Enhancing Rural Development through Innovative Data Experiments: Collaborative Efforts of RUSTIK Living Labs on the Balkan Peninsula

Collaborative Efforts of RUSTIK Living Labs on the Balkan Peninsula

The RUSTIK Living Labs (LLs) are now actively conducting their data experiments, looking at how to provide new data, identify new sources and explore them using innovative methods. The experiments aim to help rural areas better manage key transitions and challenges they are experiencing.

Collaborative Efforts of RUSTIK Living Labs on the Balkan Peninsula

Two of the RUSTIK laboratories – Zajechar and Troyan-Aprilsti-Ugarchin (TAU), both located on the Balkan Peninsula but on either side of the Serbo-Bulgarian border, have identified a similar transitional challenge – the unexplored potential for cooperation between food-related actors as a resource for territorial development.

In order to get to know both territories better and how to conduct a comparative data experiment, the members of the two LLs, namely RARIS – Regional Development Agency Eastern Serbia and the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Belgrade and Local Action Group Troyan-Apriltsi-Ugarchin and the Department of Sociology, Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, organised a meeting hosted by Serbian partners.

During the meeting, both LLs presented their key socio-economic challenges with a focus on food-related actors and policies. Identified data sources were discussed together with instruments for data collection (questionnaires and interview guides). Ideas and materials for further conceptualisation of the identified data were discussed, such as social network analysis of short food supply chain collaborations.

Both laboratories have decided to obtain comparable data sets, explore similar data sources and focus on similar target groups when conducting their experiments. The aim is to identify common and different aspects of the ‘Balkan syndrome’ of unexplored potential for collaboration.

RARIS and LAG TAU have presented territorial instruments they use to support local actors, such as the regional brand Balcanica Superior operating in Eastern Serbia and various food-related projects developed on the TAU territory. Both RUSTIK LLs therefore expect to support local actors in rural areas, both public and private, collective and individual, business and policy makers, to learn more about their territories, make better informed decisions and adopt data-driven solutions.

Troyan-Apriltsi-Ugаrchin, Bulgaria: Navigating the Unknown Potential of Rural Food Systems

 

Nestled in the heart of the Balkans, the Troyan-Apriltsi-Ugаrchin (TAU) region in Bulgaria stands as a pilot for transformative initiatives. Covering Troyan, Apriltsi, and Ugarchin municipalities, this area spans 1,650.2 km² with a population of 33,858. TAU is positioned strategically, just 150 km northeast of Sofia, with a pivotal role in connecting the capital to the Black Sea. 

Transition Focus: Socio-economic and Demographic Shifts

The TAU region faces socio-economic and demographic challenges, with depopulation at its core. The informal economy, job nature, and ethnic segregation contribute to this issue. Despite rich natural resources, the region struggles to capitalize on them for economic and social development.

Living Lab Challenge: Navigating the Unknown Potential of Rural Food Systems 

The primary challenge identified in TAU revolves around understanding the untapped potential of the rural food system to address socio-economic and demographic transitions. Data gaps in the linkages between food production and consumption, as well as the lack of cooperation between local actors, hinder progress. TAU aims to foster rural food systems, bridge gaps between vocational schools and local businesses, and tackle issues like unfair payments and undeclared jobs in the agri-food sector. 

Rationale: Spotlight on Food as a Unifying Force 

Food emerges as a pivotal focus for TAU, transcending differences and offering a lens to examine public and private practices. The lack of policy support in this domain highlights a significant data gap. By concentrating on food systems, the experiment aims to delve into demographic change and social inequalities. 

Policy Relevance: Paving the Way for Rural Food Policy 

TAU lacks a comprehensive rural food policy. The Rustik experiment strives to fill this void by providing knowledge, data, and models for its development. Aligning with regional and local policies, the experiment could address depopulation concerns and promote sustainable economic growth through food-related initiatives. 

Research Questions: Unveiling the Dynamics of Rural Food Systems 

The experiment seeks answers to crucial questions: 

  • How does the rural food system impact local entrepreneurship and depopulation trends? 
  • What role do family gardens play in local economies and socio-economic inequalities? 
  • How do rural food systems interact with urban economies, and which urban economies influence them? 
  • Can the preservation of local food traditions contribute to community resilience and a sense of identity? 
  • What factors make the local food sector attractive to newcomers and tourists, promoting sustainable local economies? 

Emerging Data Needs: Bridging the Knowledge Gap 

The experiment faces a lack of data on various aspects, such as the local population’s access to fresh, seasonal, and local food, cooperation between vocational schools and local agri-food businesses, and the role of family gardens in sustaining local food traditions. To address this, new and existing sources are being explored to create a comprehensive rural food map. 

Data Availability: Sources to Fuel the Experiment 

The experiment relies on a mix of available data sources, including registers of farmers, food processing enterprises, social kitchens, and more. However, limitations arise due to the non-public nature of certain datasets, hindering a granular analysis. 

Challenges and Capacities: Navigating the Road Ahead 

Challenges include limited access to crucial datasets and the absence of registers, such as that of family gardens. However, partners involved possess the necessary competencies to overcome these challenges, with additional capacity available if required. 

As the Rustik experiment unfolds in TAU, it promises not only to uncover the potential of rural food systems but also to pave the way for informed policies that can foster sustainable development, address depopulation concerns, and contribute to the region’s resilience and identity. Stay tuned for updates as TAU embarks on this transformative journey.