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The benefits of a rural green recovery: pinpointing opportunities, assets and support needs

The benefits of a rural green recovery: pinpointing opportunities, assets and support needs

  • Rural Economy
  • 2022-2027
Sustainable Development icon: decent work and economic growth
Sustainable Development icon: reduced inequality
Sustainable Development icon: sustainable cities and communities


The rural economy is undergoing rapid changes, with profound impacts on communities and organisations. These include the ongoing implications of the Covid-19 pandemic, EU Exit and new trade deals, and the demands of achieving ‘net zero’. Demographic changes, evolving work practices and ways of delivering services, and emerging lifestyle preferences are shifting the links between rural areas and cities. However, the benefits of economic development have not been distributed evenly across Scotland, and there is a consensus on the need to address regional inequality and ensure a just transition. Some sparsely populated areas have lost population, and the socio-economic costs of ‘places left behind’ are large. Past regional and rural development schemes appear to have had a mixed record of success.


  • How do we identify and address the opportunities and challenges of rural enterprises, to contribute to a well-being economy?
  • How can we best measure the opportunities, extent and barriers facing community wealth generation in rural contexts?
  • What are the barriers and opportunities to meeting rural housing requirements?


This project aims to identify paths towards a just, sustainable recovery. It will assess how opportunities and constraints posed by existing material and immaterial assets affect local development, with a focus on housing, transport, digitalisation, and regional food systems; how developments impact the spatial and social distribution of assets and opportunities in future scenarios; and how policy variables can influence such scenarios, leading to more just and sustainable rural futures.


Building geographical evidence: assets, outcomes, and rural diversity

Asset inventory. We are identifying stakeholders involved in rural and regional development across the public, private and third sectors. These stakeholders are being invited to online workshops to co-develop an inventory of endogenous characteristics and facilities essential for enabling a rural recovery focused on well-being.

Drawing on GIS expertise, the asset inventory is being translated into novel open datasets to show their spatial distribution and changes over time. We are also identifying spatially detailed indicators for social and economic outcomes and well-being.

The novel datasets are being analysed using geographical and statistical methods. Spatial econometric models are identifying relationships between variables, and spill-over effects between geographies.

Geographical and socio-economic implications of scenarios: This activity is generating an essential understanding of the spatial implications of scenarios on the rural economy: the distribution of positive and negative economic and community outcomes. This highly detailed evidence could be expressed as indices or typologies to support the creation of enabling processes and schemes tailored to the needs of different communities.


Co-developing and delivering responsive, topic-based engagement and knowledge exchange on the rural economy

We are identifying representative remote, rural and island areas to provide evidence via living labs on variations in characteristics influencing economic and community strength and viability. The term “Living Labs” relates to the participatory and action-based nature of the research engagement with case studies, which emphasises facilitating change while providing real-world examples of how that change is experienced. 

Housing & digitally connected housing: This lab explores rural housing needs and digital housing opportunities considering social and technological innovations. It explores what a thriving, resilient rural community looks like in terms of housing and connectivity; responses of digital housing to unequal access; and barriers to reaching the goals of the ‘Housing to 2040’ strategy. We are developing case studies consisting of semi-structured interviews, diaries, and a one-day hackathon where residents and stakeholders ‘hack’ a solution to housing barriers in their area.

Digital diversification & the land-based sector: This lab addresses opportunities for digital adoption in rural enterprises. Rural businesses have embraced online platforms during Covid-19, but there are questions about who is excluded. Through an ethnographic approach, this lab identifies best practices in using digital platforms. Interviews investigate the impacts of, and barriers to, uptake. Two case studies are being selected for working with digital champions and development agencies to co-develop training resources for rural businesses.

Community-based food distribution networks: This lab identifies the benefits of, and challenges posed by, agricultural innovations for local food systems. A case study explores the development and feasibility of vertical farming (VF) in Orkney, and the role this can play in creating a ‘hub and spoke’ model of local horticulture to provide fresh, local food. Qualitative methods explore attitudes and perceptions of VF and assess the opportunities and barriers that VF and local horticulture provide to a range of stakeholders. The economic impacts of VF on consumers and local communities are being examined by looking at a ‘basket of produce’ and local energy inputs. We are also drawing broader conclusions about the role of innovations for local food systems in rural Scotland.

Social and governance innovations: We are exploring how social and governance innovations can be supported to contribute to a well-being economy and wealth generation. The operationalisation of a transdisciplinary framework is being co-produced with stakeholders, enabling analysis of processes and outcomes, with evidence collected in explanatory-exploratory case studies.

Sustainable rural and island transport: This lab builds on a key finding of the National Islands Plan Survey (2020): the difference in life experiences between “mainland” and “outer” island groups, due to differing levels of accessibility to town-based services. Focusing on one island group, this lab aims to understand the implications of innovations such as sustainable transport for local development, the green economy, local well-being, and resilience. In-depth approaches will result in a nuanced understanding of the changing role of transport in the lives of residents and businesses.


Scoping rural futures: triangulating plausible and aspirational scenarios

We are collating and synthesising the findings of the living labs. Besides producing insights specific to their topic focus, living labs are collecting information on core questions related to central issues for the rural economy and will be responsive to economic, social, and political change.

Review of policy and economic landscape: A systematic review of the emerging policy and economic landscape is being delivered and triangulating scenarios of the future rural economy. We identify key documents and data types, followed by key databases of information and approaches for reviewing such resources, and search terms related to the ‘rural recovery’ and economic prospects to capture sector-based scenario im- plications, alongside regional insights.

Stakeholder scenario consultation and policy recommendations: This activity brings together stakeholders to develop plausible and aspirational scenarios to be modelled using agent-based modelling (ABM). National and regional stakeholders are being identified from the earlier work on the asset inventory, and the ongoing engagement in living labs. Overarching policy recommendations will be identified through a research workshop to discuss key findings.


Advanced, data-rich modelling of Scotland’s rural economy

Understanding behavioural factors: We are identifying the preferences and behaviours of rural residents and businesses and the potential for change, choice experiments (CE) and conducting incentivised behavioural economic games. The CEs are embedded in the living labs to assess participants’ valuation of place-based characteristics. We are running an online interactive experiment involving a sample of rural residents that is representative of diverse demographics, to provide insights into the dynamics of public wealth generation in a context of social interactions and heterogeneous preferences.

Agent-based model development: We are co-developing with stakeholders an ABM to simulate future scenarios of the rural economy at the regional level to eventually upscale it to the whole of Scotland. ABM is a form of computer simulation that can explicitly represent different people, businesses, organisations and places, the interactions between them and how they change over time. In this specific case, the ABM is simulating plausible scenarios of the rural economy and assesses how changes in policy variables contribute to approaching aspirational scenarios.

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