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32.4 Digital transformations in rural areas

Thursday, June 29, 2023
11:00 - 12:30


Kyrre Einar Hegg
University of South-Eastern Norway

Collaborative digitalisation in rural business - insights from an action research project


Digitalisation represents great opportunities and challenges for rural companies, and rural business development through digitalisation is high on the agenda of policy makers and practitioners. At the same time, research on contemporary digital technologies tends to privilege urban areas, and the role of rurality in the success of companies is understudied. This study attempts to help shed light on the digitalisation of companies in rural areas through action research on a digitalisation process taking place in a rural business setting. More specifically, the article reports findings from a pilot project where an information system was introduced and tested with the aim of supporting collaborative learning and quality control management in small companies. We base our analysis on a theoretical framework resulting from a previous literature review on the relationship between rurality and the digitalisation of companies. Drawing on further theory from the information systems literature, we use this study to develop our theoretical framework in an abductive manner. We thereby intend to contribute with theoretical and practical insights to the rural development and information systems literatures.
Dr. Ralph Richter
Senior Researcher
Leibniz Institute For Research On Society And Space

Digitalization in rural volunteering between panacea and exaggerated expectations


Volunteer engagement is considered important for rural development but suffers of decreasing commitment and aging in rural non-profit associations. In this situation, however, hopes are pinned on digitalization because fresh forms of interaction could attract young people and simplify joint work. Digital tools such as video conference systems can overcome disadvantaged location and long spatial distances and keep people engaged in rural areas irrespective of the current place of residence. Against this backdrop, a research project investigated the application of digital tools in rural charitable associations and asked how digitalization contributes to overcome spatial and mobility barriers. The research has been realized by means of a comprehensive quantitative survey and in-depth qualitative interviews with volunteers in rural as well as urban associations across Germany. In contrast to the mentioned hopes, the survey reveals that the level of internal and external digitalization is lower in rural volunteer organizations than in urban and suburban associations. The analyses of in-depth interviews provides preliminary explanations about why the distance-bridging potentials of digital tools is less used in many rural associations: Their members are older and less digitally literate, they are locally embedded and attach more importance to sociability and personal interaction. In the proposed presentation, I will provide a glimpse into the debate on digitalization and volunteer work, present results of the empirical study and put up for discussion the opportunities and limits of the digitalisation for volunteer engagement in rural regions.
Dr. Matthias Berg
Department Head
Fraunhofer IESE

The Digitalisation of Rural Communication: From Pilot to Diffusion


Media communication is an outstanding field, due to the fact that communication technologies have been affected by digital transformation comparably early and comprehensively. Yet, research on the specificities of digital communication in rural settings is underrepresented and rarely goes beyond observations on the digital divide.
This paper focuses on the development, impacts and diffusion of digital communication services that originate from participative software engineering in rural communities. Starting as a project funded by the government of Rhineland Palatinate, the “Digital Villages Platform” offers digital services predominantly for the interaction of citizens and local administrations. Meanwhile, those services are spreading across Germany, approaching 150.000 users.
The presentation tackles specificities of digital communication in rural areas, drawing on the concept of mediatisation (Hepp et al. 2017). In a second step, the Digital Villages Platform is introduced, referring to a case study of one of its constitutive living labs, offering insights on the development of pilot services but also on their impacts on the community’s socio-cyber-physical system. Additionally, a comparative analysis of the diffusion of the platform in the two federal states of Germany is provided, which is characterised by distinct dynamics. The results are discussed with an emphasis on success factors as well as barriers. It is concluded that the scale up of technologies developed in pilot projects is possible but not guaranteed – depending on aspects as infrastructure, acceptance and actor constellations.

Hepp, A./C.F.R.N. (2017): Transforming communications: Media-related changes in times of deep mediatization. In: Communicative Figurations Working Paper 16.
Carola Wilhelm
FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg

„Smart Rural Projects“ – How digital are they?


Rural places are often seen as disadvantaged places of digitalisation, even if a rising number of ‘smart rural projects’ show a considerable dynamic in recent years (Birnbaum et al. 2021, Rundel & Salemink 2021). Many projects focus on the provision of services of general interest and on manag-ing rural (im)mobilities, such as staying and returning (Birnbaum et al. 2021, Gruber 2021). We take this dynamic as a starting point and raise the question how processes of such digital projects in rural areas work and how they are realised? Our empirical study shows that a key driver is how digital and analogous elements are intertwined in the ‘smart rural’ projects.
Based on four good-practice examples of smart rural projects in Germany and Austria, we applied a qualitative process tracing approach (Gläser & Laudel 2019, Williams & Gemperle 2017). This allows a comparative analysis of the institutional, social, and organisational processes behind the applied digital tools. Based on group interviews, we traced the proportion of (non)digital elements throughout the process as well as the involvement of stakeholders, available resources, and cho-sen formats. We provide a mapping approach that visualises and synthesises our findings on these processes.
We identified two general approaches to rural digitalisation projects that define digital tools either as purpose or as outcome of their projects. Moreover, public participation opportunities are im-portant turning points within these projects. Additionally, rural digitalisation projects require hybrid anchoring in non-digital contexts throughout the process.
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Dr. Jörn Harfst
Researcher, Dept. Of Geography
University of Graz

Digitalization in cultural heritage tourism as a game changer for peripheral regions? Insights from Austria


Cultural heritage and related tourism activities are pursued as a viable development option for more rural and peripheral regions. COVID has severely affected both the tourism and the cultural heritage sector, emphasizing the ongoing (need) for digitalization efforts in the cultural sector.

While cultural heritage is a popular form of tourism in peripheral areas, heritage institutions in more rural and peripheral places are often smaller, privately run organizations. They usually lack resources and know-how, compared to many bigger, urban institutions. This makes digitalization efforts in such institutions usually a trade-off between other services.

Drawing on research insights from the Horizon ReInHerit project, this contribution takes a closer look at the possible impact of digitalization for the cultural heritage sector in more peripheral areas, based on an Austrian case-study. It will question its role of heritage institutions in enabling sustainable development by creating an added touristic value.

Capriotti, P. (2010): Museums' communication in small‐ and medium‐sized cities. Corporate Communications, 15:3, 281-298.

Harfst, J., Sandriester, J., Zuanni, C., & Krottmaier, S. (2022): Digitalisierung und nachhaltiges Kulturerbe- Management. Ökologisches Wirtschaften - Fachzeitschrift, 37:4, 30–34.

Harfst, J., Sandriester, J., Fischer, W. (2021): Industrial Heritage Tourism as a Driver of Sustainable Development? A Case Study of Steirische Eisenstrasse (Austria). Sustainability, 13, 3857

Sandriester, J., Kern, C., Harfst, J. (2022): The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on tourism development in peripheral areas in Austria. Tourism, Culture & Communication. Special Issue on Cultural Tourism Dynamics During a Pandemic.

Session host

Gianluca Brunori
University of Pisa

Olivier Ejderyan
Group Leader
FiBL - Research Institute Of Organic Agriculture

Mikelis Grivins
Senior Researcher
Baltic Studies Centre

Leanne Townsend
Senior Social Scientist
James Hutton Institute



Contact for questions about abstracts or registration: groningen@congressbydesign.com 

Contact for questions about the content of the programme: ruralgeo2023@rug.nl