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many economic development officials have had the cluster strategy drummed into their minds that they don’t realize how out of date it is.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.
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.
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.
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