Here is part two of a series exploring some of the complex issues and ideas facing our communities.
Guest Article by Ken Coates
Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation
Rapid and sweeping technological change is upon us – and rural and small town Canada is not well-situated to capitalize on the opportunities and respond to the challenges. The innovation economy is decidedly tipped to cities and urban areas, as is the overwhelming majority of the country’s scientific and technological research and development. Rural and small town Canada is being left behind – seriously so – in the most significant transition in recent history. Improvement in medical technologies have the potential to revolutionize rural health care, with comparable transformation possible in K-12 education as well. Developments in drone technologies, agricultural innovation, autonomous mining and autonomous vehicles are coming faster than the capacity of rural areas to adjust. E-commerce is turning retail operations on their head and the threatening the viability of thousands of local small town businesses while simultaneously lowering costs and improving options for consumers. Similar transitions are happening in the area of service provision, with major advances in psychological and psychiatric care, e-government, and online banking. Smart phone technologies alone have the potential to bring sweeping transformations across the economy and society. There are few signs that rural and small town areas are being adequately prepared for the technological revolution.
Preparing for Rural Futures
Rural and small town Canada has to take major and consistent steps to engage with contemporary and future challenges and opportunities. Local areas need to develop learning cultures that expose residents to emerging technologies and the possible implications of innovation-inspired transformation. Communities must also pay much closer attention to global realities, including the continued rise of Asian influences, and must make a concerted effort to promote rural lifestyles and values. More of an effort has to be made to convince young people to stay, both by giving them reasons to remain in their home territories and hope for career opportunities. Communities need to experiment with new technologies and support emerging businesses, particularly those working with new technologies and seeking external markets. They need to reach out to rural and small town areas around the world who are coping with comparable problems; many excellent ideas are currently operating in other regions and countries. Communities have to invest in high quality local infrastructure, model innovative and risk-taking approaches in regional governance, and search globally for comparable best practices. While local governance activities must be the primary focus, all authorities must devote more attention to contemplating external forces and influences.
What is at Stake?
It is important to speak frankly about the what lies ahead. Rural and small town futures are very uncertain. It is not clear that people, particularly youth, are behind the effort to sustain the communities. A positive and optimistic vision of the future is needed, but there is no assurance of success and it will not be easy. Rural areas have already lost many communities; more will be lost in the coming years. Urban areas are winning the culture wars and small towns have to fight back.
To put it simply, rural and small town areas need to decide if they are going to be future takers – simply responding to externally imposed change -- or future makers – locally-led initiatives to craft a desired path forward. The former approach holds little promise; the latter offers some hope and no certainty. Rural and small town Canada have to fight back, hard and with determination, if they want to mobilize and control the many forces of the 21st century that are re-shaping the country and the world.
Ken Coates is a leading Thinker on Canada’s Future & Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation. Read more about him.