Regional Innovation Goes Rural

One of the more gratifying aspects of the growing embrace not just by the Obama administration but Congress of regional innovation strategies (including those supporting regional industry clusters) has been the increased recognition among rural thinkers and actors that such strategies are in no way exclusively “urban” or cosmopolitan or high-tech.

Now, that recognition on the rural side has yielded a solid gain. Just before the Fourth of July, the House Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee marked up their fiscal year 2011 bill and included in it $176 million to support Sec. Tom Vilsack’s creative Rural Innovation Initiative (see page 14 of the of the USDA Budget Summary)—a plan to increase the economic viability of rural communities by promoting a regional outlook in the planning and coordination of rural development programs at USDA. (See Chairman Rosa De Lauro’s statement on the markup).

Intended to make available a pool of money to support regional planning and coordinate USDA assistance in rural communities, the Agriculture initiative is potentially a watershed for its thoughtful synthesis on the rural side of ongoing “metropolitan” concerns as regionalism, planning, and program integration.

But it is also intriguing and instructive for its programmatic approach. Complicated “silo-busting” to link, align, or fuse disparate or rigid existing programs is a familiar back-office requirement of any federal effort to regionalize its offerings. Accordingly, USDA has hit on a novel scheme to knit programs and funds together. Cleverly, the agency plans to set-aside and pool about five percent of the funding from approximately 20 existing programs for a total of $135 million and allocate these funds competitively among regional pilot projects tailored to local needs and opportunities. To enhance the effort’s impact the initiative provides additional money for staff to provide technical assistance and support for rural communities developing regional strategic plans. That way, rural communities will receive useful help as more and more of them realize they are better off working regionally to compete globally, especially by leveraging regional assets and creating win-win partnerships with nearby metropolitan and micropolitan hubs.

In sum, regional innovation strategies are this summer no longer a single isolated program. Instead, regionalism and the program integration needed to support it are now breaking out throughout the government and in multiple committees in Congress. That the not insignificant abilities of rurally oriented agency leaders and members are now joining the cause bodes well.