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.)
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.
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.
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