RUSTIK Living Lab in Austria’s Nockregion-Oberkärnten – Navigating the Future: Small Rural Businesses in Focus

Welcome to the inaugural Living Lab Report for the Austrian Pilot Region, Nockregion-Oberkärnten, situated in the heart of the Central Alps within Carinthia’s southernmost province. Covering 1,324 km² and encompassing 17 municipalities, this region grapples with the persistent challenge of population decline. With only 15% dedicated to permanent settlement, the economic landscape thrives on key sectors like tourism, agriculture, forestry, trade, industry, and construction.

Living Lab Challenge

Our Living Lab challenge focuses on Small Rural Businesses (SRB) in Nockregion-Oberkärnten. Initially exploring the application of a Quality of Life (QoL) Index, we redirected our attention to the more pertinent challenge of identifying the needs and challenges faced by SRBs and establishing a network to support them. This encompasses businesses, including farmers, with no more than 50 employees. The primary objective is to pinpoint data gaps, map the current regional state, and foster a comprehensive understanding of challenges encountered by entrepreneurs and business owners.

The groundwork laid will assess and justify the necessity of establishing a regional network/platform for SRBs. Envisioned as a central hub, this platform addresses challenges such as strengthening awareness of regional products, fostering value chains, facilitating joint training, enhancing negotiation power, addressing sustainable green business management issues, navigating rental space availability, managing challenges in employee recruitment and retention, and focusing on women as a specific target group.

Rationale

This approach rectifies oversights in previous projects by focusing on SRBs’ absence in regional strategies, especially during their foundation and takeover processes. The decision to spotlight SRBs aligns with their substantial contribution to the local economy, providing diverse employment opportunities. In Carinthia, small businesses constitute about 94% of all businesses, playing a crucial role in stimulating local activities and combating vacancies, contributing to the overall attractiveness of rural municipalities.

Knowledge to Date

Insights from expert interviews, PRP meetings, and literature research showcase existing business collaborations and challenges faced by SRBs in Nockregion-Oberkärnten. Previous initiatives like IGO and AGZ aimed at business settlements and sharing employees among different employers, underscoring the region’s efforts. Challenges, including limited time capacity for small business owners, difficulties in consolidating projects, and issues like employee retention and high rental prices, have surfaced through stakeholder engagement.

Research Questions

  • What is the current state of the SRB landscape in Nockregion-Oberkärnten concerning the number of businesses, sector, branches, and employment sizes?
  • What data points and indicators are relevant for stakeholders to describe or gain a better understanding of the current situation of SRBs? What are the opportunities and shortcomings
  • What benefits do SRBs envision from a new platform or network, and how should it be structured to ensure acceptance?

Policy Relevance

To address the socio-economic transition, a holistic approach involving all sectors is deemed necessary. The Living Lab’s transition challenge aims to strengthen the position of SRBs in regional decision-making processes, aligning with the PRP’s objective of attracting new inhabitants and encouraging locals to stay. Establishing a network of SRBs is viewed as a critical step in adapting regional policies to address demographic change.

Emerging Data Needs

The Living Lab will focus on SRBs, aiming to identify and fill data gaps to understand their challenges and obstacles. Combining quantitative and qualitative local data will provide a comprehensive foundation for future strategies and decision-making.

Data Availability

While statistical data on workplaces, companies, and employees for SRBs is available, specific needs and challenges data are lacking. Expert interviews and consultations with stakeholders will be conducted to improve the knowledge base. OpenStreetMap data since 2012 will complement spatial analyses, providing insights into the spatial distribution of economic activities in the region.

RUSTIK Living Lab in Austria Spotlighted in the ‘Living Labs in Rural Areas: How To?’ Webinar

Living labs

In the picturesque landscapes of Carinthia, Austria, the Nockregion-Oberkärnten faces a set of challenges that demand innovative solutions for sustainable development. Daria Ernst, representing the Federal Institute of Agricultural Economics, Rural and Mountain Research (BAB), took center stage at the “Living Labs in rural areas: HOW TO? Knowledge Transfer Accelerator” organized by the Granular project and the European Association for Innovation in Local Development (AEIDL). 

The Living Lab Pilot Region, nestled in Carinthia, spans 1,324 km², encompassing 17 municipalities with a population of 52,500. The region grapples with significant issues, including an imbalanced job structure, deficits in job supply, high commuter rates, out-migration of young people and women, and an aging population. 

Daria Ernst adeptly introduced two pivotal topics for the Living Lab challenge, considered and deliberated with the Project Review Panel and the Focus Group, aligning with the regional strategy: 

Initially, they contemplated channelling efforts into the implementation of a Quality of Life (QoL) Index tailored specifically to Nockregion-Oberkärnten. This innovative tool aspired to gauge progress and territorial development, offering nuanced insights into diverse facets of the region’s wellbeing. However, this proposal encountered several critical issues: 

  • Challenge of Comparability: Addressing the intricate task of ensuring the QoL Index’s comparability with other regions. 
  • Living Lab Approach Hurdles: Tackling challenges associated with the applicability of the Living Lab approach. 
  • Data Gaps and Capacity Constraints: Identifying and surmounting crucial data gaps and capacity constraints. 

Subsequently, an alternative path emerged as the focal point of this Living Lab endeavor – the establishment of a Network of Small Rural Businesses (SRB), an area overlooked in previous projects. Discussions revealed an absence of representation for SRBs in regional strategies, emphasizing the need to address this gap. The rationale and objectives for this initiative include:  

  • Data Gap Pinpointing: Systematically identifying and addressing data gaps while mapping the current regional state. 
  • Comprehensive Understanding: Cultivating a profound understanding of the challenges confronted by entrepreneurs and business owners. 
  • Justifying the Necessity: Utilizing meticulously collected data to substantiate the imperative of instituting a regional network/platform for SRBs. 
  • Central Hub Functionality: Picturing the envisioned platform as a pivotal central hub adept at addressing challenges and providing indispensable support. 
  • Innovation Pathway: Charting a course that paves the way for innovative projects in unwavering support of SRBs. 

Daria Ernst’s presentation not only showcased a thoughtful consideration of challenges but also illuminated a strategic roadmap for transformative action, promising impactful contributions to the socio-economic fabric of Nockregion-Oberkärnten. As these Living Lab initiatives progress, they hold the potential to redefine the narrative of rural development, furnishing invaluable insights and solutions applicable to analogous regions globally. 

Interacting with EU Projects 

Participation in this webinar provided a valuable opportunity to engage with various projects focused on rural development. Presentations from GRANULAR, SHERPA, ROBUST, and insights beyond European projects were shared, fostering a collaborative exchange of ideas and strategies. The interaction emphasized the pivotal role of Living Labs in shaping effective policies for rural advancement. As the discussions unfold, the shared experiences promise to enhance the collective knowledge pool and drive impactful initiatives in the realm of rural development.