Cities are getting a lot of attention these days. They have been ever since 2008, when the United Nations estimated that half of the world’s people live in cities. Three of the world’s biggest technology companies – IBM, Cisco and Siemens – now have divisions focused on creating smarter cities, cities that are smart-plus connected and on sustainable urban development. Thinkers like Richard Florida write about the Creative Class, who tend to live, you guessed it, in cities. Even the cluster approach to economic development created by Michael Porter in the Nineties presupposes a level of density most likely to be found in urban areas.
At ICF, we are glad that so many companies and thought leaders are focused on the future of urban areas. But here’s a question. What about the 50% of people who do not live in cities? Even if the UN is right in estimating that cities will hold two-thirds of the world’s people by 2050 – what about the rest?
From work with rural communities in the past year, I can tell you one thing about them. The people who live there don’t want to live in cities. They like it just fine where they are. They are proud of the places they live and work. They would just like more economic opportunity to flow their way, so that they and their children can continue to live there and enjoy the quality of life, the traditions and the sense of belonging typical of smaller places.
And if there is one thing that today’s Broadband Economy should make possible, it is to provide greater economic opportunity for rural areas. Plenty of businesses still depend heavily on physical transportation of materials and goods but a growing percentage do not, because consumers and companies have adopted information and communications technology (ICT) at such a blinding speed. In other words, broadband should level the playing field between urban and rural areas. As the Gershwin song says, however, it ain’t necessarily so.
Rural areas have issues of their own. They tend, for example, to have lower education levels. One group of communities I am working with, in the American Midwest, has a much lower percentage of residents with university-level education than the US average. But the percentage of residents with community or technical school training vastly outpaces the rest of America. That was the skill level needed by industries of the past, when manual work paid a living wage, but it will not be the skill level needed in the Broadband Economy. Fortunately, broadband provides a new means to deliver world-class education if we can figure out how to do it right.
When it comes to innovation, how are rural areas going to create clusters of innovative companies in similar industries when their overall population density is low? The likely answer is to think regionally. A single rural community may be too small to bring innovators in a single industry together, but a region of many communities, networked by broadband and linked by relationships between governments and institutions, could achieve the necessary scale.
It will not be easy. Rural communities have not organized themselves this way before. Cities have, for thousands of years. It is why people came together in cities and still do: to buy and sell, to defend themselves, to amass wealth. For the first time in history, rural areas have the same opportunity. But seizing it will take serious innovation in the way rural communities live and work, educate and govern – and perhaps most of all in the way they think about their place in the world.
The authors that UN report did not publish it to celebrate some kind of victory. They were issuing a warning. Making a city work well is hard. Poverty is now growing faster in urban than in rural areas. One billion people lived in overcrowded, polluted and dangerous urban slums in 2008. They came there and keep coming there to escape lack of opportunity in the countryside. If we are really aiming to become a smarter planet, which sounds like a good idea to me, that lack of opportunity is a problem waiting to be solved.