Thus far in this series, we’ve introduced four characteristics of rural regions that can create economic problems – but which can be ‘flipped’ or viewed differently to generate solutions. To date, we’ve explored rural economies’ embeddedness in natural environments and their structural positioning as primary producers in global value chains. Today, we explore the tendency for rural regions to have a small population base, with services and markets thin on the ground.
Rural areas by definition have a comparatively small population base. A small population is not, in itself, inherently good or bad. Humans have always lived in a range of settlement sizes – cities, towns, and small localities – and this is highly adaptive. Different settlement sizes serve different functions in the economy, and they attract residents who value different things. Each settlement type inevitably has its issues; the large end of the spectrum grapples with pollution and congestion, while the small end of the spectrum may struggle to keep its businesses and services viable.
Where populations are very small, the most common economic issues are a simple matter of numbers: there are fewer people, and thus smaller markets for labour, products and services. A small population base can lead to problems such as:
- Skill shortages – caused by a smaller absolute numbers of workers, exacerbated by limited access to education and training services;
- Service gaps – because there are often not enough people to keep local services and organisations viable (think closures of local schools, shops, banks…); and
- Lack of economic diversification – as the combination of skill shortages, service gaps and small markets creates a difficult environment for businesses to start and grow.
Typical policy responses to these challenges are to propose population growth strategies and/ or service subsidies. The former seek to grow the absolute size of the population or attract particular types of people e.g skilled workers; the latter seek to subsidize services to keep them open. Both approaches can possibly help, depending on a range of other factors (e.g. the region’s livability, industry base, and its available resources or political leverage). But neither strategy changes the basic fact that most rural regions will always have a relatively low population base (even if the occasional lifestyle region grows fast). This will not change, but it doesn’t mean that rural regions need to suffer.
The secret to solving low-population problems is to think differently about space. In sparsely populated rural regions, the local skill base is, indeed, small, as are the markets to support local services and businesses. But – as the last post reminded us – rural regions are not economic islands. Local space is situated in global space, and rural economies don’t stop at the region’s borders. Rural economies are globally connected, and in the right hands, this can be a real strength.
Digital technologies are increasingly putting these global connections into the hands of rural people and organisations. These technologies have the capacity to span space, enabling many types of resources to be accessed from across the world as if they were next door. Space-spanning technologies open up opportunities for rural communities to access skills, services and markets across physical space. For instance:
- In response to skill shortages, businesses and other local organisations can look to crowdsourcing platforms, global professional networks and online resources for flexible ways to access skills at a distance. Further, with emerging digital workplaces and live-anywhere-work-anywhere models, rural regions are well placed to explore how their low-population advantages (clean air, minimal commutes) can offer a base for skilled workers who can ply their skills both within and beyond the local region.
- Services can also be delivered in digital space. Temporary suspension of face-to-face services is stimulating a quantum leap forward in e-education, e-health, and other services now being delivered via electronic platforms. While not without issues, this rapid digital turn has demonstrated that activities that used to require a critical mass of people in a local space, can now be conducted on-line effectively and relatively cheaply in digital space. Broadband speeds and technical skills permitting, well-designed online services can be an effective strategy to help fill service gaps.
- Economic diversification opportunities are much more abundant when regional entrepreneurs are able to vault physical space and tap into global pools of skills, services, and markets via digital platforms. Online platforms, cleverly employed, can give rural businesses global reach and the opportunity to engage directly with customers around the world. Moreover, in these virtual spaces, the very concrete place-based characteristics of rural regions can give rural businesses a unique competitive edge.
Technologies already exist that have the potential to enable rural communities to overcome many of their low-population challenges. But these are relatively new technologies, and our thinking is largely mired in old understandings of regional skills, regional services, and regional markets. To open up the possibilities, it is necessary to re-imagine space and its relationship to rural regions. Space is not the barrier that separates rural regions from resource-rich population centres and puts rural places at a disadvantage – the so-called ‘tyranny of distance’. Rather, space is, for the most part, easily traversed. What matters is place.
In global space, people seek to connect with real places, real people and stories. Rural regions are well situated to engage as distinctive places on a global stage, and bring their stories, products, and knowledge to the world. Rural places can offer all the advantages of a low population base, while equipping themselves to avoid many of the disadvantages. Through digital space-spanning, rural people and organisations can link directly with resources in large population centres. Also, importantly, they can connect and exchange with other rural regions.
Re-imagine space. There’s never been a better time to be rural.