Information, Inspiration, and Ideas for a Sustainable Rural Future
Promoting the Entrepreneurial Community Spirit
Montana's U.S. Senators Get
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.
Entrepreneur and Futurist In Residence, NARFI
Co-founder and Research Director, Sohodojo
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.
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 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  and the eco-physicist Fritjof Capra  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.
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:
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 ‘win-win' exchanges between the places where these folks go and our local rural economies?
At Sohodojo, we use the word scatterling to describe the personal experience of social migration. The scatterlings of Montana, those who choose to move away, contribute to our rural depopulation.
When we think of the effect of scatterlings, we should recognize two things:
Since we truly do live in a Network Society, scatterlings are a VITAL ELEMENT of our establishing connections in the world outside our own communities. And once scatterlings have run their course, like Marco Polo, they can return – alone or with newfound companions – to enrich and extend our local world.
Creative Class Adds Heat
There is a growing recognition that creative entrepreneurs and networks of small businesses are at the heart of growth and sustainability of local economies. This idea of the power of creative individuals flies in the face of those who think that large corporations are the primary source of jobs and community development.
The misguided fascination with incenting corporate relocations leads to the plague of corporate welfare that further unlevels the playing field for independent small business. This unlevel playing field contributes to rural depopulation as the urban centers offer the sweetest relocation deals.
Learn more by reading Carnegie Mellon Professor of Economic Development Richard Florida's latest book, The Rise of the Creative Class.
Sohodojo is working on breakthrough business models and associated Internet-based software technologies to support decentralized and distributed networks of solo and family-based entrepreneurs. We call these businesses Small Is Good Business Webs. These businesses are fundamentally network-based. We don't plan just to cope with the scatterling effect; we intend to CAPITALIZE on it.
Nearly every person has a life-long "sweet spot" in his or her heart and mind for the place where he or she was born. I am from Baltimore, Maryland. I love Baltimore and do anything I can to help it be the great place I know it to be. Now in my fifties, I've lived longer away from Baltimore than the time I spent growing up there. But I am still a Baltimorean in my heart and in my mind.
The same is true of Montana. Born a Montanan, forever a Montanan. We need to know where our scatterlings are. We need to map who we are and where we are. Knowing this, we can begin to establish a vital network of Ambassadors of Good Will, Trade and Cultural Exchange.
In the Network Society, performing ambassadorial service is not something limited to professional diplomats relating one nation-state to another. We're all ambassadors, networkers working on behalf of our home and our host communities to create 'win-win' relations that create sustainable opportunities for exchange.
We need to understand that rural depopulation is a dynamic within the Network Society. We need to understand that it is a natural human behavior that can add heat to our local economies and cultures. We need to understand that by letting go, we can get back.
We welcome opening a dialog with anyone who sees the future potential of the opportunities as well as the challenges of rural depopulation. Sohodojo and the North American Rural Futures Institute are open for business and ready to collaborate with those envisioning and bringing to life programs and collaborative networks committed to constructive, positive change in how we approach rural economic and community development.
Don't stop doing what is working for you. Don't stop pushing forward on creative ideas that you have yet to implement. There is, after all, no one right way to address the challenges and opportunities of rural rebirth. But do partner with us if you see the creative potential lying just below the surface of our most vexing social and economic challenges of our rural future.
Thank you, Senator Baucus, for allowing Sohodojo and the North American Rural Futures Institute to contribute ideas to your brainstorming session on rural depopulation.
--Timlynn Babitsky and Jim Salmons--
Director and Entrepreneur/Futurist In Residence
NARFI - North American Rural Futures Institute
Founders and Research Directors
Sohodojo - 'War College' of the Small Is Good Business Revolution