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SXSW 2019: Rural Innovation Is Vital to Global Progress

Experts from the United States and Europe say new tech and innovation initiatives aimed at digital equity hold vast potential to reduce excessive urbanization and ultimately bolster rural communities.

AUSTIN, TEXAS — Government efforts to prevent rural communities from withering have become more prevalent in recent years as populations continue migrating to cities, with technology rapidly becoming key to fostering equitable rural/urban development across the globe.

So said four experts split between the U.S. and Europe Sunday morning at SXSW during the “How Technology Can Balance Urban/Rural Development” panel, which took place in a venue hosted by the European Union. The participants touched on a wide range of topics during the talk, including examples of successful strategies, broadband connectivity challenges in the countryside and the role rural innovation can play in it all.

High-speed broadband connectivity rates in rural areas have long been a focal point of such discussions. The most obvious lines of thinking are that there are perhaps two main ways to solve this: influencing market forces in a way that incentivizes private companies to build more rural broadband infrastructure; or creating a government-owned high-speed Internet network.

The panelists discussed these approaches, before noting that the conversation is more nuanced than that. Rural communities and the people that live in them need to first understand how high-speed Internet can improve their lives, which will in turn then increase demand for it in those areas.

Nikos Chatzoudis, who tackles rural development issues in his capacity as program manager for the directorate general for agriculture within the European Commission, and Anne Schweiger, the digital equity and broad advocate for Boston, both stressed the importance of digital skills training in any community with digital equity struggles.

“At this moment in the European Union we have 40 percent of the population with very low Internet skills,” Chatzoudis said. “There’s even 17 percent who have never used the Internet. There are seven member states — Romania for example — where 40 percent of people have never used the Internet. These people are not interested in having broadband in their homes.”

That’s a problem. Also of note is that the vast majority of people who don’t use or want the Internet are older. What then happens, Chatzoudis said, is the creation of a vicious circle: There is no demand for high-speed broadband in rural areas so there is no supply, and because there is no supply, young residents continue moving to the cities, taking any potential demand for high-speed Internet with them.

In the U.S., meanwhile, Boston is one of the cities at the forefront of governmental digital equity efforts, and Schweiger’s position in city hall is a rare one. The city also is one of a handful to offer a digital equity fund aimed at supporting digital inclusion projects in its communities. Schweiger described one particularly effective means of supporting broadband in her city, which has been offering a questionnaire to property developers asking how they will incorporate broadband infrastructure into their new construction. Schweiger described it as “a behavior nudging mechanism.”

While there maybe isn’t a direct application for this in rural communities, it speaks to a larger strategy government can take: applying all its policies through a rural lens and ensuring they work for both types of communities.

Another actionable thing government can do is create a framework that enables shared collaboration, said Cris Turner, head of government affairs in the Americas for Dell. He said it’s important for state governments to work together on things like employment policy, so that someone living in a place like rural West Virginia can telecommute for an employer in, for example, Tennessee.

Overall, a picture emerged at the panel of a shared plight across the globe, one which there is momentum to solve, momentum that is being driven by innovation in the cities and that is later applied to the countryside.

The clearest example of this is smart city work, in which thousands of sensors collect useful data that cities can then use to increase efficiency as it applies to deployment of resources. Smart city work is taking place in cities across the globe, from Limerick, Ireland — where panel moderator Mihai Bilauca is head of digital strategy and EU programs — to American cities like Kansas City, Mo.

This work must now be translated to what the panelists called “smart village” technologies. So whereas the parks department in San Francisco can — and is — use sensors to tell when garbage cans in their parks are too full, farmers in Modesto, Calif., can similarly use sensors to tell if their pigs are getting sick.

“Continuing to encourage innovation and finding ways to collaborate with each type of community,” Turner said, “finding things that are working and scaling them, that’s the magic formula.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine