Rural UK is diverse, different, challenged, underserved and with significant untapped innovation potential. The evidence shows that rural areas often outperform urban on indicators such as employment growth and rates, businesses per head, levels of innovation, and rural firms are more likely to report a profit than their urban counterparts.

Secondly, it can be wrongly assumed that the rural economy is predominantly synonymous with agriculture or land-based activities. The rural economy is much more diverse.

Through 12 months of intensive work with over 40 key institutions, we have developed the concept of the Rural Catalyst and within that the Rural Design Centre.

The Rural Catalyst is an overarching banner, a mission to transform how innovation is supported and encouraged in rural communities. To make a real difference, this mission must include work on policy, advocacy, research and knowledge transfer and we are working closely with the proposed National Innovation Centre for Rural Enterprise on these activities. It also needs a continuation of rural business support programmes, such as those developed through Enterprise Hubs, the Rural Growth Network, Growth Hubs and local authorities. One activity that doesn’t currently exist though is a holistic approach to innovation in rural areas and this is where the Rural Design Centre comes in.

The Centre brings together communities, businesses, research and the public sector to tackle rural challenges, leading to new products, services and ways of doing things for the benefit of rural communities.

The Rural Design Centre will use established, proven design-thinking processes to identify and solve deep-seated rural challenges. Challenges like these tend to require thinking from different perspectives and fields of expertise. This means bringing together people from rural communities, from a range of businesses across multiple sectors, the public sector and researchers to come up with ground-breaking ideas. These ideas then need to be fleshed-out and tested in the communities they are meant to help.

The approach to be used is the Design Council’s ‘Double Diamond’ of Discover, Define, Develop and Deliver. The Centre will involve all four stakeholder groups in each stage, ensuring that diverse thinking leads to solutions that are grounded in the real world. One of Europe’s top design schools, Northumbria University’s School of Design, will lead on the Double Diamond process, whilst the Centre will employ engagement specialists focused on each of the four stakeholder groups (communities, business, public sector and research).

Physical Base

The Centre will have a physical base in Stannington, near Morpeth in Northumberland. Whilst rural in nature, Stannington is close to main transport links with easy access to the A1 trunk road, North East Mainline (via Morpeth and Newcastle stations) and Newcastle Airport.

This base will be used for events, workshops and to host project teams working on rural innovation. Importantly though, much of the Centre’s work will take place in the communities it is intended to serve.

The Centre’s objective is to catalyse the development of new products, processes and services for the economic and social benefit of rural communities. These new solutions will be developed and tested initially with rural communities in North East England, before being offered nationally.

Progress

We’re 12 months in to the development of the Centre and we’ve put together a detailed business case for funding. It’s just the beginning of the journey though.