Launching the rural inclusion debate

By Simeon Yates

Though getting high speed broadband to many UK rural areas remains a challenge, this is not the only issue facing rural communities seeking to take advantage of digital technologies. The arrival of broadband can have unanticipated consequences for communities as well as benefits.

The Digital Leaders network will be running a research salon in Aberdeen on 24 May to explore the issues surrounding digital access in rural parts of the UK. The salon draws on the experience of both academic researchers and the voluntary sector.

It will include an overview of the Digital Neighborhoods research project at Plymouth University. This four year project has been investigating the impact of superfast broadband access on rural communities in Cornwall that are part of the Superfast Cornwall programme. The research has focused on the links between social, spatial and digital inclusion. In particular it studies the impact of the integration of online social networks with place-based networks for rural communities, and the implications for digital and social inclusion.

Dr Katharine Willis, will present some outcomes from the research and will focus particularly on the role of ‘places’ for digital inclusion such as libraries and village halls, for linking digital skills in online and offline social networks as an approach to overcoming digital divides.

The salon will also explore the work of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisation’s (SCVO) digital participation team which has funded a wide range of, mainly, third sector organisations across Scotland to support people to gain basic digital skills.  These projects have primarily supported the development of skills and confidence but also tackled motivations which can be lacking.

Of course, all of this is based within localities where broadband connectivity is less than that in our more populated geographies. Sally Dyson, SCVO’s head of digital participation, will be sharing with the digital leaders salon some of the lessons learned so far from the many projects based in rural areas across the whole of Scotland. This will all be brought to life with case studies from a number of those organisations.

Dr Leanne Townsend and Professor Claire Wallace, of the University of Aberdeen, will present research which was carried out at the dot.rural Digital Economy hub, between 2010 and 2015. The projects explored the critical role of broadband technologies for rural/remote rural communities and economies, with a particular focus on the role of broadband and its applications for the rural creative industries.

We will share findings on the effects of poor connectivity, both on small businesses functioning in such locations and on the communities within which these businesses operate. Their findings suggest that improved connectivity can impact rural businesses greatly, allowing them to function more competitively, reach wider markets, collaborate with remote colleagues and stay informed of developments in their sectors. Where connection speeds are not adequate, business owners are forced to out-migrate to better connected areas, with implications for the resilience of rural communities more broadly.

These short introductory presentations will be followed by an open debate about the challenges as rural communities engage with digital technologies.

Professor Simeon Yates is director of the Institute of Cultural Capital, a collaboration between the University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores University.