The Urban-Rural Divide – is the countryside left behind?
Unfortunately, the answer seems to be „yes“ in many ways – despite booming innovation in agricultural technologies for instance. Even though these are stereotypes, life is slower, less complicated in the countryside. The main issues that drive innovation for „Smart Cities“ simply do not apply for rural areas. Dense traffic, air pollution and such are not key problems. Also the people ask themselves „why do I need this“ much more frequently. While the people in Cities are not only faster paced with innovation and new trends, they also are more targeted for new stuff. Which is why innovation is propelled in Cities while innovators very often don’t even consider looking at rural areas. Where are new apps and tech products launched? Never in the rural world, mostly in big cities. Because people adopt new trends and tech quicker, have a higher affinity. And also just because there are more people there, in one place.
During my past activities I always tried to keep the dialogue going and to look at the needs of the people in less densely populated areas. Because they do not match those of the people in city centers. Their schedules look different. Their commute to work is different. Their shopping behavior is different. Their consumption of services, healthcare and the likes is different. And I always said that if a new digital service or product wants to be truly game changing and relevant, it needs to cater for both – the city people and the rural folks as well. Otherwise what is being created is an island-solution that does not work for the entire population. And that would widen the gap even more.
Another experience I made is that people in small towns and villages are much harder to convince to use digital services. Personal contact is more important. Also the demographics may play a role – audiences in cities are generally younger. I do not know if education plays a role, but the young, highly educated are also likely to be in densely populated areas.
I would see this as a chance and positive challenge when building digital products and services. Why not involve the people in rural areas? When they are convinced and love the product, it will surely work even better in the cities? The same applies to older audiences. Why not involve those in the development process to get their input and feedback? A great product is intuitive, does what it is supposed to and caters to people regardless of where they live or how old they are. (I know, this is a generalization).
Also, products and services designed for the City audience, that then end at the city limits, are not quite smart – how about those „inbetweeners“, that live in the commuter-belt of large cities? This applies for me. I live within the city limits of Hamburg, but many „smart services“ are not available because the population is not dense enough here in what some people call the „green hell“, suburbia. Car sharing is one. But pretty much any mobility services except for the good old taxi are not available. If you cross the city line into the neighboring state just a few 100 meters away, things get worse. Also this widens the gap between these areas as people living in rural areas would not sign up for such „city services“ – even when they come to the city. The list of examples is much longer than this.
In this context, I found a document written by people from Bertelsmann Stiftung for the G20 summit in Japan earlier this year, which I thought is worth sharing: „SOCIAL COHESION, GLOBAL GOVERNANCE AND THE FUTURE OF POLITICS The Urban-Rural Divide and Regionally Inclusive Growth in the Digital Age“.
Generally, I think that when you google for „smart cities“ or the equivalent for rural areas, you find a ton of stuff for smart cities but quite little on the countryside. We should bear that in mind because the disparity is poison and can cause massive frictions and problems in the future.