Voices of Digital Communities

Can the Economic Development Cluster Go Virtual?

It is striving to create an economic development cluster that is virtual rather than local.

by / November 12, 2011

If you live, as I do, in a metropolitan area, and you go to the rural lands in the midst of the North American continent, as I did last week, what strikes you is the land. 

The vastness of it.  The fertility of it.  The apparently limitless reach, where development reached its peak when a rancher put up a barbed wire fence. They say there that you can see your dog run away for three days.  The land has marked the people who live on it as surely as life in the New York metro area has marked me.  As I wrote in an earlier blog, the people who live there want to keep on doing it – they are just searching for a way to make it pay in a challenging new century.

While conducting a Master Class and workshop for Parkland County, near Edmonton in Alberta, Canada, I met Wendy Schneider, a rancher and founder of a nonprofit called Green Hectares.    Its mission is to build a knowledge network, starting in Alberta and spreading across Canada, to achieve agricultural excellence.  What this means in practice is attracting a critical mass of young farmers and equipping them with the digital skills, market savvy and global knowledge needed to compete effectively in the broadband economy. 

To understand the potential, meet Lee Townend, a second-generation beekeeper.  He has brought his family farm, TPLR Honey Farms, into the digital age with a vengeance.  Every aspect of the operation is computerized.  The beekeepers use smartphones to check and post data in real time while they work among the hives.  The Internet serve as research library, expert network, storefront and purchasing department.  To make it work, Lee had to build his own WiFi network to extend coverage to every building on the farm.   

But here’s the really impressive thing.  Several years ago, Lee learned that Japan was a significant importer of the kind of high-grade honey that TPLR produces. So he began to work his contacts and wound up with an invitation to visit Japan and meet honey importers.  He made the trip and, on the strength of the relationships he created, TPLR now ships the majority of its honey to Japan.   That’s truly remarkable, not only for the savvy he showed but for the fact that Japan has some of the strictest quality control regulations for imports in the world.  As they say of my town, if the Townsend family can make it there, they can make it anywhere. 

Green Hectares is the first example I have seen of something that I began looking for last year.  It is striving to create an economic development cluster that is virtual rather than local.  We all know what clusters are: companies in a particular industry that are located close together.  Proximity breeds trust, learning, collaboration and a rising level of economic activity, which can be fostered by a smart local government. 

If rural areas are to succeed in the broadband economy, they will need to find a way to reproduce the power of clusters without the natural density found in a metropolitan area.   The land has marked them, and it will take information and communications technology to transform traditional ways of doing business on the land for a new century.

Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.