EcDev Journal

The Rural Imperative

Posted on Monday September 09, 2013

By Robert Bell

 

“Wisely or not,” according to the United Nations, “Homo sapiens has become Homo urbanus.”  The UN projects that by 2050, more than 70 percent of humanity will live in cities as the global population exceeds nine billion. 

            Many leading thinkers find this a cause for celebration, among them Richard Florida of the University of Toronto, who currently has the biggest megaphone in this discussion.  As he put it in a 2011 article in The Atlantic:

Cities are our greatest invention, not because of the scale of their infrastructure or their placement along key trade routes, but because they enable human beings to combine and recombine their talents and ideas in new ways.  With their breadth of skills, dense social networks and physical spaces for interactions, great cities and metro areas push people together and increase the kinetic energy between them. 

            Yet this urban celebration has a darker side.  It begs the question: if more than 70 percent of nine billion people are jammed into mega-cities, would you really want to live there?  Or would you prefer somewhere with fewer people, less chaos, and a lot more greenery?

            Whatever our enthusiasm for urban areas, we cannot afford to ignore rural ones.  In the simplest possible sense, they are the ecosystem that gives cities life.   They are the source of the air that cities breathe, the food they consume, the water they drink – and sustaining those things in the 21st Century is going to become more, not less complex.  They are also places that people love.  People in rural areas tend to be proud of their culture and arts.  They care deeply about the natural beauty of the region and treasure ways of life that have evolved over the centuries.  

 

Challenges to Rural Life

Rural areas, however, are under challenge from many directions.  As their relative share of the population shrinks, they face a gradual atrophy of opportunities for education and employment.  The lack of high-quality job opportunities, compared with urban areas, forces the brightest young adults to leave their communities in order to make a living.  Once gone – involved in romantic relationships, making homes and raising families – few return. 

            As the population shrinks in relative or actual terms, the tax and spending base supporting services, from schools to stores to cultural activities, slowly declines.  Schools are consolidated, stores close up, cultural activities fade away – and each loss further erodes rural quality of life.  Meanwhile, the increasing average age of the population, as deaths outweigh births, puts greater strain on social services, which become increasingly unaffordable.   

            Many rural areas are not in crisis.  Those located within driving distance of an urban center attract commuters and weekenders.  Those with scenery, cultural or recreational attractions balance local enterprise with income from tourism.  Some hold onto a local manufacturing base or exploit geography to become transport and logistics hubs.  But these opportunities are distributed neither evenly nor with regard to the welfare of the people who occupy rural land.

 

What Do Cities Have That Rural Areas Don’t? 

The biggest difference between city and country is population density.  A person starting any kind of undertaking in a city can hardly avoid running into like-minded people, absorbing new ideas and being challenged by peer pressure.  A wide variety of vendors, potential partners and possible employers are within arm’s reach.  Engaging in the social network that powers so many organized activities is easy and convenient.   

            But in the country, distances are greater.  The number of interactions you can have in a week is fewer, which limits the number of like-minded people you can meet, the new ideas they can transmit and the peer pressure they can exert on you to succeed.  Vendors, partners and employees are fewer and farther between.  And just hanging out together can require spending a lot of time in your car or truck.  It takes longer and costs more to connect the essential components of organized activity in rural areas, so the economic, social and culture return on investment tends to be lower. 

            Closely related to density and distance is the issue of scale.  Cities have more of everything than the country: talents, information, businesses, schools, hospitals, public services, communications, transit services and transport networks, arts and culture.  And money.  Compared to cities, rural areas have some but not much.  Wealthy farmers may abound in some places, but they are more likely to put their money into global funds than local businesses.     

            All of this adds up, in economic terminology, to a lack of scale.  So it is much more challenging to grow a business, social enterprise or artistic venture from sprout to seedling and from seedling to tree.  In particular, risk capital – the kind that powers fast-growing businesses and is hard to come by anywhere – may be all but absent. 

            Rural areas also face a Catch-22 in their efforts to increase economic sustainability.  It requires that they hang on to their best and brightest young people, so that their talents can benefit the community.  That’s a tough assignment when electronic media showcases the charisma of the city: the dynamism, the energy, the opportunity and excitement of urban living.  Cities are places where jobs turn into careers, where interests become passions, where fate becomes fortune.  By definition, the best and brightest want more than a dead-end job.  They will only remain if they can find jobs and culture and like-minded people equal to their abilities.  But how is a rural community to foster the creation of such jobs and culture if its best and brightest have left to seek their fortunes elsewhere?     

 

Something New Under the Sun

In the Book of Ecclesiastes, the prophet says that there is nothing new under the sun.  But in this new century, the prophet needs an update.  For there is at long last something new under the sun.  It is the global connectivity of the broadband Internet.

            In the broadband economy of the 21st century, rural areas have opportunities never seen before, because information and communications technology (ICT) is doing so much to eliminate distance as a barrier.  They have opportunities to plug into the world at low cost regardless of location.  To affordably import the world’s learning to enrich the lives of young and old, and to give local cultural traditions new life in a global community.  To make rural areas as vital and exciting a place to grow a business or build a career as the busiest city center. 

            All of this is possible in an economy and culture that are conducted increasingly online.    Possible – but not yet practical reality.  We do not understand how to use ICT to seize the unique opportunities and overcome the distinct challenges of rural living.  What we have are intriguing anecdotes.

            In the largely rural province of Alberta, a group of young farmers led by cattle rancher Wendy Schneider formed a nonprofit called Green Hectares (greenhectaresonline.com) in 2008.  It takes existing and new community-based programs promoting entrepreneurship and smarter farming and shares them over a growing online community.  To keep that community growing, Green Hectares operates a mobile computer lab and brings technology, entrepreneurship and agricultural training events to communities throughout the province. 

            One of its founders, Lee Townsend, is a remarkable role model.  The son of a beekeeper, Lee has dramatically expanded the business of his family’s TPLR Honey Farms.  He built his own WiFi network reaching every corner of the farm and uses handheld devices to collect data on the condition of his hives, which feeds a beekeeping management system.  His restless spirit led him to make connections with Japanese food importers, and a trip to Japan eventually produced a deal through which he brokers honey from across Canada to Asian markets.   

            Green Hectares as an organization, and Townsend as an entrepreneur, are attacking the challenges of density and scale.  Using ICT, the nonprofit is aggregating the knowledge and skills of its subscribers, expanding those skills and energizing the more entrepreneurial among them through regular structured contact.  Townsend has developed the contacts and done the deals needed to draw high-quality honey supplies from a broad region and funnel them to buyers on the far side of the planet.  Those are moves that would be unimaginable without the inexpensive connecting power of information and communications technology.

 

Rural Innovation Engine

Stratford is a city of 32,000 at the center of a rural Canadian county a 2 hour drive from Toronto.  Its largest employer is the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, a seasonal business that attracts cultural tourists from a large market.  To leverage its value, Stratford’s City Council and the local business community created a public-private Stratford Tourism Alliance. 

            The Alliance launched advertising cam­paigns to make Stratford a destination for “foodies” and cultural tourists.  From 2009 to 2010, the Alliance’s Web traffic grew 200% while Ontario Tourism’s traffic fell 18% in the financial crisis.  More than half of all leisure travelers carry smartphones: the Alliance introduced a mobile site in 2010 and mobile versions of its “Savor Stratford” Foodies and Festival campaigns.  Apps for the iPhone, iPad, Android and Black­Berry followed in 2011, which provided everything from reservations for hotels and restaurants to schedules of events and augmented reality.  A formerly four-month tourist season now extends to six months. 

            Stratford is also the center of a regional partnership called the Huron-Perth Health Alliance.  Its fiber and wireless network allows centralized laboratories and specialized care units to serve a widely dispersed set of hospitals, clinics and medical practices, which saves money while delivering better care to rural clients.  Stratford General Hospital currently conducts 70,000 tests per year for patients in surrounding counties.  Physically linked by twice-daily courier, lab results are turned around in hours and are available instantly on smartphones.  The interpretation of medical images is likewise centralized, so that four radiologists at Stratford General can serve the entire region – with another radiologist in Austria available for off-hours service.

            Telemedicine projects include service for mental health conditions that would otherwise need hospitalization.  Staff is able to visit clients through videoconference to check on their state of mind and ensure they are taking medications.  Eliminating travel time means that caregivers can spend more time with clients.   

            In Stratford’s story, we see an attack on all three disadvantages of its rural location.  A strong online and traditional marketing campaign reaches across distance to attract cultural tourists from two nations.  Within the community, social media apps effectively scale up many disparate small businesses into a unified whole in terms of customer marketing.  A cultural brand that spans theater, food, history and the arts projects the charisma that Stratford needs to be a destination not only for tourists but for both companies and employees.  And healthcare networking within the greater Stratford region creates the kind of social infrastructure that only dense urban areas are supposed to be able to afford.  All have played their part in helping Stratford to attract and retain the data processing operations and data centers of major banks, a branch campus of the University of Waterloo that focuses on digital media, and technology pilots by global companies like Cisco and Toshiba. 

            When the first commercial Web browser was released in 1993, practically no one foresaw what the Internet could become.  We are at the same stage of this exciting challenge: to figure out how to give the rural areas of our nations a competitive advantage using ICT that preserves their way of life into the foreseeable future.  For the first time since population growth tilted toward the city, ICT makes that possible.  It is up to us to learn how it can be done.    

 

 

Robert Bell is a co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, a think tank and social enterprise based in New York City.  He can be reached at rbell@intelligentcommunity.org