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A thriving rural Nebraska

January 9, 2019

LINCOLN — Through the Rural Futures Institute, the University of Nebraska affirms its commitment to empowering thriving rural communities within our state, across the country and around the world.

But what does this mean?

Since I assumed leadership of the institute in July, our team has refined the bold vision set by hundreds of stakeholders and the NU board of regents in 2012 and established criteria for our work that will help the university partner for a strong future for Nebraska. Perspectives from community leaders, students and faculty and partners such as the Nebraska Community Foundation and Peter Kiewit Foundation have been critical in this journey.

As a certified futurist, I must start with a discussion about the future — not just about a sustainable future for our rural areas, but our desired collective futures.

We must actively create and participate in diverse and inclusive leadership that embraces differences in experience and skill set for mission, purpose and genuine personal growth.

We must prepare for and embrace continued exponential changes across technology, human ability and the point of innovation where the two infuse. With a realistic understanding of the challenges the fourth industrial revolution brings, we must strategize about the possible, not just the probable.

We must understand that we live in a dynamic ecosystem of rural and urban challenges and opportunities that are overlapping and coinciding.

And when we talk about the future, we need to have a strengths-based approach that includes an abundance mindset. We know there are challenges; but if we focus solely on those challenges, we miss the opportunities and solutions available to us.

The Rural Futures Institute believes the opportunities of thriving rural communities lie at the intersections of leadership, technology and rural-urban collaboration.

To each of these, RFI convenes four assets to cultivate communities and the university forward together — high-capacity collegiate students, leading researchers, global perspectives and the discipline of strategic foresight.

We aim to bring each of these assets to fruition through focused work that creates tangible outcomes in workforce development, economic impact and access and results in products and services our state’s communities can use.

The primary example of this is the recently announced Nebraska Thriving Index, an interactive online tool that will provide economic developers, local elected officials and community leaders with economic and quality of life indicators to identify thriving and lagging regions so strategic, future-focused investments can be made.

Thank you to our researcher, staff and student partners with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Bureau of Business Research and agricultural leadership department, the University of Nebraska at Kearney College of Business and Technology and the University of Nebraska Extension Community Vitality Initiative.

We are also innovating the framework of RFI Student Serviceship, which has placed 64 University of Nebraska students in 32 rural Nebraska communities to work and serve while gaining rural perspectives and developing leadership skills.

Sustaining this initiative should be a priority for the university and the state as we all work toward supporting the next generation of rural Nebraska leaders and attracting and retaining talent.

The work of students with communities also pays. Analysis from the 2016 experience in Friend, Neb., determined that the spec home project the students led has served as a catalyst for a $4 million project that could bring 15 jobs to the community.

Serviceship is possible because of individuals and communities who mentor and champion the students’ futures. We sincerely appreciate the investment of your time, talent and energy.

As we seek a thriving future together, let us be creative in our thinking, collaborative in our work, resolute in our strategy and bold in storytelling.

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