Regional Revitalization to Bring Urban-Rural Balance and Sustainability

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Interview with Yu Chien-hwa, Deputy Minister of the National Development Council (NDC), and Lin Ming-jen, Director-General of the Department of Humanities and Social Science (DHSS), Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST)

 

In 2020, Business Weekly published A Road not Far from Home 「走一條藜家不遠的路」, an account of how one bleak town in Taitung reversed its fortune. In just three years, youths and local farmers banded together and transformed locally-grown red quinoa into a NT$2 billion cash crop. As a result, this small indigenous township rose to prosperity. This isn’t an isolated incident, however—a similar situation is unfolding in the fish farming village of Kouhu Township, Yunlin. The Taiwan Sea Bream Revitalization Program, set to run through to 2023, will train 1,090 fishermen on the use of cutting-edge technology. It is estimated that the program will contribute to a yield of 85.6 million kg (approximately 94,357 tons) worth NT$29 million. These are but two success stories of Taiwan's Regional Revitalization Policy. In recent years, the policy’s results have moved waves of youth to return to their rural hometowns. Regional revitalization is now promoted as an important national security-level policy. This is seen in the Executive Yuan’s declaration of 2019 as the first year of the Taiwan Regional Revitalization Policy. The Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) has launched the Humanity Innovation and Social Practice (HISP) Project in 2012. Its purpose is to introduce guidance systems according to each region's unique characteristics and strengths and transform rural development in Taiwan.  


Balanced Development throughout Taiwan

The government is pushing for regional revitalization to better prepare rural areas for the future. Yu Chien-hwa, Deputy Minister of the National Development Council (NDC), believes that the expansion and execution of the Regional Revitalization Policy is a national project of epic proportions and reflects the government’s determination to balance both the country’s uneven population distribution and urban-rural development. Results may not appear immediately, however, Yu believes that with diligence, the policy is sure to reenergize areas suffering from depopulation. 

According to the NDC’s August 2018 population projections, the population of Taiwan, recorded as 23.57 million in 2017, is expected to fall to 17.35 million by 2065. Further demographic analyses indicate that the birth rate will decline from 190,000 to 90,000, while the proportion of the elderly will increase from 13.9% to 41.2%. As of 2017, 69.2% of Taiwan’s population is concentrated in its six special municipalities, but this is projected to exceed 70% by 2065. This alone shows the growing imbalance between urban and rural areas. As more youths move to large cities, issues such as rural labor shortages are worsening. Taiwan’s population is declining, aging, and facing plummeting birth rates. To Yu, all of these figures highlight the urgent need to rebalance Taiwan’s population. In 2018, the Executive Yuan addressed the issues in a strategy meeting with central government ministries, local government officials, as well as academic and industry experts. As a result, 2019 was declared to be the inaugural year of Taiwan's Regional Revitalization Program. The Executive Yuan Regional Revitalization Bulletin was also formed to handle government resource-gathering and policy implementation. Yu states that strong collaborative efforts between central and local governments have led to regional revitalization initiatives nationwide, with glowing results in 134 towns and districts. 


Humanities and Social Science Brings Young Blood to the Countryside

Dwindling rural populations have posed serious challenges to providing long-term care for the elderly and encouraging young adults to return. For years, substantial long-term support from the central government was sorely lacking. In response, the NDC rolled out the National Strategic Plan for Regional Revitalization in 2019. Functioning as a mechanism to streamline the commencement of revival projects, the plan calls for collaboration between all government ministries and local governments. It has allowed MOST to lend local areas national-level support by merging past joint projects with the plan itself. Lin Ming-jen, Director-General of the Department of Humanities and Social Science (DHSS), stated that since the HISP Project’s launch in 2012, MOST has combined the Regional Revitalization program with the University Social Responsibility (USR) Project by identifying regional characteristics and assisting talent to spur bottom-up development. MOST has also expanded existing revitalization projects with the aid of investments from the Executive Yuan. As the HISP Project enters its ninth year, Lin has determined the decline in work opportunities and lack of local specialization as more significant factors in regional depopulation than declining birth rates. The DHSS is tackling this situation by testing different strategies to encourage youths to bring their fresh mindsets and creative potential back to their hometowns.

Since its inception, the HISP Project has aided nine universities with launching regional revitalization projects. In each project, university professors guide students to participate in community work with many deciding to stay and contribute to local growth. Lin stated, "The goal of regional revitalization is to attract youths to return to areas dealing with high population outflow. If an area does not hold any opportunities, then they may not be willing to return. Inversely, if there are opportunities for them to develop and grow in their hometowns, then they are more likely to return." He continued, "When university scholars team up with local experts and entities, students have the chance to work and familiarize themselves with the local community. This may even move them to stay and continue serving there. A model example is Japan's Yamaguchi University. After years of effort, they have successfully raised up many distinct local Yamaguchi industries." The government has given universities much freedom to propose their ideas by not restricting them to specific industries. The only conditions are that they must establish regional revitalization infrastructure, contribute to rebalancing the local economy and ecology, provide local job opportunities for graduates, and have universities continue participating in local development.

In the town of Puli, signs of life abound in its elementary schools, ecotourism, long-term care, cultural preservation, and more. Despite being devasted by the 921 Earthquake, how has this town managed to stay strong and attract young people? Lin noted that National Chi Nan University’s (NCNU) initiatives to preserve the Shuishalian (Wugu) Wetlands and increase the livability of Puli over the past eight years have allowed the town to flourish. The central government has also provided resources and opportunities—MOST has shown support to NCNU's mission to embrace regional revitalization and community assistance as their social responsibility. Additionally, the towns of Guoxing, Puli, Renai, and Yuchi have united to revive their communities through six areas: environmental protection, mutual township assistance, the revival of local businesses, local arts and culture, learning by example, and regional revitalization training programs. 

Lin pointed out, "When it comes to regional revitalization, it is extremely difficult to see any immediate results, as they usually play out over the course of a decade or even longer." To Lin, the power of these projects rests predominantly on proper local representation, the submission of bottom-up proposals, and rallying together district, city, village, and township offices to work with communities and voice their needs and suggestions. The NDC can then match and provide proposals with the necessary resources. Meanwhile, MOST invites university groups to assist, empowering students and scholars to create further possibilities. In short, the promotion and efficacy of regional revitalization depends on the willingness of central and local governments, organizations (e.g., associations and foundations), and universities to develop proposals and innovation as a team. Strengthening a sense of community, prioritizing structured talent training programs on regional revitalization, and establishing talent retention policies will not only rejuvenate Taiwan’s townships but also pave the way for innovative and sustainable development. 


Moved by Conviction, Youths Return to Fulfill their Dreams

The readiness of youths to return to their hometowns, become entrepreneurs, and raise families is vital to sustainable development. Whether it’s water chestnuts in Guantian, Tainan; coffee in Taiwu, Pingtung; red quinoa in Taitung, or rice in Chishang, once-neglected fields are bringing fresh energy to these towns and creating millions of dollars in output value. Deputy Minister Yu stated, "In the two years since the program's launch, regional revitalization has gained traction, particularly among youths. Young people are indeed a crucial driving force in this movement. The success of these efforts hinges upon encouraging them to either stay in or return to their hometowns. Young people are the very heart of fostering close community ties. Wherever they go, their youthful vitality will go as well." 

However, providing them with the means to start their own businesses and to improve the livability of their hometowns are top priorities. Township offices are often hindered by a lack of civil servants, manpower, and mechanisms to propose and implement new ideas. Uneven levels of authority amongst non-local cooperatives can also stunt innovation. All these issues can subsequently affect young people’s willingness to return. To compile resources across ministries and provide local businesses with supportive infrastructures, the NDC has launched the Accelerating Promotion of the Regional Revitalization Plan. NT$1.2billion will be invested in regional revitalization, $NT300 million of which will go towards creating resources for youths to cultivate local dynamism. Yu points to five principles guiding regional revitalization: accept a variety of proposals, establish youth empowerment work stations, revitalize public building spaces, establish regional guidance centers, and set up project offices. Thirty youth empowerment work stations will be opened this year. Each will focus on reinforcing support systems for youths who plan to stay or return to their hometowns. It is hoped that those with experience in regional revitalization will be encouraged to join and perform two tasks: to mentor youths with re-settling and starting businesses, and to mediate between the public and private sectors. Regional guidance centers will serve as auxiliary hubs for businesses, students, researchers, and community members to receive advice on developing proposals and to also match local entities with the local government. 


Realizing Revitalization through Action and the Power of Data

In a time of maturing 5G, cloud, and big data technology, the NDC has developed the Taiwan Local Economic and Social Analysis System (TESAS) to utilize data technology to assist regional revitalization projects with information storage and management. The system has the ability to track population movement and monitor the status of economic development and local construction. Yu believes that this information can be used to spark rural migration. This, in turn, will reduce high population concentrations in urban areas and promote balanced urban-rural development. Yu has held talks with youths in several cities to discuss existing challenges and opportunities. He has discovered that fostering a sense of identity and belonging are quintessential, stating, "Currently we have implemented the ‘Second Home’ method, which aims to introduce the high consumption and large-scale innovations typically found in cities into rural areas to stimulate the rural economy and set off a virtuous cycle." The cycle begins with several multi-step strategies to attract people to relocate to rural towns. By amassing the necessary resources and cultivating human connection, it is hoped that a more united populace will be compelled to forge closer ties with their communities and engage in regional revitalization. 

Lin stated, "The HISP Project has produced excellent results; rural areas are being enlivened with thematic, festive, and cultural activities coordinated with community organizations. Tunghai University, for instance, is working with Taichung City to restore and innovate older communities; Tsinghua University is working with Hsinchu City on smart urban-rural revival projects—all these efforts have contributed to transforming the face of urban-rural living and showcasing local aesthetics. MOST will continue to fine-tune the project so that universities will be the government’s go-to partner in launching regional revitalization projects.” Lin also brought up how National Sun Yat-sen University's (NSYSU) Bay Shore Placemaking project addressed the decline of Yancheng District, Kaohsiung. The area appeared to be lifeless, but it was gradually revived by local surveying conducted by NSYSU. The gathered information was used in a story-focused approach to retell local history. New life was given to Yancheng, and the once-neglected community became a place for industrial innovation and change. 

Regional revitalization is not some sort of pipe dream—the government has declared it to be a key national security-level policy. Its humanistic approach also weaves in novel ideas to make balanced development throughout Taiwan a reality. Central and local governments are working closely to assess regional characteristics and strengths. New economic models rooted in local culture are driving industrial development, and exclusive local brands are being created and marketed. Along with connecting resources to foster dynamic growth, such actions will increase the likelihood of attracting youths to return to their hometowns. In the digital economy era, regional revitalization will be spearheaded by interministerial efforts. This involves boosting local production and the worth of local value-added products through the integration of AI, big data, blockchain, cloud computing, and ecosystem technologies. These cutting-edge tools will allow local industries to create new business models and expand their economies of scale. Ultimately, this will amplify the power of regional revitalization and lead to robust sustainable development throughout the country.
 

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