Brain gain, communities and a good life: the Otelo story

The RurInno project conducts research in four rural regions in the European Union, each represented by a social enterprise which aims at finding new solutions to specific challenges of its region. In Upper Austria it’s the Otelo eGen that brings together a sensibility for the structural deficits and innovative ideas how to deal with them. To address the out-migration of young, skilled workers and the local economies’ struggle for modernization they engage in learning spaces, technology education and consulting among numerous other initiatives. By those means, Otelo attempts to facilitate a “brain gain” in the region and to support communities that provide an anchoring for those who feel the urge to seek a future in the metropolitan centres. But this story does not end there; Otelo is an innovative cooperative model in its own right striving for a good, balanced life for its employed members. This is the whole story.

By Jan Zwilling (science communication at IRS Erkner)

Monday, October 3rd, 2016. My first day in Upper Austria. I’m invited to join Martin and Hannelore Hollinetz at a traditional event of the Chamber of Commerce of Upper Austria in the Gmunden district. Brass bands, beer and traditional leather dresses set a tone for the upcoming weeks of the secondment at Otelo. Speeches are being held and the messages are loud and clear. The district is economically stable, unemployment rate is low, there is high number of small and middle-size enterprises and especially the traditional crafts are strongly rooted in the communities. This corresponds with my first impressions driving through the region. Upper Austria is a rural, but only marginally an agricultural region. Small business estates and industrial parks are a common sight. Infrastructure is in excellent shape, so are the buildings and premises of local businesses. The question that arises is: in which way is Upper Austria a rural region with severe structural deficits? What is the motivation for the RurInno project to analyse and for Otelo to tackle problems of the region?

There are some hints to the answer in the chamber event already. As a minor side issue the participants discuss ways to modernize local businesses meeting the demands of globalisation and digitalisation. They discuss the difficult recruitment of skilled workers and apprentices. Although the elected officials and representatives of guilds, associations and businesses depict these challenges with a “we can” attitude, there seems to be more than a grain of truth in these narratives. Martin Hollinetz hits this nail into the board: “The economic starting position of the region is solid, especially compared to other regions in Europe. But in terms of future prospects there are important issues to face, namely to find solutions for the exodus of young, skilled workers and adolescents looking for a perspective for their education and work life.” Martin describes it as a loss of anchoring these people feel; local economy and communities struggle to offer strong reasons for them to stay or to return after finishing studies – let alone move to the region in the first place.

This precisely describes the vision and the mission of Otelo: Through various different activities the Otelo members seek not only to tackle, mitigate or prevent out-migration and “brain drain”. They want to give it a positive notion: It’s facilitating a “brain gain” for the region what they are after. Creating good reasons for young people to stay and offering everybody in the villages and small towns social, economic and technological opportunities that are believed to be exclusive for metropolitan centres. Education, learning, community building and access to technologies are some of the tools they use to achieve this. For example, Otelo runs and supports “open technology labs” – places ranging from a small room to a whole floor in a school building. These labs are open for everyone who needs a work desk and wifi, tools to repair the old transistor radio, a 3d printer or simply the connection with other users to discuss ideas. In the labs – the spaces are given from the respective parish for free – the Otelo members organise events for building local communities of users or for addressing specific skills. Other recent activities include working with pupils and virtual reality glasses to educate them in three-dimensional thinking, or developing new ideas for under-used premises of banks in the rural region.

Wednesday, October 12th, 2016: The Otelo members are gathering for an internal meeting that offers an eye-opening view in the inner workings of the social enterprise. As the term “members” already indicates, the Otelo is not a traditional business with a hierarchical structure of a head, middle management and employees. Martin Hollinetz and his colleagues gave Otelo the organisational form of a cooperative, where the members are at the same time employed by Otelo. This has fundamental implications in the way the decisions are made, the priorities are set and the work is organised. “We adopted sociocracy and the consent model to be the base for our internal processes”, explains Otelo member Wolfgang Mader. “This means we work with circles that discuss issues and prepare decisions made by all of us. These decisions are only made if no one has a major objection.” What might sound like a guarantee to slow down decision processes proved to be constitutive for the vision of Otelo: The coop works for common welfare and puts an inspiring, motivating and balanced work life on the top of the priority list. “We found a model that ensures a good life for all of us, whatever this means in the individual case”, says Hollinetz. Working part-time for work-life-balance and setting one’s own salary are parts of this arrangement.

The meeting is a self-evaluation according to the principles of the economy for the common good. Hollinetz, Mader and their fellow members discuss the ecological and social sustainability of Otelo’s activities, the transparency both internally and externally, the fair distribution of work and incomes and lots of other indicators. The ethics of their work is equally important to the members as its impact on rural communities, could be the bottom line of the meeting. It needs a fair amount of idealism and vision to follow these paths without compromise. But the Otelo members do not lack these values.

Epilogue, Wednesday, October 26th, 2016: Martin Hollinetz travelled to Brixen in South Tyrol (Italy) to give a lecture that is a part of the preparation to build a local technology lab of the Otelo kind. To pass on ideas to other people who can identify with the ways Otelo addresses challenges of rural regions and to thereby transfer knowledge to other regions is becoming more and more a routine for Martin. “I think we can say that Otelo has been a successful story”, he says. “There are currently 14 technology labs in Upper Austria – and more than ten in other regions in Austria and in other countries – and we managed to build the cooperative completely on our own with little seed capital – and we’re still here after five years.” The impact in the regions is harder to grasp. But Otelo is confident to play a small but important role in the future of the region – and eager to pass on and gain knowledge from other parts of Europe and social entrepreneurs within the “RurInno” project.