[ Contents ]
Rural Development in
the Information Society
Advanced communication technologies and local development :
opportunities... on certain conditions
by Patricia Vendramin and Gérard Valenduc
With the Internet, multimedia, mobile telephones
and groupwork software, the "Information Society"
has invested in the countryside
as it has invested in towns.
Distance work and training,
the "electronic commerce" of tourism,
local products, etc. are new forms
of activity that some LEADER areas are trying out.
Patricia Vendramin and Gérard Valenduc
look at the use of information
and communication technologies,
the challenges they present
and the potential they offer,
but also their limits from
a local development perspective.
Seen through the eyes of a small region, information and communication technologies seem somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, they call to mind the globalisation of the economy, the internationalisation of markets, the organisation of networks on a planetary scale and other heavy tendencies over which it seems difficult to have any influence. On the other hand, their interest for local development seems evident, since it is the transformation of industries and services which is in play, in the same way as is the future of work and employment. Furthermore, the concrete policies linked to the "Information Society" must be implemented at local level, whether concerning infrastructures, research, help for businesses, job promotion, the organisation of vocational training or communications policy.
A new technological deal, dominated by communication
Most of the recent technological developments in the area of IT and telecommunications, such as the Internet, mobile telephones and multimedia, have advanced the notion of communication : our economies will henceforth rely on distance communication and exchange networks. This priority accorded to communication distinguishes the current wave of information technologies from that of the 1980s, where the use of IT concerned in particular the automation of operating tasks : robotics, computer-aided design and manufacturing, databases, word processing, data transfers, etc.
What are the significant technological innovations in the new distance communication and exchange systems between individuals and organisations ?
Many of these innovations are well known : mobile telecommunications have invaded our lifestyles since the appearance of the mobile telephone, the Internet network is no longer the privilege of university researchers alone, portable computers are becoming widespread in certain jobs (commercial service, maintenance, etc.) and multimedia applications are becoming more extensive. Other lesser known technological developments for the general public have also changed the ways companies are organising themselves. Here we can mention in particular groupwork software ("groupware") and workflow management software ("workflow"), which facilitate the organisation and execution of joint activities, internal business networks (Intranet) or even telephones integrated within computers, as have been implemented in call centres, for example.
These new technologies are also at the origin of a number of new services (teleservices) and new work forms (distance work), which are gaining more and more sectors and private or public companies. These recent developments can perhaps offer perspectives in terms of the creation of activities at local level, but they can certainly give another direction to communication and opening-up policies.
The boost given to external communication
The development of the Internet and multimedia applications has given a new impetus to the external communication of economic and social agents : not only are businesses and public authorities concerned, but also the associative, educational and cultural world as well.
Three aspects of external communication have been strengthened ; these are already within the reach of small and medium-sized enterprises or local organisations. The first, and by no means the least, concerns advertising, brand image, information on a company's clients or suppliers ; or even tourist information, the development of the local heritage, the promotion of rural activities. The second aspect concerns the very functioning of companies and local authorities : relations with partners, suppliers and clients are becoming increasingly interactive in real time, whatever the distance between them. There are important consequences in terms of flexibility and adaptability. Finally, the third aspect concerns the development of on-line services which can be accessed by the general public.
But connection to global networks does not only mean getting to know oneself, getting to know and distributing one's services and accessing information. It also enables resources not available at local level to be accessed, whether in terms of services to companies or community services, for example in the areas of health or education. Symmetrically, it can develop local resources on a wider market or to a wider public.
Furthermore, for many non-trading organisations, particularly associations with a cultural or educational vocation, the recent development of the Internet and multimedia are offering new possibilities in terms of disseminating information, communicating with the public, or even diversifying their educational or cultural "products". In this case, networks are considered above all new media, rather than working tools or instruments of organisational change.
Advanced communication technologies are also interesting for a remote region or area in terms of planning the development of new activities. Among the various forms of distance work, the development of teleservices is one to be exploited. An increasing number of service activities involve the telephone, i.e. "face-to-face" contact is replaced or complemented by telephone communication. Businesses have become experts in the production and organisation of these types of services, in fields as varied as banking and insurance, holidays and tourism, maintenance and after-sales service, real estate, direct marketing, leisure promotion, etc. These services are characterised by the fact that they are perfectly mobile, i.e. can be carried out from absolutely anywhere, as long as the basic technological infrastructure is sufficient and the vocational qualifications are available.
Considerable technological progress has recently been made in the development of these on-line services. This concerns call diversion and voice servers and, more generally speaking, work stations integrating telephony and computers. This equipment enables a company to organise the provision of services from "telephonic platforms", sometimes geographically located very far away from the company itself.
Information technologies and local development: two decades of success and failure
For two decades, the European Commission, among others, has set up various programmes to boost and support IT experiments at local or regional level. A quick assessment of these programmes enables one to get an idea of the successes and failures and to evaluate the advantages and problems associated with the local or regional dimension.
A similar dilemma faces all the experiments : should priority be given to infrastructures and networks, in a model where the supply of technology provokes demand for services, or to the expression of needs and innovation in uses, in a model where the demand for services guides technological innovation ? Certain programmes have favoured one or the other priority, but on the whole the results have fallen very short of expectations.
Assessments show that there are serious barriers to the achievement of regional economic development based on infrastructures in information and communication technologies. Having infrastructures does not activate uses. There is a need for education, training, mobilisation of users, a need to translate technology into applications and services suited to the companies of the regions concerned.
But on another hand, offering tailor-made services and applications to local firms is very often insufficient, partly because it is often considered that the real needs are well known but in the end are poorly clarified. Furthermore, the same applications, even those designed to meet identical needs, may succeed in one case and fail in another, depending on the different organisational and socio-economic contexts.
Consequently, in order to effectively meet local and regional economic development objectives, both infrastructure policies, as well as those geared towards uses, must be integrated into other policies aiming to improve the organisational and socio-economic environment of each region. Education and training hold key positions in this environment.
A generally accepted idea that has passed through many local IT projects is to believe that advanced communications technologies are going to strengthen decentralisation, even that they could place central and outlying regions on an equal footing.
In fact, advanced communication technologies do not eliminate some of their obstacles to local or regional development : these may be related to completely different factors, such as a lack of innovation culture, managerial attitudes which are badly suited to changes in the economy, public policies which are too defensive, gaps in terms of qualifications or training, or simply characteristics of physical geography in the face of which the networks are able to do nothing.
In practice, in the area of services, experience has shown that decentralisation phenomena are not evident. Delocalised services are often those that come under an industrial type model : standardised, simplified services which are produced en masse and routinely, bringing little value added. The tendency has not, however, been to delocalise this type of service wherever. For reasons of economies of scale, these activities tend to be concentrated on a limited number of specialised sites and more in suburban regions or on the outskirts of main urban centres than in remote areas. Furthermore, most services with a high value added remain localised in large towns and central regions. In this respect, the example of teleworking in the Hebrides (Scotland) described in this edition of LEADER Magazine is probably an exception.
In theory, although a lot of work has become mobile, not all regions are on an equal footing faced with this potential mobility. A decisive criterion seems to be to have a workforce capable of providing a quality service, with a quality/cost ratio which remains decisive. It is this factor which perhaps explains the success of the Scottish experiment.
Another generally accepted idea is to believe that advanced communication technologies have the effect of eliminating distances, overcoming geographical obstacles and therefore ironing out disparities between regions.
It's a fact : IT decreases dependence with regard to the distance factor, information gateways and many obstacles to interactive communication. But this does not mean that distance and localisation are no longer important. Instead, people's attention is drawn to other localisation factors, such as the quality of the environment, human capital, the dynamic and innovative nature of the local economies and communities, local partnerships, etc.
The real specificity of advanced communication technologies lies elsewhere than in the abolition of distance : it is in its ability to shorten time, deal with complexity, organise flexibility. This perspective is important for local or regional policies.
A third generally accepted idea is to attribute the virtues of an "industrialising industry" to information and communication technologies, i.e. a basic activity which would give rise to other connected activities, leading to a darning of the industrial fabric.
Contrary to previous "industrial revolutions", the Information Society requires few major infrastructure programmes that could create jobs and have a multiplier effect on the economy. Even major telecommunications operations, such as cabling or the construction of Hertzian networks, carry little weight compared to other major infrastructure work, such as motorways, high-speed trains, purification stations or waste treatment installations. The added value of information technologies does not lie in the material aspect of these technologies, but in the immaterial aspects. It is therefore illusory to make it the keystone of an industrialisation strategy : it is more important to invest in knowledge and skills, because these will allow new infrastructures to be exploited and be innovative in products and services. The example of Parthenay, in France, demonstrates this point (see corresponding article).
Paths for the future
In many European countries, services constitute a very important aspect of economic activity, particularly in rural areas. These services could constitute a considerable growth factor. Unfortunately, in some regions, their development is still too often considered as compensation for de-industrialisation. Public services are handled as public expenditure, and not as resources. Private services are not yet sufficiently considered an activity in their own right.
In the area of services to businesses, the growth factor consists in developing activities with a high intensity of knowledge, which best exploit the knowledge and know-how accumulated in the local economic experiment, but which are also capable of transforming themselves into teleservices.
But the most radical change in mentality to operate undoubtedly concerns public services. The report entitled "Building the European Information Society for us all" is very clear in this respect : it recommends making public services an engine of growth in the emerging Information Society. It proposes three specific recommendations : shifting public services from infrastructure to content ; improving the effectiveness of public services ; making public services models of service provision.
To state that human resources must be a priority in local or regional development strategies may be obvious. Nevertheless, the very expression "investing in skills" has only recently come into use and education is still rarely considered a long-term investment. In the past, it has often been preferable to invest in motorways, business parks or material assistance to companies rather than in training, research and development and updating skills.
Distance work, the development of teleservices and the exploitation of the networks all favour the emergence of new jobs and positions which require the acquisition of new skills. Among these, there are certainly specialised skills in technology, management and consultancy. This is most notably the case of people involved in creating, structuring and communicating the information that circulates on the networks : publishers, authors, graphic designers, network managers, creators of on-line services, consultants, etc. It is also the case of people concerned with the functioning and dysfunctions of the networks : maintenance technicians, on-line assistance experts, security experts, qualified sales staff, consultants to SMEs or authorities, etc.
But this is not all. More broadly speaking, the development of teleservices and distance work also requires non-technical skills linked to the function of the services, which concerns many current and future jobs. This particularly relates to the ability to communicate, manage risks and particular events, etc. It does not always involve a very high level of qualifications, but often new skills which are difficult to acquire at school or university. It is therefore essential for public training agencies to ensure that there exists a structured supply in these areas.
However, the need to continuously update skills does not only concern workers, but also company bosses. Managerial skills and the managerial culture are always among the key factors for success in the use of the advanced technologies.
In the development of distance work, teleservices and other uses of advanced communication technologies, it is finally human factors which are determining. Beyond a minimum threshold for quality and accessibility, infrastructure issues are progressing to the second level.
Advanced communication technologies and the restructuring of service activities are paving the way for an expansion of distance work. But like any economic evolution, distance work has its own risks.
The most significant risk is undoubtedly that of bad flexibility management, where distance work is used to exploit an additional workforce, depending on price and market fluctuations. Distance work therefore works towards developing short-term insecure jobs. It institutes the employability of the most effective workers and compels the others to continuously sort themselves out. It is a very dangerous scenario at social level, but also at economic level. It can also strengthen disparities between regions.
The delocalisation risk is indeed considerable for activities with a low added value or which depend solely on the strategies of industrial groups whose decision-making centres are situated abroad. The easiest services to delocalise are the generic services of distance data processing or specialised but standardised services, such as IT programming.
Managing these risks gives oneself the advantage of avoiding bad flexibility management and preventing delocalisations that are too easy : developing the specific characteristics of human resources at local level, modernising commercial and non-commercial services and creating a social climate which is favourable to innovation are as many elements that LEADER is specifically seeking to develop.
Report of the High Level Group of Experts on the Social and Societal Aspects of the Information Society, Directorate-General V of the European Commission, Brussels, 1997. Available in all EU languages. [top]
Patricia Vendramin and Gérard Valenduc run the Work and Technologies research unit at the Fondation Travail-Université, a Belgian institute specialising in the relationship between universities and the world of work. They have written and/or contributed to many works on the Information Society, particularly on behalf of Directorate-General XII of the European Commission.
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source: LEADER Magazine nr.19 - Winter, 98-99