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February 18, 2009

Urban Universities and Connected Rural Communities

Today, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an edited version of this blog below.

Like a number of urban university technology leaders, I remain hopeful that as the final details of the Stimulus package come together that infrastructure funds for inner city connectivity and for community networks serving urban community priorities remain part of the vision of 21st century America. In my last blog, I outlined the opportunity for a new urbanism which I called the emergent smart city. I think dynamics are such that at the same time we may well be witness to the emergence of a new form of economy and human habitat, what I would call the “connected village”. What we do as Universities to support and attend to real human needs in our cities is matched only by our ability to render our research and learning experiences relevant to what happens once ultra broadband connects the very edge of the network in rural towns and villages, just beyond the bright lights of our cities.

What has become clear is that as much as $2.5 billion dollars in stimulus will be made available to support our generation’s rural electrification program. When markets failed to deliver the electrical grid to rural America, New Deal legislation in 1935 provided the investment to light up the rural regions of the country. Following earlier legislation passed some 20 years earlier (1914), Universities followed the priorities of elected officials during the New Deal and the needs of the rural community and extended a model of agricultural extension programs that served as an integrated program supporting the technology, learning, research, and new economic opportunities for as much as 25 percent of the population that lived in rural America.

Today, less than 5% of America lives in the rural communities of our country. The industrial age beckoned and seduced the rural population to the vibrancy and opportunity of steel, auto, and a manufacturing economy based in our cities. In an era of relative scarcity, those seeking opportunities to educate themselves and their children saw the city and its universities as a destination. In contrast, uurs is an era of relative abundance. The massive stimulus investment in rural internet access might well do a whole lot more than just connect the remaining red barn houses dotting the rural landscape. Once connected to the global network, many services and experiences once only available in the city will be readily accessible from anywhere. These include, of course, the once location-specific and relatively hard to get to education experiences once only available in our cities at our universities. The future of the economy and the jobs of the 21st century need no longer be delimited or thought of as being centered on a 20th century urban/suburban model. In much of the world, economic crises and structural adjustments in the economy lead to severe dislocation and in many cases an increase in population movements out of the city. A quilt of connected outer ring rural villages may represent part of a model that might help to reduce the negative impact of the likely dislocation that faces much of the population in this country over the next 10 years. Smaller intentional communities stitched together with ultra broadband connectivity could be one part of a new sustainable habitat strategy. Following evidence of similar activities in Asia and Nordic countries of Europe, public libraries, public broadcasting, museums, and universities in this country may be afforded an opportunity to help re-invent what it might mean to service the needs of quilt of connected villages.

The Internet has made possible connecting classrooms in far flung corners of the world. Research is conducted by collaborators whose physical distance is less impactful than ever before as labs are connected through the Net. As rural connectivity is realized, health care education and direct health care delivery will be more readily available through new models of delivery. The back offices of our service economy can be connected over a fully connected grid in which customer service or other operations can be fulfilled most anywhere. The return of a ‘small is beautiful’ life style combined with many of the important attributes of once exclusively urban experience are now possible. This need not be a mythical or romantic return to pre-modern time. Bringing some of the best of yesteryear forward to the world of ultra broadband may lead to a renaissance of village and small community life, reconnecting to sustainable economies, healthy life styles while remaining connected to the educational, entertainment, healthcare, and many of the other amenities of the ‘city.

Will Universities be as agile and adaptive in the 21st century in creating an engagement strategy for connected villages as earlier generations of leaders were in establishing our rural extension program? The ground is fertile for those prepared to experiment and innovate.

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University

Posted by lsg8 at February 18, 2009 12:55 PM and tagged

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