By John Magee.
When I established the Mayo Science & Technology Festival in 2007 one of the elements I was most excited about was the Mayo 2040 event. The annual Mayo 2040 event asks scientists and others to give us their perspective on how the area they are expert in will have evolved by 2040. This has been a fascinating exercise and has presented us with wildly diverse visions of the future – a future of astonishing technological capacity with immense philosophical, moral and legal challenges to be faced. Incredible opportunity emerges, yet dystopia lurks.
But in the midst of these macro trends and global visions I’m interested in the question as to what the impact will be at the micro, local level. Yes, yes, I get that the drone will deliver my pizza at 19.15 on Friday evening, which I’ll wash down with coffee brewed from beans printed in my kitchen. I get that energy will be free and at least one of the kids will be working on Mars (commuting there, obviously).
But what about the more prosaic things? Will I still be able to live healthily in rural Mayo, a number of miles from the nearest town? Will rural areas be for the wealthy alone? Will I have neighbours with kids? Will rural Mayo be an attractive, vibrant place to live? Or will rural areas continue to suffer from a slow & inexorable decline?
What is the future for a place on the edge of Europe? A place where today we read of a litany of disadvantages – from job creation, to broadband and other infrastructural deficiencies, to a talent drain and a sporting endeavour that is never quite consummated? What of Mayo, in 2040?
Much is written on the major social, demographic, technological and climate change trends and challenges we face. One thing seems certain – the future is urban. It’s now said that we live in a post rural Ireland. Really? Is that what we want? Are we utterly powerless to resist these trends in a country of only 5m people that measures a couple of hundred miles from top to bottom? Are our rural areas doomed?
Let’s look at some of the issues. Why are rural areas important?
- Some of the most impressive features of Irish society relate to our dispersed rural nature. Think of the force for inclusion, community ethos and vibrancy that the GAA represents. The local club is doing well in the championship, maybe in a county final – the place looks and feels better, everyone is an inch taller. There’s a local tragedy or other occurrence; where does the energy come from? Often the GAA club. Properly facilitated, rural areas offer a local energy that the urban will struggle to match;
- Rural areas act as a ‘lung’ for the country – we can breathe (sometimes even literally) better in rural areas. There is something intrinsic in most of us that acknowledges the importance of remaining connected with nature. Ever take kids for a walk in a forest?
- We hear a lot about the future being ‘urban’, yet we know that many urban areas suffer from poor planning, lack of affordable housing and issues around social integration and cohesion. These issues are not exclusively urban, but don’t seem to have the same impact in rural areas.
That’s not to downplay the challenges that rural areas face including a dispersed population and the related challenge of service provision; demographic changes, most notably an aging population; ensuring environmental protection including the quality of our water systems.
It’s so important to acknowledge that there are many people who actually want to live in rural areas, who implicitly understand that living in a rural area doesn’t come with all the benefits of the urban, and that there might actually be a price worth paying for the opportunity to look out the window at night and see relative darkness rather than street lights. There are plenty of people who understand rural as something more than that which is ‘consumed’ as a utility by weekend warriors.
Whilst acknowledging that people want different things from where they live, my own sense of an attractive rural place to live is that it offers:
- Some basic infrastructure in terms of local schools and broadband access, for example;
- Economic opportunity or the capacity to commute to a place of meaningful work;
- Social capital – spirit, an entrepreneurial bent, a sense of community and vibrancy;
- A place where you’re known to others and connected, where you’re much less anonymous than if you were living in an urban setting;
- A canvas or the opportunity to be yourself, to create the life you’ve imagined.
But rural life has to have more than an abstract appeal… it must be feasible, attractive even, and must be underpinned with a basic level of infrastructure that makes such a choice or decision possible. We must decide to facilitate rural life; we must make a long-term national decision and invest in the future of our rural areas. So how might we do that?
Towards a new perspective – creating attractive rural areas by 2040:
- We must question the notion of sustainability – as that which contributes to overall sustainability may not in itself be ‘sustainable’, when viewed in isolation. All those current arguments about rail provision throughout the country… we need to decide that the basis for decisions on public transport provision, for example, should not be purely economic. We’re a country and a society and not just a set of economic considerations (and there’s a massive difference!). We must avoid a scenario whereby we have an ‘annual cull’ of the most expensive element of service provision. It’s death by a thousand cuts, and kills everything in the end;
- Rural areas are not just about agriculture – a broader range of economic activities must be central to rural sustainability and we must find a way to recognise a more symbiotic relationship between urban centres and their rural hinterlands;
- We cannot have an IDA Advanced Factory in every town in Mayo or anywhere else. Ireland had some success with this approach a generation ago, but times have moved on. We must begin to genuinely put our indigenous entrepreneurs at the heart of our efforts rather than cling to the notion that someone might come from over the horizon with the jobs we need. It’s not going to be easy, but we must create the jobs ourselves. To do this we need to identify the actual competitive advantages of our rural areas and build outwards from there. We should learn from the initial success of the WAW and really embrace our peripherality. We know that we score highly in people’s minds in relation to quality of life considerations. As a society we must make it easier for people to live in areas where their quality of life is higher, as we know the outcomes are so much healthier;
- We need a transformation in approach and accept the reality that development of any sort is something that we must do for ourselves – we cannot wait for others to do it for us. This involves accepting responsibility and taking control. We need to identify the productive sectors that are intrinsically rural and we need to invest in these. This involves a mature articulation of our competitive advantages relative to other part of the country and the world and it involves investment in these areas;
- At the local level we must encourage participation in civic society. Rural Mayo has a lot to offer and it is worth getting involved in. We cannot be passive – we must contribute in order to protect and sustain. There are upwards on 1,000 civic organisations in Mayo. The collective power of these to mobilise engagement must be supported and harnessed;
- We need to consider again the potential associated with genuinely devolved decision making and decentralised resource allocation. The further we all are from the levers of decision making the easier it is for us to ‘drop out’ – to start to believe that we’re not really stakeholders in our own communities, that there isn’t much we can do about anything in fact. This doesn’t involve ‘policy proofing’, but the formulation of policy that is skewed in favour of certain things we decide are important and worth protecting. We need rural-positive policy;
- We need to facilitate our rural areas in utilising new technologies and other means of connecting and engaging;
- We don’t really have a strong sense of the region in Ireland (we’re very attached to the County and its identity) and this needs to change. Mayo doesn’t necessarily have the critical mass to compete with Galway, but a properly integrated region would allow the County’s innate strengths to contribute meaningfully to a sustainable regional eco-system.
Policy-led responses will constitute part of the solution, but does anyone remember the EU’s Cork Declaration setting out a 10 point rural development programme for the EU or the National Spatial Strategy or CEDRA in more recent times? No? Are these policy statements futile in the face of bigger trends? Have they made any critical difference or are our policy approaches trying to hold back the sea?
It is difficult to escape the reality that without the development of a longer-term perspective then the rural Mayo of 2040 will be further deprived of services and stripped of population (especially the young). Our main towns might have grown slightly, but at the cost of further local depopulation.
Is this what we want? If not, how do we develop this longer term perspective? What’s the mechanism we can utilise to arrive at the point whereby we can free certain things from the scourge of purely economic analysis? Anyone?