How can rural Canada ride the next digital wave?

By Wayne Kelly

January 30, 2018

At the end of 1990s, rural communities, residents and businesses were asking themselves “What does the Internet mean to us? What do we with it? Is it worth the investment?”.

Ten years later Web 2.0, smart phones and social media emerged and once again rural communities, residents and businesses were faced with similar questions: “What does Social Media mean to us? What do we do with social media? Is it mobile worth the investment?”.

Image from Pixabay

Now another ten years later, rural communities are faced yet again with adapting to a new wave of digital technologies and once again the questions arise: “What does cloud computing mean to us? What do we do with the Internet of Things and big data? Is artificial intelligence worth the investment?

Answering these questions for each wave of digital technologies has been difficult in rural Canada and it is not a one size-fit all discussion either.

Some regions and communities in rural Canada have embraced each digital wave — adapting, thriving and becoming national leaders in digital technologies as a result. Olds, Alberta and their locally developed Internet Service Provider, O-Net, is a great example of a rural community embracing and riding the waves of digital technology, laying claim to having some of the fastest Internet in Canada.

Many other regions and communities in rural Canada are still wrestling with the first digital wave and persistent digital divide — the lack of adequate market options and competition for Internet means that it’s a struggle to get decent Internet connectivity still today in many rural areas.

Now rural communities are faced with another new wave of digital technologies — this next wave is once again accompanied by a new world of opportunities for rural communities for those who can ride the wave but also comes with the threat of falling further behind in the digital divide for those who can’t.

A critical first step for rural communities is to understand what this next digital wave is — in the last 12 months alone there have been a lot of reports and literature on this next digital wave, which has been dubbed by some the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Some recent reports and resources on the next digital wave:
International Telecommunication Union, Measuring the Information Society 2017
OECD, The Fourth Industrial Revolution: Rewriting the rules of business, leadership and sovereignty
McKinsey Global Institute, A Future that Works: Automation, Employment and Productivity
Brookfield Institute, Automation Across the Nation: Understanding the potential impacts of technological trends across Canada

Some of these reports focus on one area of technology over another but generally there are several new technologies which are already impacting and disrupting our economy and society. The United Nation’s International Telecommunications Union provides a good definition and overview of these technologies

Image from Pixabay

Cloud Computing: provides on-demand services and computer resources over the internet. Online data and file management, business services and music services are all good examples.

Internet of Things: connecting physical objects to the Internet for monitoring, sensory and service purposes. Smart home functions like temperature monitoring and remote control of lights and security are good examples.

Big Data: refers to the ability to generate and analyze extremely large amounts of data from a variety of sources. Big data has been used for descriptive, explanatory, predictive and prescriptive purposes in fields such as precision agriculture, transportation and education.

Artificial Intelligence: a basic definition is that the development of machines and reliance on those machines to make routine decisions or to help humans make difficult decisions. Robotics and automated vehicles are good examples of the development and application of artificial intelligence.

When many rural communities and regions are still adapting to or catching up with the previous digital waves, how can rural Canada rise this next digital wave effectively?

First, rural communities need to be aware of these emerging technologies as they are quickly transforming how our society and economy are functioning.

Some rural communities are already embracing and supporting this next digital wave and these communities need to be engaged to identify the success and challenges that they are experiencing as early adopters.

It will be equally important to work with rural communities still addressing the previous digital waves to identify what they need and to understand their knowledge and perspective of this newest digital wave.

Researchers and policy makers need to examine how rural communities can benefit and thrive with this next digital wave and to identify the resources and support needed to successfully adopt these new digital technologies.

Finally, all of these rural stakeholders, communities, researchers and policy makers must examine the risks and costs of not being able to ride this next digital wave — the digital divide and impact that exists from falling behind on either or both the first digital waves is substantial, can rural Canada afford another missed opportunity?

Read about RDI’s Manitoba Rural Broadband research project here.