Information, Inspiration, and Ideas for a Sustainable Rural Future

Promoting the Entrepreneurial Community Spirit

Creatively Rethinking Rural Depopulation

Scattering the Seeds and Reaping the Bounty of the Network Society

Senator Baucus' Request

Montana's U.S. Senators Get NARFI Federal Funding!
Montana Senator Max Baucus Montana Senator Conrad Burns
Montana's Senator Max Baucus and Senator Conrad Burns were instrumental in getting a $250,000 Federal education appropriation to further develop the North American Rural Futures Institute. Thank you, Senators!
[ Sen. Baucus press release ] [ Sen. Burns press release ]

One of the exciting aspects of the North American Rural Futures Institute strategic partnership with Sohodojo is that we will have an increased opportunity to contribute to policy-influencing dialogs on issues that affect rural entrepreneurs and rural small business. We'll have significant opportunities to add our voices to those reminding local, state, and Federal leaders about the important roles that rural entrepreneurs and rural small business play in creating economic opportunity and in contributing to sustainable rural communities.

While Timlynn was visiting Montana State University Northern recently as part of our preparing to further the development of NARFI and to prepare for our relocation to rural north central Montana, we were asked to contribute information and ideas to Montana's U.S. Senator Max Baucus who hosted a bipartisan brainstorming session in Washington to wrestle with the problem of rural depopulation.

We contributed two documents; an overview of the North American Rural Futures Institute including ideas for how government can contribute to reducing rural depopulation, and this brief essay of our thoughts on creatively rethinking the rural depopulation issue.

--Jim Salmons--
Entrepreneur and Futurist In Residence, NARFI
Co-founder and Research Director, Sohodojo

Creatively Rethinking Rural Depopulation

Timlynn Babitsky, Director of NARFI and my partner in Sohodojo, has asked me to think about and pass along some thoughts on rural depopulation for your upcoming brainstorming meeting.

First, let me warmly thank you, Senator Baucus, for your visionary and tireless leadership to secure the much-needed Federal appropriation to launch the North American Rural Futures Institute (NARFI). NARFI will be a valuable resource for Montana, the United States and for rural people everywhere as we network into an emerging global community intent to preserving and extending the role of rural life in the 21st Century. Thank you, Senator.

I am Jim Salmons. Together with my wife and life/business partner, Timlynn Babitsky, we are founders and Research Directors of Sohodojo, a 501(C)(3) applied research and development lab with an educational and social action agenda. Sohodojo is dedicated to the exploration and development of innovative "Small Is Good" business models and their associated software technologies supporting solo and family-based entrepreneurs in rural and distressed urban communities seeking sustainable futures.

Sohodojo is involved in a unique partnership in Havre, Montana, working with the North American Rural Futures Institute at Montana State University Northern. Together, Sohodojo and NARFI are developing education programs to support rural economic and community development with a futures-oriented perspective. Timlynn has accepted an appointment as Director of NARFI, and I am NARFI's first Entrepreneur and Futurist In Residence.

We currently reside in the Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina, have sold our house there, and are in the process of relocating to Havre, Montana, by mid-January. So, in a small way, we are bucking the trends and contributing a couple of ticks to the RE-population numbers of our rural citizenry.

Contributing Another Point of View

There are already many creative and important ideas advanced to address the challenge of rural depopulation. We won't pretend to have better ideas than many already on the table. But speaking from our own experience, we can think about this issue from the atypical perspective of the creative, entrepreneurial social activist.

The operative word there is entrepreneurial. We believe the most influential and innovative solutions to persistent and challenging social and economic problems of the 21st Century will come from visionary, creative individuals and small groups unconstrained by carry-forward commitments to large, existing organizations, programs and policies.

The Challenges and Opportunities of Rural Depopulation

The problem of the flow of people from rural to urban areas is certainly acute today, but it is nothing new. The draw of bright lights, big city has been and will always be with us. The challenge is not how to stop this natural human behavior, nor is the challenge to turn this flow down to a trickle. The challenge and the opportunity when facing the impact of rural depopulation is to understand this social dynamic and turn it into a source of economic and community development.

Before we think a bit more creatively about the challenges and opportunities of rural depopulation, let's take a moment to consider a brief thought experiment. Our question to you is this:

Would we remember and care about the success and contribution of the Renaissance Venetians if that city's fathers (and maybe a mother or two, but we're talking 13-14th Century here) were successful in developing incentive and support programs that stopped their young and adventurous Marco Polos from leaving town for whatever reason? Would Renaissance Venice have been the economic powerhouse and seat of culture that it was in its day if Venetian merchant princes had intentionally pursued a program of isolation and predictable stability?

We don't think so.

The world is evolving into what the great sociologist and professor of regional planning Manuel Castells [1] and the eco-physicist Fritjof Capra [2] call the NETWORK SOCIETY. The more we understand the underlying metabolic process of life, from its interplay in the smallest cell to its impact on the grandest levels of large social organizations, the more we realize that understanding the dynamic processes of information and resource flow and exchange is at the heart of the sustainable process of life itself.

When we adopt a systems-oriented and process-oriented view of rural depopulation, it ceases to be a problem and dramatically turns into an invigorating challenge of how we can understand, manage and facilitate this natural human behavior in ways that are beneficial to our rural economies and societies.

As we rethink the challenges and opportunities of rural depopulation, let's first recognize that population shifts are dynamic and inherently two-way.

Although there is an admittedly unlevel playing field tilted in favor of flow toward urban areas, there is no reason that folks can't move the other way, too. Creative ideas like the New Homestead Act are among the much-needed programs that will help level that playing field helping to turn our population shifts into a source of vital, sustainable economic and cultural exchange.

The Rural Depopulation Scorecard

If we had all the appropriate incentives in place, how should we think about this rural/urban population flow?

There are four behavioral scenarios where the scorecard of rural depopulation is measured:

  • keeping rural folks who are "on the fence" from leaving if they want to stay but currently don't have hope or support for sustaining themselves and their families in rural locations,
  • losing folks who must leave their rural homes for an urban Great Adventure... or maybe it's just for a job,
  • getting rural folks BACK once their Great Adventure is over and they are ready and able to return to their roots, and
  • newcomers, urban folks who are looking for something that is missing from today's urban experience.

We won't dwell on the first and last cases. Many of the current ideas about homesteading incentives and economic/community development can address the needs of the "Maybe I'll leave" and the "I'd like to come" folks. The successes of such much-needed incentive and support programs will help stabilize and redistribute the absolute numbers of population distribution between rural and urban areas.

What is most interesting to us at Sohodojo and NARFI, however, is the impact that could be achieved by creatively thinking about those second and third cases. How do we let folks go that are going to go no matter what? And how can we turn the personal journeys of those who leave into a source of economic and cultural collaboration that will create