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November 25, 2014

Small Towns, Rural Communities, and the Global Economy: Building Connections

Our work here at the DEEP Centre is often focused on the national level, i.e. what Canada is up to, but to get an accurate picture of what that means we’re also working on better understanding the differences that exist both across regions of the country, as well as across the rurla/urban and small/large divides. So while commentators often point to the transformative impact of globalization and the information economy on large urban centres, these developments are no less important for small towns are rural communities.

All over the world, rural areas are struggling with challenges associated with new technology, increased mobility of capital and labour, declines in traditional sectors and the rise of creative, knowledge-based industries. At the same time, shifts in the nature of work and the economy offer significant opportunities for rural communities to not only survive, but thrive. Our work on the global services economy speaks to this potential.

To add to this, in a series of blog posts over the coming weeks, I’ll survey a number of challenges and opportunities facing small towns and rural communities in the 21st century global innovation economy, and look at some path-breaking initiatives already underway. To start off, this week we’ll take a look at the role of technology in addressing the problem of distance.

One of the greatest challenges facing small towns and rural communities has been, and continues to be, the tyranny of distance. Particularly for those who lack access to a car, low population density often means reduced access to education, training and employment opportunities.

The barriers imposed by distance are one of the reasons that levels of educational outcomes in rural areas often lag behind larger urban centres.  Studies from Statistics Canada show that distance acts as a significant barrier to university attendance, though it did not appear to have an impact on community colleges, which are more geographically dispersed.

While many rural youth move to larger centres to pursue post-secondary education, technology can also help alleviate – if not eliminate – the barrier of distance. Distance education and e-learning tools can provide an avenue for students to pursue post-secondary education without incurring the costs associated with re-locating to a major urban centre. To help capitalize on this trend, small towns and rural communities can encourage group enrollment by ensuring that students are aware of distance education options and helping to connect studies and engaging them in a peer network of other local distance learners.

Distance education, including open source education platforms and massive open online courses (MOOCs), can also have advantages to mid-career professionals looking to acquire new knowledge or build on existing skills. Increasingly, distance education tools are also being used to help supplement traditional curriculums by providing students with access to learning opportunities, and particularly advanced courses, which would not otherwise be available in their area. Newfoundland and Labrador’s Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation, a leading example of this type of initiative, offers a variety of courses in science and advanced mathematics to students in rural areas.

Technology is also shifting the rural employment landscape. Experts continue to disagree about whether ongoing processes of technological change are likely to lead to increased concentration in large urban centres or a process of de-clustering, whereby the possibilities for telecommuting increasingly allow professionals to work from more isolated locations. Certainly, the ability of small towns and rural communities to capitalize on technology remains dependent on addressing the digital divide between rural and urban areas, particularly with respect to high-speed internet access.

What is clear, however, is that technology is creating both threats and opportunities for rural economies. On the one hand, rural communities that fail to keep up with the pace of economic and technological change are likely to face ever growing challenges in the years ahead. At the same time, those communities which embrace technological change and establish good basic infrastructure stand to reap significant rewards. Ken Coates,for example, argues that small towns can harness new technologies like 3D printing in order to compete and provide high value-added products.  Other commentators have recently begun to highlight the new trend of rural onshoring, particularly in the information technology field. As small towns and rural communities boast competitive prices compared to larger urban centres, “rural sourcing” can provide significant cost savings to companies. Finally, technology can increasingly help small firms in rural areas reach more customers and bigger markets.

Particularly as a result of technological innovation, small towns and rural communities are now undergoing a process of disruptive change. Leaders in both the private and public sector have an important role to play in ensuring that these changes work to benefit of these areas. The question of how to accomplish this goal will be the subject of my posts over the course of the next few weeks.


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