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Technology could help rural areas become thriving and sustainable

 
A Telephone Booth in U.K. Countryside

Technology, improved connectivity and sustainable infrastructure can be used to help make rural communities more resilient to future challenges. Photograph: Roger Bamber / Alamy/Alamy

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Technology could help rural areas become thriving and sustainable” was written by Flemmich Webb, for theguardian.com on Thursday 5th September 2013 06.00 UTC

Globally, more of us now live in cities than in rural areas. If we want to live more sustainably, we will have to do so surrounded by concrete rather than fields and woodland.

Not so idyllic perhaps, but it makes sense — cities’ high population density relative to their geographical footprint makes for more efficient use of land, product distribution, employment, travel, technology deployment — the list goes on.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that resources have been poured into urban centres — they are generally the main income generators of industrialised economies, after all.

And if we want to have the most impact on improving the UK’s sustainability, cities are the obvious target due to the numbers of people who live and work in them. Smart cities with smart buildings interconnected with smart technology will inevitably lead to smart living, so the thinking goes.

But while all this may be true, spare a thought for rural communities, seemingly left behind in the headlong rush to embrace urban life.

Despite city-centric perceptions to the contrary, the countryside is much more than a place to buy a second home, to finally get to use the four-wheel drive function on the Range Rover and get the Hunter wellies dirty. About 12.7 million people live in rural communities in the UK — about a quarter of the population. Rural areas are home to more than half a million businesses, which contribute more than £200bn to the economy.

Worth investing in you’d think. Well apparently not. A recent Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report found that rural communities pay higher council tax bills per dwelling, receive fewer government grants and have access to fewer public services than their urban counterparts. Wages are lower, house prices are higher, and infrastructure is less developed, not least the provision of high-quality broadband.

“The government needs to recognise that the current system of calculating the local government finance settlement is unfair to rural areas in comparison with their urban counterparts and should take action to reduce the disparity,” the report says.

Despite this and other misgivings over current policy, the report welcomed the Government’s Rural Statement, published in September last year, which confirmed its commitment to rural communities especially in relation to economic growth and access to public services.

But while new policies in this area are thrashed out, perhaps it’s time to indulge in some “green field” thinking. Imagine a rural community underpinned by the highest-spec software and hardware; a village that’s self-reliant and thriving, making the best use of technology and superfast internet connectivity to drive a robust local economy and exemplary environmental stewardship; a place where people, households and community centres, such as pubs, are interconnected, where children can access virtual classrooms and share entertainment across the internet.

This HyperVillage concept was created as part of Futurescapes, Sony Europe and Forum for the Future’s collaborative project to come up with technology-based concepts that could contribute to more sustainable lifestyles.

“HyperVillage is about exploring ways to create more equity between rural and urban communities in the pursuit of a more sustainable future”, said Dan Burgess from The Pipeline Project, the concept lead for HyperVillage, on its release.

“It’s about realising the enormous value in remote and rural areas, not just for the communities that live there, but for urban communities as well. This is beyond just physical experiences and materials; it’s also about the transfer and sharing of knowledge and intelligence.

But could this concept really become reality or is it just a futurologist’s fantasy?

“HyperVillages could keep the countryside alive by opening up opportunities for young people who don’t work in agriculture, creating a better balance that would prevent rural villages become dormant retirement centres,” says Julia Marley chair of Campaign to Protect Rural England Craven and a member of CPRE’s National Policy Committee.

Marley is keen to get the village where she lives, Long Preston in the Yorkshire Dales, involved in the concept.

“HyperVillages could help sustain a rural way of life by advertising local produce and encouraging more people to buy locally produced food, potentially creating a virtuous circle within rural England of work, leisure and food production.

 

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