Public Participation in Developing a Common Framework for the Assessment and Management of Sustainable Innovation

Today’s Concepts for a Sustainable and Mobile Tomorrow in Rural Areas

Today’s Concepts for a Sustainable and Mobile Tomorrow in Rural Areas
23.07.2015 | Maximilian Wollner

Our today’s lifestyle is far from sustainable and will change over the next years and decades. The EU’s goal is to become a low-carbon economy by 2050. As in almost all of our societies’ and today’s lifestyle energy demand comes from the areas of housing, mobility, and nutrition, change will happen in these areas. It can already be seen across the cities of Europe. In the are of mobility, for example, London is hoping to become the future cycling capital of Europe, Paris is succeeding ever more in restricting inner city car traffic, many cities re-invent tramways such as in Barcelona with its grass-lined tramways and Marseille with its marine design tramways depicting the city’s identity. Many Eastern Europeans cities still benefit from never having removed tramways from their cityscapes, Budapest is rightfully proud of its metro history. Ljubljana prioritised cycling infrastructure back in the day of socialist urban planning and is today even strengthening its efforts. With ever more people moving to cities, the city is the right place to innovate. Thanks to a city’s high density, sustainable transport and delivery is just a little truly innovative thinking away. But what about the countryside? How can we ensure transport and delivery that are sustainable in economic, ecological, and social terms?

Let’s have a look at the facts. Any means of transportation is more sustainable the less energy is consumed. Scientists and engineers use person kilometres and kilogram kilometres to compare energy demand of different transportation means. The comparison clearly shows: muscular transportation such as cycling is by far the most efficient—and, as I would like to add, the most enjoyable—means of transport, followed by walking and different means of electrified transport preferably on rails where there is less friction and no battery issues. Cars, lorries, airplanes—they are all on the upper end of energy demand.

© See this tweet for details on the above infographic.

In rural areas today’s truth of mass transit and public transport is often characterised by far too large busses carrying but a few passengers, trains passing just a few times per day, and many families having two or more cars, often used for fulfilling basic needs due to weak infrastructure. In fact, a large bus with just a handful of passengers is ecologically more harmful than if each passenger drives  her or his own car. And I dare not mention economic sustainability for this example.

So what is the solution? Is sustainable transport in rural areas impossible? Are people doomed to moving around much less and sticking much more to their very big country houses enjoying rural charm? Will the cities have to compensate the countryside’s waste of energy in the transport sector?

There is some good news. First, sustainable transport in rural areas is possible. And second, we already have most solutions at hand. We do not need rocket science. We hardly need new technology. We just need to think different.

The baseline of this different thinking is two-fold:

Mobility is always an expression for lack of something.

Be it a lack of material goods, be it a lack of services, be it a lack of education, be it a lack of social contact: we want something that is not within our reach and thus we travel shorter or greater distances to get what we want, no matter if we’re talking tonight’s supper, going to school or work, or meeting with friends.

Mobility is also always only a service.

All we really want is to get from point A to point B, because we want to buy food for tonight’s supper or visit a restaurant or learn or earn or meet or greet. You name it, I blame it. Mobility is not about driving a shiny new car (to be left parked in the lot for most time of the day) and it is also not about being stuffed with two thousand other people in the morning’s commuter rail. These (to most of us probably well-known scenes) are just phenomena or, if you will, side-effects of mobility. If we re-imagine mobility those side-effects might well be completely gone in the future.

In the CASI project we have investigated a large collection of sustainable innovations from all over Europe. Many of the sustainable innovation in our (highly recommended) CASIPEDIA illustrate well the future of sustainable mobility in rural areas.


© Volkspartei Niederösterreich

The Solar Taxi Heidenreichstein is a non-profit mobility initiative in the Waldviertel region in Austria, known for the country’s weakest infrastructure. It is a low-fare mobility service for the region’s inhabitants. It offers a mix between a taxi and a bus service: you call them if you want to go to another town and they pick you up as soon as possible. Sometimes, they pick up or drop off other passengers on the way. Using solar energy powered electric vehicles this service is truly sustainable in all dimensions and is highly demanded by the locals. A similar initiative is the Kutsuplus Customised Public Transport in the Helsinki region.

Crazy car pools
© Charlotte Marillet @

The energy in-efficiency of car traffic is to a large extent the result of cars typically holding 1.1 to 1.4 passengers per car. Car-pooling such as the Aha! Car initiative from Bulgaria help increase efficiency of car traffic by a large degree—and also reduce congestion. In fact, cities around the world have started to differentiate road pricing and offer discounts for car-poolers. None of this is new or needs technological upgrades. Modern web platforms and smartphone apps however make it a lot easier and more comfortable.

© Franklin Heijnen @

All over Europe Cycle 2 Work schemes are encouraging employees to cycle to work. Initiatives often offer benefits and bonuses for cycling employees and employers who promote cycling. We have mapped such initiatives in AustriaIreland, and Poland. Besides such actions a cost-free public transport system as established in Tallinn can further reduce car traffic and congestion. Combine these ideas with comfortable multi-modal transport systems and you will find much less commuters driving cars from the countryside to the cities.

© The Plunkett Foundation

We have mentioned that quite some traffic results from errands. This is especially true for rural areas weak in shop infrastructure. As a result, Community Shops have started to pop up across the United Kingdom to supply and service the local population. Similar initiatives can be seen across Europe, sometimes organised by locals themselves as non-profit associations, sometimes with special discounts for economically struggling people such as the ANDES project in France. In the future we will certainly see the idea of food co-ops, community supported agricultures, food sharing, and other initiatives being exported from cities to rural areas—especially since direct contact with farmers is so much easier in the countryside!

All of the examples given show us that we need to re-think our concept of mobility and to think of mobility as more holistically. Workplace innovation with more flexible working hours and more tele-working has the potential to decrease commuter traffic and dramatically increase our enjoyment of commuter trains…

A good place to start thinking different is the IDEAS BANK we have developed in the CASI project. You will find lots of ideas extracted from our 500+ study of sustainable innovation cases readily waiting to be adapted in tomorrow’s innovative concepts for sustainable mobile lifestyles in rural areas!


Featured image/headline image © Matthias Ripp @

Relevant themes: Public participation, Sustainable innovation, Resource efficiency
Relevant tags: Social innovation, Eco-innovation, Sustainable lifestyles, Circular economy


  • Maximilian Wollner - Zentrum fuer Soziale Innovation, (Centre for Social Innovation), (ZSI)

    Maximilian Wollner

    curious about social innovation for sustainability, savoir vivre, gourmet, outdoor sports guy

  • Rod Hilditch - Coventry University Enterprises Limited (CUE) 15.03.2016 17:50

    Rod Hilditch

    Urban and rural societies are rarely different, it is the perceptions society places on communities that block the open mind to the infrastructures and how they are supported. For example Rural communities produce waste, the perception is that communities are analyised by the number of people rather that what is produced. Understanding what waste is produced might suggest infrastructures; perhaps, a multi-fuelled energy system provides a driver to the essential power, supply chain for communities to operate.

  • Monika Popper - Futures Diamond SRO (FD) 03.08.2015 14:03

    Monika Popper

    Great post Max with very good selection of examples! The links to our CASI work strongly support your arguments. Excellent!