“Communities & Technologies” International Conference, Amsterdam, 19-21 September 2003 <http://www-winfo.uni-siegen.de/wulf/CT2003/ Workshop: “Information & Communication Technology in rural communities -is the Net working?”

A Workshop examining the current and potential role of information and communication technologies in rural communities. The Workshop will concentrate on multi- and inter-disciplinary research contributions from several countries. Themes include:

– Rural communities and their innovative adaptation and creation of ICT-enabled initiatives;

– The use of a global medium for the support and enhancement of place-based networks and communities;

– The building and sustaining of social capital in rural areas, in the context of the Information Society.


Development of the Information Society is a core element of European policy. This Society is seen as one which encompasses all Europeans, irrespective of location, occupation, or means. The key objectives of eEurope are: (i) Bringing every citizen, home and school, every business and administration, into the digital age and online; (ii) Creating a digitally literate Europe, supported by an entrepreneurial culture ready to finance and develop new ideas; and (iii) Ensuring the whole process is socially inclusive, builds consumer trust and strengthens social cohesion (European Commission 2000). Priority areas identified in the eEurope initiative include high-speed infrastructure, relevant learning and working skills, e-government, and social inclusion (European Commission 2001). In Europe’s rural areas, with the possible exception of the Netherlands and some of the Nordic countries, these aims are a long way from being achieved, with the danger of an increasing ‘digital divide’between urban and rural areas.

Although access to ICT infrastructure and facilities are a key component of the debate concerning, and realities of experiencing, such a digital divide, it also needs to be re-defined. Such a definition also needs to recognise training or IT literacy (“the ability to use IT for a range of purposes, and the knowledge of how and why IT can be used as a key resource”, Servon, 2002, p.7), and content -“both content that meets the needs of disenfranchised groups and content that is created by these groups”(ibid). This Workshop therefore proposes to examine and evaluate these layered components of the digital divide, in the context of rural community development.

Access to ICT in rural areas is an issue which reflects both business priorities of national and multi-national telecoms, and policy interventions, the predominant argument being that telecoms companies are unwilling and unlikely to invest in sparsely populated areas, due to low critical mass and therefore a low customer base for their products. This is being illustrated particularly in the deployment of broadband technology, which is currently focused on areas of high population density, typical in urban and urban fringe areas. National and in some cases regional governments have put programmes and policies in place, which purport to increase ‘inclusion’and ‘cohesion’for all in the Information Society, regardless of geographical remoteness. However, the realities of such initiatives appears to be that geographical focus remains on those areas of sufficient critical mass, and/or the policy action comprises access provision (such as broadband to all UK schools by 2005) without account being taken of training and support requirements over the longer term. The ‘cyberbole’of web-based ICT leading to the ‘death of distance’for rural communities appears to be little in evidence at the beginning of the 21st Century.

Why might this matter? It is argued that rural communities, comprising individuals, networks, mico-businesses, and SMEs, will be both disadvantaged socially and economically, and disenfranchised from society and evolutions in that society, particularly in an era of increasing e-government and e-delivery of services. Further, that existing urban-rural divides (for example, in terms of other rural service provision which already impacts of rural communities) will be exacerbated. In addition, that intra-rural digital divides, between the information “haves”and “have nots”, will increase. The continuation of such trends may mean that ICT as the avenue for community empowerment, is many years from being realised.

If we then move the digital divide debate to include the issue of training, we see a greater dearth of provision, both public and private. The implications of this are a stalling in capacity-building, and a greater possibility of people “falling through the net”(refs). Further, those who do begin to engage with the technology may therefore not be able to utilise it to its full potential.

The content issue relates to relevance of web-based ICT for, and the generation of ‘buy-in’within, rural communities. There are place-based initiatives using web-based media to enable the collation and portrayal of local issues to local people. Intranets are developing in rural areas, which enable place-based community interaction through this global medium. Examples include village broadband initiatives, village community websites and other web-based initiatives which build in and on notions of community, belonging and identity, and create a separateness which distinguishes them from their surroundings, and from the otherwise globalised environment which exists. Content also relates to sectors and groups within society, of different age, sex, ethnicity; the creation of such content both for, and by, such sectors, appears to be a key component of the buy-in to, and one could argue therefore the sustainability of, web-based ICT community initiatives.

It is argued, within this workshop proposal, that people, citizens (potentially e-citizens) are potentially more than mere users of ICT; rather they can be, and are, creatively engaging with, and adapting, such media to meet their needs and requirements. This moves the debate towards the ‘social shaping of technology’and raises issues of how we re-frame the terms ‘designer’and ‘user’. Examples include peoples’harnessing of fixed wireless based broadband technology for place-based ICT access facilities within rural communities -initiatives which have purposefully bypassed the ‘big corporate players’and developed micro-systems which meet their own defined needs. Another example is the recent proliferation of rural village websites, with content and purpose defined by their creators for their perceived community, with an aim of facilitating knowledge sharing through a ‘virtual’and ‘real’community (online and offline). These ‘bottom-up’components of the appropriation of technology comprise an important trend in community relationships with ICT; they give us an insight into what people might consider to be the ‘socio-cultural affordance’of the technology. Further, it could be argued that they have significant implications for future rural development initiatives, which may seek to build on, utilise, and work through existing online and offline networks. The incorporation, within such development initiatives, of community-led, ICT-enabled creative and innovative developments, once again increases the probability of their sustainability (where sustainability is used in the sense of ‘self-sustaining’beyond the period of funding or intervention).

The research and policy agenda for addressing the digital divide within rural Europe is multi-layered, multi-faceted and dynamic. It therefore requires an interdisciplinary research perspective in order for that complexity and inter-connectedness to be recognised and effectively analysed. This workshop therefore, would welcome multi-, and inter-disciplinary research contributions in areas including: rural communities and their innovative adaptation and creation of ICT-enabled initiatives; the use of a global medium for the support and enhancement of place-based networks and communities; and the building and sustaining of social capital in the context of the Information Society.

Workshop Organisers.

Dr Sarah SKERRATT, Senior Research Associate in Rural Social Informatics: Dr Sarah Skerratt has extensive experience in rural (& specifically micro-business) ethnography, focusing on decision-making processes, the influence of social and informational networks, and specifically the roles and potential of ICT in rural social inclusion and development. She has carried out research for a number of organisations, in which she has developed and applied methodologies for acquiring data concerning individuals’adoption/rejection/adaptation of technologies and policy measures, and the influence of perceptions and expectations on their decisions. Sarah has participated in European and UK research programmes and consultancy projects in rural and community development. She recently co-ordinated and submitted a 9-partner Expression of Interest on ICT-related rural development to the European Commission for Framework VI funding. She is also co-researcher with Martyn Warren on two innovative rural ICT projects (see below), and is also carrying out research in Northumberland (UK) to examine a market town’s initiative towards incorporation of ICT within their own regeneration strategy. These projects include examination of perceptions and realities of the rural-urban digital divides, and their specific implications for social exclusion from the information society, and for issues relating to Local Government OnLine (LGOL). In addition, Dr Skerratt will be a Visiting Associate at the NIRSA (National Institute for Regional & Spatial Analysis, Ireland) in 2003, examining the implications of the Irish Government’s broadband roll-out programme for rural areas. She is a specialist in qualitative research methods. In the most recent EU project, she co-ordinated a qualitative data analysis Workpackage across several countries to produce a comparative data set of rural micro-business decision-making processes in response to government policy. Sarah Skerratt is an active member of RuralnetUK, the Rural Economy and Society Study Group, and the European Society for Rural Sociologists. She has extensive experience in co-ordinating group and team work, and has successfully convened conference workshops at both national and international level. (Affiliation & Address: CSR/CURDS/Business School. 10th Floor, Claremont Tower, University of Newcastle Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE1 7RU. Tel: + 44 (0)191 222 8790 Email: [email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>)

Martyn WARREN; Head of Department, Land Use and Rural Management: is recognised nationally and internationally as a specialist in rural micro-business management (most notably in agriculture), and has a track record of research into agricultural and rural use of ICT. Examples include his research into the SWARD project (South West Agricultural and Rural Development) where he highlighted that, in order to achieve collective business goals, rural businesses require effective communication with an internet user, thus emphasising the importance of communication networks in rural areas. Other research of relevance to this proposal is the AgriNet programme, which comprised an evaluation of mobile computer laboratories converted from secondhand minibuses. Further, Martyn has carried out longitudinal research over a period of years into the use/non-use of ICT within the agricultural sector of the SW of England; this is the only study of its kind in the UK, with key observations over time being invaluable to an increased understanding of the potential for ICT within the rural micro-business context. Most recently, Martyn is leading two research projects focusing on ICT in rural development: (1) Buckfastleigh Broadband -an investigation into the perceptions of a DTI-funded broadband initiative by the communities involved, and an evaluation of the potential and actual impacts of broadband on individuals, businesses, and community resources/potential; & (2) Virtual Villages -an investigation into why and how rural villages put themselves on the web, and the implications of these web-oriented processes for social inclusion, exclusion and rural community development.(Affiliation & Address: Land Use & Rural Management Department. University of Plymouth at Seale-Hayne. Newton Abbot. Devon. TQ12 6NQ. Tel: + 44 (0)1626 325673 Email: [email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>)