In the Greek tale of ‘the lion and the man’, Androcles removes a thorn from a lion’s foot. Years later, the lion repays the favour when facing Androcles in the Roman Colosseum. The lion affirmed their mutual friendship and persuaded the Romans to pardon Androcles from battle. Afterwards, people would say “This is the lion, a man’s friend; this is the man, a lion’s doctor”. This metaphor is of how a man and a lion benefitted by helping each other, but what lessons are there for small rural regions to learn from large cities?

As a futurist, I respond from within Inayatullah’s Six Pillars framework by mapping the present and the business as usual future of rural migration and urbanisation, and using case studies that pull cities and settlements toward the business as usual future. Within the discussion, I use indexes to identify trends and projections and as guidelines for shaping cities. Finally, core variables from the case studies are integrated into scenarios to help clarify alternative and preferred 2030 futures for rural settlements.

Current urbanisation trend

Currently, remote and rural ‘outback’ areas are experiencing the effects of population and economic decline. This trend is predicted to continue, as “while rural areas were home to more than 45 per cent of the world’s population in 2016, that proportion is expected to fall to 40 per cent by 2030.” Further to this rural decline, the number of cities with more than one million residents will grow from 512 to 662.  

As liveability of major population centres increases, residents from remote rural areas are leaving industries like manufacturing and agriculture virtually in the dust.

Consequently, declines in rural populations reduce local funding for services and infrastructure over vast land areas. In the US, the country with the world’s fourth largest land area (albeit with greater population density with 18% of the world’s population) is experiencing similar migrations away from its middle States. This migration is contributing to a coastal cities’ boom during the current ‘digital age’. The Consequences are again of leaving rural area services and infrastructure in decline. Declines of US ‘middle-west’ States fueled a Republican victory at the US Presidential elections in November 2016. The dream of ‘making it in America’ applied more so to the West coast cities of California and Los Angeles and the East coast city of New York, ensuring that a ‘back to the future’ scenario in the middle States was increasingly unlikely. What has resulted are inland island communities in the wake of urbanisation. Across the US, even though over the past sixty years income has risen 300%, happiness over the last decade has declined, because of “rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust”


Mapping the plausible rural futures with Futures Triangle method

An understanding of a) current drivers and B) weights of history or the barriers to the ‘business as usual future’ of continued urban growth to 2030, together with c) pulling future images / case examples from cities, can help rural areas to develop their strategic foresight. The method used in the next analysis is the Six Pillars framework´s Futures Triangle, which is used for mapping the key elements that form the plausible future.


Drivers of the business-as-usual future

The global State of the Futures Index (SOFI) projects to 2030 significant increases in renewable energy use, internet use, high-skilled employment, gross national income and health expenditure – factors that indicate no pause in growth for major cities. In fact, the projections suggest accelerated growth in densely populated regions. But the story doesn’t have to end with rural decline. This business as usual projection does not exclude growth or enhancement of lifestyles in particular rural areas. If inland regions can play a role in offering unique experiences, opportunities and products as alternatives to crowded city lifestyles they can reshape their futures. Part of the reason for this optimism is that rural localities are connected to globalisation by air, road, rail but of particular importance is their connection to the world’s constantly evolving digital highway.

Barriers to the business-as-usual future

SOFI’s ten-year projections of barriers to growth include future declines in water sources, biocapacity and forest areas. With foresight, these barriers can be turned into opportunities. All of these barriers can be resolved with resources that abound in rural areas, particularly resources of large tracts of cheap, available land. For example, the outback Queensland town of Hughenden, is securing a new water source to establish large scale crop irrigation that would help feed its region. Hope for rural areas can also be found from advances in technologies such as solar power now being delivered for the first time in Australia’s history by a local government organisation offsetting all of its facilities and operations with solar energy.

Barriers to growth also include social systems. The United Nations calls for cities and human settlements to make themselves inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable Social Progress Indicators of basic human needs, wellbeing and opportunity are helpful in monitoring progress by making clear where a nation is under and over performing. For example, Finland is second highest in world social progress and is overperforming in the provision of affordable housing, but is underperforming in some other areas.

Preferred futures can be understood more deeply and made more socially accountable in cities and settlements, by taking into consideration aspects of inequality as is monitored by the Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index. As its name suggest, this index reduces an areas score for areas of inequality. The UN’s Human Development Program Report identifies barriers to human development of intolerance and exclusion, weak bargaining power, elite capture of institutions and narrow self-identities.


Case studies that pull cities and settlements toward the business-as-usual future

Rural areas are best positioned to ask for support from higher levels of government, from business partners and from larger cities, when they create a clear plan outlining preferred futures. This plan can be substantiated by case studies that allow an analysis of preferred, disowned, integrated and outlier futures. Case studies should be from multiple domains e.g. social, economic, leadership, environmental, cultural, transport, futures, governance and politics (SELECTFTGP). Case studies of improved social liveability, technological innovation and leadership/foresight are offered next. Firstly, the world’s most liveable city

for seven years running, is Melbourne. The Liveability Report appeals greatly to current and potential residents, visitors and investors. It ranks the preferred future of liveability by assessing the quality of each cities’ stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure. At the same time, Melbourne’s case for ‘most liveable’ has its detractors– the disowned future is of city residents resting comfortably when economic inequity leaves smaller populations feeling disenfranchised. An integrated view of the future would take the preferred ‘liveability’ view and the disowned ‘inequality’ view, and create a happy medium, for example, that residents should be encouraged to ‘get away from it all’ via holidays and in retirement years, and make a contribution to rural tourism.

The role for rural towns becomes one of building capacities of attractive, accessible, family friendly destinations that offer tourists ‘a happiness experience, ’ i.e. they revitalise health and wellbeing and contribute to the nation’s happiness. In Bhutan, a national scale of happiness includes areas of education, health, environment, community vitality, time use, psychological wellbeing, good governance and cultural resilience. Bhutan has many lessons to share with international communities. On a city scale, the UK is monitoring city progress via success in providing the conditions that create sustainable wellbeing, for its top 9 cities. The importance of monitoring city indexes of liveability and happiness, is in cities and settlements identifying their own stories, what works for them and to develop measures and indicators specific to their strengths and interests – potentially helping large and small cities to create mutually beneficial partnerships.

Another case study is of technological innovation displayed by the Chinese city of Shenzhen. This is a city that has contributed greatly to the innovations being exchanged in Silicon Valley. Shenzhen achieved success via a very different model to one structured by legalities surrounding intellectual property. Instead, Shenzhen excels because of a willingness to share, innovate and learn. This practice may be termed ‘co-opetition’ exemplified by Shenzhen’s business model of endemic cooperation and innovation and which helps Shenzhen and its partners remain competitive globally.

A further case study for small cities learning from lionesque cities is to create a state of future readiness using corporate and long-term planning as Singapore is doing. Singapore has become an exemplar of long-term vision and policy creation fostering a state of future readiness.


Four new scenarios of possible and preferred futures

From this discussion, multi variables are integrated into four scenarios, set out here as a day in the life of a 2030 rural village.

Scenario 1 – “Rural tech startups” – By 2030 governments are funding business hubs, the mentoring of school leavers in entrepreneurship, undergraduate and postgraduate studies and rural tech competitions to boost ‘co-opetition’ between businesses. Rural regions have converted large disused sheds into innovation workshops to inspire local to global crowd-sourcing and kick-starter ideas. They have excelled because they have created gigabit networks with data download speeds 500 times faster than broadband can deliver. This network benefits scientists, video editors, 3D animators, musicians and software developers.

One company that was unique to the USA in 2017 is Zipline which delivers medical supplies across vast areas. In 2030 similar services have evolved in rural regions to deliver more than medical supplies – quadcopters and drones now taxi residents to rural destinations and deliver personal mail, business equipment and online shopping.

Scenario 2 – “Livability mimicker” – Rural towns transform to become ‘most liveable’ and offer incentives such as four-day working weeks with a fifth day focused on the happiness of others through offering respite, health and psychological wellbeing services – counselling, educating, connecting. Rural areas developed an app to help facilitate social inclusion. They created community development through engagement, action learning, storying, psychological awareness, with an emphasis on social progress, creating opportunity for businesses and reducing inequality.

Scenario 3 – “Major projects” – Dams, nuclear power plants, military facilities, waste facilities and mining facilities are the first step in this scenario. After these possibilities became exhausted, the use of foresight to learn how to use less water emerged, e.g. focus on food futures via aquaponics and vertical farming.

Both systems use far less water than traditional farms and produce a variety of crops creating local self-sufficiency that reduces transport costs of food deliveries. Sustainable building design is another way that rural areas are learning from cities. Following this example from Masdar City in the Arab Emirates, rural areas are now designing tourism friendly sustainable buildings that work effectively in intemperate climates.

Scenario 4 – “Natural wonders research centres” – In this 2030 scenario rural area populations are partnered with government and universities to provide internships, entrepreneurship, exchanges and outplacements to youth, innovators and professional staff. These exchanges build knowledge in areas like funding for observatories, natural wildlife and climatic conditions research centres and events strategies for research festivals that ‘re-story’ inland culture. By also working with futurists, the psychology of the community is integrated into a 2030 vision, through the use of transformative local stories and metaphors.


Scenario analysis, to clarify preferred, disowned, integrated and outlier futures

The above scenarios lead to preferred futures that change local culture significantly. They bring space saving vertical industry, energy saving renewable industry and science led research coupled with an interest in the environment. They also bring social inclusion helping people to connect at home and in their businesses.

Disowned futures are of agriculture, manufacturing and heavy industry.

Integrated futures scenarios would see the use of multi-purpose spaces where vertical farming and aqua-ponds are on one side of a shed/warehouse and the other would be dedicated to researching machine parts to create advanced manufacturing processes e.g. nanobot materials for self-healing of machinery and changes to autonomous electric tractors.

Outlier futures project ‘what if’ scenarios, that could quickly disrupt rural futures to 2030. They include global proposals to industrialise and occupy rural regions, planetary cooling as renewables take effect sending people inland to temperate areas, hyper-speed underground transport systems that take people directly to neighbouring cities at low cost, as global share market based industries target rebuilding rural areas as eco-village health and learning retreats.

Table 1 Integrated Scenario: 2030 Rural Futures

Integrated Scenario: 2030 Rural Futures

Benefits of using six pillars method

Through the creation of their own alternative 2030 visions with the given method, rural regions can generate greater happiness. Settlements can prevent the ‘Midwest USA’ oversight by presenting 2030 Visions that create preferred futures at multiple internal and external levels – to be in tune with emerging issues, challenges and global cultures. To be sure, reciprocation is needed from the lionesque cities – but what counts, as they say, isn’t the size of the lion in the fight, it is the size of the heart in the lion.


Dr Colin Russo is an Australian futurist, facilitator, award-winning futures author and award-winning engagement expert. Dr Russo has worked for the Queensland Department of Environment and Department of Mines and Energy and for the City of Gold Coast. He worked for Director General’s and CEO’s Offices and continues to work with executive and policy staff and their stakeholders.

From 2015 Dr Russo has worked as Managing Director of Engaging Futures, a consultancy delivering futures workshops for executives and staff interested in learning about and working on their own futures thinking and action learning projects. Most recently, Dr Russo has presented in the USA, Taiwan and Australia. From 2015 he has been a futurist facilitator of 1-3 day futures workshops, panels, forums and strategy developments for State and Local governments and for corporations.