Place, Power, and Policy in the ‘Nuclear North’: A Critical Comparative Analysis of Policy Narratives about Rural Innovation Systems Anchored by the Nuclear Energy Sector in Scotland and Canada

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Weeden, Sara Ashleigh

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University of Guelph


Innovation has become a central public policy concern, as evidenced by the proliferation of ‘innovation agendas’ across all jurisdictions around the world. While some research on innovation in rural regions exists, it often encounters difficulties in applying generally accepted, urban-centered concepts from Regional Innovation Systems (RIS) theory, indicating opportunities for reconsidering RIS using an explicitly rural, place-based approach. Using the Narrative Policy Framework and Critical Systems Heuristics reveals important differences between what is promised by RIS literature and what is observed through interpretivist consideration of lived experiences in rural settings. This framework has been applied to two case study regions anchored by the nuclear energy sector: Huron-Bruce (Ontario, Canada) and Caithness, Sutherland and Ross (Highlands, Scotland). Primary data collected from key informant interviews and policy agendas in each case study has been analyzed through the NPF and compared against each other as well as against the narratives revealed in RIS literature. Doing so brings innovation systems research back to its roots in systems theory by considering the full breadth of factors involved in rural innovation systems through reflective and reflexive qualitative analysis. The resulting findings emphasize that RIS theory can be understood as a policy narrative that struggles to integrate place in its promotion of particular story about innovation as being for the purpose of economic development and competitiveness; that policy agendas regarding rural innovation can be understood as policy narratives that wrestle with scale, capacity, and self-determinism in rural regions; and that key informant interviews present policy narratives that reflect the way key actors in rural innovation systems address the ongoing tension between urban-based notions of innovation, policy incoherence, and their own insights into the dynamics at play in their local settings. The results suggest that researchers, policymakers, and rural development practitioners must begin to fully engage with place in explicit and direct terms in order to address the hegemonic urban that has become embedded in ideas about innovation systems and that the process of meaning-making by local actors is as important to the development of innovation systems as sectoral development.



regional innovation systems (RIS), rural policy, rural development, rural planning, innovation policy, Scotland, Canada, Ontario, Dounreay, Sutherland Space Hub, Bruce Power, Bruce County, nuclear energy, economic development, place based development, place based policy, Narrative Policy Framework, Critical Systems Heuristics, narrative analysis