Rural and the 4th Industrial Revolution

At the beginning of the digital age, much hope was placed on the ability of new technology to level the playing field between urban and rural areas.

Greater connectivity would lead to the ‘death of distance’: those who lived and worked in rural areas would have access to the same opportunities as people in urban areas. It did not turn out that way. Rural areas are still not as well connected as their urban counterparts, and the debate about how technology can help rural development still focuses on broadband and digital connectivity.

But the mainstream technological debate has moved on. And without an understanding of how rural areas problems differ from those in cities, and a proactive effort to adapt to them, rural residents risk being left behind again.

The new revolution

The 4th Industrial Revolution is an umbrella term for a range of technologies that are expected to transform the way people live, work and play. They include the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous vehicles and more.

Each of these technologies is a powerful driver of change in its own right. The profound impact they will have on the way society is structured, however, comes from the way they interact and enhance each other. For example, the IoT and AI are both integral parts of autonomous vehicles.

There are two difficulties faced by rural areas seeking to engage with the 4th Industrial Revolution. The first is that many of the societal challenges these technologies are seeking to address are essentially urban problems. They are most often associated with issues of densification and increased complexity: how should we resource the city, police the city, or mobilise it?

Rural areas do not face these same types of questions. Many of the most acute challenges in rural development, in fact, are just the opposite – resulting from sparsity and peripherality.

The second difficulty is that there is still a perception of rural areas as being slightly backward and traditional. The countryside is often seen as an antidote to technology – where you might go to get away from it.

Rural areas are therefore absent from debates around the trajectory and implications of the 4th Industrial Revolution. It is taken as a given that urban areas – sometimes only major cities – will be where the 4th Industrial Revolution will happen.

This does not need to be the case. In many cases, the technologies will have just as big an impact in rural areas as they will in cities. A good example of this is autonomous vehicles, which could help solve mobility issues for all sectors of rural society. Young people, older people and those with physical impairments could potentially have a level of mobility now only available to able-bodied adults with private cars.

There is one big problem. Many next-generation technologies need significant amounts of foundational infrastructure to enable their deployment. Autonomous vehicles, for example, need detailed maps of the areas in which they will operate. The IoT requires extensive connectivity to transmit data for processing.

Here, rural areas are at a disadvantage. Those developing the technology need to be sure of a return on their investment in infrastructure. Sparsely populated rural areas do not offer a sufficient return in the initial phases of development. It is highly likely that further technological developments will eventually overcome these problems – but in the meantime, rural areas will miss out because of this lack of infrastructure.

If the roll-out of these new technologies is left to the market, rural areas will be in the same position as they have been with superfast broadband. It will be late and of an inferior standard to that in urban areas.

One solution to this problem is for the infrastructure to be a common pool, open-access resource, allowing the cost of its development to be shared. This could be achieved in one of two ways. One possibility is community ownership. Community ownership means users of a service own the provider of that service. This could be as a Co-operative or in the UK through a Community Interest Company.  This has been used as a solution to rural broadband issues. The problem is one of technical ability and the distribution of community capacity.

The alternative is some form of municipal ownership. This was the model used in the first industrial revolution: much of the new technology, such as electric power, telegraph and sanitation systems, was developed and owned by municipalities. This would allow local municipalities to fund the infrastructure needed to enable the 4th Industrial Revolution, with future income from the services repaying the investment, hopefully with some surplus.  The scale of investment needed may present a challenge for rural municipalities when seeking to finance such investment.

The 4th Industrial Revolution is a massive opportunity for rural areas. But its benefits are not a given. To fully take advantage of it, there needs to be a deliberate effort on the part of rural communities and rural governance institutions to engage with the debate and understand where the barriers for rural areas may be. The lessons of broadband need to be incorporated into a strategy to participate in the 4th Industrial Revolution. It is not sufficient to rely on market mechanisms, and a more proactive approach will be needed.

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