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Rural Reimagined: Combating Non-Metro Challenges with Cross-Sector Partnerships

June 11, 2024—Recent years have seen a large shift in the research landscape towards regional innovation hubs and ecosystems. While major metropolitan areas have traditionally been the centers of innovation, smaller non-metropolitan regions hold untapped potential for innovation to take root and flourish. Despite their potential, non-metro areas face unique challenges related to their location, including a potential lack of resources or infrastructure and brain drain. But with a critical mass of skilled personnel and a culture that enables strong collaborations, these challenges can be overcome, bolstering smaller regions and bringing benefits to stakeholders across sectors.

Regional focus

Around the world, innovation ecosystems have become a major focus of research-performing organizations and government agencies. Recognizing the success of major technological hubs, stakeholders have supported efforts to develop innovation capacity in other large cities, leveraging diverse stakeholders in local universities, companies, nonprofits, and governments. With opportunities like Tech Hubs and Regional Innovation Engines programs in the United States and the Regional Innovation Valleys or Catapults in Europe and the UK, many agencies are creating similar initiatives for new regions to strengthen R&D capabilities.

These initiatives focus on providing support to areas that are typically underrepresented in other funding mechanisms and may lack the resources or infrastructure required to maintain a large-scale research enterprise. These funding opportunities offer organizations opportunities to invest in research infrastructure and projects and build capacity to perform high-impact research that possesses opportunities for translation. The benefits of strengthening R&D activities in non-metropolitan areas go beyond just research. It can help support socioeconomic growth by creating skilled students to fill workforce needs, building physical infrastructure, and attracting new talent, companies, and investors to the region.

Talent matters

For many non-metropolitan areas, colleges and universities are key parts of the community, drawing new people to the region. But a key challenge facing non-metropolitan areas is brain drain, where college graduates leave their collegiate region to live and work elsewhere. According to a report from the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, the average recent college graduate in the United States moves approximately 200 miles away from their college. The same report posits that states with large, prosperous cities, like New York and California, experience the opposite effect—importing far more college graduates than they export. The states losing the most students are more rural and include North Dakota, Idaho, Nebraska, and West Virginia. Largely, this is driven by factors such as labor markets, wages, and a region’s perceived desirability.

How can we combat brain drain and incentivize people to stay and nurture the region where they received their education? The Upjohn Institute report suggests implementing policy that encourages investment in regional public universities with high graduation rates. Ultimately, additional funding can help develop early college and career development programs, as well as provide financial support to students. Funding from, and collaborations with, local industry partners can also help. Tailored educational curricula or experiential learning opportunities can help better prepare students for industry needs. These partnerships can expose students to local future employment opportunities and ensure they’re prepared to succeed in those roles. For more on regional talent development, see this previous 3-Minute Read.

Why it matters

Addressing the key challenges of non-metropolitan areas can create a snowball effect, where benefits multiply to help regional ecosystems thrive. With government investment and partnerships, regions can build research infrastructure and cultivate a skilled workforce, leading to further community investment and economic growth, attracting students and professionals to the region. Recognizing the potential of non-metropolitan regions and taking steps to address their challenges can help empower them to create a stronger ecosystem and drive innovation and discovery.

We want to hear from you. How does your organization help combat brain drain in your region? Let us know on our LinkedIn profile.

The 3-Minute Read is a UIDP member information piece and does not represent the opinions of our members or representatives. We welcome your comments on our LinkedIn profile.