3. This report examines pilot teams’ efforts to evaluate the draft plans for transformative policies before their implementation. It aims to support the planning process of Regional Action Plans, helping to improve them and thus enabling the transformation processes these plans are aiming for. It should provide a good ground for measuring future results and the impacts of draft interventions.

The report is based on the analysis of 12 ex-ante reports and draft Action Plans prepared by each of the pilot regions and analyses the results of these evaluations and the effects of the ex-ante evaluation exercise on the mission-oriented transformation processes in pilot regions.

The report shortly outlines selected policy challenges. It assesses expected contributions to the key EU missions. The report also evaluates the quality of the ex-ante tasks related to assessment of internal coherence and measurement framework of planned interventions, summarises results of the pilots’ work with stakeholders, and looks for effects of the ex-an­­­te evaluation to the pilot teams.

The ex-ante evaluation results show a very high level of stakeholder engagement in the foresight processes. Stakeholder ownership of the results of this process and readiness to participate in the implementation of the Action Plans is comparatively lower, indicating the necessity for more targeted involvement of the stakeholders, emphasizing and explaining their roles in reaching necessary commitments. There are clear process effects and value in promoting dialogue between the teams and stakeholders, stimulating critical reflection and learning. 

Ex-ante evaluation will be followed by a series of ex-durante evaluations whose purpose will be to document the progress made, review the involvement of main stakeholders, and identify the first indications of intervention effects