Imagine the following scenario:
Most work can be done from anywhere. Robots will produce the majority of goods, including agricultural related products. Local, state and national economies will be monitored in real-time anticipating recessions and taking the necessary steps.
Telehealth will allow remote personalized care, minor robot-based surgeries at home and even drone ambulances will show up anticipating health issues based on your DNA, real-time health indicators and medical history. Healthcare overall will become proactive and not reactive in nature.
Most services will be available online, including voting. Government transparency, accountability and responsiveness will be at a much higher level, relying in part on blockchain. Civic engagement and public discourse, augmented by digital platforms, will be much more effective and efficient and not limited to local politics.
Travel will be done quickly and effortlessly thanks to driverless cars. Self-driving trucks along with drones will deliver fresh food, medicines, and key components of things you can 3-D print in your home within hours if not minutes. The era of mass manufacturing will be long gone.
Lastly, mixed reality will allow you to attend meetings, complete online badges, certificates, or degrees and experience cultural and entertainment events; you will, however, still experience nature, attend parties, some medical treatments and social gatherings in-person.
Given this scenario, where would you live?
While the above scenario may sound too far-fetched, I believe it is possible and if it plays out, result in a rural renaissance or #Rural2pt0. I suspect this scenario will be mostly a reality within 30 years.
You see, the digital age and its applications has the potential to eliminate density and geographic proximity requirements, that were so critical during the industrial age.
It is possible then, in the digital age, for a rural community to maintain its “rural” feel and continue to leverage its natural amenities while taking advantage of what only dense urban areas enjoyed last century. Things like access to funding (crowdfunding), worldwide markets (e-commerce), savvy employees (teleworkers) and real-time information; collaboration and innovation (videoconferencing and soon mixed reality); certain level of healthcare (telehealth); and educational opportunities (massive open online courses, online certifications).
So, what is in our way to achieve #Rural2pt0?
For starters, ubiquitous ultra-fast internet connectivity. Just like electricity, internet connectivity needs to be everywhere. Data limits need to go. We have a long way to go before reaching parity regarding broadband infrastructure between urban and rural.
Another thing getting in the way to #Rural2pt0 are digital skills. The vast majority of digital savvy workers are located in urban areas. Investments to improve digital skills in rural are lacking, or very inadequate. This needs to change. A digital literate rural society is a must.
Lastly and the most serious challenge, is that the traditional 20th century mindset still exists in rural communities. A change in mindset, that better understands the implications of the digital age, is a key ingredient for #Rural2pt0. This change in mindset can take place through increasing awareness, be it through spreading the word, education, presentations and/or formal or informal conversations helping rural communities transition to, plan for and prosper in the digital age.
So yes, most digital applications today revolve around urban needs and living. But what if rural were at parity with urban regarding connectivity, digital skills and embracing a digital mindset? Would we see more applications revolving around rural needs and living? More importantly, I truly believe that when this digital parity is reached, the beginning stages of #Rural2pt0 will become obvious.
I know, I know. You are thinking I have lost my mind. Enrico Moretti’s influential work “The New Geography of Jobs” found exactly the opposite: that high-tech jobs do indeed band together in specific areas, just like industrial jobs. The Brookings Institution also found that urban areas are generating the vast majority of jobs in the U.S and on top of all this, the United Nations projected that by 2050, 66 percent of the world population will be urban, up from 54 percent in 2014.
My counter arguments? Digital parity is not yet a reality and so the true decentralization effect remains to be felt. I believe the trends discussed above, towards more — not less urbanization, are dovetailing industrial age trends but as digital parity sinks in, I believe these will slow down or even reverse.
In addition to digital parity, if impact of climate change on sea level rises materialize, there will be an additional push to relocate. Likewise, as older generations pass, younger digital native generations are more likely to embrace, leverage and demand more digital interactions making the scenario described above, which requires a high digital comfortable level, possible.
So, join the #Rural2pt0 movement and contribute your part to make sure digital parity (connectivity, skills, and mindset) is a reality sooner rather than later. Propose, discuss, listen, and join the conversation. Few times in history are you not only capable of seeing what is possible, but have the tools to actually forge your destiny. Let’s not waste our chance for a #Rural2pt0.
Roberto Gallardo is assistant director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development and a senior fellow at the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder. The views represented are those of the author, not his employer.