Archive | May, 2016

Rural Prospects in Digitally-Enabled Economy

29 May

A theme paper for an Environment Management conference in Delhi has sparked debate about the underlying assumptions.

Beautiful country area with small town and brightly colored fields

The paper characterises city dwellers as materially rich compared to rural citizens described as ‘poor’ – but then considers the prospects for lifestyle values that would position rural citizens as environmentally rich and city dwellers as increasingly impoverished.

The author’s intent is clear – to challenge delegates with a potential reversal of fortunes – but the problems with these characterisations are two-fold.

Firstly, we are well aware of material deprivations in cities, towns and villages across the land – economic inequalities cannot be fully correlated geographically.  There is no doubt, for example, that rural areas may have a raw deal in terms of transport and digital infrastructures but it is, at the same time, far from realistic to assume that city-zens are much better served.  If you really want a life off-grid then 1 mile downstream from Tower Bridge in SE16 may be just the digital desert you desire.

Secondly, it is mistaken to assume that rural citizens value being less connected.  Some may well luxuriate in leafy glades surrounded by natural wonders and wildlife but making a living, having and creating gainful employment, being able to access medical care and education, and contributing to wider society are not absent from non-urban family agendas.

The key to reconciliation between different environments lies in the priorities given to issues of resilience.  You might imagine that cities need, for example, stronger environmental efforts and rural areas need better digital infrastructures – but those are a generalisations; policies based on averages are ‘merely average’ and, generally, unfit for purpose.

Places and peoples are different and have diverse needs.  The presumed-to-be unstoppable tidal flow of humanity towards major conurbations is as much in need of thoughtful management as migrations between countries.  The leadership effort surely needs to be directed towards ironing out the relative risks and inequalities that prompt these migrations.  Leaving them to grow and fester will surely only fuel future problems.

 

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Broadband Policy and Local Government

6 May

In the UK we hardly need the example of the increasingly fragmented approach so clearly visible in Australia to underline the need for Local Government intervention.

A recent study from ‘down under’ noted that:

In the Australian context, the recent decision to build the NBN using a mix of technologies will leave the country with a patchwork of different levels of access to the infrastructure as well as producing different speeds across the network. This will intensify the need to investigate the implications of telecommunications at the local level, as Australian local governments then need to respond differently based on the level of access provided for them in each case.[1]

The example is not needed in the UK because we already have a fragmented mix of technologies and, since the late 1980’s, never stood much of a chance of envisioning a more cohesive approach to digital infrastructure.  It is, however, only in recent times that Local government has taken a more determined attitude to this lever of economic and societal development.

But illustrating local impotence, there’s a common link in that final phrase ‘provided for them in each case’ – a sense that incumbents are a law unto themselves as if still nationalized and a touching national belief in the power of market competition.

This newfound realization of the significance of digital infrastructure at the local level is not merely driven by the need to catch up with central government programmes for online transactions in the cause of greater efficiency. Nor is it entirely induced by the devolutionary ‘letting go’ of top-down controls – a hesitant process that reveals great lack of imagination and inbred presumptions of local incompetence.

More than that is the emergence (though we still say it quietly) of municipal enterprise – the realization that local government has the clout and competence to play a vital role in creating economic and societal well-being. And, moreover, not cowed into silence on account of outdated and over-simplistic ideologies that would label Public=Bad and Private=Good.

Summoning the will-power to be so bold, Local Authorities are beginning to leverage their strengths – even where the outcomes disrupt the supposedly ‘natural’ order of things, like incumbent dominance.  Local leaders do of course need to ‘gather strength’ – not least because they do not get much comfort or assistance from national regulators who are mired in refereeing markets whose definitions are increasingly irrelevant at a local level.

In the context of ‘austerity’, there is thin cover in the search for ‘efficiency gains’ (AKA cutting costs) but the real motivations are to take ahold of the shambles and JFDI.  That is why there will be many more Gigabit Cities across the UK long before London aspires to join the 21st century.

Leadership strength is best applied holistically – and digital investment is but one (albeit enabling) part of local economic and community development. Those leaders who can grasp the bigger picture are unlikely to let go of the opportunity to deliver real benefit for local businesses and citizens.

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[1] Local Government and Broadband Policy in Australia: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10630732.2015.1073976