For many years, the digital revolution has only been an urban matter. Smartphones have made it easier to explore and enjoy our cities. The sharing economy has changed the way we move and live around them. Driverless cars, AI, and IoT are expected to make our metropolises smarter and smarter. You may be surprised to hear that the next digital revolution is likely to happen very far from the overpopulated, hyper-congested, and fast-moving cities now described as the heartbeat of innovation.
Companies, policymakers, and researchers are increasingly exploring the potential of digital technologies for rural areas.1 In the 21st century, the countryside is no longer just an idyllic place to visit on the weekends or where to spend retirement. New applications promise to revive the rural economy and enhance the quality of life of rural communities. Much of this potential has yet to be harnessed, but the opportunities are countless.
First, digital technologies are transforming agriculture, maximizing the productivity of farming and minimizing its environmental impact.2 Drones and IoT enable farmers to monitor the growth of their crop, the health of their livestock, the consumption of water, and the conditions of the soil. Big data further helps by optimizing the management of cultivations and livestock. All of this makes it easier for the farming industry to minimize the use of chemicals and the waste of natural resources, thereby enhancing the productivity and sustainability of agriculture at the same time.
More broadly, digital technologies are empowering rural communities by increasing job opportunities and reducing their sense of isolation.3 In developed countries, digital platforms have enabled farmers to diversify and increase their sources of income, by selling their produce online or hosting tourists in their farmsteads. Telemedicine and shared mobility also promise to counterbalance the continuous cuts to public services in rural areas, for example, by introducing on-demand public transport.
In developing countries, digital technologies are empowering rural communities by creating new opportunities for economic and social inclusion.4 Smartphones have allowed farmers to access vital information, such as the price of crops or the weather forecast, and to expand their business by accessing new markets through online platforms and cheaper communication. Digital technologies are also seen as a powerful tool to promote entrepreneurship by opening new opportunities and reducing barriers to enter in existing markets.
Despite these incredible promises, the digital revolution in rural areas may be hampered by the long-lasting digital divide affecting rural communities.5 Access to broadband is still patchy and uneven outside of cities: even in the U.S. and the EU, the availability of fixed and mobile broadband in rural areas is still limited compared to urban areas. The lack of fixed infrastructure will also undermine the diffusion of 5G, essential to support the implementation and reap the benefits of digital agriculture.
In addition to connectivity, it is fundamental to equip rural communities and enterprises with the digital skills necessary to make the best use of the new technologies and take full advantage of their potential. Population aging and lack of human capital have hindered the diffusion of digital technologies in rural areas.6 Consequently, future interventions in support of digitization should not just focus on the delivery of digital infrastructures and technologies, but make sure that rural communities and enterprises become an active player in the digital revolution. This would require rural communities to be involved in the design of services and applications targeted at them, so that the latter are fulfilling their needs and maximizing their expected benefits.7
Paolo Gerli (Twitter: @paogerli) is a lecturer in Digital Entrepreneurship at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne (UK), where he has also completed a Ph.D. in Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Strategy. His research analyzes public policies and business models to foster the diffusion of digital technologies at the margins of the market, with a focus on alternative approaches to deliver superfast broadband in rural areas. He is a member of the International Telecommunications Society and was a recipient of the 2019 PTC Young Scholar Program, where he presented a paper on community broadband networks in the UK. His work has also appeared on top-ranked business and policy journals such as Telecommunications Policy and the International Journal of Public Administration.
 FAO (2019). Digital technologies in agriculture and rural areas, available at http://www.fao.org/3/ca4985en/ca4985en.pdf
 De Clercq, Vats & Biel (2018). Agriculture 4.0: The future of farming Technology, World Government Summit, available at https://www.worldgovernmentsummit.org/api/publications/document?id=95df8ac4-e97c-6578-b2f8-ff0000a7ddb6
 UNCTAD (2013). Internet broadband for an inclusive digital society, available at https://unctad.org/meetings/en/SessionalDocuments/ecn162013d3_en.pdf
 Deichmann, Goyal & Mishra (2016). Will Digital Technologies Transform Agriculture in Developing Countries?, World Bank Group, available at http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/481581468194054206/Will-digital-technologies-transform-agriculture-in-developing-countries
 Gerli & Whalley (2018). Fibre to the countryside: A comparison of public and community initiatives in the UK, paper presented at the Telecom Policy Research Conference, Washington DC (September 2018), available at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3137164
 Schleife (2010). What really matters: Regional versus individual determinants of the digital divide in Germany, Research Policy, Vol. 39, 173-185.
 Gerli (2019). Community broadband networks and rural digital divide: A UK case study, paper presented at PTC conference, Honolulu (January 2019), available at https://council.ptc.org/PTC/PTC19/online-program/proceeding-details.aspx?ID=57652&EventKey=PTC19PROG&FunctionKey=YS_1