Welcome to the New Rural Pioneers

Commentary, Disruption, Robert Sopuck

Many are convinced by past demographics that Canada's future is urban. A smaller number of "mega farms" will produce an ever-increasing amount of food at ever lower prices. Rural communities are done. Get over it. Will the last one to leave please turn out the lights?

Not so fast. Like most linear predictions, this one is quickly going off the rails. Legions of highly skilled North Americans are becoming "new rural pioneers." Dubbed "Lone Eagles," these entrepreneurs are establishing information businesses in remote locations, much to the surprise of long-term local residents. "You do what?" is a question I am always asked.

Instantaneous communication through the Internet is creating new economic opportunities for beleaguered rural regions. Many are experiencing population mini-booms, as jaded urban professionals abandon traffic, the twin threats of SARS and terrorism, urban surliness and crime. For some city dwellers, the Ontario blackout was the last straw.

Before distance became irrelevant, people tired of urban living had no rural option beyond suburbia. Country living, as parodied in the TV comedy, Green Acres, was only for hillbillies or hopelessly romantic idealists. Sophisticated, knowledge-based rural activity was out of the question.

Until now. E-mail changed everything. Modern communications technology means that, for the first time in human history, rural areas have as much information as urban areas and can compete with cities.

A new type of worker has emerged, the rural-based "information professional." Accountants, engineers, business consultants, financial analysts, marketers and writers, to name a few, are reshaping the nature of rural work. A location is now assessed on the quality of life it offers; its economic prospects are equal.

Curtis Johnson, a Minnesota-based consultant and commentator on the future of metropolitan regions, notes: "It used to be that any good place to work was a good place to live; today only good places to live are seen as good places to work."

A "good place" has a combination of environmental quality, security, transportation links, modern communications, a pleasant community and a reasonable level of services. Hundreds of rural regions in North America are already "good places." We live in one, in Manitoba.

The trend to country living is gathering steam, with positive consequences for rural communities and our society. A July 2 article in The Wall Street Journal puts it this way: "A decade-long pattern of city dwellers retreating to rural counties in search of a better quality of life is likely to continue. . . .Based on 1999 Census estimates, most rural counties are gaining population."

Moving four or five hours away from a city has become a realistic option. My occasional need for an international airport means a manageable three-and-a-half hour drive to Winnipeg International, more convenient I'm sure than what Torontonians go through at Pearson Airport. On last year's two business trips, I left our remote log home in the morning and arrived in Dallas and New Orleans in the respective afternoons. No big deal.

Information professionals are working in the most unlikely places. An engineer acquaintance operates a global consulting business from his cottage in northwestern Ontario. A technical writer lives in the bush in western Manitoba while working full-time for an Alberta software firm. An agronomist conducts audits of food processing plants from a home base near Manitoba's Riding Mountain National Park. In Ontario, the Muskoka Lakes region has become a hotbed of cottage-based self-employed information professionals.

Living and doing business from his Muskoka cottage is a reality for Art Caston, president of Proact Business Transformation, a firm specializing in "enterprise architecture." Caston predicted this dispersed future in his 1992 book, Paradigm Shift, The New Promise of Information Technology. With three companies under management and a subsidiary in North Carolina, Caston is proof that complex business and technical transactions can be carried out from a lakeside cottage.

Caston is completely taken with the lifestyle he has designed for his family. "As soon as you turn on to our small road to the cottage," he notes, "you feel relaxed." His comments on the efficiency of conducting business in a home-based work environment resonate: "I found most business meetings a complete waste of time. Out here, I am productive and always capable of working because I am in control." His flexible work schedule allows for nice weekday afternoons of golf, even while he is always available to take that important client's phone call.

Caston and others like him are living proof of the new reality in the countryside. It combines environmental quality, personal security, services, technological sophistication and economic opportunity. This trend illustrates the potential for an aggressive marketing strategy by faltering rural communities.

Guess what? You can have it all.