Thursday, December 30, 2010

Leapfrogging Rural Development describes leapfrogging as the phenomenon that occurs when underdeveloped countries skip a generation or more of technology, to embrace a cutting-edge system.  This, for example, has occurred in Africa, where hundreds of thousands of citizens have gained access to cellular telephones and the array of applications that are contingent upon that equipment, without ever having constructed a mile of copper wire to carry land-based telephone systems.  It has occurred, as well, where those same telephones provide access to pseudo-banking facilities, barter and money exchange schemes that stimulate local economies.
In rural North America, that leapfrogging could occur on select frontiers, if local and regional developers respond to the emerging opportunities.
For the past fifteen to twenty years, remote and rural communities have fought to gain access to traditional Internet and hard-wired communications systems, including cable television.  Satellite television has offered a modest alternative, while tower wireless has reached into semi-remote communities.  Wimax, though, offers 100% penetration where conventional line-of-site wireless fails.  At the same time, 802.11g and 802.11n wireless radio connect means that Wimax capabilities, built into every new laptop, could be used to establish fully mobile telephone service, through the Internet, at a fraction of the cost of 3G or 4G cellular mobile systems.
By leapfrogging hard-wired systems, remote communities could build  a regional network to rival national wireless providers, and enter the global business community by building virtual offices.
Over the past two decades, natural gas providers have reached pipeline tentacles into smaller rural communities, but still have thousands more yet to service.  Their petro-heat solutions, though, may have already reached the stage of obsolescence, without ever being implemented.   Dozens of forward-looking communities are attacking the energy problem head on, by building closed loop heating and energy networks with geothermal, solar/photovoltaic and wind power systems.
A reverse form of connectivity ( a dis-connectivity, in reality) has been taking place as rail spur lines have been decommissioned across North America, limiting the options of farm growers to move their produce to markets.  Rather than be victimized by the shift, these producers have built biodiesel and ethanol plants, eliminating the need to transport their product to distant markets.  At the same time, they have disconnected, in part, the petroleum suppliers that have called the farmers “clients.”  It is a type of reverse leapfrogging.
Distance education is a variation on leapfrogging, eschewing conventional classrooms in favour of more flexible and portable education strategies at all levels.  This allows for a two-way flow of teaching, with the potential for education directed inward toward urban centres from the country, as well as outward.  It is not just the information flow, but the access to live video from any point where the Internet can be accessed.  That opens the door to hundreds of business possibilities.
In order to employ leapfrog strategies effectively, rural development needs to be less focused on what they lack in terms of conventional infrastructure, access or processes, and what they can forego in those areas while implementing forward-looking development projects.
Where will the next open door to leapfrog industry or technology present itself?  Will it be in off-the-pavement transportation, or in ecological conversion technologies?  Will it be in unique energy transmission processes or in innovative shelter systems that are independent of urban manufacturing environments?  We simply do not know.  However, as technology breakthroughs occur, rural entrepreneurs and community leaders should look away from seeking to emulate city systems, and explore new opportunities to bypass existing dinosaurs and location-focused infrastructure.

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