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Innovative solutions for rural basic service provision

Tobias Mettenberger | 13.06.2022

LV Institute of Rural Studies

As rural populations are getting older and smaller, established basic services reach their limits. How can new approaches help?

As rural populations are getting older and smaller, established basic services reach their limits. Small school locations and large public buses are hardly utilized to capacity. The very elderly require special medical care, while many doctors are facing retirement. When this is combined with a weak economic structure and correspondingly strained municipal finances, providing care that meets the needs of many districts and municipalities becomes an immense challenge. Accordingly, there has been a long series of pilot programmes in recent years with which federal and state ministries have sought solutions for the future of rural basic service provision.

"Land(auf)Schwung" ("Rural(up)Swing”), a pilot programme of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, was carried out from 2015-2019 in 13 rural regions particularly affected by demographic change and aimed, among other things, to try out novel solutions for the provision of basic services. The accompanying research of the Thünen Institute for Living Conditions in Rural Areas analyzed which strategies were of particular importance in the funded regions and to what extent they can succeed in alleviating urgent problems in many rural areas.


Overcoming space with digital technologies

Basic services in sparsely populated rural areas are often going along with long and time-consuming journeys that have to be made either by the providers (e.g., doctors, traveling merchants) or by the users (e.g., patients, schoolchildren). With the help of digital services, many of these distances can be saved. The accompanying research Land(auf)Schwung used two projects on the digital exchange of health data and one on the transmission of school lessons to show that new technologies can only be successful if doctors, teachers and other people involved in the provision of basic services are able and motivated to use them. In addition to adequate bandwidths, municipal IT support and sufficient staffing of the basic services are further success factors. Local or regional digitization projects run the risk of remaining isolated solutions and will face difficulties to survive in the long term. Finally, digital technologies benefit from economies of scale, and many public service projects depend on favorable negotiating positions vis-à-vis market-dominating software providers.

Support through voluntary engagement

As in many other rural regions, Land(auf)Schwung has also relied on voluntary engagement to support basic service provision. Particular potential is seen among the "young old" with their experience gained in their working lives and time resources available after retirement. However, as the accompanying research shows, many younger retirees are already extensively active elsewhere and limit their involvement to activities of their choice for a limited period of time. In addition, there is a group of exceptionally committed individuals who would like to design their living environment according to their own ideas. On the other hand, there is a shortage of "helping hands," who are needed in much larger numbers for routine activities. Serious obstacles to voluntary supported services of general interest can include high digital, bureaucratic and legal requirements, a lack of space and low financial resources of some committed individuals.

Basic service provision from skilled workers - Basic service provision for skilled workers

Whether doctors, teachers or nurses: In many rural regions, there is a desperate need for specialists in the provision of basic services. Soft location factors play a role here, which in turn include attractive basic services , for example with regard to schools, childcare or medical practices. Accordingly, many professionals are both providers and users of regional public services, as the accompanying research showed using the example of newly established general practitioners . Nevertheless, occupational factors such as a secure income, the compatibility of family and career, and self-determined work are crucial for the location decisions of this group. In addition, biographical references to the regions and family-friendliness are decisive. Other soft location factors, such as upscale leisure, cultural or consumer offerings, on the other hand, seem hardly relevant.

A quintessence of the accompanying research Land(auf)Schwung is that novel solutions for improving rural basic services of usually require different, interlocking building blocks. In many cases, a combination of technical, product-related, social and organizational-structural innovations is necessary. 

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  • Thünen Report 90 - Band 1The Thünen-Report „Innovative Versorgungslösungen in ländlichen Regionen“ presents the results of the accompanying research "Land(auf)Schwung" in the field of action "Daseinsvorsorge". (in German).
  • Ländliche Regionen entwickelnThe brochure „Ländliche Regionen entwickeln“ provides findings from the accompanying research Land(auf)Schwung for practical use (in German).
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