There is a saying where I’m from which says ‘the shorter the scrub, the friendlier the people’. I believe it originates from an Eyre Peninsula local known affectionately as ‘Scuzz’ Davey.
The short scrub (short trees) is describing a low rainfall area, or marginal agricultural country. Due to the harsh and unforgiving country, the pioneers who settled those areas had to be very innovative and resourceful in order to make a living off of the land.
The reason these marginal areas were thought so friendly, was that the people based there didn’t take anything for granted.
They understood fully, the benefit of having others come into their community — new knowledge, new collaborators, new bodies in the labour force, and the resultant increase in social and economic activity in the community.
More families in a community meant a higher likelihood of prosperity in future years, so every passerby was welcomed with open arms and hosted with generosity of spirit. They were considered an invaluable absolute asset.
People based in these communities also knew that they had to work together with their neighbours and share ideas and resources in order to survive.
Relationship building and collaboration was in fact a vital skillset.
The shorter the scrub, the friendlier the people
The above phrase implies that relationship building, collaboration and resourcefulness are part of the legacy that has continued to be passed down through the generations of rural communities in Australia.
Let’s look in a bit more detail, at what resourcefulness looks like.
In rural areas, going to work each day means travelling a significant distance away from your home base. It’s important to make sure you have everything with you that you might need to get yourself out of a spot of bother during the day (because it’s a long way back to the workshop if something breaks down, and a huge loss of productivity).
In my grandfather’s era, a farmer could fix almost anything with a pair of pliers and some fencing wire (in the current era, perhaps the emergency repair kit also contains zip-ties and some duct tape).
With these things onboard and a little ingenuity, a farmer could adapt, repair, improve or repurpose something.
And when you are geographically isolated from service providers, you need to be able to employ a sense of ingenuity, use your problem solving skills and go through a process of trial and error until you get things functioning in the way you need them to.
Necessity is the mother of invention
In rural areas, being able to innovate is crucial to remaining productive. And of course, it is not only those working in agriculture who are problem solving and innovating as an ordinary part of rural life — it could be any household or business, simply doing what needs to be done in order to get a job finished.
People often associate innovation with tech companies, but of course, innovation can take place in a variety of shapes and forms (and certainly in a range of different entities and environments). Rural innovation does not usually look like a tech company.
The level of innovation of a region is traditionally measured by the volume of patents that are registered. In my humble opinion, such a statistic is a misleading indicator of innovation – especially in rural regions.
What happens to all of those ingenious fixes and innovative solutions above? How often do you think they are registered as patents? My guess is, rarely.
To me, this is just one of the ways that we overlook innovation. We don’t always give it credit for what it is, because innovation in rural areas doesn’t look like innovation in other areas.
What else might we be overlooking?
What are the broader impact and opportunities here?
Think for a moment about a farmer who solves a problem on-the-fly, to get a piece of machinery up and running in a race against the weather.
Now, let’s try to imagine how many other operators on the 570-odd million farms in the world would have faced that exact same problem at some point in time.
The existence of shared problems implies that there would be a demand for the solution created, if it were available on the market. And shared solutions lead to shared value and thus, community impact.
There for the act of sharing solutions has the potential to catalyse new economic activity, something that rural areas experiencing contraction and decline, are in desperate need of.
Greater productivity has the potential to lead to employment creation >> payment of wages stimulates spending >> spending impacts housing markets, schools, doctors surgeries, supermarkets and nearly everything else in a rural community.
Innovation and entrepreneurship makes the money go ’round. Shared value makes it profit with purpose, an ecosystem as opposed to an egosystem.
What If . . . ?
Let us ponder for a moment, what would happen if every modern farm vehicle (tractor, header, truck) had a 3D printer in it, which could reproduce solutions generated in a days work?
In an ideal world, these could be mass produced locally and sold anywhere in the world. What might something like that do in terms of economic stimulus for a small rural community, if it were to create new and diversified revenue streams and employment opportunities?
Here’s another idea. Imagine if every solution created and printed by a farmer could be uploaded to a shared value platform, downloadable by anyone with a mobile phone?
In the age of precision ag, big data and multiple screens in farm machines that are connected to global satellites, such an idea is a far cry from science fiction.
The OECD released a report back in 2014 called ‘Innovation and Modernising the Rural Economy’ in which it identified that the future prosperity of rural regions will be driven by enterprise, innovation and new technologies, tailored to specific markets and applied to new and old industries.
People based in rural areas need to recognise that their ability to problem solve and find innovative solutions to complex problems is a unique strength.
It could be that a rural persons fortitude and resilience – the ability to find a way to ‘get on with it’ – is an asset that they have not yet realised they can leverage (not just for their own benefit, but perhaps also creating a significant impact on their community).
Finding shared value approaches to problem solving is a passion project of mine. The objective of the Global Rural Community platform that I am currently developing, is to provide a place where people can upload innovative solutions that they have found to common rural challenges, so that rural communities everywhere can benefit.
My hope is that an open-source system of shared value can ultimately help communities become stronger through increased knowledge, and more resilient by tapping into a diverse range of information, experience and ideas that have already been through the process of trial and error.
If this article left you reminiscing about a particular unique solution to a common rural challenge that you’ve seen, or perhaps a quick fix that was developed in the paddock to get you through the day, I dare you to share a comment below (double points if you include a photo)!