The first of its kind European Rural Summit was held in Eindhoven, Netherlands on March 22 and 23. This conference was hosted by the Netherlands’ Brabant Kempen region in collaboration with the Intelligent Community Forum.
Attending were a couple hundred public officials, rural entrepreneurs (farmers and others) and experts in economic development, rural development, technology and telecommunications.
Although proximity guaranteed a number of Dutch would be there, participants came from many European countries, including nearby ones like Denmark and Germany, as well as those much further away like Slovenia and Russia. There were even a few Americans and a Canadian.
I was asked to set the tone for the conference as its initial keynote speaker. My themes, familiar to readers of this blog, were that:
• The increasing importance of the digital broadband-connected economy offers rural areas new opportunities that had been precluded by the industrial era’s requirements for mass, density and physical proximity— requirements far better satisfied in urban than rural areas. This will be especially clear as full video interaction becomes more common, but it’s already starting. As an example, since 2000 the rural population of France has increased after 150 previous years of decline.
• While broadband alone is not sufficient, if a rural area is connected, there are all sorts of applications to improve life — re-invigorating Main Street with augmented reality and new retail technology, tele-health, online education, precision farming and the like.
• With a bit of creativity and flexibility in both technology and organizational structure, rural broadband is not an insurmountable challenge. Indeed, under the umbrella of the KempenGlas cooperative effort, broadband is being installed not far from the site of the Summit in the more rural areas of the region
Although this message about the potential for a renaissance in the countryside has not been the one generally portrayed to city dwellers, it resonated quite well with the attendees who work with and in rural areas. And these themes were picked up by other speakers.
Also at several points over these two days, people emphasized the interdependence — and, as I have noted, even the convergence — of rural and urban areas. Drs. Elies Lemkes-Straver, General Director of ZLTO (Southern Agriculture and Horticulture Organization) took up this idea. Her organization of 15,000 farmers, operating under the motto “farmers connect and innovate”, has established relationships with green entrepreneurs, consumers and social organizations.
Although all the presentations were interesting, one particularly unusual talk was by Professor Nico Baken, professor at Delft University of Technology, focused on the changing nature of the economy and our current failure to properly measure what’s going on since we still use industrial era concepts. He passionately advocated for not being limited by traditional measures of return on investment and instead considering the value of broadband in rural areas for the lives of people there and in cities. This pleased many there for it makes it easier to get broadband deployment in the countryside.
It may be surprising, as well, that one of the presentations at this rural conference was on AI and robotics, courtesy of Professor Maarten Steinbuch of the Eindhoven University of Technology.
Since I was in the Netherlands, I took the opportunity to do some exploration of the countryside in relative nearby areas of the Netherlands, France, Germany and Belgium. The story in Europe, as elsewhere in rural areas of advanced economies, was one of increasing contrasts between the rural communities that are already showing strong evidence of growth and those that lag.
While I had heard stories of abandoned farms from some participants, from what I could see along country roads, most of the arable land seemed to be under cultivation and the residents appeared to be relatively prosperous. It helps that this area is a major wine producer, but that wasn’t all that farmers were growing or doing.
Aside from rural tourism in a land of chateaux/castles and the kind of manufacturing that is often placed on the far outskirts of cities, it was hard to tell whether the nascent digital economy seen in the rural US has a counterpart in Europe.
The Rural Summit wasn’t only for speeches, workshops and the various side trips attendees took. There was also a strong desire to take action by establishing a network of rural leaders across Europe to help each other.
Of course, I encouraged the leaders gathered in Eindhoven to go beyond that and help create a Virtual Metropolis that would connect their residents — and rural residents outside of Europe — for mutual economic, cultural and educational benefit. This too received a positive reaction and do I’ll be moving forward to build the platform to make this possible.
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