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The last year has forced us to reconsider nearly everything from how we connect and relate to each other, particularly regarding the purposes, functions, and futures of the structures and institutions at the core of our social and economic systems. Communities of all sizes are grappling with the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic and structural racism and inequality, and the spectre of a global climate emergency. By virtue of their social, spatial, and structural realities, rural places represent the nexus of possibility in terms of the local and global transformations required to reimagine and reconfigure whatever future comes next.

It is impossible to talk about ‘smart cities’ without acknowledging what’s excluded in the very language used to describe these initiatives – and cities cannot afford to ignore rural realities if we are going to rethink and rework both the formal and informal processes that shape food, energy, climate change, migration, governance, and economic development across Canada. By failing to account for the possible (or plausible) futures that exist beyond current urban imaginations, would-be leaders ignore the reality that the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. Now, perhaps more than at any other point in at least three generations, we find ourselves at a critical moment for re-prioritizing our policy agendas so that we can support the ‘right to be rural’ and question the power dynamics that have concentrated both wealth and power in the hands of a small number of (largely urban) capitalists.

The rural/urban divide – messy and contested as it is – remains as a stubborn challenge and major disconnect when we talk about technology, community development, and public policy. Just as there is not one single urban identity, there is not a singular rural experience; however, while many intuitively understand that Berlin and Toronto have different contexts and require different approaches to realize their full potential, our innovation policies and programs often fail to capture the diversity of rural life. This means that there are multiple digital divides, in terms of both capacities and capital, that serve to layer digital injustice over deep, persistent, and systemic social and economic inequalities. The issue of advancing meaningful, inclusive rural futures is not just about access to technology – although it is staggeringly disheartening that Canada has yet to appreciably move the needle on building the kind of broadband infrastructure in rural communities that so many urban areas take for granted. The issue is equity. Rural expertise and experience have, too often, become after-thoughts, tacked on to mostly urban-shaped notions of innovation that end up producing ineffective and underwhelming investments that fail to advance rurally-defined agendas and priorities.

Prioritizing urban expertise at the expense of rural experiences and failing to craft a language that reflects multiple futures beyond the ‘smart city’ indicates a failure of imagination that actively constrains and compartmentalizes the possibility offered by a radical re-imagining of Canada’s rural places. Rural communities have been framed mostly as sites of nostalgia, sites of energy and food production, and sites of leisure – but they deserve better from our global, national, provincial, and local leaders.

They are unique, place-based ecosystems defined by both tangible and intangible realities – from the spatial to the historical, the economic to the social. Multiple ruralities create tension and diversity both between rural and urban places, and among differently-rural people and places. That tension can be a powerful creative force in creating new opportunities and a diverse innovations – but only if we are able to prioritize place-based experiences and expertise in defining rural futures beyond the ‘smart city’.

As a rural futurist, community developer, and policy wonk, engaging with these layered realities is exciting! Assuming that rural places have inherent value, just as they are, lends itself to discovering asset-based lessons about how we can better support rural needs today and encourage their aspirations for the future. I invite you to join me to learn more about why this work matters to everyone by tuning in to a panel I will be hosting at the fifth annual Intelligent Cities Summit from May 26-28, 2021, which will engage leaders from different regions in Ontario to consider ‘Does Size Matter?’ and their experiences in ‘Developing Intelligent Smaller Municipalities.’ Join us to explore why reconsidering and reimagining rural futures provides fertile ground for exploring how we might work around, through, and beyond the sharp edges of our most pressing issues today in order to prepare to engage with the opportunities and challenges we will collectively face tomorrow and beyond.

*This brief article has been adapted from previous articles that have appeared in IRPP Policy Options (2020) and in the collection ‘Some Thoughts’ (2019).  

Ashleigh Weeden is an award-winning rural innovator who splits her time between Ontario’s Bruce and Wellington Counties. A long-time advocate for community engagement, open government, and meaningful applied technological innovation, Ashleigh’s work leading Grey County’s Connected County Initiative directly contributed to the County receiving recognition as one of the Top7 Intelligent Communities of 2017 by the Intelligent Community Forum and the top achiever in its population category in the 2018 ‘By the Numbers’ report from the ICF. From 2012 to 2017, Ashleigh also provided strategic communications and community engagement support to the Southwestern Integrated Fibre Technology initiative – Canada’s largest publicly funded regional broadband project to date – including facilitating Indigenous consultation and engagement in the project.

Ashleigh is currently completing her PhD in Rural Studies at the University of Guelph. Her research interests include rural innovation, community capacity building, and future-oriented public policy. Her work is fundamentally concerned with the way people, place, and power dynamics play out in rural communities. From broadband infrastructure to economic development, public sector renewal to people-based leadership, Ashleigh’s advocacy for thoughtful, evidence-informed approaches to building resiliency while facing multiple uncertain futures can be read in publications like The Conversation, IRPP Policy Options, the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation, The Torontoist, Canadian Government Executive, and Municipal World. She has also provided expert commentary on issues in contemporary rural development to outlets like Buzzfeed News, the CBC, the Philanthropist, the Ryerson Review of Journalism, and many other media outlets across print, radio, television, and podcasting. You can learn more about Ashleigh’s doctoral research and her work as a part of the research team under the Libro Professor in Regional Economic Development at www.ruraldev.ca