RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2017

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221 What is rural? Ensuring a fair deal for rural communities (1): The digital challenge
Affiliation Rural Geography Research Group
Digital Geographies Working Group
Convenor(s) Sonja Rewhorn (University of Chester, UK)
Keith Halfacree (Swansea University, UK)
Megan Palmer-Abbs (University of Aberdeen, UK)
Fiona Williams (University of Chester, UK)
Chair(s) Keith Halfacree (Swansea University, UK)
Timetable Thursday 31 August 2017, Session 3 (14:40 - 16:20)
Room Skempton Building, Room 307
Session abstract This session is inspired by the ongoing image-reality debate as to what is meant by ‘rural’ and the implications from any lack of appreciation of the multifaceted complexities of rural life in policy development. Such considerations are essential if we are better to ensure a fair deal for rural communities from future policy outcomes.

Partial/lack of knowledge of the 21st Century rural may be a barrier to effective rural representation within public, private and NGO sectors’ policy development processes. This challenge exists within institutional representations encouraging policy actors from across the rural-urban divide to think rural and ensure a fair deal for rural communities. For example, rural communities are often recognized for innovative responses to accessing services, setting up micro-economies, enhancing community capacity and maintaining local governance but can or should they be reliant on a supposedly vibrant endogenous, often volunteer sector? It is timely to discuss revisiting ‘rural’ in socio-economic policy decisions.

The session encourages geographers to participate in a discussion that ultimately aims to build a fair policy deal for rural people and places based on suitably nuanced appreciation of the rural world today.
Linked Sessions What is rural? Ensuring a fair deal for rural communities (2): Challenging poverty and marginalisation
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details: AC2017@rgs.org
Mind the gap: reflecting on UK broadband and digital-only services policy and remote rural practice
Fiona Williams (University of Chester, UK)
Lorna Philip (University of Aberdeen, UK)
At the close of 2016, the UK’s communications regulator, Ofcom, published its latest annual report Connected Nations, outlining communication providers’ progress in terms of growing the availability of the UK’s communications infrastructure. Following publication, local press across the UK were quick to highlight the relative performance of their Local Authority area. In two rural counties either side of the mid-Wales / English border headlines echoed the nature of a stubborn urban-rural digital divide: ‘Mid-Wales Schools hit by Internet Speed Gaps’ and ‘Shropshire Broadband among the Worst in England’. This paper reflects on our four year journey of studying urban-rural digital divides in the UK and the various manifestations of digital exclusion in the rural context. Drawing in particular on longitudinal data from an ongoing ethnographic study, we revisit the digital journey of a small number of rural households: participants who four years ago were digitally unconnected, became digitally connected through a RCUK-funded study, and were then re-connected to a private sector provider after the original project end. Through participants’ narratives, we reflect upon the policy vision and the reality of UK broadband services. Firstly, we demonstrate that there are many lessons to be learnt by a public sector seemingly intent on pursuing a broadband and digital-only services policy that by its very nature risks excluding a rural minority. Secondly, in the event of a clear ‘gap’ between policy and practice, we highlight how observers should not under-estimate the resilience and resourcefulness of those in rural communities to take matters into their own hands, yet we caution that this ‘can do’ approach should not be used as an excuse to leave rural communities ‘off the map’ of future, publically subsidised, digital infrastructure improvements.
Conveying the story of rural digital access and inequity: reframing concepts of digital access in the rural
Megan Palmer-Abbs (University of Aberdeen, UK)
At a time of exponential change in digital connectivity and associated ICT applications, Rural Small and Micro Businesses (RSMBs) are faced with many challenges concerning how they can, or may wish to, embrace digital technologies. With unreliable and narrow broadband widths a feature of the rural digital experience, closing the digital divide is a stimulus for public intervention and a major political and regulatory objective for many countries. By closing this digital divide, policy intimates that RSMBs can harness greater business dexterity through improved digital effectiveness, related innovation, business growth and productivity. The Broadband UK Programme (BDUK) is the UK Government delivery programme for fibre (Next Generation) broadband upgrades, which aims to build a faster more reliable broadband infrastructure; a particular focus is placed on rural broadband where commercial investment is absent. This paper presents empirical work which explores the deployment of this digital infrastructure upgrade in the North East of Scotland, and the impacts, thereof, on RSMBs. During this research the development of an alternative method to conceptualise rural-digital access was generated. The paper explores and discusses: 1) previous ways rural digital access and inequity were presented; 2) the challenges of digital access faced by RSMBs through presentation of empirical data and 3) the presentation of an alternative concept in portraying rural-digital access.
Noiva do Cordeiro: can the internet foster disruptive socio-spatial practices?
Lorena Melgaço (University of Birmingham, UK)
This presentation will address the recursive interaction between socio-spatial practices and the late introduction of internet in marginalised rurban communities. The focus on the rurban addresses a gap in literature dealing with its specificities and the need to investigate Henri Lefebvre’s hopes for peripheries to challenge capitalist socio-spatial organisation and practices. Initially, it discusses alternatives to peripherality that challenge the status quo through the appropriation of technology as a collective means to increase social justice rather than accept resignation in the margins of the capital. To illustrate the discussion, the example of Noiva do Cordeiro, a peripheral rurban community in Brazil, will be presented. While the way technology is introduced in the rurban often reinforces peripheralities, this community showed that, by challenging its peripheral position through disruptive socio-spatial practices, internet appropriation, even if temporarily, challenged pure capitalist relations and yielded self-organisation. Nevertheless, over time the internet has also influenced socio-spatial practices in a prescriptive manner, leading to compliance with capitalist relations of production. As the empirical research highlights, there is a difficulty for the subaltern to mobilise in counter-hegemonic ways and transform the status quo, even at a very local scale, reinforcing the resilience of capital and the limitations of internet to afford change.
When creativity meets policy - shaping the rural with the help of cultural constructs
Raili Nugin (Tallinn University, Estonia)
The presentation explores how the socially shared cultural constructions of rural and urban shape policy measures and how these cultural categories are reproduced during the process. In particular, 25 short films submitted for the competition Once upon a time in our village, organised by Estonian Ministry of Agriculture and Just Film (non-profit organisation), calling young people to depict the future and possibilities of rural life, are analysed. The aim of the competition was to have an impact on out-migration of the young people from rural areas. The visual data will be analysed with the backdrop of in-depth interviews with the organisers of the competitions. In addition, qualitative in-depth interviews with young rural people (not involved in the film project), are used to make sense of the everyday practices of rural youth. It will be argued that the contemporary complexities of rural life inadequately match cultural constructions reproduced in the films. There seems mismatch of cultural constructions of the rural with actual lives, suggesting that without deconstruction of such categories, policy aims might be ineffective.