The importance of community-level decision making is particularly acute in northern and sparsely populated areas, where distances among settlements makes it difficult to share resources and where the consequences of poor planning decisions are likely to be magnified — e.g., to be economically and socially disruptive, and this is especially the case for women and indigenous groups. Government and other organisations make decisions that affect the future of small communities — where, when and whether to build or close schools, hospitals, shops and small businesses, for example. Existing quantitative ‘regional’ modelling requires large population units in order to make measures such as means, rates and distributions meaningful. Qualitative researchers have developed case study and other methodologies, but these are rarely aligned with more generalizable quantitative models. What is needed are transdisciplinary and multiple-methods approaches to modelling that assist planners and policy-makers and underpin theory about human settlements in northern and sparsely populated areas.

The project includes a program of academic and stakeholder oriented publications (documenting what is known), comparative analysis (using existing data and methods), technical and practical workshops (developing new modelling approaches), and grant writing in each jurisdiction. The objective of this project is to develop formalised partnerships and strengthen collaborative networks between a diverse group of researchers, policy-makers, and community groups involved in the co-creation of knowledge and understanding. Our goals are to understand the dynamics of small communities from multiple perspectives (demographic, social, economic, and other) and to draw learning from multiple audiences (academic, practitioner, business leader, community).

We aim to generate outcomes for small communities in sparsely populated areas through trans-disciplinary, though pointed research with a focus on the causes and consequences of population composition and change for the economy, resident well-being, and culture. Specifically, our work will strengthen networks that:

  • Examine demographic and socio-economic change at the community level;
  • Explore potential economic and demographic trajectories for small communities;
  • Develop methodologies to engage target populations and participants; and,
  • Consider the application of methods and models to planning and decision making.

The partnership includes academic, government and, at the forefront, community participants from Canada, Australia, Austria and Sweden. The academic partners have strengths in the fields of demography, entrepreneurship, economics, sociology, remote service delivery, medical education, policy analysis and geography. Governmental partners have responsibility for regional development policy and planning, social services delivery and local government. Community partners include representatives of Indigenous and other interests, education and training, and economic development. The participants, in various configurations, have previously worked together to improve approaches to demographic modelling, economic development and community-informed decision making in northern and sparsely populated areas. The results have been reported in a series of publications, conferences and policy and community engagement activities. These collaborations have led us to identify that ‘understanding processes of change at the community level’ is a major gap in theory, methodology and practice.