In a competitive global landscape, measures of productivity such as the ONS Productivity Estimate, released this week, are important for monitoring how the UK economy is faring and knowing which business sectors are forging ahead or lagging behind. However, these sorts of measures are less helpful for gauging what drives performance or how it could be improved. As a nation in which rural businesses account for almost one quarter of all registered businesses, rural productivity is a significant part of the equation. Brexit brings uncertainties and, alongside the rapid pace of digital evolution, now more than ever it is imperative to understand the particular challenges and opportunities we face in rural areas. With that understanding, we will be better placed to unleash the latent strength of the overall UK economy, as a leading competitor in the global arena. One topic which has sparked much debate is “connectivity” in rural areas, including the feasibility of plans to extend “decent broadband” to all UK homes and businesses via a universal service obligation. Many rural areas still lie in that last five per cent of premises which are unable to access a decent broadband link, and whilst that figure is shrinking, it cannot happen fast enough. Yet, there is another, often overlooked, side to this story, about which we seem to know remarkably little. It is worth having a think about what we’re going to do with the better internet infrastructure once we’ve got it. What is the uptake and adoption of digital opportunities in rural areas that do now have good connectivity? What are rural-based businesses using it for? Is it enabling businesses to relocate to or set-up in rural places? Are there growing numbers of rural residents working remotely from home? What could maximise the value of digital technology for rural businesses – improved skills training, business support or business networking opportunities, for example? These are the type of questions we’re keen to explore through a joint research project between Rural England and Scotland’s Rural College and commissioned by Amazon on Unlocking the Digital Potential of the UK’s Rural Areas. It is not too far-fetched to postulate that digital uptake may have a more transformational effect on the rural economy than on its urban counterpart; particularly if proximity to customers and suppliers becomes less important, and if more and more businesses trade and manage themselves by adopting ecommerce, video conferencing, cloud storage, online training and the like. One strand of our project is to consider the value that could flow if rural-based businesses were able to achieve or move closer towards their digital potential. A value that would benefit not only rural areas, but would contribute to growth in the wider national economy. Our research is at an early stage, but one thing already seems certain. This topic is not just about the more obvious tech-based sectors. Digital adoption can bring and is already bringing significant benefits to farm businesses, local B&Bs and rural retailers among others. If you own a business or help to manage a business that’s operating in a rural area, do contribute to the research and complete our survey. Whether your business depends absolutely on digital processes or is just an occasional user, we’d love to hear from you. Brian Wilson is chair of directors at Rural England, an organisation with a mission to build the strength and resilience of rural England.
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