The Kaslo Institute: Re-Imagining & Re-Making Rural Cultural and Economic Development

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Paul Grace-Campbell is the Development Coordinator for The Kaslo Institute. Recently relocated to the teeming metropolis of Kaslo from the wilderness of Bella Coola, Paul brings over 20 years of experience living and working in remote and rural communities  – from Panama, to Oregon, to BC.

Creativity Technology Sustainability
The Kaslo Institute (KI) has chosen these three words as its motto – the expression of its guiding principles. Sounds pretty straightforward, but what do these three words really mean in the context of 21st century rural development, and how do they assist rural communities to grow in an increasingly urbanized world? This article will look at answering those questions.

A New Approach to Problem Solving
For some twenty-plus years, I’ve been living in rural and remote communities, both nationally and internationally, and I have been involved with a number of community development projects. These projects have met with varying levels of success. The ineffectual projects mainly failed to address root causes of problems and mostly just futzed around the edges. These experiences left me wondering how one gains traction on systemic, thorny issues. Albert Einstein famously said, “Problems cannot be solved at the level of thinking that created them” – a fascinating statement. For rural communities, globalization has forever altered the economic landscape. The dilemmas it has wrought challenge us to take our problem-solving skills to a whole other level

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One Result of Globalization
Over the past couple of decades, as the effects of the global economy have come home to roost, much attention has been given to the problem of reinvigorating rural communities. Research organizations have formed, analysis has been conducted, and many papers have been written. Though some of the conclusions of this work have been insightful, much of the work ends up in three-ring binders sitting on dusty shelves. There has been much talk (some of it very good) but comparatively little action. This is one of the reasons The Kaslo Institute designed itself as a “think-and-do” tank – thinking is good, yes let’s do that – but it’s high time we got down to some action as well.

The Four Building Blocks for Rural Development
Some useful ideas – products of thinking at a different level – have emerged from the research: ideas that can help guide our course of action. One of these ideas sets out four building blocks upon which to base cultural and economic development. Let’s take a look at each one, specifically in the context of how they relate to KI’s vision:

Strategy: This identifies a community’s competitive advantage and plots the best course to actuate it. KI and its partners have determined that Kaslo’s principal assets are its pool of creative, capable individuals and its inspiring and attractive natural setting. The main tools to leverage these assets are broadband, high-speed communications and new & emerging technologies that open up markets world-wide.

Partnership: A strategy can only move forward in the context of strategic partnerships with public and private actors from within and without the region. KI has founded its work on developing active, creative alliances at all levels. Local and regional partners provide crucial logistical support and contribute area-specific expertise. External partners bring links to outside resources, markets, and funds. All partners are connected by a mutually beneficial relationship and an investment in the strategy.

Innovation: Communities that innovate well create processes that transform local economies in a continual way, while providing much stronger economic gains. KI identifies the so-called “soft infrastructure” of technology, cultural and business networks as the dominant realm of 21st century innovation. Therefore, its strategy specifically targets these networks as the principal drivers of a new, diverse, flexible rural economic sector.

Entrepreneurship: Communities that foster favourable environments for entrepreneurialism enjoy greater competitive advantages and more sustained economic benefits. KI’s raison d’etre is to harness capital, create support systems for home-grown enterprise, and develop connections to markets for emerging rural-developed ideas, services, and goods.

Creativity Technology Sustainability – Reprise
Given the context of the four building blocks, let’s take a another look at KI’s motto – word by word. And, since we are an action-biased organization, let’s briefly describe how these terms inform KI activities.

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Creativity: Creativity goes beyond merely a set of skills; it is the ingenious application of those skills in new and influential ways. KI believes creativity, be it in the arts or other disciplines, underpins a rural-based innovation and entrepreneurialism that give small towns a unique voice to share with the world. Last December KI created and hosted The Sounds of Winter festival which nurtured collaboration between local, regional and international musicians. This June the Institute welcomed the biennial BC Rural Communities Summit to Kaslo. Future projects include A Gathering of Words, The Kaslo International Animation Summit, the North American Amenity Migration Summit (in collaboration with the International Amenity Migration Centre), and The Shakespeare in the 21st Century Summit. In addition to broadening Kaslo’s cultural and economic networks, these projects will begin to position Kaslo as a centre for world-class creative interaction.

Paul

Technology: The advent of broadband and other high-speed communication technologies completely changes the playing field for rural communities. These tools allow the formation of informational “2-way communicultural streets” that allow both information and cultural innovations to flow into and out of rural enclaves, opening up new market opportunities along the way. One of KI’s first actions was to utilize these capacities to connect North Kootenay Lake residents to the State of the Basin conference in Creston, enabling them not only to attend but to also actively participate virtually. A future initiative is the creation of a web-based Rural Media Platform, that will allow small communities to create their own media, including radio and video channels, e-newspapers and magazines, and e-book and book publishing.

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Sustainability: Sustainability as a concept is something that gets thrown about with great regularity, but the fact remains that things are only truly sustained if they are actively worked upon; sustainability is really a process. In 2013 KI programmed, organized and hosted the BC Rural Communities Summit, an event that brought together a variety of local, provincial and international public and private stakeholders. The goal was to cultivate long-lasting partnerships and design far-reaching solutions to a range of rural issues. Looking ahead, a long-term goal of KI is to build the Centre for Rural Creativity and Infrastructure which will serve both as a space to host conferences, summits, workshops, and retreats, etc. as well as a state-of-the-art incubation ground for rural-focused creation, collaboration, and expression.

 Extraction of Natural Resources

The traditional industries that once made rural villages vital places have struggled in the modern global marketplace and today largely fail, on their own, to support vibrant rural communities. Even so, they certainly continue to be important pieces of the development puzzle in many rural settings. But it’s clear we need to add something new to the mix. KI proposes that the “something new” is to take full advantage of our other resources – human imagination, aspiration, and ingenuity grounded in and informed by an awe-inspiring rural setting. Rather than allow the continued “extraction” of these resources, to the exclusive benefit of urban centres, KI looks to foster an environment that allows them to stay, grow, and create locally.

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The Rural-Urban Connection
Long-time Kootenay MLA Corky Evans remarked at the 2014 BC Rural Communities Summit that the new political dichotomy is no longer Left vs. Right, but instead Rural vs. Urban. This sentiment has been voiced by other politicos and pundits as well. At the same time, though, there is a growing trend of urban interest in and attraction to the amenities of rural areas. KI identifies this phenomenon, known as amenity migration, as an opportunity to connect rural and urban communities to their mutual benefit. In recognition of this interdependent relationship, KI is forging strategic partnerships with urban-based institutions and individuals who appreciate the value of rural-based cultural and intellectual centres. New communication technologies provide the tools to help build these relationships and inventively bridge the rural-urban divide.

Re-Imagining, Re-Making
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited; imagination encircles the world.” Another salient statement from that famous guru of rural development, Albert Einstein. I think the important notion here, implicit in Einstein’s phrasing, is that knowledge on its own is a bit stale; it tends to sit there, not doing much. Imagination, on the other hand, is a creative undertaking, imbued with a spark that impels action, and whose reach is global.

Imagine, then, a small community that supports the work of creative individuals in developing a uniquely rural, place-based arts and intellectual culture. Imagine that this culture becomes a world-renowned nexus of innovation that attracts artists, thinkers, and entrepreneurs from around the globe. Imagine a creative space that combines a unique and inspiring natural landscape with state-of-the-art technological infrastructure. Imagine this process becoming a blueprint for the cultural and economic development of rural communities everywhere.

It is admittedly a bold vision. But KI believes that for rural areas to remain relevant and viable in the national and global economy, they must strike out boldly, creatively embracing relevant technologies to design new and imaginative avenues to self-sufficiency. To achieve this will require a dynamic can-do entity capable of forging strategic partnerships to manage a development strategy that embraces innovation and entrepreneurialism. Happily, this is exactly what the Kaslo Institute sets out to do.

Corky Evans’ Keynote to the 2014 BC Rural Communities Summit


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