Innovation view from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland


Rural Innovation and Business Services RIBS.


This is my first blog on the RIBS website which is a European project involving Northern Finland, Northern Sweden, The Highlands and Islands of Scotland, North West Ireland and Iceland.  The project aims to look at the challenges of innovating and developing businesses in remote rural areas with a view to developing tools and exchanging best practices between the regions.


Are we different?


Being involved in a project called rural innovation and business Services looking specifically at the challenges faced by businesses in terms of rural innovation being  based in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland is a bit of a oxymoron. Pretty much everything we deal with in the highlands of Scotland is rural.  So are we so different to the urban densely populated areas in terms of the support and infrastructure required to develop a Innovative and entrepreneurial ecosystem ?


So I thought about my experiences in terms of working in innovation support in the highlands and the challenges faced by the companies I am trying to support.  Some of the obvious ones such as distance from customers, access to networks, lack of R & D investment, transport costs, poor I.T infrastructure and difficulty recruiting. As well as these challenges one of the main obstacles mentioned in the highlands is access to academia with the University of the Highlands and Islands still in the capacity building phase.


These challenges do exist but they can also exist in an urban capacity albeit to a lesser extent so are we trying to differentiate rural innovation and the challenges surrounding that for the sake of being different.  In my experience of rural innovation and looking at the feedback from RIBS colleagues I don’t think we are. I think the type of support rural companies look for compared to urban companies differs in terms of the levels of confidence and belief that they can actually achieve success beyond their immediate vicinity. In most cases the bulk of the support given to them is about teaching them to have the confidence in themselves, there company and in some cases there staff.


In looking at the support in terms of  solutions offered primarily by the public sector across the five ribs partners their are a lot of similarities and one of the conclusions I feel about the variety of interventions is that sometimes less can be more. For a rural business there is so much information about products, training, finance, support mechanisms, conferences, workshops etc. In many cases it inhibits  them because there develops an uncertainty in terms of what benefits any of these things will bring to a particular company.


Part of the role of ribs is looking at the five rural regions and looking at the solutions on offer in each of these regions and taking the learning from that and developing a means of identifying the solutions that work from existing programs and interventions both within that region and from the partner regions. However the key learning from any sort of knowledge exchange project can be taken from the failures and learning key lessons from them in terms of future rural innovation strategies across the five regions.


As a highlander who has spent a large part of my career working in the region I think rural areas have a lot of advantages over our urban counterparts in terms of our abilities to collaborate, deal with setbacks, ideal  location for renewable projects, costs of premises and the levels of support you can receive if you stick up your hand to be counted is in relative terms much  greater than in many cities.


If you come up with an innovative idea, product or business in a small island with a population of 50 people compared to say a city of a million people the perceived impact of your business would get the attention of all aspects of the business and economic support services operating  in that area. That’s not to say it would be easy and the city dweller would have advantages of scale but in a global economy if you strive to succeed no matter where you are located than anything is possible.


John Mackenzie


Development Manager Innovation and Knowledge Transfer


Highlands and Islands Enterprise