The world needs a Rural Imperative
Norman Jacknis / March 5, 2014 /
I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years helping cities figure out the impact of new technologies and broadband in people’s lives and also helping mayors figure out ways of using those technologies to create new kinds of urban experiences, improve the economy of the community and provide reasons for people to stay and live in their cities.
I now have a wonderful opportunity to expand that work as I have joined the Intelligent Community Forum of New York as the first Senior Fellow with responsibility for the Rural Imperative program. The Rural Imperative focuses on how to use information and communication technologies to build and create a renaissance of rural life. For the first time in history, these technologies make possible rural communities where residents can be as closely connected to the global economy as urbanites.
Cities were the winners out of the industrial age and attracted vast numbers of people from the countryside. You can see that pattern repeating itself today in the newly successful industrial countries, like China, or those areas that are just starting to industrialize, like Africa.
In the already developed countries, even though the change from the industrial to the knowledge economy has been wrenching for many cities, urban areas are still ahead of the game by comparison with rural areas and cities are better positioned to take advantage of these changes.
In theory, though, the global Internet and the increased availability of inexpensive technology should have had an even greater impact on rural areas. For if it were really true that people can work anywhere and quality of life becomes the key factor in where they choose to live, then many people would choose to live in the countryside and not in the more metropolitan regions.
It hasn’t happened that way. There are many reasons why the countryside hasn’t realized its potential. Partly, this is a residue of the industrial age – it is not yet true for everyone that they can take their work with them. For many without college educations, making a living requires a commute to a manufacturing plant or a service location.
As has been true for declining urban areas, we see in some rural communities a social pathology sets in that reinforces decline and is evidenced in the increased use of drugs and other forms societal breakdown.
Another part of the story is that many rural communities have not yet become fully connected to the global economy. In his recent rural strategy announcements, President Obama pointed out that there is a 15% gap in broadband between urban and rural households. Yet many technology providers have ignored rural communities. That should change. Rural communities are all too often ignored by urban dwellers and far too many people are not fully aware of the far reaching potential that 21st century technology offers rural communities. Broadband and technology will only be widely adopted through community building and vision. In this century, community building and vision can only succeed through the use of broadband and technology. It is my view that the Intelligent Community Forum is the primary global organization that brings together the visionary leaders who thoroughly integrate broadband and technology into their communities.
While cities will still be attractive, they are not for everyone all the time. Many people would prefer to live in the countryside if they had economic opportunity, decent health care, and a means to learn and overcome the sense of isolation that has historically been the downside of rural living.
Many countries have come to realize that they cannot just move all of their rural residents into cities. As India and China have learned, there is not enough economic opportunity in their cities and the urban infrastructure cannot support the migrants who have already moved there.
The leaders in rural communities welcome the Intelligent Community Forum’s approach that there are options beyond just building miles of fiber to remote areas. Communities need to learn the techniques and strategies that enable them to benefit from the fiber lines.
None of this is a surprise to those who live in rural communities. What may be better news is that there is now an imperative to bring technology and global connectivity to the countryside – and to help them build those communities into attractive and sustainable places for people to stay in and return to. We’ve seen this in President Obama’s rural broadband program and in the recently announced Canadian rural broadband investment of $305 million. This kind of investment is an important step in helping a connected countryside go from possibility to reality.