Roberto Gallardo is Assistant Director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development and a Purdue Extension Community & Regional Economics Specialist. He holds an electronics engineering undergraduate degree, a master's in economic development, and a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration. Gallardo has worked with rural communities over the past decade conducting local & regional community economic development, including use of technology for development. He was Founder of the ICF Institute for Rural Studies at Mississippi State University.
Dr. Norman Jacknis is currently Senior Fellow at the Intelligent Community Forum. His responsibilities include leading ICF’s Rural Imperative, building on the ideas he developed for the US Conference of Mayors on a future-oriented economic growth strategy for cities.
Cities have been all the rage since we discovered that more than half of the world’s people live in them. Cities are where commerce and culture thrive, where efficiencies of housing and transport reduce our impact on the climate, where the Creative Class sips its skinny lattes. According to the United Nations, “Wisely or not, Homo sapiens has become Homo urbanus.” More than two-third of the world’s population or 4.4 billion people will be urbanites by 2030.
Many leading thinkers find this a cause for celebration, among them Richard Florida of the University of Toronto, who currently has the biggest megaphone in this discussion. As he put it in a 2011 article in The Atlantic:
Cities are our greatest invention, not because of the scale of their infrastructure or their placement along key trade routes, but because they enable human beings to combine and recombine their talents and ideas in new ways. With their breadth of skills, dense social networks and physical spaces for interactions, great cities and metro areas push people together and increase the kinetic energy between them.
Yet this urban celebration has a darker side. It begs the question: if 67% of five billion people are jammed into mega-cities, would you really want to live in one? People’s marked preference for living in green suburbs suggests: perhaps not. An exclusive focus on cities also casts the rural lands, with their farms, plains and forests, as an inconvenient distance between the places where the action is. That’s a serious misreading of reality.
In the simplest possible sense, rural areas are the ecosystem that gives cities life. They are the source of the air that cities breathe, the food they consume, the water they drink. In the life of nations, they offer a welcome alternative to the density and anonymity of the city. And they are places that people love. People in rural areas tend to be proud of their culture and arts. They care deeply about the natural beauty of the region and treasure ways of life that have evolved over the centuries.
Challenges to a Treasured Way of Life
Rural areas, however, are under challenge from many directions. As their relative share of the population shrinks, they face a gradual atrophy of opportunities for education and employment. The lack of high-quality job opportunities, compared with urban areas, forces the brightest young adults to leave their communities in order to make a living. Once gone – involved in romantic relationships, making homes and raising families – only a few return.
As the population shrinks in relative or actual terms, the tax and spending base supporting services, from schools to stores to cultural activities, slowly declines. Schools are consolidated, stores close up, cultural activities fade away – and each loss further erodes rural quality of life. Meanwhile, the increasing average age of the population, as deaths outweigh births, puts greater strain on social services, which are increasingly hard to afford.
Some rural areas buck the trend. Many rural areas are not in crisis. Those located within driving distance of an urban center attract commuters and weekenders. Those with scenery, cultural or recreational attractions balance local enterprise with income from tourism. Some hold onto a local manufacturing base or exploit geography to become transport and logistics hubs. But these opportunities are distributed neither evenly nor with regard to the welfare of the people who occupy rural land.
Something New Under the Sun
But in the broadband economy of the 21st century – when information and communications technology (ICT) are doing so much to eliminate distance as a barrier – rural areas have opportunities never seen before. The opportunity is to plug into the world at low cost regardless of location. To affordably import the world’s learning and culture to enrich the lives of young and old, and to give local cultural traditions new life in a global community. To make rural areas as vital and exciting a place to grow a business or build a career as the busiest city center. All of this is possible in an economy and culture that are conducted increasingly online. All of this is something new under the sun.
Can ICT truly make a dent the challenges facing rural areas? Can it overcome the structural weaknesses of rural economies, compared with urban ones, and ensure them a vibrant economic future through robust connections to the global economy? If so, it could relieve the pressures driving migration to the cities and create breathing space, in which the inherent appeal of rural living could shine through.
We do not know how to do it yet. We do not understand how to use ICT to seize the unique opportunities and overcome the distinct challenges of rural living. When the first commercial Web browser was released in 1993, practically no one foresaw what the Internet could become. We are at the same stage of this exciting challenge: to figure out how to give the rural areas of our nations a competitive advantage using ICT that preserves their way of life into the foreseeable future. For the first time since population growth tilted toward the city, ICT makes that possible. It is up to us to learn how it can be done.
Today, the countryside is under severe and rising pressure
If you live in a rural area, you may feel the pressure yourself. The share of the population living the rural life is shrinking as large cities grow. That reduces opportunities for education and employment, forcing the brightest young adults to leave town in order to make a living. When that cycle gets started, the tax base shrinks, which leads schools to consolidate, stores to close and cultural activities to fade away, just as more people need costly social services to stay afloat.
Maybe you live in a rural community that has bucked the trend. Lots of them have. It has scenery or culture or activities that bring in tourists. It has held onto a local manufacturing base or exploited geography to become a warehouse and logistics hub. It is holding the line. But is it building a prosperous future?
And then, there are rural places where the future looks bright
If you live there, you are part of dynamic economy and progressive community. Forward-looking local businesses find global markets for their products and services. Education thrives and graduates have the chance to build a life in the place they love. Workers and employers pursue cutting-edge innovation while enjoying a quality of life your urban peers can only envy.
These are communities using broadband and information technology to eliminate distance as a barrier and make digital networks take the place of the physical proximity that urban areas provide. They are no longer “in the middle of nowhere.”
They make up the New Connected Countryside, and they have lessons to share with rural cities and towns around the world. We need your help to get those lessons to the places that need them the most.