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Urban-Rural: The New Geographies of Innovation

This is the text of my plenary talk at the Innovation and Emerging Industry Development (IEID) conference in Shanghai on 18 September 2019. I describe three enabling conditions for system change: a capacity for ecological thinking; a focus on social infrastructure (rather than the concrete kind); and a shift of focus from place making, to place connecting.

A cultural disconnection between the man-made world and the biosphere lies behind the grave challenges we face today. We either don’t think about rivers, soils, and biodiversity at all – or we treat them as resources whose only purpose is to feed the economy.

This ‘metabolic rift’ – between the living world, and the economic one – leaves us starved of meaning and purpose. We have to heal this damaging gap.

My talk today is therefore about the design of connections between places, communities, and nature. Drawing on a lifetime of travel in search of real-world alternatives that work, I describe the practical ways in which living economies thrive in myriad local contexts.

When connected together, I argue, these projects tell a new ‘leave things better’ story of value, and therefore of growth.

Growth, in this new story, means soils, biodiversity and watersheds getting healthier, and communities more resilient.

The signals of transformation I talk about are not concepts, and they are not the fruits of a vivid imagination. They are happening now.

But in conversations about innovation, I am often asked the same question: Are small local initiatives an adequate response to the global challenges we all face?

The sheer number and variety of initiatives now emerging is my first answer to that question.

No single project is the magic acorn that will grow into a mighty new oak tree. But healthy forests are extremely diverse, and we’re seeing a healthy level of diversity in social innovation all over the world.

My second answer

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