Minnesota Design Center Helps Rural Communities Envision the Future

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Supported by funding from the Minnesota Legislature, the Minnesota Futures Pilot Project is working with the communities of Grand Meadow, Wabasha, and Spring Grove to help position each one for a 21st-century future.

Led by Mary Vogel and Tom Fisher from the College of Design’s Minnesota Design Center, a major project goal is to help close the resource gap between large metro areas and Greater Minnesota communities. Fisher and Vogel discuss the history of the project, what the 21st century looks like for rural communities, and more in the following interview.

How did both of you become involved in the Greater Minnesota Futures project?

Mary Vogel, who led the Center for Changing Landscapes before joining the Minnesota Design Center, pitched the idea to become more involved with Greater Minnesota. This attracted legislative support to do a pilot project in S.E. Minnesota.

How can design and design-thinking help rural communities not only survive but thrive?

Design starts with trying to understand the human and physical assets of organizations or communities as the basis for helping them leverage their strengths to create a better future for themselves. Many communities tend to focus on what they have lost or what they lack, and the design process turns that on its head, helping people appreciate what they have and creatively utilizing that to develop strategies that will enable them to attract and keep talent.

What does preparing for the 21st century look like for small, rural communities?

The 21st-century economy allows us to live and work almost anywhere, leveling the playing field between big cities and small, rural communities. But in order to compete, the latter must focus on specific groups of people or interest groups who will find a particular place appealing.

How were the three pilot communities selected?

We established the criteria with S.E. Minnesota Together, a regional economic development organization, and put out a call for communities to respond. Many did and after reviewing the submissions with S.E. MN Together, we selected three cities in very different locations: Wabasha along the Mississippi River, Spring Grove in hill country near the Iowa border, and Grand Meadow, an agricultural community within commuting distance of Rochester and Austin.

What’s the overarching focus or goal for each community?

All three communities have engaged in design thinking sessions with us to identify their greatest strengths and competitive opportunities, and all three have begun to pursue very different paths. Wabasha has focused on being an ideal place for active living and telecommuting. It has schools, a good and sizeable medical center, and many recreational opportunities for a community its size. Spring Grove leveraged its strength as a center for artisanal food, beverage, and craft production, and, with help from a UMN student, has created events around that strength. Grand Meadow has emphasized being a family-friendly community, with a strong school system and support for families, many of whom work in Rochester.

What work has been done so far with each community?

We only started the pilot a year ago so most of this year has been spent helping these communities identify their assets and figure out how to build on them with targeted strategies. We plan to begin implementing those strategies this coming year and evaluating how that has worked and why.

Why do you think it is important for the University to be working with Greater Minnesota in this way?

The University of Minnesota is the land-grant institution for the whole state and we have a responsibility to reach out to communities that are struggling. Many small communities have had a hard time keeping and attracting young people and transitioning from an agriculturally focused economy. Each community needs to find what is most distinctive about itself and use that to market to younger people. Minnesota needs healthy, rural communities and we think that our work can play a part in helping the state achieve that.

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