The Internet personifies the death of distance. Global communications and virtual networks mean that proximity in cyberspace counts more than community by shared place.
If such a characterization were true the prospects for renewal across rural Canada would be greatly strengthened. Instead, mounting evidence points to both a consistent rise in urbanization and a widening gap in standards of living between cities and small towns. Will the Internet accelerate this divergence or give rise to a rebirth of small towns and remote communities?
Prior to his departure from federal politics, former Industry Minister Brian Tobin led an ill-fated crusade to deliver broadband access to all communities, irrespective of size and location. This “national dream” was articulated in utopian terms by the minister’s National Broadband Task Force, which produced an exhaustive portrait of what the Internet could do to revitalize economic, social and political development in communities that would otherwise face decline.
The estimated multi-billion-dollar investment was but a minor casualty of the events of September 2001, but the issues facing rural and small town Canada remain real. While some resources have trickled forward to assist communities in their quest to get connected, progress remains sporadic.
Perhaps the pause has been a mixed blessing. The outputs of the Broadband Task Force aligned themselves rather well with the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s and the political ambitions of a prominent elected official. Yet, many communities would have been rather ill prepared for an immediate injection of federal funds. Planning and capacities were in short supply.
Some critics prefer the lack of action, arguing that online access is best delivered through the marketplace. Thus, where there is demand supply will quickly follow, with competition generating innovation, lowering costs and bettering service. In large cities this scenario is building: Broadband in this country, by any international measure, is reasonably cheap and increasingly plentiful – if you reside in an urban dwelling.
The Internet, however, is arguably more than a private good. If it is to serve as a platform for personal and community development in the Knowledge Age, online access becomes an essential utility – and as with all utilities, market failures are intolerable and a basis for government action. For small towns such arguments are nothing new. Communications and transportation have always evolved within such private-public tensions.
Indeed, for much of the past 20 years the emphasis on privatization, particularly in North America, has been consistent with the trend toward urbanization. Rather than countering market forces, people and services converge in concentrated areas well served by market forces. While provincial and federal governments have paid lip service to helping small and remote communities, investments have been reactionary and selective, doing little to stem the tide.
The arrival of the Internet may present a final opportunity to rethink urban and rural prospects and, perhaps for the first time, to view them as inter-linked. If we embrace market-based solutions for online provisions, we also embrace a country increasingly urban. Yet, growing cities are based on concentration that turns to congestion, fragmentation and a consequent variety of social ills. Much of the potential benefit of technology, in terms of quality of life, may then be lost to all but the most affluent in our society.
An alternative scenario, based on true smart growth principles of sustainability, can make tremendous use of a digital infrastructure to alter patterns of work, commuting needs, learning and living. The vision of a smart community is one where the deployment of technology leads to new possibilities, rather than merely accelerating old ones at any cost.
The notion of a smart country should be the same: Technology can bring education and health to areas where traditional infrastructure is lacking and barriers to more flexible work patterns can be overcome. Market forces alone cannot accomplish such a mission.
In this manner, urban and rural fortunes are inter-linked, a key point largely missed in the focus on broadband and rural assistance programs to date: Investing in small towns can, in turn, alleviate pressures on larger ones. Technology can provide a lever to rebalance urban and rural prospects, allowing for more choice and transition in both lifestyle and location.
E-government, how the public sector reforms and adapts itself to a digital world, should be bound less by market forces and models of the past than by the real potential to serve as a new model in how we might live – and where.
Jeffrey Roy ( [email protected]) is an Associate Professor of Governance and Management at the University of Ottawa.