A Virtual Metropolis Of The Countryside

I first wrote about this proposal two years ago. But I’m reposting it, since the idea is even more relevant now, as there has been further development of virtual communications – Skype and Google translators, more varieties of videoconferencing both in the cloud and through services like FaceTime, and even video through augmented reality devices, like Microsoft HoloLens.

If you’re interested in joining and helping to build this virtual metropolis, please contact me.

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People who live in big metropolises, like New York, London or Hong Kong, often say that they can always find someone within a few miles who has a special skill they need to complete some project or build a business. I’ve pointed out that the close proximity of millions of people with so many different skills is part of what has made cities successful economic engines during the industrial era.

When the population of your town is just a few thousand, there is a much smaller likelihood you’ll find the special skill you need nearby – and thus you’ll be less likely to achieve what you have in mind.

In the US alone, the Census Bureau has noted in its report “Patterns of Metropolitan and Micropolitan Population Change” that 10% of Americans live in one of the 576 small urban areas (where there is at least one urban cluster of less than 50,000, but at least 10,000 people).  That’s about 32 million people.

Another 6% lived in neither major metropolitan areas nor even these small urban areas. That’s just under 20 million people.

In this century, with broadband Internet, physical proximity is no longer necessary for people to collaborate and share their skills in a common project. Yet the small towns of these more than 50 million people are mostly not connected to each other.

So here’s my wild idea for the day: why not create a virtual metropolis of millions from the people in the small towns and communities of the countryside?

Imagine if even half of those 20 million (or 52 million) people who live outside the big metropolises could work together and be combined to act as if they were physically next door – while not actually living in such crowded conditions.

Such a network or virtual aggregation of small towns would offer their residents a much higher chance of succeeding with their business ideas and making a better living. If someone, for example, had the engineering talents to design a new product, that person might more likely find the necessary marketing talent somewhere in that network of millions of people.

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Clearly, anyone connected to the Internet can try to reach out to anyone else whether that person lives in a small town or a big city.

But a network of small towns alone might encourage greater collaboration because of the shared background of country life and the perceived greater friendliness (and less wariness) of non-urban residents. In most small towns, people are used to working with each other. This would just be a virtual extension of the same idea.

Initially, of course, people would feel most comfortable with those in the same region, such as within North America. Over time, as people interact more with each other on a global basis, that comfort level will expand.

Whether on a regional or global basis, this virtual metropolis could compete on a more even playing field and even establish a unique brand for the people and companies located there. It would make it possible for rural residents to keep their quality of life and also make a decent living.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/152069321010/a-virtual-metropolis-of-the-countryside]

Tech Frontiers On The Farm

Farming is a remote, not well understood, occupation for most people
who live in cites.  So the technology frontiers being pursued by farmers
is one of the most interesting and unreported stories.  But I’ve only
touched on this topic before, especially in my report about very
innovative areas of rural Netherlands.

In this post, I’m writing
about some things on the agricultural tech frontier that have caught my
eye.  But this only is a sample – one that doesn’t even cover biological
engineering on the farm.  There is so much going on in ag tech that a
single blog post cannot capture it all, even if it were limited to the
US which is certainly not the only place this technology is developing.

As Cory Reed, vice president of John Deere – a company most of us associate with traditional tractors – has said:

“We are on the cusp of the next innovation wave of digital agriculture.”

The Tech Products

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The
various tech products cover everything from sensors and drones to
assess the condition of soil and crops to sensors and locators on
livestock to robotic farm machinery that does what was once back
breaking work.

More diverse farm robots may emerge from the program that the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) US Department of Agriculture announced a few months ago.

The
app phenomenon has also come to agriculture.  LambTracker is a
smartphone app to track sheep.  ThermalAid measures heat stress on
cattle.

You don’t even need to have a large farm to benefit from this developing technology.  For example, there’s the Edyn Smart Garden System with its sensor stick.

And for more urban farmers, there is technology for vertical, indoor farms from a completely automated one to one that cuts out any transportation costs by being placed in a store.

Big Data On The Farm

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With
all the data from sensors and drones collected on farms, it was only a
matter of time before the big data movement hit the world of
agriculture.  As an example, Farmobile, has opened up its Data Store in Minnesota, where “farmers now have the ability to sell their agronomic and machine data to vetted third parties.”

Another company, the Farmers Business Network,
hopes to help farmers by enabling them to share their data.  In that
way, FBN proposes to “access agriculture’s largest database of real
world seed performance” and thus “unlock profitable, actionable insights
from all your data”.

Startups & Investments

If you’re not
involved in agriculture or rural development, you might nevertheless be
thinking that this might be a good undiscovered market to invest in.  
Sorry, you’ll have to get in line.  Other investors are ahead of you
already, even in places where these investors are often hidden – for
example, in San Francisco where AgTech2050 held its World Agri-Tech Investment Summit last month, in Silicon Valley where the Third Annual 2016 Silicon Valley AgTech Conference will be held next month and in New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel which is hosting the Global AgInvesting 2016 conference today.

One
recent estimate points to $4.6 billion in investments in ag tech
startups last year, a doubling from the previous year.  Just last week, one such company, PrecisionHawk, raised $18 million in funding from Verizon, Yamaha and NTT Docomo.

While
there will always be new investment opportunities, the more positive
part of this story is that this helps to ensure that the billions of us
on earth will not go hungry.  For the future of the countryside, this
new technology adds to the attractiveness of rural life and the strength
of the farm economy.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/143481039969/tech-frontiers-on-the-farm]

The New Urban Exodus

During the last half of the last century, there was much concern
about people leaving cities. Several books explored the phenomenon,
including one titled “Urban Exodus”, a phrase that became almost a rallying cry for urbanists and urban planners.

Many of the cities – even the largest ones – lost population as people moved out to the suburbs and even further to ex-urbs.

Then
over the last decade or two, with a general decrease in crime and
the arrival of both immigrants and young people who grew up elsewhere,
many cities – although certainly not all – were re-populated and turned
around. We read many stories about how these new arrivals are bringing a
new vibrancy to urban areas. And we frequently hear about the various
predictions of the continuing urbanization of the world’s population.

Of course, rural life continues to have its attractive qualities for some people. So, about two years ago, I asked “Will The Best & Brightest Return To The Countryside?
That blog post even had a reference to a New York Times story about
older folks returning to rural life after business careers elsewhere – “A Second Career, Happily in the Weeds”.

A necessary youth movement among farmers has also developed. In western Canada, there is the Young Agrarians
whose motto is “growing the next generation of farmers and food lovers
in Canada”. On the other side of the continent, the Virtual Grange has
run young farmers conferences.

Even more recently, with the
diffusion of information and communications technology, there has
started a new urban exodus, with a more significant twist. This exodus
is not about the movement to the suburbs of middle class families, whose
breadwinners work for large corporations. Rather it is about creative
folks, artists, and others from cities, going past the suburbs, to live
in rural areas where they can practice their craft and/or become
farmers.

The magazine, Modern Farmer, was established to serve
this group of people – in its own special hipster way that would
otherwise be associated with parts of San Francisco or Brooklyn. In a
recent issue, the magazine contained an article “At Home with Jacob and Alissa Hessler of Urban Exodus”.

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The appropriately named Urban Exodus website describes its founders and cohorts this way:

“The
new age of back to landers. Urban Exodus gives an intimate glimpse into
the spaces and lives of creative urbanites who chose to leave the
concrete jungle for greener pastures. In addition to the idyllic imagery
of rustic farmhouses, working studios and cabins nestled in the woods,
are interviews detailing their journey. These interviews highlight the
triumphs and the struggles they have experienced and the inspirations
they have found since choosing to live a life away from the urban
existences they once knew.“

It’s filled with stories about people like those pictured here:

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Nor is this just a North American phenomenon. William van den Broek wrote about the same situation in France:

“Many
cities of the world are facing an unexpected phenomenon: urban exodus.
No longer constrained by a localized workspace, an increasing number of
freelancers are enjoying mobility, and ultimately leaving stressful and
polluted cities. After the rural exodus, following the industrial
revolution, are we now facing a digital urban exodus. Perhaps this
movement is now following the digital revolution?”

Any social
trend is complex, especially in the world today. So, for some people,
it’s not a matter of taking leave from the city, but living in both the
city and the country – a combination that technology also makes
possible.  I mentioned Brooklyn before as one of the centers of the
young creatives on the East Coast. Among those splitting their time in
city and country are young Brooklyn families who maintain residences
both in Brooklyn’s urban core and more than a hundred miles away in the
rural parts of the Hudson Valley and Catskills Mountains.

Unfortunately,
rural areas on the wrong side of the digital divide will not be very
inviting to this potential influx of sophisticated folks because those
areas lack the required connectivity to the rest of the world.
Nevertheless, with the creative and idealistic people behind it, this
new urban exodus is very much worth watching.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/139052799904/the-new-urban-exodus]

The Digital Imperative Of Rural Libraries

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The maker movement is one of the hottest trends in the public library world. Maker spaces in libraries have the latest in 3D printing technology, digital media tools and other tools for the creative person who wants to make things. These are full-fledged STEAM (science, tech, engineering, arts and math) labs.

As you might expect, there are maker spaces somewhere in most major urban and suburban libraries.

But what is perhaps surprising and intriguing is the growth of maker spaces in small towns and rural areas — and why maker spaces are especially needed in those places and why those areas are fertile ground for maker spaces.

The countryside is known for the mechanical skills of many of its residents. Perhaps these skills were developed in response to distance from major service hubs and the necessity to keep farm and household equipment going.

For at least the last ten years, much traditional mechanical equipment has become computerized. And engines have become more reliable. So mechanical skills just aren’t as useful anymore.

Or maybe they are. That is what I think has caught the attention of rural librarians. Leah Hamilton, the manager of the Phelps Library in a small upstate New York town that had one of the first makerspaces in the USA, puts it this way:

“The library is a place for idea-sharing, … Our region has a wealth of manufacturing industries, and these businesses require well-trained, highly qualified employees. … We can provide the tools for inspiration of invention and the betterment of people’s livelihoods.”

Considering their limited budgets, it’s amazing how many of these libraries in rural areas have built makerspaces.

These are in small towns in Wisconsin, with populations well under 10,000 residents, like Sauk City’s 3D printer or Lomira’s MediaLab. They’re in the old, but small (population 12,000), city of Beaufort, South Carolina.

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A couple of years ago, the Idaho Commission for Libraries began its “Make It At The Library” project, a network of makerspaces in small libraries across the state.

There are small and rural libraries with makerspaces arising in places as widespread as Maine, Montana, New Mexico, small town New Jersey, Canada and as far as the United Kingdom and New Zealand!

As interesting as the adoption of makerspaces is, it is part of a larger picture about the technology and leadership role of libraries in small towns and rural areas.

A few months ago, Professor Brian Whitacre of Oklahoma State University and Professor Colin Rhinesmith of the University of Oklahoma published interested research that dealt with another part of this larger picture:

“Rural libraries have long been a crucial part of the small-town way of life … Now we’ve found through a new study that rural libraries may also provide another important benefit: They may increase local rates of household broadband adoption.

Our study found that, even after controlling for other things that likely influence broadband adoption (such as levels of income, education, and age), an additional library in a rural county was associated with higher residential broadband adoption rates … libraries were the only type of ‘community anchor institution’ to show any kind of relationship.”

Whether it is makerspaces or enabling necessary connections to the global Internet, these rural libraries are playing the role that all libraries should — fulfilling their potential as the central institution in a digital world and a knowledge economy.

© 2015 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/131154892399/the-digital-imperative-of-rural-libraries]

Innovation Grows Where You’re Not Looking

When people talk about innovative places, they often refer to Silicon Valley or New York or some other urban megalopolis.  By contrast, most of us have a sense that rural areas around the world face overwhelming problems.  Some of us – hopefully the readers of this blog – also know there’s great future potential in those areas.

And that potential is being realized in a few corners of the world that might surprise you.  Consider the countryside in the southern part of the Netherlands – the small city of Eersel and the other towns and farms nearby.  

You may even have an image of the place from Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings of potato farmers 130 years ago.  (He lived in the nearby town of Nuenen.) 

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It’s a different place today.  Not different in the way much of the world has gone – with modern cities replacing what had been primitive countryside – but rather a modern countryside.  

Taking me on a tour of this region two weeks ago was Mr. Kees Rovers, a long-time supporter of the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF), a noted telecommunications entrepreneur and speaker on the impact of the Internet.  Years ago he was a leader in bringing a high speed fiber network to Nuenen.  Now he’s working on bringing fiber networks to the nearby town of Eersel.

Perhaps partly, but not only, due to the presence of Philips research labs in the city of Eindhoven, Wikipedia has noted:

“The province of Noord-Brabant [which contains the areas I’m describing] is one of the most innovative regions of the European Union.  This is shown by the extensive amount of new research patents by Eurostat.”

The support of innovators and pride about local innovation by the leaders of the community, like Eersel Mayor Anja Thijs-Rademakers, contributes to this local culture of innovation.  The Mayor, along with Mr. Harrie Timmermans (City Manager/Alderman), and Mrs. Liesbeth Sjouw (Alderman), joined Mr. Rovers and myself in visits to three good examples of innovation in the countryside.  

First, we saw the van der Aa family farm, which has invested in robotics – robots for milking the cows and robots to clear the barn of the manure the cows produce in great quantity.  Think of a bigger, smarter, more necessary version of the Roomba, like the one in this picture.

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Then we visited Vencomatic, which was created by a local entrepreneur but is now a global business, still based in the countryside.  In addition to pioneering animal-friendly technology for the poultry industry, their headquarters won the award as “Europe’s most sustainable commercial building”.

The final stop was at Jacob Van Den Borne’s potato farm in Reusel.  He described his use of four drones, numerous sensors deep in the ground, analytics and scientific experiments to increase quality and production on the land.  You can see his two minute video in Dutch about precision agriculture, with English captions at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nlS8nVaI698

This is a picture of a potato farmer that Van Gogh could never have imagined.

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Of course, what’s missing in this picture of innovation – and ultimately limits the growth of that innovation and its spirit – is broadband beyond the more densely populated villages.  That’s why Rovers and the City of Eersel are deploying broadband away from the town center, using the motto “Close The Gap”.   (Mr. Rovers is also the Founder/Director of the NGO of the same name.)

It’s also something that Van Den Borne knows, so he has organized a co-operative to build out broadband in the countryside that doesn’t have connectivity yet.  Then he can take his innovations to a whole new level.

Whether it’s just an unusually strong regional culture of innovation or the historical necessity of being creative in rural areas where you can’t just pay someone down the block to solve your problems, this region of the world sets a good example for many other rural areas.  That, in part, is what motivates us to continue ICF’s efforts to build a new connected countryside everywhere.  

[Note: you can see a local report about my trip and more pictures at http://www.eersel.nl/internet/nieuwsberichten_41633/item/werkbezoek-norman-jacknis_68294.html .  If you don’t read Dutch, Google has a pretty good translation.]

© 2015 Norman Jacknis

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/117688410990/innovation-grows-where-youre-not-looking]

The Decentralization Of Health Care

Eric Topol is a physician and editor-in-chief at Medscape.  He was interviewed on the Colbert Report last year.  His new book, published last month, has been reviewed in the major newspapers.  Yet this book, “The Patient Will See You Now: The Future of Medicine is in Your Hands”, hasn’t received the attention it deserves.

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The book is about the future of health care – what’s already happening and what could be coming that’s even better.

Topol’s theme is that new technology and practices make it possible to democratize medical care – to move away from the traditional, paternalistic, hierarchical relationship between doctor and patient.

Hence the title which inverts the traditional words of a medical receptionist that the “doctor will see you now.”

Here’s a sample of some of his key arguments:

“… the world is changing.  Patients are generating their own data on their own devices.  Already any individual can take unlimited blood pressures or blood glucose measurements.”

“We are embarking on a time when each individual will have all their own medical data and the computer power to process it in the context of their own world.  There will be comprehensive medical information about a person that is eminently accessible, analyzable and transferable.”

“Today patients can rapidly diagnose their skin lesion or child’s ear infection without a doctor.  That’s just the beginning.  … your smartphone will become central to labs, physical exams, and even medical imaging; … you can have ICU-like monitoring in the safety, reduced expense, and convenience of your home.”

“The doctor will see you now via your smartphone screen … they will incorporate sharing your data – the full gamut from sensors, images, labs, and genomic sequence, well beyond an electronic medical record.”

The book is very well researched and comprehensively covers all kinds of ways that technology is interacting with and affecting health care.  Dr. Topol provides dozens of examples from all over the field – a laboratory on a chip, smart phones with all kinds of attachments that enable easy measurement of health conditions anywhere, etc.

As a physician, he rightly is concerned about the doctor-patient relationship.   As a sometime patient myself, this is of course of personal interest to me as well.

But more than that obvious reason, why else is the picture he presents so important?

With my perspective on how technology will affect where andhow we will live and work, his story is as much about the decentralization of
medical care as it is about the democratization.

With this decentralization, Dr. Topol envisions the
patient’s home becoming an instant medical lab or even a temporary hospital
wing.  This means that you can dramatically
improve the quality of your health care even if your home is in the
countryside, miles from a major medical center in the center of a metropolis.

And it’s this distance from medical care that frequently
worries those who live in the countryside. 
So when the transformation of medical care becomes more common, one more
traditional disadvantage of rural living that will disappear.

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© 2015 Norman Jacknis

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/110724183408/the-decentralization-of-health-care]

Countryside Complaints Collapse?

You often hear how the countryside is collapsing in various ways.  And clearly the remaining sixty million Americans who live in small towns and rural areas have faced a variety of challenges. 

As I described in my presentation at the Walsh University Leadership Academy a few weeks back, I’ve heard eight major complaints to explain why rural areas are in trouble.  While each of these has been true over the last few decades, increasingly the changes in our world mean that these complaints themselves are no longer relevant – the complaints are collapsing, while the countryside has new opportunities for renewal.

Let me address each of these, briefly, one at a time.  (If you’re interested in a fuller explanation, I can send you a copy of the whole 80-slide presentation.)

1. “We’re not big enough to have sustainable business clusters.”

So many economic development officials have had the cluster strategy drummed into their minds that they don’t realize how out of date it is.   As economist, Paul Krugman, said when he was given the Nobel Prize for his early work on economic geography, “[Clustering] may describe forces that are waning rather than gathering strength.”  My favorite example is the growth of the BATS Exchange at the expense of the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street.  BATS is headquartered in Lenexa, Kansas.

2. “We’ve lost most good-paying manufacturing jobs.”

So has everyone else.  Just as economic changes over the last hundred fifty years meant that we need very few people on the farm to produce the food the rest of us need, so too productivity in manufacturing means fewer people are needed in plants.  That is part of the growth of the economy.  But there has been a parallel increase in the service sector of the economy and the Internet has made possible a new range of intangible, digital products and services – from which people can make a living.  That, of course, doesn’t even account for the many unmet needs of our economy and society – for example, curing major diseases – that will generate employment.

3. “We don’t have skyscrapers filled with office workers.”

But work is no longer tied to these “places of work”.  Many people can work from home, without the need for a cubicle in a skyscraper.

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4. “We’re isolated in the middle of nowhere.”

You may be physically far from large metropolitan areas, but digital communications connects everyone everywhere, even face-to-face through video-conferencing.  (Of course, this assumes you have broadband connectivity sufficient for video – but that’s part of the point of this argument.  If you get the connectivity, there are all kinds of options open for you, even in the countryside.)

5. “We don’t have a major research university.”

There is an incredible amount of learning available on the Internet, including courses from traditional universities (like edX) and non-traditional sources.  And most of the research at the major universities is now available online, especially the kind of later stage research that is most easily commercialized.  So what you need is not the research university, but people with sufficient entrepreneurial imagination – and those folks can be found all over.

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6. “Whenever we get sick we need to go to a big city for care.”

With telemedicine (and even remote surgery, in the longer run), not all health care requires a visit to a big city.

7. “We can’t participate in developing new ideas and our innovators have no one to talk to (so they leave).”

Again, anyone with an innovative disposition can now reach out to others on the Internet.  Moreover, with the growth of the open innovation movement in corporations and governments, there are a variety of opportunities for people who live in the countryside to offer their new ideas – and be rewarded for them.

8. “There are not enough customers nearby and many of the business skills we need are also not nearby.”

Yet, economic opportunities and services are global.  All you need to be is connected to the global economy.  By the way, this isn’t limited to people who want to write computer software.  There are all kinds of interesting examples of people who live in the countryside making a living outside of the tech industry – for example, by teaching English to foreign students, or selling their works of art and craftsmanship, or providing help desk/customer support or even selling lobster bait bags.  Now the market is not limited to the small number of people who are nearby.

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So before people in the countryside give up on their futures, they should consider how these old obstacles of the past will collapse in the future.

© 2014 Norman Jacknis

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/104844439162/countryside-complaints-collapse]

A Virtual Metropolis In The Countryside?

People who live in big metropolises, like New York, London or Hong Kong, often say that they can always find someone within a few miles who has a special skill they need to complete some project or build a business.  I’ve pointed out that the close proximity of millions of people with so many different skills is part of what has made cities successful economic engines during the industrial era.

When the population of your town is just a few thousand, there is a much smaller likelihood you’ll find the special skill you need nearby – and thus you’ll be less likely to achieve what you have in mind.

In the US alone, the Census Bureau has noted in its report “Patterns of Metropolitan and Micropolitan Population Change” that 10% of Americans live in one of the 576 small urban areas (where there is at least one urban cluster of less than 50,000, but at least 10,000 people).   That’s about 32 million people.

Another 6% lived in neither major metropolitan areas nor even these small urban areas.  That’s just under 20 million people.

In this century, with broadband Internet, physical proximity is no longer necessary for people to collaborate and share their skills in a common project.  Yet the small towns of these more than 50 million people are mostly not connected to each other. 

So here’s my wild idea for the day: why not create a virtual metropolis of millions from the people in the small towns and communities of the countryside?

Imagine if even half of those 20 million (or 52 million) people who live outside the big metropolises could work together and be combined to act as if they were physically next door – while not actually living in such crowded conditions.

Such a network or virtual aggregation of small towns would offer their residents a much higher chance of succeeding with their business ideas and making a better living.  If someone, for example, had the engineering talents to design a new product, that person might more likely find the necessary marketing talent somewhere in that network of millions of people.

Clearly, anyone connected to the Internet can try to reach out to anyone else whether that person lives in a small town or a big city.  But a network of small towns alone might encourage greater collaboration because of the shared background of country life and the perceived greater friendliness (and less wariness) of non-urban residents.  In most small towns, people are used to working with each other.  This would just be a virtual extension of the same idea.

Initially, of course, people would feel most comfortable with those in the same region, such as within North America.  Over time, as people interact more with each other on a global basis, that comfort level will expand.

Whether on a regional or global basis, this virtual metropolis could compete on a more even playing field and even establish a unique brand for the people and companies located there.  It would make it possible for rural residents to keep their quality of life and also make a decent living.

What do you think?

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© 2014 Norman Jacknis

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/100663996332/a-virtual-metropolis-in-the-countryside]

Small Town, Big Story?

Can a town of 2,300 people in the countryside of Mississippi create a future for itself with broadband?  The answer is yes if you speak to the visionary leader of Quitman – its Mayor, Eddie Fulton – and about two dozen community leaders from business, education, churches, health care and other fields. 

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Quitman is not what you might think of as the likely star of a broadband story.  It has suffered de-population, economic difficulties, community tensions and all the other problems people in many small towns across America have witnessed.

Then along comes the Mississippi-based telecommunications company, C-Spire, who announced it would deploy gigabit Internet connection through fiber to the home in a small number of communities.  The key requirement was that a fairly sizable percentage of the community’s residents had to sign up for the service in advance.

Quitman was the smallest town to take on this challenge.  It would not normally be considered because of its size, but they had such a strong commitment to building on broadband that the company decided to make the investment.  Now, Quitman is ahead of the others in deployment and plans for developing their community.

Anyone who has ever been involved in a big technology project knows that the biggest obstacles to success are not technical issues, but human issues.  That’s why the chances that Quitman will succeed are good.  They have the necessary leadership, motivation and willingness to innovate.

They’ve also been helped by one of the long forgotten secrets of America’s agricultural and economic success – the extension service.  In particular, Professor Roberto Gallardo  at Mississippi State University Center For Technology Outreach has helped to educate the community and been their adviser.

And so it was that last week I was in Quitman leading what the Intelligent Community Forum calls a Master Class, as part of its community accelerator program. 

I pointed out that, rather than being an anomaly, a small city like Quitman could be the quintessential broadband success story.  I told the community leaders that a number of recent studies have shown that broadband has a much greater impact on small towns and rural areas than in cities.  As I’ve written before, this is not surprising.  Big cities provide many traditional ways that many people can interact with each other.  It is only when residents of small communities get connected to everyone else through the Internet that they can start to level the playing field.

I reviewed the historical context that is opening up new opportunities for rural communities.  I provided various examples, from elsewhere in North America and beyond, of the ways broadband can make a difference to the countryside.  The point of the examples was to give the community leaders ideas and also to see small towns, like theirs, doing great things with broadband. 

Then to bring the strategy and examples home, I asked them what they would do with broadband when it was deployed.  The community leaders separated into three groups, one each focused on education, health and economic growth.  They had a good discussion and came up with good ideas that will enable them to move fast when the connectivity is available later this year.

The signature line of the old song “New York, New York”, written at the height of that city’s industrial prominence, proclaimed: “If I can make it in New York, I’ll make it anywhere”.  This century, in the post-industrial era, the line should be: if broadband helps make Quitman a success story, then it can happen anywhere.

I’ll keep you apprised of their progress.

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© 2014 Norman Jacknis

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/97730847152/small-town-big-story]

Will The Best & Brightest Return To The Countryside?

There have been recent news stories about those coming and going and possibly returning to life in the countryside. 

A couple months ago, the New York Times had a major story about older folks returning to rural life after business careers elsewhere – “A Second Career, Happily in the Weeds”.  (Among others, it featured Debra Sloane, a former Cisco colleague.

Then this past weekend, in a kind of counterpoint, the Times’ Sunday Review section had an op-ed article about a woman who tried and gave up on living in the countryside – “Giving Up My Small-Town Fantasy”.   While she returned to the city, she also wrote that she moved to a small town because:

We were betting on the fact that we wouldn’t be alone in fleeing the big city for a small town. Urban living has become unthinkably expensive for many middle-class creative types. A 2010 study from the Journal of Economic Geography found a trifecta of reasons some rural areas have grown instead of shrunk: the creative class, entrepreneurial activity and outdoor amenities. In 2012, a University of Minnesota research fellow called the influx of 30-to-40-somethings into rural Minnesota towns a “brain gain” — flipping the conventional wisdom on the exodus from the boonies to the big city.

To further the idea that the traditional brain drain from rural areas is changing, the well-respected Daily Yonder had a feature article last month summarizing research on “The Rural Student Brain Gain”.  As they note:

The common wisdom is that rural America’s “best and brightest” want to leave home. New research shows these students are no more likely to want to leave than their counterparts. And when they do go, they have a stronger desire to return.

There is no doubt that many young people who can leave will do so – which more likely means the brightest who can get into major universities.  To some extent, all young people want to see the world beyond where they grew up. 

Almost a hundred years ago, Joe Young and Sam M. Lewis wrote what became a very popular song as many young men went off to Europe in World War I.

How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm
After they’ve seen Paree’
How ya gonna keep ‘em away from Broadway
Jazzin around and paintin’ the town

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By the way, this is not just a rural question.  A generation ago or so, parents in New York City were asking the same question – would the young return after seeing California?  Feeding this concern, for instance, was an article in the New York Times on October 1, 1980 about so many New Yorkers living in Los Angeles that two of the big high schools in Brooklyn held alumni reunions there.

So while we don’t want the young to feel they are being kept captive, the question is will they return to their countryside origins or something like it?

To answer that question, there are others that need to be answered first. 

In a post-industrial, global, Internet-connected economy, can young people still feel they are part of the larger world? Can they have as many opportunities for fulfillment and success back home as in the “big city”?

The answer is yes, the potential is there.  But the young are still leaving because too few rural communities have done the things they need to do in order to open up those opportunities for their brightest young people.  These lagging leaders haven’t built up the broadband necessary to connect both young and old to the world, nor have they helped people understand what they can do with that broadband connection, nor have they focused on the larger issues of developing a community anyone would want to live in if they had a choice in the matter.

And those who have given up hope for their rural communities because they know people there can never earn the megabucks found on Wall Street?  They should be informed by other research, including a fascinating, classic study by Professor Gundars Rudzitis of the University of Idaho, in his article in Rural Development Perspectives, “Amenities Increasingly Draw People to the Rural West”:

More people are moving to rural areas for reasons that have nothing to do with employment.  … the rural West is one of the fastest growing regions in the United States. …  Surveys in the 1970’s began to show that, if given a choice, people prefer to live in small towns and even in rural areas.

Amenities such as environmental quality and pace of life were becoming important in explaining why people move. The apparent sudden preference of people for rural life shocked many academics and planners because rural areas were thought to be at a major disadvantage compared with urban areas. 

These findings also were a surprise because they conflicted with the major assumptions of migration theory, or why people move. Simply put, people were thought to move because they wanted to increase or maximize their incomes. … This approach, however, failed to explain why people moved out of cities into places like the rural West.

…  People who migrate to high-amenity counties are often assumed to be retirees, as the growth and development of States like Arizona and Florida bears out. In our survey, however, only 10 percent of the new migrants were over 65 years of age. Instead, migrants were more likely to be young, highly educated professionals.

These studies and stories about people moving from city to country and back make clear that these decisions are more complicated than the headlines indicate.  And broadband connectivity will upset these patterns even more. 

Indeed, this new picture of what is going on may tell us why the best and brightest of the countryside might want to return after they’ve seen Paris (or New York or San Francisco).

© 2014 Norman Jacknis

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Presentation On Technology, People & Rural Prosperity

Previously, I mentioned that I gave the opening keynote presentation at the final annual conference on Rural Prosperity in Canada, held at Queen’s University of Kingston, Ontario. 

Jeffrey Dixon, Associate Director of the Monieson Centre which has run the project, was very kind in his feedback:

Norm Jacknis provided an inspiring presentation at our 6th annual rural economic development conference. He helped a group of community leaders, business people, policymakers and researchers consider new opportunities for rural prosperity and to think creatively about how they can use technology to transform their economies.

A video of the presentation, including questions and discussion, is now available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7PmYBxcqgA&index=3&list=PLc4qJ1UgXeFHWsWwtzQm5TvfeNuDvfRad and also as the Tumblr post just after this. I went into a fairly deep explanation of the trends occurring in the economy and technology – and why and how these trends open up new opportunities for small towns and rural areas.  It’s about an hour long video, although the actual presentation starts about two minutes into the video and ends about forty minutes later.  (Sit back and relax – I tried to make it as entertaining as possible.)

You can see the printed handout at http://business.queensu.ca/centres/monieson/events/Economic_Revitalization_2014/Presentations/2014%20conference%20presentations/Norm%20Jacknis.pdf   Of course, if you only read the handout, you’ll miss the videos and also what I say about each slide since I don’t really read them.

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Also, in conjunction with the conference, the university staff issued a series of research papers that you can read in the Journal of Rural and Community Development at http://www.jrcd.ca/viewissue.php?id=20

© 2014 Norman Jacknis

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Only One Way To Get Broadband?

For the first time ever, there was a Master Class focused on rural communities held two weeks ago as part of the annual summit of the Intelligent Community Forum.  There were people from Europe, the USA and Canada, Asia and as far away as New Zealand in the class.

Part of the focus of the class was on how rural areas can get broadband.  Too often there is the assumption that broadband and fiber optics are the same thing. 

One of my former colleagues used to describe the passion of some broadband advocates for fiber connections as a kind of “Fiber Taliban”.  But while fiber makes economic sense in densely populated urban areas, it becomes very expensive to deploy in the countryside.  As a practical matter, exclusive use of fiber is a dream that stands in the way of getting broadband to the countryside.  This may be one situation where, as the old line goes, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

In the class, I pointed out that just as there isn’t only one way for a person to get from Point A to Point B, there isn’t only one way for a person to get broadband. 

Like many people, I used to think that the laws of physics provide a natural cap on the amount of data that can go through the air.  And, in a theoretical sense, that is still true.  But the engineers have nevertheless made dramatic improvements. 

Verizon Wireless, for example, now usually range of 10-20 MB, although in NYC, it’s been independently measured above 30.  Its 4G is, according to Verizon, ten times the speed of 3G.

A couple of weeks ago, Huawei promised more.

Huawei Technologies officials say the giant tech vendor has successfully tested a WiFi service that hit more than 10 gigabits per second, a speed that is 10 times faster than what is currently commercially available.

There are a variety of ways that data can travel over the air.  The most well-established, alternatives include satellite, Wi-Fi and standard fixed wireless.  Free space optics, pictured below, offers a large pipe that can be especially useful for rugged territory. 

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Also of interest is the future use of “white space” as television goes digital.

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And balloons, which act as flexible and inexpensive towers.  Google has proposed balloons at high altitudes.  But even below the aviation floor of 500 feet, balloons can provide coverage over a wide swath of countryside.

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The Internet protocol doesn’t care what the communications medium is, so you can combine different methods to provide broadband to different kinds of places

By the way, there is also a lesson here in another important aspect of deploying broadband into the countryside – funding it.  The most successful broadband projects have usually combined more than one purpose:

  • High speed communications
  • Healthcare
  • Education and libraries
  • Business development
  • Smart grid and management of other infrastructure
  • Etc.

This combination opens up more sources of funds and means more people have a reason to use the broadband, thus making the project successful and sustainable.

This is a natural approach in really remote places.  A couple of the folks in the class came from Wanganui in New Zealand.  That town’s Mayor described their bottom up approach in which each farmer extends the network further into the countryside.  And, if you’re thinking this is just some semi-rural, small town place, look at this picture of what their broadband project eventually has to cover.

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Pictures via:

©2014 Norman Jacknis

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Mapping The Future: Technology, People & Rural Prosperity

This Tuesday, Queen’s University of Kingston, Ontario held its last annual conference on Rural Prosperity in Canada.  As Senior Fellow leading the Rural Imperative for the Intelligent Community Forum, I was asked to give the opening, keynote speech. 

My overall theme was that the countryside has a new opportunity to flourish, considering developments in technology and broadband, as well as the major post-industrial trends in North America, Europe, Japan and elsewhere.  I also emphasized that broadband, while a necessary condition for community development, is not sufficient and must be integrated with other elements that build quality of life.

I won’t go into more detail here, since my presentation will be posted on their website.  Instead I’ll report on some of the items presented by others that caught my attention.

1. Research on the economic impact of broadband

The researchers at the Monieson Centre of the university’s Business School presented the results of their analysis of the impact of broadband on employment and wages.  They found that broadband deployment, from 1997-2011, had only a minor positive impact on employment in urban areas, but had a significantly more positive impact in rural areas.  However, broadband was associated with wage increases in both rural and urban regions.

Moreover, they found there was no impact on employment at firms producing physical goods, but a major positive impact on employment and wages for services (although not all services). 

Although we didn’t coordinate, it was nice to see results that tracked with the broad trends I’ve been highlighting for the last few years.  In a way, my presentation explained the research results.

2. Rural broadband network in eastern Ontario

The association of the key leaders of rural counties in eastern Ontario (called the Eastern Ontario Wardens Caucus), with others, have spearheaded a project called EORN that is wrapping up its initial deployment this year.  The Eastern Ontario Regional Network is building out rural areas with broadband that provides its 500,000 residents with 10 megabit connections – much more than is common even among most urban users of the Internet in North America.  EORN officials think it is the most ambitious project of its kind in the Americas or possibly the world.  They are certain it is the “most sustainable rural network” in the world.

Later in the day, Bo Beaulieu of Purdue University’s Center for Regional Development spoke about the necessity and value of regional cooperation among rural counties.  My observation was that, with broadband and regional cooperation, these areas can present themselves as the virtual equivalent of a city and be able to compete economically in many ways not otherwise possible.

3. Creative uses of the countryside

There were various presentations on how the new countryside is more than just farming.  One example was a “multi-functional” farm – yes, it grew food for sale, but also was an environmental education center, alternative energy demonstration site, publishing office, and a bed-and-breakfast set up by a “refugee” from Toronto. 

Since, especially in this area of Canada, much of that nation’s history is better preserved in the countryside than in cities, historical and cultural resources have been used as a basis for economic development.  See, for example, History Lives Here which has a variety of products, from videos and guided tours to History labelled wines from local wineries.

All in all, a very interesting day that provided strong evidence of the energy and innovation which is creating the future of rural areas in Canada and the rest of the world.

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The Intelligent Community Forum’s Rural Imperative Program

Just a short note that the Intelligent Community Forum has asked me to be responsible for its Rural Imperative to build and create a renaissance of rural life through the power of high speed Internet and technology combined with community development. For more details see http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/02/prweb11614027.htm

Also, yesterday, Government Technology magazine’s Digital Communities website featured an article by me about the role that technologists need to play to help rural communities achieve their potential.  See “The Rural Imperative Needs Tech Creativity and Leadership” at http://www.digitalcommunities.com/articles/The-Rural-Imperative-Needs-Tech-Creativity-and-Leadership.html

The Rural Imperative is one of the very few activities that I’m undertaking – projects that will be fun, challenging and help change the world.  What more could anyone ask for?

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Is There A Rural Imperative?

As readers of this blog know, I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years helping cities figure out the impact of new technologies and broadband on their future role in people’s lives and also helping mayors figure out ways of using those technologies to create new kinds of urban experiences and reasons for people to live in their cities. 

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 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.  As you can read from my post last week which, among other trends, noted that telecommuting has increased dramatically among urban residents, but not for those in exurbia.

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 or a farm.

As has been true for declining urban areas, 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.  Even though it wouldn’t be called a pathology, the out-migration of many of their young adults has also been a concern of the remaining residents of rural areas.

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.  Many technology providers have ignored rural communities.  That should change. 

While cities will still be attractive, they are not for everyone all the time.  Many people would indeed prefer to live in the countryside if they had economic opportunity, decent health care, a means to learn and in other ways 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 has learned, there is not enough economic opportunity in their cities and the urban infrastructure cannot support the migrants who have already moved there.   The New York Times recently reported that, even the Chinese, with a relentless urban focus, have started to worry that their nation’s traditional culture and identity is getting lost in the process.  Indeed, there has been a reverse migration from the cities to the Chinese countryside.

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 and to 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.

With this background, the Intelligent Community Forum started its Rural Imperative program last year.  It will apply to the world’s rural areas its unique, global perspective on how broadband and technology can be mutually reinforcing with community development and growth.  This is an important step in helping the new connected countryside go from potential possibility to a reality.

© 2014 Norman Jacknis

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