Growth at the very edge

Born and bred in an inner city, I’ve had my preconceptions of social enterprises as well funded, technologically capable and fast growing entities that exist, quite commonly in urban deprived areas. The very word enterprise has synonyms of ‘boldness’ and ‘inventiveness’ that is all encompassing. Coupled with the idea of the ‘Starship Enterprise’, it might lead someone like me to believe it to be some abstract yet powerful third sector force to be reckoned with.

The reality is that many social enterprises are fragile organisations that can suffer from a lack of guidance, funding and resources. This could not be truer for many rural and remote community enterprises in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, where life can change completely on the roll of a dice. Communities in these areas can live on the tipping point with depleting populations, poor transport links and lack of infrastructure. All of which can be contributing factors to the small population size in many rural communities in these areas.

Of the existing populations many choose to migrate to mainland cities like Inverness and Aberdeen to gain an education or to look for work. This can result in a disproportionately large ageing population, threatening the future development and sustainability of communities.

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To me the idea of this was initially hard to comprehend. Imagine an island with only 100 inhabitants, 10 of which are aged between 18-30yrs, what happens if 7 of these leave to go to University? How do keep the remaining 3 people from leaving?

Like in inner cities, social enterprises in rural and isolated regions are built from the ground up with the intention of strengthening and sustaining communities economically, socially and culturally. Yet, if social enterprises in remote areas are primarily governed and run by ageing populations this brings into question their shelf life. The very nature of these enterprises is that they are community led and governed in such a democratic way that everyone is entitled to a voice. But what if the voices are depleting? Who continues the conversation?

It could be said that the future of social enterprises in fragile remote and rural locations lies in community development initiatives that involve a cross section of all age groups. However, opportunities and anchors for young people must be put in place to persuade individuals not to leave and also to attract young outsiders to move into these areas. This may include targeting them as service users, employing them as staff members, or electing them onto boards of governance. Their skills and opinions must be utilised and coveted. But this is not as simple as it seems.

Of course there are many factors that require consideration, but here are a few of my initial thoughts: Community development may involve the delivery of ICT education, installing of broadband internet and workplace placements for young people. But this could serve to broaden the horizons of young people and open them up to a world of possibilities outside of their community, which may make them more likely to leave. Similarly, universities across Scotland are offering opportunities for young people from rural areas to move away from home and study in large cities to improve their job prospects.

Interestingly, the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) based in Inverness offers courses that cater to rural industry such as forestry, tourism, game-keeping and sustainable energy solutions. Courses can be studied online or remotely at one of their many campuses which could ensure that young people’s skills are re-invested into rural development and conservation within their communities. But, in the same breath, young people’ skill sets must have a welcome place back into the heart of their rural community home. They must be recognised as vital assets for the future of social enterprises and communities themselves.

Ultimately, without the utilisation of youth ideas and skills into rural social enterprises, we can only hope that ageing populations are living long enough to leave some kind of enterprising legacy for the next generation to build upon.