M. Steiner, J. Mossböck

University of Graz (AUSTRIA)
Education and innovation, i.e. the smart use of technology, are nowadays widely conceived as drivers for regional development. Can a combination of both also be applied for a smart development of rural areas?

Over the past years European regional policy based on regional economic research has emphasized the notion of a “smart” regional development. Only recently this concept has also been applied specifically in the context of rural development. The idea of a “smart” development of rural areas recognizes that peripheral or non-urban areas differ with regard to economic, social and cultural characteristics. Therefore, a one-size-fits-all policy approach is obsolete and a careful analysis of the regional knowledge capabilities and research competences as part of a “bottom-up-process” must be carried out instead. Thus, a “smart” growth strategy that aims to promote growth in rural areas has to take into consideration the differences and potentials of the respective region. Furthermore, the “smart” development concept puts special emphasis on innovation, education and knowledge potential of rural regions. The policy concept has had a particular impact on European policy makers making the smart development approach one of the main drivers in the EU 2020 innovation plan.

In this paper we provide a discussion of “smart” growth in the context of regional policy and explain why a “smart” development is of particular relevance for rural areas with respect to cooperative and collaborative learning as well as vocational training. In order to achieve this, two Austrian case study regions will be analysed on the basis of two methodological approaches: regional secondary meso-data and a survey with selected firms of the regions. The survey of the firms focused on four main topics: the forms of innovation of firms in rural areas, innovative cooperation, competitive advantages, and broader regional characteristics.

Despite their locational disadvantages, this paper attempts to identify potentials for a “smart” development with regards to innovation and cooperative learning in rural regions. Our results show that the behavior of regional firms to overcome deficiencies that are often associated with rural areas, exhibits strong tendencies towards a compensatory – and perhaps “smart” - development. Regional firms “borrow” size by establishing cooperation with trans-regional R&D and tertiary education institutions to some degree and by building production networks with firms.