Rural vitality, new economic strategies and the role of broadband


Sometimes ideas seem to fall into synch from odd places. Earlier this week Jennifer Bevis at Blandin Foundation sent me some interesting articles. One on the value of social media (Has Social Media Impacted Economic Development for Communities?) and one on the return of youth to rural communities (‘Brain Drain’: Put a Stopper in Your Mouth).

We were talking (emailing) a little but about how those articles were connected. I think both speak to a great schism in economic development strategies.

Information Channels as Economic Development Tools

The first article talks about the shift from an economy based on dollar value vs an economy based on knowledge. Specifically the article looks at Twitter. It’s difficult to monetize the value of Twitter and Tweets – because the value isn’t in the technology; the article claims that the value is in the database of information that’s being collected.

Tweets are unique bits of information in that their lifespan is brief. So even the value of the information is sort of misstating the value. (Although I’m sure there is value to be gleaned from looking back at Twitter trends.) The real value lies in that stream of information – and immediate access to users. The value will be reaped by those who listen, act or react to the information.

So we’re seeing a change in the value chain. Value shifts from that which we can monetize today, to information – and I’d claim to information channels. Folks who have access to technology and broadband have access to those channels. Others do not and will therefore be at a disadvantage – regardless of what else they do. (You can get the information – but that’s yesterday’s coin of the realm – today you need to have access to the source.)

A great underpinning in this shift is that money loses its value once it’s spent. If I have a dollar, I can keep it or give it to you. We can’t both have it. With information, we can both have it. And I think folks who learn to retain the value while sharing have the greatest opportunity to succeed in today’s economy.

The Recipe for Success Has Changed

The second article dispels the myth of the “rural brain drain” by telling two stories. First the story of the smart rural people who never left. Second by telling the story of the people who left for the promise of something bigger beyond, who are not finding that the rules have changed. Young people are leaving school and there are not enough jobs to fill. Families are finding that the security and homes they built are slipping away with economic uncertainty. These people are looking for new opportunities for success and rural areas are part of the equation. (I would defer to Ben Winchester’s research on the “Brain Gain” to back up this point.)

The author of this article makes the point that rural communities saw the economic uncertainty before other areas – and one positive reaction has been the birth of the New Farmers – fueled by, “first, an increasing consumer preference for locally grown and organic food and second, the economic downturn and increased unemployment.”

While this article doesn’t mention technology, I read with technology-colored glasses, and I remember speaking with a “New Farmer” about her use of broadband. It was an essential utility for her. There were many things she was able to give up to start her new rural life, but broadband was not one of them.

Also I think that success in rural and urban areas requires a connection between the two worlds. There is a report from Minnesota Rural Partners that quantifies the economic connection between rural and urban Minnesota – but even more directly I think that broadband removes the barrier of geographic distance that in the past has also kept an economic distance between rural and urban. I think rural communities felt this first and not in a positive way. Consider local bookshops closing once Amazon emerged. But I think that local entrepreneurs are realizing that broadband goes both ways. Or at least those who have access to broadband are able to realize that it’s a two-way street, which brings us back to the original article. Broadband opens a new channel for commerce – but it also opens the door to accessing the information channels.