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Can a rural Canadian town think like a city?

At the CFI office over the past few months we’ve been talking a lot about how we can bring innovation into rural communities. Although the focus is global, Community Forests International is headquartered in a Canadian town of 5,500 people called Sackville, New Brunswick. Our work in Canada focuses on rural development – both economic and environmental. As a cutting edge environmental start-up, we crave a dynamic and driven community often found in a city. So how can Sackville provide us with the inspiration we crave?

In a city, innovation emerges from the possible and probable. Let’s look at some of the things that cities do in terms of fostering innovation and see how they apply to Sackville.

Emergence   Cities allow for the bottom-up collaboration and connections between random isolated events in order to build complex systems over time.

We don’t need leaders, hierarchies, rigid organizational structures and flushed out systems in order to innovate. We need a way to connect a myriad of isolated, seemingly random events over time. Ants do it, bees do it and so do cities. Here’s a great Radiolab podcast about emergence.

Possibility  ideas are a network of other ideas. When you come up with a new “idea” you’re creating it with all the bits and pieces of things you know. Things that you have stumbled across by chance or have experienced throughout your unique experience all contribute to the new ideas you form. In a city you’re exposed to a number of ideas just based on the people you bump into, or through the random things you experience.

“Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven't visited yet. Once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn't have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you'll have built a palace” – Steven Johnson, The Genius of the Tinkerer, The Wall Street Journal

Rural innovators in Sackville are likely to run into some very interesting people, at The Black Duck Coffee House, at Thunder and Lightening Ideas Inc or at an event hosted by Mount Allison University. The town also has a vibrant arts community, with great music festivals such as Stereophonic and Sappyfest. This little town on the marsh also features an artist-run centre called Struts Gallery that attracts world-renowned artists. Our town has an organization called Renaissance Sackville, which works to connect individuals and organizations in order to build new partnerships. But what else can we do? Do we need a physical space in order to connect and grow our ideas? Do we have to turn to the web in order to connect through social media or an every expanding collection of blog posts, news articles and cutting-edge content?

Probability   Cities are about people and the more people you have, the more innovation.  Atlantic Cities has a great article on the urban populations and innovation if you’re interested.

According to researchers at MIT, the more people you have, the more innovation you get. Innovation grows at approximately the same rate as population. The more people you have, the more chance interactions and exposure to new and different ideas. This is a tough challenge in a small town. There are a number of innovators that are turning to the connectivity of the internet in order to build their networks and in turn connect with the volumes of people that make innovation happen. Our town has consultants who depend on huge online networks, such as Harold Jarche, who works internationally, designing and building work, management, and learning models. There are also small pockets of scientific innovators from Mount Allison University’s academic community, such as Dr. Jack Stewart, who has discovered the medicinal properties of northern short tailed shrew saliva. Sackville also headquarters a regional organic farmers network called ACORN. All amazing contributions to a small town.

Community Forests International is a part of the Sackville landscape. We are not just influenced by our community, we are a part of it. We’ve been asking ourselves what we can do in order to help foster innovation within our own community. If we are working for rural innovation in Pemba, Tanzania, and at Whaelghinrban Farm here in New Brunswick, we should also work to implement our beliefs in our own backyard.

What can we do to foster innovation? What experiences do you have? How can Sackville think like a city?  

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