Digital Nation

Rural Enterprise Hubs – Boosting Scotland’s Digital Economy Through Regional Co-Working Spaces

Positioning Scotland at the heart of the 'Future of Work' revolution would provide a huge economic stimulus for the nation's rural communities.

Infrastructure for building a Digital Nation isn’t limited only to technology.

It also includes other dimensions that similarly contribute to building national capacity, such as office working facilities, especially so for Scotland’s smaller towns and rural areas.

These environments provide the basic but essential building blocks of digital economy participation, from wifi through printers, and critically also foster ad-hoc, dynamic contact networks.

Cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow are well catered for when it comes to these ‘co-working’ spaces, headlined by huge success stories like CodeBase.

Rural Economy

However Scotland’s big economic challenge is the many more smaller towns and communities, where they face crippling economic situations, many in obvious states of decline. A key part of this difficulty is Scotland’s aging demographics.

As the Scotsman reported in 2018 Scotland’s rural communities face losing up to a third of their working age population by 2046, losing more than a quarter of their population within the next thirty years, with Western Isles, Argyll and the Southern Uplands among the worst affected.

“A report by the James Hutton Institute found that “sparsely populated areas” – defined as those where fewer than 10,000 people can be reached within 30 minutes of travel – account for almost half of Scotland, but just 2.6 per cent of the population live there.”

It’s not unique to Scotland. In Spain they are selling off whole ‘ghost villages‘.

Tapping into the ‘Future of Work’

To tackle such a deep systemic issue the solution needs to be one that is an equally deep trend.

This is ‘The Future of Work’, referring to the ongoing evolution of when and where we work, and also how we work. This includes remote, virtual working from home rather than in the office, and also more dynamic employment models aka the ‘Gig Economy’.

It’s not a new idea, also back in 2004 Thomas Malone wrote about the coming Future of Work, and long before that the original visionary Charles Handy described how our employment will evolve to become ‘portfolio working‘. Malone said: “Imagine organizations where most workers aren’t employees at all, but electronically connected freelancers living wherever they want to.”

Handy offers a blueprint for how to practically structure such a virtual team that we will implement, describing a ‘Shamrock organization‘, and in this video talks about the key challenge to a human future of work, the changes we need to make to our education, and how we can engage with changing attitudes towards work and what that means for a purposeful life.

For some sectors like tech it’s increasingly becoming seen as the norm for an employed engagement; many leaders recognizing simple ideals like how remote workers outperform office workers.

Rural Enterprise Hubs

Interestingly the trend does not dictate entirely individualized, work-from-home scenarios, indeed the key point for rural communities looking to attract this work force is that it works best with some office facilities, provided very locally.

This could be achieved through what the SRUC describes as ‘Rural Enterprise Hubs‘: Physical spaces that provide rural businesses and entrepreneurs with workspaces (offices or workshops), communal spaces to network and socialise, meeting rooms, coworking spaces, shared kitchen facilities, networking groups and business support opportunities.

The TownToolkit provides inspiring examples, such as the Falkirk Business Hub.

Their role as economy enabling hubs is key – While the Gig Economy is inherently about individuals working alone as freelancers, often via online virtual tools and booking methods, there is still considerable value in facilitating physical collaboration.

We can see them as essential foundations for the Gig Economy, when you consider factors such as the challenges for employers looking to utilize them on a large scale, challenges such as helping to create belonging, through a better program of support for how managers can best support a gig economy workforce remote workers.

Coworking centres can contribute towards these goals as shared office environments are ideal for cultivating mentorship and support environments, and is also a sound business model in it’s own right – The gig economy has been driving an explosion in demand for coworking office space.

This offers huge potential for smaller Scottish towns in desperate need of a rejuvenated economic strategy, where they have under-utilized assets that could be easily repurposed towards this goal. For example Atholl House in Lanark was previously used by the DWP but has since been abandoned and now sits derelict and unused.

It would be ideal for a regional co-working centre for the town, injecting an exciting potential for cultivating new startup businesses and also making better use of this valuable asset.

Conclusion – Quality of Life

For towns seeking to retain and attract young workers and their families this is how to do it.

This Sharemyoffice article suggests Rural Coworking hubs are the future of the rural economy, and they’re right, and in her Medium article describes why:

“Also if you work in a small team, the bonds made in rural coworking spaces tend to be stronger, since in these situations you normally live and work from the same place. Whether that includes, hikes and bike rides, swimming or surfing, skiing or rock climbing, living outside of the cites allows us to reconnect with the nature — which is what most of us need from time to time.”

Thousands are moving out of the cities to enjoy a better quality of life, and with Scotland’s rural areas like Orkney offering the very best of this across the entire UK, there is a uniquely powerful perfect storm of opportunity to promote Scotland as the best nation in the world for digital living and working.


Editor of On a mission to build a world leading Scottish digital nation.

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