Why the countryside must be digitized

Why the countryside must be digitized

Per Ödling, telecommunications professor at Lunds university, is clear on the importance of the country also being digitized. He reckons that Sweden will be torn apart if the rural areas can't take a part of the increased values that digitization brings.

Why does the countryside need to be digitized?
– The digitization bring enormous values. The production and the services offered turn more effective, new services and products are created and our lifestyle gains new tendencies and possibilities. All of this must be brought to the rural areas too, or the country will be torn, says Per Ödling.

What makes this essential for the survival of the countryside?
– The digitization is an industrial revolution and a big step from one way of living to another. If the major cities take this step but the less populated areas don't it will drive urbanization. A lot of people will choose to live "in the future", rather than sticking with the old. But it's not a natural law that the big cities must spearhead and drive the digitization. We need to strive for the rural areas taking the lead! If we can achieve that, we can gain the benefits of both the large cities and the countryside.

What does the digitization imply for the countryside?
– The effects are increased values, higher efficiency, tons of new services, development of new products and new trades. Exactly what the digitization includes is hard to describe as bullets, it just makes its way in and creates change everywhere. But one particularly interesting benefit for rural areas is that the distances are shortened or eliminated. Services can be provided or consumed anywhere. Driverless electric vehicles decrease the costs of transportation to close to a tenth, reduce impact on the climate to close to zero and fulfill the goal of making traffic completely safe. And when the distances suddenly don't matter anymore, how many will choose city over countryside life? Probably many still, but much fewer than today.

What are the challenges of digitization?
– There are many. We need to take a leap forward in competence and include as many as possible so that we don't end up with a competence gap. The digitization is also an investment process and for it we need competence, funding and determination. Do the rural areas have more of those than the big cities? Competence - maybe, funding - no, determination - yes!

What prevents expansion from happening?
– Expansion? The digitization isn't a simple "expansion" but much more complex and all-encompassing. It presupposes that access to communication services is very good.

What happens if the countryside isn't digitized?
– If we can't manage to digitize the countryside it will slowly die, become depopulated and we will create political instability. Trump and Brexit were voted for by the rural communities in the US and Great Britain after a long period of neglect. People became angry and lost their hope in the future. Populism, not to mention fascism, tends to spread in a situation like that. Democracy is dismantled and we see a very troubling development in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Turkey, the US and many other countries. If we want democracy to persist in Sweden we need to address digitizing the countryside now and with full force.

How much time do we have?
– The same kinds of models that predicted Trump two years before his election also indicate that we need to accomplish creating hope for the future for the countryside within the next two election periods. Otherwise we may see the beginnings of democracy being dismantled in a similar way as in Poland.

Why does the digitization take so long?
– We have a frightening lack of competence on all political levels and high centralization on cities nation wide, where Mälardalens (a highly populated part of Sweden) regional politics are emphasized and accepted as law, as with for instance shoreland protection. I hear statements like: "If Sweden's GNP is to increase by 3 percent then Stockholm needs to grow by 6 percent"; and similar ones based on old theories and thoughts. The digitization changes the logic of industry and commerce and enables completely different development paths than for instance the traditional national economy demonstrates. We also have lots of opinion-makers and at least one political party that romanticize some sort of image of the past, which hold the countryside back and let the more densely populated areas advance. There are also strong internal resistance factors. For instance the new online healthcare services which are fantastic for people that have large distances to deal with. These are met with much critique by the old system, in part because it's something new, and partly because it makes the deficiencies in the old system evident.

How big is the state's responsibility and that of private actors?
– If something can be achieved or solved without involving the public it's always faster. But the state has an enormous responsibility. The state must stop barring the way for countryside development through accepting resolutions that only work for Mälardalen, and there must be a realization that "the market" always addresses the most populated areas first. It's not sustainable to leave critical functions up to the market and let these come to the countryside last. Good mobile communications is an example of that.

When do you believe the countryside will be digital?
– A lot will have happened within the next one-and-a-half election period! There's a lot of technology that's nearly ready to bring value to the countryside, such as driverless vehicles, but we will also have had to accomplish much by then to keep our democracy.

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