How Canada's Rural Communities Can Become Innovation Hubs
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How Canada’s Rural Communities Can Become Innovation Hubs

Imagine we looked at small towns as more than quaint weekend retreats for the wealthy and bored.

Photo by Magnum_Dynalab (Mike) from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Rural communities have always had to be innovative. Photo by Magnum_Dynalab (Mike) from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

When you visit the Government of Canada’s Innovation Agenda website, you find these words:

“Our creativity and resourcefulness define us. Innovation is a Canadian value. It’s in our nature, and now more than ever, it will create jobs, drive growth and improve the lives of all Canadians. It’s how we make our living, compete and provide solutions to the world. We have the talent, the drive, the dedication and the opportunity to succeed. So, what’s next?”

However, during the recent Growth Summit in Ottawa—and during most federal and provincial consultations on innovation—the narrative almost always focused on “the age of cities.” This might be a byproduct of where these events take place, which are inevitably in major urban centres.

When thought leaders repeat that 75 per cent of the world’s population is urban, I can’t help but wonder: is this necessarily a good thing? What this conversation leaves out is the story of how we got to this point, and questions about whether an urban focus is sustainable or desirable.

Toronto is the largest city in Canada and fourth-largest city in North America. Those of us outside the GTA do love the city (and others across the country) for all that it offers. But we do worry that Ontario might become the Province of Toronto. And we have good reason to worry, as a recent piece in the Ottawa Citizen pointed out.

There are benefits to density. As a lifelong wannabe planner, I’m all for well-thought-out, vibrant communities built on integrated and strongly connected nodes. From an investment standpoint or policy and programming view, it often seems like the smartest (and easiest) strategy to simply funnel money to the highest-density areas.

That’s where the most bang for the buck is, right? Not necessarily. I agree with the Citizen’s many interviewees that we seem to unthinkingly be heading down a path of two Canadas—one urban and one rural—but I do not think for a minute that rural Canada has to fail.

Rural communities have always had to be innovative. We will remain places where connectivity and technology can flourish and produce maximum impact on the ways in which we feed people and protect natural resources.

Rural communities fuel not only our bodies, but our economies. By focusing the technology and innovation conversation solely on urban issues, and talking about rural communities as if they are a thing of the past or places that need to be rescued by the bright lights from the big cities, we miss the chance to talk about the innovation already happening in rural communities. We also miss the opportunity to support the continued development and leveraging of tech for community economic development in the communities that feed and support the rest of the country.

The community I work for, Grey County, is one of a select few rural Canadian communities (and a short list of communities both big and small) to be formally recognized as an intelligent and innovative community.

This year, Grey County was officially recognized by the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) as one of the Smart21 Communities of 2017. Next week, we’re hosting Ag 4.0 Summit, an event focused on creative technological innovation in agriculture and food.

We began this journey to global recognition more than five years ago.

We’re leveraging traditional small-town and rural strengths in order to position ourselves as not just an alternative to an urban lifestyle, but as a competitive and attractive choice for people to build their lives and livelihoods in our communities.

That means supporting and marketing the advancements and opportunities presented by agricultural technology, finding ways to support existing institutions and soft civic infrastructure in extending their reach through technology and youth engagement, and overcoming rural transportation hurdles.

It also means fighting an often uphill battle to bring modern broadband infrastructure to communities with low population density, places where large telecommunications companies don’t want to build—even though rural communities have the most to gain from virtual education, tele-medicine, and opportunities to work from anywhere.

That’s where initiatives like the Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology (SWIFT) Network become critical. I have been fortunate to support SWIFT through my position at Grey County for the last two years and, with the recently announced investment of $180 million in federal and provincial funding, this project underscores what’s possible for rural communities when we start to view broadband as infrastructure and make sure rural communities are not only involved but central to the innovation conversation.

Does innovation look different in rural communities than it does in big cities? Yes and no.

According to the ICF, in order to prosper in the modern economy, every community, regardless of size, must have high-speed broadband, a highly skilled knowledge workforce, policies that ensure digital equality and inclusion, a commitment to sustainability, an engaged community that participates in civic matters, and an innovation ecosystem.

These are big challenges no matter your size, but they’re certainly easier to address when you have population density and its associated increased funding in your corner.

It’s a lot easier to provide the right environment for new technology developments or future-oriented skills development when high-speed connectivity is basically a given and there are multiple post-secondary educational institutions within an hour’s drive.

The problems arise when we assume that every community has the same basic infrastructure and that the rural-urban divide means rural communities should strive to be like urban centres instead of pursuing initiatives that make sense in their communities.

The way things are going, Canada’s Innovation Agenda is on the brink of two parallel cycles: one vicious and one virtuous. In the vicious cycle, a lack of investment in rural communities means people looking for opportunities leave and head to urban centres, which begin to fail under the increased stress of more and more people demanding more and more services, which drives limited resources to urban centres and continues the disinvestment in rural communities.

Imagine, instead, a conversation where we look at rural communities not simply as quaint weekend retreats for the wealthy and bored, but instead look at them as vital components of a robust national economy and invest in high-speed connectivity and innovation.

With meaningful and actionable strategies—starting with broadband connectivity and a real understanding of what’s actually happening in rural communities now—we might see a virtuous cycle emerge. One where rural youth might leave their community to pursue higher education, or stay and apprentice locally while taking virtual degrees. One where entrepreneurs see opportunity to build businesses in connected communities where they have access not only to a global client base, but the benefits of an affordable and accessible small-town community.

Then, because people are staying and investing in their communities, health and government services can be delivered to people where they live through a broad range of both in-person and digitally supported services.

This future looks a lot more like a modern rural renaissance—and an innovation agenda that stretches beyond the big cities to connect all Canadians.