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NEW YORK — What do lonely French farmers, the island of Borneo, and Mitchell, South Dakota have in common?
A lot, as it turns out. The link between them runs through the rural regions of the state of Minnesota, USA. There in 2010, the Blandin Foundation launched a project called Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities (MIRC).
Minnesota is well equipped for broadband. The 11 communities average a 67 percent penetration rate, compared with the US national average of 68 percent, according to a 2012 report from TechNet. So promoting broadband was not the Foundation’s goals. The goal was to use a development framework created by the Intelligent Community Forum to enable communities to use this new infrastructure to create employment, prosperity, social progress and cultural richness.
On April 17, 2013 the Blandin Foundation and ICF published “Partners in Progress,” a report on the results of the 2-year MIRC project. Using metrics developed by ICF, the report shows that the 11 communities made measurable progress in using broadband to create a more knowledgeable workforce, to innovate, to bring more people into the digital economy, and to help citizens understand the power of these technologies to make their communities better.
With funding from the Foundation, communities initiated several actions including the installation of computers and creation of training programs in libraries, community centers and schools. They created Web portals for community groups, conducted digital workshops for business owners and distributed refurbished computers to low-income families – training young people as computer technicians in the process. The ICF framework has proven so successful that the Blandin Foundation decided to launch MIRC 2.0 with a new group of rural communities.
Through its work with the Blandin Foundation, ICF identified a new challenge for our era. More than 50 percent of the people on earth now live in cities, and UN projections for 2050 put the figure at more than 70 percent for a global population that may exceed nine billion people. Some live in cities by choice but most do so out of economic necessity: the density and scale of cities has for thousands of years been an enormous economic advantage. As rural areas lose relative population, they risk become economically irrelevant. And that’s a problem for us all. The entire world depends on rural regions for such nice-to-have things as food, fuel, water and oxygen. If rural regions lose their economic viability, the world will be the ultimate loser.
Seeing the success of the MIRC communities, ICF decided to launch a project of its own. The Rural Imperative is an active search for model strategies and programs that use information and communications technologies (ICT) to attack the challenges that hold back rural economies. In the Intelligent Community era, skilled people with broadband connectivity are already working from wherever they want to live. They are pointing the way toward a future in which we may be able to stop choosing between quality of life and a paycheck.
What on earth does this have to do with farmers, Borneo or South Dakota?
The Rural Imperative begins with stories, available at www.ruralimperative.com. It turns out that French farmers, isolated on their farms, are finding success with online dating in locating urban mates interested in adopting the rural lifestyle. On Borneo, the introduction of Internet connections utterly transformed life in remote villages. Teachers used the Web to show their students the world. Through the Web, farmers learned the true value of their rice crop, which gave them new bargaining power with local middlemen.
Mitchell lies in a part of South Dakota that has lost 30 percent of its population over the past 70 years. With grant money, Mitchell built a fiber-to-the-premise network. Its university and technical school have leveraged the city’s agricultural heritage into academic leadership in precision agriculture, in which farmers use satellite and remote sensing data to develop a highly detailed portrait of their land and apply that knowledge to boost yields. They work with the city, schools and hospitals to develop the highly trained workforce demanded by area businesses. In its region, Mitchell is the only community to hold onto its population and achieve economic growth.
Through the Rural Imperative, we will uncover ways for rural places to overcome challenges of distance and density. ICT has the potential to make rural areas as vital and exciting a place as the busiest city center. We know it is possible and we know that it must be done.
Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, a think tank that studies and promotes the best practices of the world's Intelligent Communities as they adapt to the demands and seize the opportunities presented by information and communications technology. He can be reached through the ICF Web site www.intelligentcommunity.org.