Study: Disregarded

Weak in structure, rich in experience

On the importance of regional perspectives in the Great Transformation

The changes coming our way due to  the climate crisis and other global challenges are not just our fate - they also offer opportunities. The study presented here by the Progressive Centre in cooperation with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung shows how stakeholders in structurally weak areas can also help shape the future.

Structurally weak regions that have undergone structural change or are still in the midst of it abound in Germany. Not only in the east. They are not always peripherally located, sparsely populated, with a weak infrastructure and on the verge of desolation. Quite the contrary: over 13 million people live in such areas in Germany.

Despite their problems, these are often regions with experience, potential and opportunities. What is often lacking, however, is a willingness to harness this potential. This study allows the people affected by change to have their say. More than 200 door-to-door interviews were conducted in the Ruhr area, in Western Pomerania, in Saarland and in the Anhalt-Bitterfeld district.

The reason for this study can be summed up like this: the world, including Germany, is undergoing watershed change, a Great Transformation, as the authors call it. From a historical perspective, it is the third of its kind. The authors put it on a par with the transition from a hunter-gatherer society to an agrarian society and the start of the Industrial Revolution. This upheaval, which is now upon us, confronts inhabitants of structurally weak regions with very special challenges.

In surmounting these challenges, past experience could be helpful. It is important to make the voices of stakeholders heard and to leverage their "transformation competence". The results of the survey can be summarised in three points:

  1. "The climate crisis is a problem, but social needs are more pressing for us here". A majority of respondents recognise climate protection as one of the most important collective challenges facing us. However, this does not mean that it also takes on a high priority in their everyday lives. Instead, concerns gravitate more towards a longing for better local transport, a modern infrastructure and a revitalisation of local cultural and leisure activities.
  2.  Questions of justice are at the centre of the interpretation of the Great Transformation. The issue of justice is interpreted very individually: Sometimes the social divide is the dominant problem, sometimes the wage gap between West and East, sometimes it is simply the fear of swirling into a downward spiral personally and as a region.
  3. The majority clearly trusts our democracy and its ability to manage change. But there is a pronounced, deep-rooted scepticism towards elected decision-makers.


Jan Niklas Engels

Desk for empirical social and trend research

+49(0)30 26935-7322

In cooperation with

DPZ website


What is meant by the term "Great Transformation"?

There have been only two upheavals in the history of humanity that might justifiably be termed a ‘Great Transformation’, because they changed life profoundly, sustainably and radically. These were the Neolithic Revolution, which marks the transition from hunter-gatherer society to agricultural society, and the Industrial Revolution. The understanding that has grown over the past few decades that natural resources are limited and the earth’s natural balance is vulnerable has set processes in motion that, in the aggregate, call for a third Great Transformation.

The third Great Transformation is characterised by:

  • duration: it will require more than a few years or decades;
  • diversity: the economy and technology, politics, society and culture will undergo fundamental changes;
  • exceptionality: there is no blueprint, no model for this new upheaval;
  • asynchronicity: partial transformations will proceed at their own pace and follow their own time schedules;

(co-)evolutionary character: the Great Transformation is hard to control centrally, and its subsystems interact. Global turbulence is scarcely to be avoided.

Why is it worth looking at experience in structurally weak areas?

The portion of the population that has little to hope for from the Great Transformation, but a great deal to fear from it, is concentrated primarily in structurally weak areas.

That is one side of the coin. On the other side, people living in structurally weak areas often have considerable experience of transformation that they can fall back on. Thus although affected regions are structurally weak, their inhabitants are rich in experience. Difficulties that could befall other regions in future, such as demographic change and problems of interconnected infrastructure, have long been a reality in structurally weak areas, along with ways of coping with them. Looking back, what worked and what did not? What practices and resources are needed on the ground? What solutions proved successful? Paying close attention here can pay off, not only for the further development of the regions in question, but also for other regions in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Moreover, such regions, despite their structural weakness, undoubtedly have potential. Abandoned areas left by the collapse of old structures are ‘fallow fields’; housing and labour are cheaper than in thriving regions, and the authorities sometimes take a more lenient view of compliance with the tangle and maze of regulations. That can significantly boost a region’s economic attractiveness, as the Tesla Gigafactory in Grünheide (Berlin-Brandenburg) shows. In sum, a structurally weak area can in many respects be a pioneer region, highlighting both its own outlook on future challenges and experiences of transformation it can call on. The debate on the Great Transformation must reflect all this much more closely than heretofore.

Where and with whom was the survey conducted?

We proceeded in three stages: identifying structurally weak regions in Germany, selecting regions to study and selecting respondents.

Identifying structurally weak regions in Germany

First we identified structurally weak regions in Germany. In this the study mainly followed the Disparities Report of the FES. The report divides independent (kreisfreie) towns and cities and rural districts (Landkreise) into five spatial types:

  • economy, employment and labour market (proportion of highly qualified workers);
  • educational and life opportunities (old-age and child poverty);
  • well-being and health (life expectancy, accessibility of GPs, gross pay);
  • government action and participation (municipal debts, election turnout);
  • internal migration (overall migration balance).

We also consulted the study Innovationsbasierter regionaler Strukturwandel – Strukturschwache Regionen in Deutschland (Innovation-based Structural Change – Structurally Weak Regions in Germany) carried out by the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI), which uses the following criteria for classifying spatial types: the unemployment rate (2015), gross domestic product (GDP) per person employed (2015), private and public R&D expenditure per inhabitant (2013), the number of commuters relative to the number of inhabitants (2013) and industrial gross value added as a proportion of GDP (2015).

In order to minimise distortions arising because of case selection, urban and rural, and eastern and western German regions were considered as we aimed to study structurally weak regions, not eastern Germany or rural areas.

In the second step we selected four regions to cover in the survey. We included indicators of structural weaknesses (such as the unemployment rate, levels of old-age and child poverty, the proportion of social benefit recipients according to SGB II and highly qualified people in the workplace) in the selection of specific streets and interview locations. We factored in current political and industrial dynamics locally, as well as industrial policy history (such as factory closures, experiences with globalisation and transformation, industrial decline, dependence on fossil-fuel-based industries) and tips from local experts with extensive regional knowledge (for example, local politicians).

When selecting respondents – the third step – we attempted to have a balance of interviewees by sex, age group and housing situation (whether living in single or multi-occupancy dwellings). Between 31 May and 23 June 2021 we had 217 participants:

  • sex: 106 (48.4%) women, 107 (49.8%) men, 3 (1.4%) sex not indicated, 1 (0.4%) ‘gender diverse’;
  • average age: 48.6 years;
  • location of interviews: 106 in eastern Germany, 111 in western Germany;
  • background: 44 persons (20.3%) immigrant background;
  • housing situation: 75 (34.6%) lived in single occupancy dwellings, 93 (43.2%) in multi-occupancy dwellings, 18 (8.3%) in a large apartment block or prefabricated building;[1]

education: 92 (42.4%) had completed vocational training, 29 (13.4%) had completed primary school education, 28 (12.9%) had a Diplom or Bachelor degree, 20 (9.2%) had an intermediate school-leaving certificate, 16 (7.4%) had the German Abitur, 14 (6.5%) had a polytechnic degree, 10 (4.6%) had a Magister or Master degree, 4 (1.8%) indicated ‘other’, 3 (1.4%) had no school-leaving qualification and 1 (0.5%) had a doctorate degree.

What are the main results produced by the study?

What are the main results produced by the study?

In the course of the 217 interviews conducted in the four regions we asked respondents ten open questions on the future at a personal and regional level, and for society as a whole. The questions centred on people’s desires and worries, and their assessment of political actors and institutions and their ability to meet present and future challenges  (the questionnaire can be accessed here). As expected, the answers were as heterogeneous as the group of participants. The various replies can nevertheless be condensed into three main narratives, which contain the key messages:

  • The first narrative centres on the present: the respondents’ interpretations of the Great Transformation point to a discrepancy between the acknowledged fundamental urgency of climate policy, on one hand, and local concerns and needs – primarily social in nature – on the other (4.1). The fact that people recognise the environmental crisis does not mean that they attach a high priority to it in their everyday lives.
  • The second narrative is about the future: previous experiences of transformation have cast a long shadow, which shapes the interpretation of future challenges, so social factors dominate the second interpretation of the Great Transformation (4.2).
  • The third narrative focuses on the process: notwithstanding a trust in democracy in principle, we found there was a fundamental scepticism regarding political decision-makers (4.3).

All three narratives we identified are imbued with ambivalence.

Do responses differ in the four survey regions?

Respondents in Bitterfeld-Wolfen and Duisburg and Bochum perceived social issues as the biggest challenge for the future; in the Regional Association Saarbrücken and Western Pomerania-Greifswald, by contrast, respondents were more concerned about environmental and climate protection. The most frequently mentioned region-related concern about the future in all four regions was fear of their own region being left behind. This concern was strongest in Western Pomerania-Greifswald (72%) and least pronounced in the Regional Association Saarbrücken (43%). In Western Pomerania-Greifswald respondents most often mentioned more cultural and leisure-time facilities, while in Bitterfeld-Wolfen and Saarbrücken they primarily wanted more public infrastructure. Unreserved trust in democracy is weakest in Western Pomerania-Greifswald and strongest in Anhalt-Bitterfeld; the need to reform democracy was mentioned most often in Western Pomerania-Greifswald.

Do younger and older people look at the future differently?

The issue of social divisions was mentioned more often by younger and older respondents than by middle-aged people. Primarily older people stated the view that there are few positive developments in Germany. Younger respondents tend to consider demographic change to be a major challenge, along with digitalisation. The environment and the climate, by contrast, were mentioned most often by older people. Asked specifically about regional concerns, especially younger and older respondents were worried about continuing to be left behind. There is a similar trend in relation to people’s desire for better public infrastructure in their region. Older people are keener than younger people on having more shopping facilities. There are also age differences in relation to personal concerns. Young people are more fearful of a lack of prospects and opportunities, and accordingly seek material security. Older people worry more often about other people and about their health. Middle-aged people (aged 35–64) are mainly afraid of old-age poverty.

Do responses in eastern and western Germany differ?

Worries that their region will continue to be left behind are much stronger in the new Länder than in the old ones (64% versus 39%). Also certain region-related wishes for the future are more pronounced in the east than in the west, specifically for cultural and leisure-time facilities (29% versus 11%) and for more political dialogue (4% versus 0%). Support is also higher here for the AfD and the CDU. In the older Länder, by contrast, people more often express a desire for better shopping opportunities in their region (10% versus 5%), and a desire for peace and order (10% versus 2%); a fair number did not express any wishes at all (22% versus 8%). Most respondents in both east and west stated that they do not have any personal worries about the future. Apart from that, the dominant concern in the east is old-age poverty, and in the west, other people. In both regions most respondents, as a personal desire for the future, would like to remain healthy, along with their relatives. Attitudes to democracy and trust in its ability to solve problems are also very similar in eastern and western Germany.

What recommendations for action have been derived from this?

People in structurally weak regions feel ignored when it comes to questions of change and the future. They do not see themselves as actors helping to shape this change. Therefore, the study's recommendations for action aim to harmonise a climate-friendly economy with people and their needs. Challenges and risks are taken into account as well as capabilities and potentials. The objective is on the one hand to boost confidence in this process of change, and on the other hand to support structurally weak regions.

  • Recommendation 1: Money and investment in the regional energy economy and everyday lives of citizens
  • Recommendation 2: Shaping power through regional transformation clusters as places of trust and confidence
  • Recommendation 3: Listen more, strengthen respect and appreciation

In addition to targeted investments, people in regions in transition need broad opportunities to have their say, so that not the negative side effects of the transformation, but its opportunities become its hallmark. A new appreciation for people would go a long way.

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