Article: “Good life” in “shrinking regions”

Social science is often very conceptual. The words we use determine our universe and our area of exploration. As such they are fundamentally important. Spatial planning and regional development have both been constructed on a logic and language of expansion and growth, with the notion of de-growth or alternatives to growth having emerged only recently on the societal agenda. Seldom has this point of departure been challenged and in policy terms the debate is even more restricted. At the same time one can question whether growth really is the answer when global production and consumption levels are already overshooting our planet’s biocapacity by nearly 60% each year ( Our appetite for de-growth, or for quality above quantity in regional development terms thus remains quite limited. This is why, at MDI, we have recently worked quite a lot to determine viable policy options for “good life in shrinking regions”.

According to Merriam-Webster, ‘good life’ means “a life marked by a high standard of living”. Standard of living in turn refers to “the necessities, comforts, and luxuries enjoyed or aspired to by an individual or group”. All in all, the relative, contextual and relational notions of these terms are less visible than the traditional quantifiable ones. In in order to respond to today’s questions with future-relevant answers, we may need to rethink our very core concepts.

These were some of the starting points for our panel discussion at the NORSA2019 conference in June, when we met with researcher and practitioner colleagues in Seinäjoki. Taking advantage of the unique possibility of the meetings bringing together regional development experts across Norden, in Seinäjoki, the birthplace of MDI, we invited a group of experts, practitioners and visionaries to debate these issues. Participants in the discussion included for instance Kjell Nilsson (Director of the Nordic Centre for Regional Development and Spatial Planning, Nordregio), Linda Leinonen (Mayor of Kauhajoki), Miika Laurila (foresight expert from the Regional Council of Southern Ostrobothnia) and Heli Kurikka (regional researcher at Tampere University).

Participants in the NORSA-discussion Heli Kurikka (regional researcher at Tampere University), Miika Laurila (foresight expert from the Regional Council of Southern Ostrobothnia), Linda Leinonen (Mayor of Kauhajoki) and Kjell Nilsson (Director of the Nordic Centre for Regional Development and Spatial Planning, Nordregio). Photo: Samuli Manu.

Socially constructed research agendas 

Our intention was to shed light on the phenomenon of regional shrinkage in a socially constructed fashion. At MDI we have recently often addressed the issue in the context of our own population forecasts and our work on regional shrinkage, where the notion of socially constructed realities and the bases of our knowledge and understanding is examined collectively and in an interactive fashion. In addition to statistical data gathering and visualisation, futures perspectives, foresight and the proactive nature of experienced narratives should be critically re-examined. What constitutes wellbeing, ‘smart-sizing’ and ‘good life’? What happens when communities shrink? How are personal experiences and perspectives constructed (and re-constructed)? These questions brought us together and inspired our discussions.

In her book “Mindre många” Josefina Syssner from Linköping University ponders what happens with regions and communities where population shrinkage occurs. How do these communities react, what is their perception of alternatives, she asks. Rather than considering shrinkage as a negative sign of failure in our growth-oriented culture, she considers potential success strategies or “Plan Bs” for shrinking regions. Paraphrasing Darwin’s famous quote from “Origin of the species”, it is not the strongest that survives, it is the one that is best able to adapt to and to adjust best to the changing environment in which it finds itself. The same applies, Syssner argues, to local communities.

When contemplating possible Plan Bs, the concept of resilience[1] readily comes to mind. One of the most intriguing ‘eternal’ questions in economic geography and regional development has been the reasons why some regional economies manage to renew themselves, whilst others remain locked into a spiral of decline. Why are some regions and communities incapable not only of adapting, but also of adjusting, co-existing or even flourishing in a context of variable spatial relationships? To tackle this question, the idea of resilience has been introduced, building upon concepts derived from ecology, psychology, disaster studies and elsewhere. Resilience as a planning strategy allows for organisations to adjust to change and to exist in an almost ‘permanent beta’ -mode, where development is seen as a long-term process of ‘work in progress’, where the qualitative long-term goals and missions determine the path to be followed, and these paths can be adjusted in a flexible and iterative manner in accordance with changes in the operational environment.

Variable geographies and multiple contexts 

Regional shrinkage has been felt particular acutely in recent times, as we as researchers have also contemplated the contextuality of life in our regions and communities. The inter-connectedness and interdependence of our societies and communities is blatantly obvious, whilst our policies and structures for making sense of them and of providing solutions are all too often removed from the contexts, isolated into silos and managed in splendid organisational isolation. Whilst we have a tremendous, seemingly unlimited, capacity to produce and process data, we are less capable of making sense of the interconnections between these data points. It is no surprise then that these interlinkages and interfaces have become increasingly relevant, precipitating the need for what Nora Bateson has coined “warm data”[2], i.e. trans-contextual information about the interrelationships that integrate a complex system. We are intrigued by what happens in these interfaces and in the connections and linkages we now need to take into account. How then can we envisage anew a culture and structure for planning that is more in tune with this contextuality, not simply a reactive or proactive act, but an interactive process on the interfaces? A process that is more in tune with ‘warm data’, rather than simply uncritically regurgitating the ‘cold’, big data?

As Bateson has argued, despite the usefulness of our statistical data, it also has the unfortunate effect of decontextualizing the focus of our inquiry. The scientific desire to analyse and examine something can often lead to it being pulled out of context and studied in isolation. All too rarely is this examination of ours re-contextualised to examine the complexity of its larger scope of relationships. Warm Data seeks to come to terms with this limitation inherent in statistical analysis by centring itself within a trans-contextual research methodology, bringing not only context, but multiple contexts into the inquiry process. What could be more useful in case of spatial enquiry?

The discussion – multiple perspectives into ‘good life’ in ‘shrinking regions’

The panel discussion explored the possibilities inherent in using these alternative metrics, considering the contexts and new ways of measuring and narrating regional realities in shrinking regions and communities. The first panellist, Nordregio’s director Kjell Nilsson had already set the scene for an interesting discussion in his keynote address, with his focus on the multiple facets of the three megatrends of urbanisation, ageing and digitalisation and in the panel discussion brought further to bear his long experience in spatial planning and the multi-faceted work undertaken by Nordregio. The regional Nordic perspective was based on e.g. the State of the Nordic Region, the report Nordregio publishes bi-annually, (most recently in 2018). One of the stated intentions of this report is to bring knowledge and data closer to decision-making, by empowering local, regional and national authorities in the Nordic countries to make informed decisions.

Last year’s report once again provided quite depressing reading for Finland, as 13 of the worse performing regions were found in Finland and only Helsinki made it to the Top 10 in terms of regional potential.[3] It is true that the Finnish population is ageing faster than those of the other Nordic countries, in Northern and Eastern Finland in particular the demographic situation is quite daunting, with over 50% of the population expected to be over 65 by 2030. Between 2007-2017 Finland was the only Nordic country with a diminishing workforce in absolute terms. In addition to shrinking regions, shrinking on the national level constitutes a parallel challenge. In the panel discussion Kjell was asked about the publication and the Finnish media coverage and he lamented the negative tone of Finnish reporting: whilst the “worst performers in regional potentials” message was echoed loudly in Finnish media, considerably less (if any!) attention was given to the fact that Finland, together with Denmark was profiled as the Nordic leader in innovation, as well as a world leader in bioeconomy. Nilsson was right to emphasise here that Nordregio’s key indicators echo less traditional GDP as the measure of everything than giving increasing room for a rather more multifaceted picture of regional development, with indicators shedding light on potentials and dynamics, rather than meta-stable but conservative trajectories.

Thinking around resilience and ‘permanent beta’ also leaves more room for human activity and choices. Linda Leinonen, the mayor of Kauhajoki was welcomed to the panel to lead the discussion on the importance of policy choices and boldness of action from those who work in policy roles in and for shrinking communities. She shared the personal experience of how it was to return from the growth centre of Tampere to the shrinking geography context of Pohjanmaa and how important it was in her case that the politicians had the courage to employ a young woman as their mayor. There is certainly a more general observation in the fact that human action is particularly important when the odds are stacked against. The seemingly weaker regional potentials may simply need individuals and communities to respond by exhibiting bolder attitudes and mindsets. She also emphasised the advantages of living and working in Kauhajoki: work/life balance, possibilities for distance work, quality and accessibility of local public services, as well as the flexibility of everyday life, brought about by support networks, closely-knit social ties and a greater sense of community. Her narrative seemed to resonate well with the core ideas of new urbanisation, more in line with the variable scales of life, services and the inter-connectedness of functionality. This was also echoed by the other panellists with measurements and metrics beyond GDP seen as an important part of gaining a more diverse picture of the ‘good life’, ranging from the social to health, culture and the environment. It is important to achieve sufficient variety and diversity, trusting the young and giving them a chance, whilst also making sure that the older generations and their experiences are seen as valuable.

Regional researcher Heli Kurikka in turn shared her ideas on why it is important to focus on resilience rather than (the old ‘policy wonk’ favourite) regional competitiveness. Her narrative echoed that of the previous speaker, as she reflected on the regional example of Southern Ostrobothnia: a region marked by high employment rates and low productivity. An entrepreneurial spirit may require different policies to help the communities bloom. The discussion on entrepreneurship was particularly lively, with discussion centring on whether the recent focus on the employment rate at the national level should lead to more nuanced policies and considered implications on the regional level.

Miikka Laurila from the Regional Council of South-Ostrobothnia took the discussion from current lived realities and (necessarily more backward looking) indicators towards a more future-oriented foresight direction. Miikka also shared the concern that neither our traditional metrics, nor our media are particularly good at showing the positive that underlies the regional and local realities in shrinking regions. He concluded that it may therefore be more important to pay attention to our values, beliefs and expectations.[4] There are many communities where population and GDP shrinkage has been accompanied by a perceived increase in the quality of life. We should be more sensitive to alternative indicators and more willing to explore data in more diverse, less standard forms. As both researchers and practitioners, we should aim for indicators and methodologies that better capture the common value of education, attitude and the proliferation of new ideas.

What then are the policy implications of what was discussed? Perhaps the need to focus on the individual, their experience, initiative and responsibility, their capacity to contribute to social capital and resilience in their own environment, as well as the ability of organisations, if given the chance to pursue flexibility and adaptation in their own work and in the terms offered to their employees. We know from many examples that changing cultures, attitudes and mindsets is the slowest process, but it is the one where each and every one of us can be active and take charge.

A number of panellists felt that in policy terms, the shift may be most appropriately reflected in the need to promote more SME-based innovation policies rather than traditional industrial policies favouring the large industrial concerns. National innovation policies should learn more from and be more interested in small and micro companies, and micro level dynamics in innovation environments.

Finland is not particularly active in social entrepreneurship, something which provides a significant force for change in the other Nordic countries. Another potential catalyst for change is public procurement. Positive dynamics may still be under radar but remain the object of increased interest. As researchers and experts, we need to be better in tune with this change, seeking to use more sensitive methods that allow us to see what is emergent, rather than focusing too much on registering the past through traditional macro level metrics.

The conclusions – where does this lead us?

As the regional and policy role of applied research was one of our starting points for the discussion, we rightly returned to it in the final discussion. How to identify new roles and pathways for researchers to come to terms with more qualitative indicators? How to engage in more multifaceted and action-oriented methodologies, as well as more evocative narratives? What should regional researchers be willing and able to do in such a policy environment, faced with the pragmatic concern of using evidence for the betterment of lives? A plethora of ideas emerged.

In order to remain relevant, we should be …

  • capable of using a wider data set (“not just numbers”, evidence- and fact-based, but also capable of combining big data and thick data, perhaps even warm data)[5]
  • clear, concrete and relevant (citing examples, which are understandable also in policy contexts)
  • more future-oriented and explorative (engaging in scenario-thinking, exploring realistic, but positive options and even provocative dystopias, as well as exploring “future-proof politics”)
  • sensitive to and aware of the language used (better aware of the impacts of research questions and agendas on the potentials of development)
  • constructive (capable of finding positive and realistic options for policy and politics)
  • flexible and agile (capable of thinking and reflecting across the micro-meso-macro levels and the appropriate scale of things)
  • capable of dialogue (“we’re not evil, we’re just curious – when asking the difficult questions”)
  • capable of good stories, of relevant and fact-based but also inspiring, narratives (e.g. engaging our audiences and social media in a more diverse of what constitutes “good life” – Kjell shared the example of the “Cold Hawaii” surfing communities of Denmark here, the artists who came to Skagen for the special light. Similar examples exist for rural Finland, e.g. Lapland.)

One of the issues that we only managed to touch the surface of was the logic of evidence-informed policy and the role and responsibility of researchers in identifying policy options and formulating policy recommendations. It was seen as important that value-based elaboration is left to the politicians, but facts need to be interpreted in a value-based context while the posing of the research questions themselves is not value-free, either. Whilst employing the scientific method, rather than simply expressing opinions, researchers in regional development are constantly engaged in a deeply political and value-based process and dialogue. It was also felt that perhaps this would be a useful issue to debate for NORSA2021.

The discussion concluded by considering other potential topics for the next NORSA meeting, such as positive examples of urbanisation across Norden, from countries where urbanisation has gone further, but rural areas are still doing well, realistic strategies for shrinking municipalities alternative regional development narratives (e.g. changing the narrative – alternative specialisations such as ’cold Hawaii’, rethinking the core concepts, e.g. ‘good life’ and ‘development’. Clearly, this discussion has only just begun …

Author: Kaisa Lähteenmäki-Smith
Proofread by Chris Smith.

References and footnotes:

[1] Hassink, Robert. (2009). Regional Resilience: A Promising Concept to Explain Differences in Regional Economic Adaptability?. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society. 3. 45-58. 10.1093/cjres/rsp033; Kurikka, Kolehmainen & Sotarauta (2017): Path development and constructed regional resilience: The case of the Nokia-led ICT industry in Tampere, Sente Working Papers, 39/2017; Hynynen, A., & Rantanen, A. (2019). Pieni ja keskisuuri urbanismi kaupunkikehittämisen voimavarana. Alue ja Ympäristö, 48(1), 101-116.


[3] Nordregio has coined a useful “regional potential index”, which is comprised or population density, net migration rate, demographic dependency rate, female ratio, labour market potential, employment rate, share of the age group 25–64 with high education degree, youth unemployment rate, economic potential GRP/capita and total R&D investments.

[4] Alternative and more relative indicators have been developed and used, see for instance Hanell, Tomas (2018): Regional Quality of Life in the EU – Comprehending the European space beyond GDP through the capability approach. PhD dissertation available at:

[5] In fact the skills and mind-sets of a good researcher in applied research is not dissimilar from that of a skilled public servant: