Regenerating small towns and stimulating regional economic development through innovation

The South African Local Government Association (SALGA) hosted its provincial Small Town Regeneration (STR) and Regional Economic Development (RED) conference in Delmas, Mpumalanga, on 24 and 25 October 2017, which was aimed at discussing ways to regenerate, restore and strengthen small town economies in the province. The HSRC's Economic Performance and Development (EPD) research programme, which is implementing a number of innovation projects in Mpumalanga, was invited to shed light on how innovation can be harnessed to leverage on these towns’ local resources and improve the quality of life for the people. The 2 day event was attended by SALGA officials, Councillors, LED & IDP officials, officials from sister Departments, and other relevant stakeholders.

Small towns, which play an important role in anchoring rural economies, face a number of challenges, such as poor transport networks, loss of skilled people to bigger towns, undiversified economies, etc., which have left them facing both economic and demographic stagnation. The STR / RED initiative by SALGA seeks to reverse this trend and ensure that underperforming small towns fulfil their potential.

The EPD presentations, one of which was done by the University of Venda, our rural innovation partner in Mpumalanga, were well received by the audience. The subsequent discussion led to a consensus that reviving the economies of rural towns would require new, creative and innovative ideas and approaches. It was noted that this would require municipal officials who think beyond just ticking boxes, as well as flexible bureaucratic systems that are supportive to out-of-the box thinking. Also, the importance of partnerships among local actors, both public and private, were emphasised. The activities of different stakeholders would require adequate coordination to achieve better outcomes, and SALGA was encouraged to take the lead in this coordination role.

An important outcome of the discussion was the realisation of the need to embrace research for evidence-based interventions at the local level. The gap between research institutions, especially local based universities, and municipalities, will have to be reduced, and relationships be established and strengthened. The discussions highlighted that innovation as a key ingredient of local economic development has been embraced by many officials operating at the local levels, which augurs well with the Innovation for LED (ILED) programme of the DST.

For more information about this project, please contact Sikhulumile Sinyolo.

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