Rural Innovation Policy: Will it work?

By: Jean Hardy, PhD - Assistant Professor of Media and Information

For decades, contemporary technological advancement, innovation, and the economies that support them have primarily clustered in urban areas. Technology and urban planning scholar Annalee Saxenian writes about this process in Silicon Valley in her book Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128 (2006). She argues that a combination of dense social networks and open labor markets, paired with the informal communication and collaborative practices that were at the foundation of early computing culture, helped solidify Silicon Valley as the center of innovative business structures and economic relationships. As I have argued recently in two academic articles (“How the Design of Social Technology Fails Rural America,” published in 2019, and “The Rural Information Penalty,” published in 2022), the concentration of technological advancement and innovation in urban areas is also largely due to the market-oriented nature of technological innovation, its embeddedness in the private sector, and the inability to develop the infrastructure necessary to support the high-tech economy in rural and low-resourced communities. Further, it’s become increasingly clear that this practice has resulted in a concentration of economic opportunity in America’s “superstar cities” and a total failure to keep rural America’s infrastructure up to date.  

An industry-aware regional approach to developing innovative economic sectors, in other words, is the key to success that resulted in the high-tech boom of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Many of us in economic and community development circles are keenly aware of this. In fact, agricultural economist Thomas Johnson wrote in a 2007 article, “Place-Based Economic Policy: Innovation or Fad?,” about the emergence of place-based economic policies and their rising popularity beginning in the late 1990s. This trend has largely continued, but many, me included, are arguing that it’s time to reimagine what innovation can look like in 21st century rural America. Rather than assuming that rural communities need exactly what urban areas have, how might we think about innovation differently? What does innovation look like that emerges from rural places? These are the kinds of questions that interest me, and are the questions that sit at the foundation of the new Rural Innovation Policy Project.  

State and federal policymakers seem to be coming around to the problem of innovation and rural development. Think tanks in particular have responded en masse in recent years. Some of the nation’s biggest policy think thanks are jockeying for their place in the reimagining of rural America: the Aspen Institute, with their Thrive Rural Framework; the Urban Institute, who has promoted the Community Capitals Framework out of rural development scholarship; and the Brookings Institution, who has advocated for a reorganization of federal assistance for rural development into a central federal body. And it seems like federal and state policymakers are listening. The 2020 Democratic Primary witnessed many candidates with extensive rural platforms, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund authorized by the FCC in 2019 is bringing over $20 billion in rural Internet infrastructure, and the EDA is set to award $1 billion for its Build Back Better Regional Challenge, with many rural regions vying to develop new high-tech ecosystems. 

Yet, it is still unclear how rural innovation and rural technological advancement is being supported directly through legislative action and whether that action is actually designed for rural communities or is projecting urban expectations of innovation onto rural regions. To address this issue, I am working with CCED on a pilot study for the Rural Innovation Policy Project this summer. We are seeking to answer very fundamental questions to rural innovation and policy in America right now: First, how do state and federal governments support innovation in rural America through policy? Second, what are the downstream impacts of this legislation? To do this, we will be analyzing a subset of recent state and federal policy and budget documents for their support of rural innovation. We will begin by defining and delineating what activities typically support rural innovation and will select pieces of legislation (e.g., the federal CARES Act passed in 2020, the 2018 Farm Bill) to identify where those activities are present, if at all. For the legislation that is identified as supporting rural innovation, we will follow the policy and budget downstream to the entities who were on the receiving end of funding to evaluate how the funds were used to support innovation activities. In doing so, we hope to develop a new framework for analyzing and understanding the support of rural innovation in government. If successful, this framework will allow us to scale up our analysis and could be used by other researchers and policy makers who are interested in evaluating the outcomes of policy and its support for rural innovation. 

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