Let me ask you about the people in the countryside. What’s life like in the countryside? What images do people there have of the place they call home, of the countryside?
Leon Jank: Let’s look at the federal states that constituted the former East Germany, which is where our work takes place: after reunification there was a slump in civil participation. People suddenly had to adjust to a new situation and everyone’s biography divides into before and after reunification. Many social and human ties and networks fell apart as people began to concentrate on other things. Whereas life had previously involved living in a kind of prescribed community, life suddenly became very individual. People focused their attention on what went on their side of the fence. Now it’s the other way around. People’s lives have improved and a new generation is emerging that wants to pick up the pieces of what previously fell apart and put it back together. As far as these people are concerned, this is their space, their home, and they want to shape it. And then there are the driving forces who might come from the city and initiate projects in these rural areas – and who look at the countryside with different eyes, who see its positive sides and the opportunities it offers. If all goes well, if people can communicate beyond their own garden fences, then civil involvement may suddenly lead to innovation.
Mentioning the countryside and innovation in the same sentence is something no one would have dared do a few years ago. Is this how far we’ve come, or are these still dreams of the future? If we look carefully, if we follow political votes, if we listen to the people living in these rural areas, there is still a clear feeling of having been forgotten and abandoned.
Eleonore Harmel: This is clearly a process that has been pushed by the political classes in recent years. Administrative structures and local politics have become increasingly distant. Ever more villages are being swallowed up by towns; very few communes are able to act. Many villages suffer from frozen budgets and their hands are tied. On top of that, these places usually have mayors working in an honorary capacity, having to perform their tasks as mayor alongside their day jobs. These structures don’t really work, and people’s frustration grows as a result. Fortunately, in many places you find people who take things into their own hands, getting involved and getting things done. This is having quite an effect. These are small-scale innovations in areas of everyday life. Consequently, austerity and budget deficits are unable to stop people from keeping their local swimming baths open and running, from managing their village association, creating cultural events or preventing the closure of their local school. Obviously, there are also villages where this doesn’t work and where the people have almost resigned themselves to their fate. This is what makes it so difficult to get an overall idea of rural areas. There isn’t just one. It’s too diverse.
Hisar Schönfeld: We work with transformation, with societal change in favour of socio-ecological sustainability. This term used to entail something entirely different in research domains and the social sciences. It used to refer to political change, changes to the political system, such as the transition from the East German to the West German system, to a reunified Germany. When you talk about transformation in the states of the former East Germany in particular, people are usually referring to the major transformation brought on by reunification. People there frequently have a negative attitude towards change from the offset – because reunification was followed by a time in which people, especially in rural areas, were continually told about all the things that were dysfunctional and about the local lack of future prospects and potential. In our work we notice that people from the villages in particular have internalised this negative view of themselves. This is where achieving another outlook on people’s own potential and on what distinguishes them, experiencing self-efficacy and opportunities to help shape things is central to our work. Many of our projects have a significant local effect because we bring with us a view from outside and can actually inspire awareness of local development and of how they see themselves.
Could we finish by you telling us about a project that you’re deeply involved in right now?
Eleonore Harmel: Our major project, one that is close to our heart, is Landinventur – with this Citizen Science project we seek to use a digital platform to compile a comprehensive geological map of villages and learn more about rural life in the 21st century. At the moment there’s a prototype for the states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Brandenburg that allows anyone to survey and gather data – either individually or in a joint workshop. Sometimes people aren’t actually aware of just what is possible in their village, how much more it has to offer. The fascinating part is when you get down to thinking about it and sharing ideas: “Who actually lives here? When are the people here? Do they commute? What do they plant in their gardens? Who has pets or keeps animals? What local businesses are there? What buildings or public institutions are there? Are there any shopping facilities? Where does the mobile supplies vehicle stop? Who is involved in civil activity? What interest groups are there? – putting all this together, mapping it and gaining a sense of awareness, not just for yourself but for the location – using a fundamental data resource that provides a new view of the rural area. The data that has been acquired is an important addition to the classic statistics that are the basis for many political and planning decisions concerning the development of rural areas. People can use this tool to transport their own image of their village. It can also be used for local planning and participation processes. For us it’s an important device, if only to start thinking about new tools that could better describe rural areas – be it north, south, east or west. Then we can make a better job of answering the question of what a realistic depiction of rural areas looks like, how to portray the current local situation and what concerns people.