12 Jun 2020

Blog series: Gianluca Brunori|How will COVID-19 affect the digitalization of rural areas?

Written by Gianluca Brunori

Coronavirus is a game-changer. It is disrupting the way we work, do shopping, learn, entertain, communicate, have social relations. Coronavirus is also generating a deep transformation in the way the production systems are organized. Everybody engages in thinking about what the ‘new normal’ life will look like.

Whether we are aware or not, we are all participating in a giant foresight exercise.

The present situation is an endless source of insights and a living laboratory: we can explore possible rural futures in relation to digitalization observing, practicing, and reflecting on what happens around us.

For the optimists, a vision of connected rural areas, wherein digital connectivity allows to overcome distance and consequently to reduce the rural-urban gap, is being shaped inspired by several examples. Let’s consider work organization: sectors with a high concentration of information workers have been reorganized almost immediately. In Universities, online lectures have started everywhere, and on average the response has been satisfactory. Public administrations have updated and adjusted their procedures with a speed never seen before. Teleworkers, the evidence says, are more productive than commuters – the former can organize their time flexibly and be more focused on objectives. For rural commuters, teleworking implies a sensible reduction in travel costs and more time for life. Teleworking also generates an environmental benefit as less commuting implies fewer carbon emissions. When the lockdown is over, rural villages with a high density of teleworkers may see their demand for local goods and services boosted and community life revitalized. Local administrations can invest in infrastructures and services that may attract rural teleworkers.

The pessimists will more look at the poor quality of Internet connection, social inequalities (e.g. different digital literacy will enlarge the gulf between individuals and groups) or gender inequalities (e.g. the lockdown has affected men and women in a different way). They will consider the displacement effect of e-commerce on small businesses or the increasing disparity between small and large farms when robotization will replace commuting workers. The pessimists will also foresee that online communication will create even greater social distance and loss of community life. They may also say that teleworking will be an opportunity to increase workers’ surveillance, while others may stress the risk of cyberattacks.

The contribution of both pessimists and optimists, enthusiasts and skeptics will be crucial to shaping rural futures. Digital technologies can be regulated, and their development can be oriented towards different goals. An improved capacity of rural communities to understand and foresee the impact of digitalization will contribute in a substantial way to a fair and sustainable rural development.