This essay hopes to unpick whether digital communities can support us like physical ones. It will begin by outlining the existence of a rural/urban divide in technology, and then explain how this impacts on the greater rural/urban divide in Ireland. There are also important social and economic impacts to be considered, such as those on digital communities, ghost towns, emigration from rural places, less opportunities outside of cities and rural commerce. But all this begs the question: can digital communities support us like physical ones? This reoccurring question is explored, and a series of solutions and a real-life example are then finally outlined in this essay.
The Existence of an Urban/Rural Divide in Technology
The urban/rural divide in technology can be traced back to the electrification of rural Ireland, which ran from 1946 until 1978, when the aptly named Blackvalley in Co Kerry was the last place to receive electricity. It can be seen that towns that were electrified sooner, have been more prosperous since then and a comparison can be drawn to the lack of high-speed internet connection in many parts rural Ireland today. By the 1880’s Dublin city centre was already seeing the use of electricity – almost one hundred years before the electrification of rural Ireland was finished. Although understandable, due to the political instability in Ireland at the time, thus causing a split between rural Ireland and connected Dublin, a split that has only grown since due to lack of forward planning. Jump forward to the current digital age and we seem to be exacerbating this divide by not being able to provide adequate broadband to rural communities. According to a survey by Switcher (Burke-Kennedy, 2016), towns and cities have broadband speeds up to thirty-six times faster than some rural parts of Ireland. The government set up the National Broadband Plan (NBP) in 2012 to address this issue. There are just over two million premises that are waiting to be connected to high-speed broadband on the scheme and more than eighteen percent of Irish homes still have no internet connection (Ireland, DCCAE, n.d.). Although the NBP has received criticism, it is still important for the project to progress quickly as its consequences for rural Ireland can only deepen.
How this Impacts on the Greater, Growing Rural/Urban Divide
The greater impacts of the growing rural/urban divide, fuelled by a lack of high-speed broadband in many rural areas, although invisible are potent. Granting that the complexity and cost of the National Broadband Plan are genuine issues, time does not consider these issues and keeps ticking on. A knock-on effect of this is the rising pressure for housing in urban centres around Ireland, as people migrate from rural to urban settings where their futures are more certain, even if higher rents are also certain (Weckler, 2017). This depopulation of rural towns and villages means the ‘critical mass’ for many amenities and services to be provided to these places is not there, making it unviable for broadband providers to run cabling through these towns and villages, and this goes for many of the other amenities that small towns and villages throughout Ireland are crying out for, as Weckler (2017) puts it “with housing costs in infrastructure-rich cities now bearing the brunt of the one-way traffic”.
Social and Economic Impacts of the Rural/Urban Divide
One in four people living in rural Ireland ‘would be forced’ to move to an urban setting without an adequate broadband service, according to an Amárach survey (Weckler, 2016), and many rural dwellers could avoid commuting to work if they had sufficient internet connection; consider the positive environmental impact of this, and it’s even greater impact if all rural dwellers had a fast internet connection. This is not a reality yet, as one-third of respondents to the same survey stated that ‘slow and unreliable’ internet stopped members of their household from working from home. It is possible to earn a living online today through e-commerce and there are many entrepreneurial people living in rural Ireland who cannot avail of this market to make their rural lifestyle viable. Moreover, when Irish SME’s are given adequate internet to conduct their business online (DESI, 2017), they are among the most productive internationally with this resource. In the 21st century the internet is not a luxury, but a necessary resource.
KPMG managing partner Shaun Murphy explains how the current urban/rural ‘imbalance’, as he describes it so fittingly, is not sustainable or positive for Ireland. Murphy advocates government policies, which put entrepreneurship and technology infrastructure hand-in-hand with agriculture and the tourism market in rural Ireland, which focus on rural Ireland’s development being brought to a more equal standing with urban Ireland. Murphy explains how FDI’s have located in large urban areas due to lack of infrastructure elsewhere. These urban areas are now saturated and it is our job to look at rural Ireland as an innovative and equal opportune place to reach our full potential (McCall, 2016). We face a ‘double digital divide’ in our rural areas, where broadband infrastructure is not in place on the one hand and the knowledge needed to avail of this promising technology is also not there on the other hand, so that this infrastructure becomes underutilised when in place (ENRD, 2017).
A lack of a strong broadband connection in rural areas makes less opportunities available to people in these areas. It is very difficult for the IDA to attract multinationals to rural areas with a lack of broadband infrastructure, even if the quality of living is higher in these areas. It is equally difficult for SME’s in rural areas to succeed without a reliable broadband connection, as previously mentioned. Broadband could provide a strong, reliable alternative employment to people in rural settings if delivered. Rural businesses, which are closing all around Ireland due to being outcompeted by large high-street companies could fight back with alternative means such as online marketing strategies and e-commerce sites if given the resources.
As previously mentioned statistics on emigration from rural to urban places in Ireland are worrying: Leinster is the only province in Ireland with an increase in population since the last census (CSO, 2016) which is most likely due to the draw of the capital and its many amenities. The impact of this internal migration is draining rural towns and is very important to consider.
Can Digital Communities Support Us Like Physical Communities?
There are other implications on rural communities without adequate access to a strong, fast internet connection who could benefit from engaging in digital communities. After all the digital world contains communities which are designed much like the communities in the physical world. Digital communities can benefit citizens who do not feel a sense of place in their physical communities, Rheingold (1994) explains how we search for people we have things in common with in our social circles and among colleagues, but in the digital world we can use our interests to find friends, increasing our chances exponentially. This sort of interaction can be especially important to minorities living in rural settings with no other outlet. There is a major issue with mental health in rural Ireland and, for all its bad press, the internet can be an outlet for people struggling with a variety of matters to seek help, or information, without feeling watched. Although the positives of digital communities are easily forgotten when we only read about internet horror stories such as live-streamed suicides (i-D, 2017); but the gaming-industry was started as a nurturing environment, where code was modifiable by fans which encouraged the development of digital communities. As Stuart (2013) puts it “for lonely kids growing up in big schools crammed with sports stars and bullies, [the internet is] a means of making friends and becoming a part of something exciting and fulfilling”. This may seem like a far stretch for the rural/urban divide, but these digital communities can provide necessary support for talented young people who feel alone.
Without digital communities, when we move away from a particular community (our hometown, for example) we are ‘siloed’ (i.e. isolated) because we often lose the relationships we have built up. This prevents, to a certain extent, the exchange of ideas and information and it acts a disincentive for people to participate and be active citizens (Rheingold, 2000), but the internet can be used to mobilise communities and halt this. For example, after the London riots in 2011, a clean-up operation was organised on social media for Clapham Junction and other London districts, not somewhere many would associate with close community ties, nevertheless, it was attended by hundreds, mobilised by a digital community (Davies et al., 2011).
It is also important to consider those using the internet for educational purposes. As many university students know, much of the work is posted online, assignments submitted online and marks are given online. This is becoming much the same in secondary schools, and we are even seeing government services becoming available online and less so through their offices. 5% of individual’s in Ireland are doing an online course and 11% are using other online learning material, while almost 40% of students use the internet to communicate with lecturers online, as 36% of students are using some form of online learning material (CSO, 2017), figures which can only track upwards considering current trends. These are important statistics to help us understand how a lack of quality broadband in rural areas can have a detrimental impact on the opportunities for rural Irish, notably students. It is also concerning to think of the alternative revenue streams missed by rural residents when you consider that 31% of individuals in Ireland have arranged accommodation through a private individual online (CSO, 2017), though many rural residents may not have the reliable internet connection necessary to provide this service. Digital communities can, therefore, support our lives. Instead of being two opposing options, we can integrate the internet into our lives to benefit us and create more opportunities for rural and urban dwellers.
Solutions and Working Examples
There are many interesting examples currently of rural digital hubs that are trying to create a union between rural dwelling and modernisation, that create a viable future for rural populations. Micropol was formed to understand the issues facing rural communities and to look at options to create sustainable rural development. They argue that rural Europe can be re-invigorated through the development of ‘non-Metropolitan Smart Work Centres’ (SWC’s). These digital hubs vary depending on the region but, in general, they are co-working areas that have quality ICT infrastructure, including high-speed broadband, support and digital education facilities. Some of the projects co-host their SWC’s with public services, such as employment services and libraries, which further encourages a strong community atmosphere. The aim of SWC’s is to tackle the impacts of a double digital divide previously discussed in this essay: jobs, internal migration and making rural spaces viable. These digital hubs can often make it feasible for broadband providers to provide high-speed connections to rural areas and they can act as a catalyst to inspire local communities to think big.
In Ireland, the Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen, County Cork, is a blueprint for digital hubs that could be replicated throughout rural Ireland. The Ludgate Hub is a co-working space, with private offices and meeting spaces available, which also managed to bring high-speed broadband to this rural town due to its size. The Hub aims to provide five-hundred jobs for the area within the next 5 years (Ludgate Hub, 2016). People are moving from urban centres in Ireland, as well as other countries in the EU, to Skibbereen to be a member of this pioneering rural digital hub.
Another way the digital world can mobilize rural groups is through community websites. A Networked Neighbourhoods study (2011) showed that more than 40% of those involved in the study had met someone in their local area thanks to using such a website. Moreover, almost 70% of respondents felt more connected to their area because of engaging on these websites (Niven, 2011). This shows how the internet can be used as a tool to reinvigorate communities.
This essay has discussed the many issues facing rural Ireland today and how they can be largely alleviated by combining access to high-speed broadband and community hubs with the example of the Ludgate Hub. These SWC’s (Micropol, 2015) can benefit rural area’s further by the integration of public services, including workshops on digital skills. These centres must be fully backed by local communities and supported by government and EU institutions for rural Ireland to survive and compete with urbanisation in Ireland.
Although the current urban/rural divide in Ireland is wide, SWC’s could be used to minimise this gap, whilst also decreasing the pressure on urban areas. However, it is up to the government to aid rural digital hubs in coming to fruition. It can be argued that the next step is community development centres based on rural co-working spaces with a broader focus. As 67% of households in thinly populated areas do not have internet because the equipment or access costs are too high or it is not available in their area or due to a lack of skills, with lack of skills being the main reason (CSO, 2016). These centres could alleviate these issues and become catalysts for creativity and innovation in rural Ireland, much like the Ludgate Hub. Such projects offer hope for a competitive and sustainable rural Ireland.
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Eva Janssens is currently an undergraduate student on the Bachelor of Sciences (Applied Social Sciences) Degree Programme at the National University of Ireland Galway