One of the peculiarities of the 21st century is the correlation between virtualization and urbanization: more people online on the one hand, and more of the population living in cities on the other hand.
Such parallel trends are both perverse and logical at the same time. They are perverse given the inherent capacity of the Internet to transcend the limits of physicality. Yet the logic stems from the largely market-driven paradigm of connectivity pursued by most countries, which reinforces the competitive advantages of larger urban dwellings over smaller cities and more rural and remote communities.
Consider the State of New York. In January, the governor pledged one billion dollars to attract businesses to the languishing city of Buffalo. By contrast, one month earlier, the City of New York announced it was spending a mere one hundred million dollars (and giving away a tiny East river island) in a multi-billion dollar partnership with a consortium of universities led by Cornell to develop a new city within a city, an island cluster of science and technology meant to one day rival California’s Silicon Valley as a magnet for students, researchers, entrepreneurs and investors.
That would be the Silicon Valley repeatedly, over the years, declared “good as dead” due to high costs and congestion and the advent of globalization and low cost virtual networks. Today, Silicon Valley is home to Apple, Facebook and Google, to name but the most obvious. As one San Jose journalist quipped in “ongratulating its new rival” on its own initiative: New York City can now just be seen in the rear-view mirror.
This digital nexus between markets and urbanization is redefining North America much as it is gathering force on a global scale, albeit with a few notable exceptions. Chinaï¿½s construction “of a Rome every few weeks” (to quote Slate online) is a case in point, as is the current Smart Cities initiative sponsored by IBM that aims to promote a better embedding of digital technologies within increasingly dense patterns of urban living.
The few exceptions to this rule are to be found in small homogenous states such as Singapore and Scandinavia. While the latter countries share many aspects of Canada’s northern positioning, their smaller geographic confines permit more extensive transportation ties between large and small cities: near ubiquitous Internet access, in turn, helps facilitate rural development in areas that would otherwise be suffering a much steeper decline.
Perhaps the most relevant comparator for Canada is Australia and its recent decision to invest massively in a national broadband network for the country as a whole. While Australia has become much more urban in recent times, particularly along its eastern corridor, this public investment reflects an attempt to stem if not reverse the logic of competitive markets that would otherwise greatly augment the divide between urban and rural communities. Indeed, the National Broadband Network explicitly acknowledges and seeks to remedy the higher costs and lower access and usage rates for rural Australians, a disparaging trait of this country as well.
It is unlikely that the Canadian government, which is looking to reduce expenditures, will follow a similar path, leaving it to provinces to address (or not) such realities on a more piecemeal basis. The challenge in doing so is the demographic and fiscal predominance of the largest cities and their perpetually escalating needs for transportation infrastructure (which in turn gives rise to the lens of “smarter” cities).
Here is where the absence of a more robust set of inter-governmental mechanisms with respect to digital infrastructure and online development takes its toll.
As I noted in last month’s column, the future of e-health depends on a concerted effort that includes national, provincial, local and regional authorities. A similar logic must prevail to close the pronounced gap between smaller and remote communities with natural resources and those without. While many provinces have established rural assistance programs of one sort or another, they merely compound the challenge by further segmenting such communities as isolated and disjointed from their urban cousins.
In an era of profound digital innovation coupled with ecological awareness, the interdependencies of urban and rural development must instead come to the forefront of developmental plans and investments as well as new governance architectures that seek to nurture the traditional advantages of proximity while complementing them with a new rural potential that awaits meaningful articulation and attention.
Jeffrey Roy is professor of public administration at Dalhousie University (firstname.lastname@example.org).