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