Matt Dunne

Matt Dunne speaks at the 2019 Breakthrough Solutions conference in Little Rock.

As the nature of working life continues to shift away from manual labor and local manufacturing, creating a digital ecosystem will likely prove key to revitalizing rural areas.

This was Matt Dunne’s message to those at the 2019 Breakthrough Solutions conference, held in late June in Little Rock. Dunne, founder and executive director of the Center on Rural Innovation, based in Hartland, VT, delivered a presentation titled “Stemming the Tide: Creating Digital Ecosystems in Rural Areas.”

One of the building blocks of a digital ecosystem is broadband connectivity. “I could talk for days about broadband,” Dunne said. “It is the electricity of our time.”

Broadband is “the way to connect to marketplaces around the world, to allow education to happen, to have access to information and collaboration.”

Dunne was the keynote speaker for the Breakthrough Solutions conference, the theme of which being “Creating connected communities in in the 21st century.” The annual conference is hosted by the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Breakthrough Solutions Program, which is a partnership initiative with the purpose of equipping communities and regions to prosper in the emerging 21st century economy.

Breakthrough Solutions is offered through the Community and Economic Development unit of the Cooperative Extension Service, which puts a focus on identifying assets in struggling towns or rural communities, and helping those communities use those assets to build their economies.

Dunne said a common pitfall for rural communities trying to find their way into the digital economy has been that they historically focus on training a potential workforce, without simultaneously developing a local community that will entice that newly-trained workforce to stay.

“Our belief is that you have to do many things at once, and that just focusing on the tech training piece is not going to be your long-term solution,” Dunne said.

He emphasized five things communities need to do, more or less simultaneously: provide education and training for the digital economy; develop an intentionally distributed work community, which can do work for companies located elsewhere; establish entrepreneurship programs; invest in downtown housing; and finally, promote amenities and culture.

“The real core of economic development are the ‘three B’s,’” Dunne said, emphasizing the importance of establishing a social community attractive to a younger workforce: “broadband, blues and beer.”

Mark Peterson, professor of community and economic development for the Division of Agriculture, said Dunne’s presentation connected powerfully with those in attendance, many of whom were community leaders looking for ways to bring their home towns into the mainstream of the modernizing economy.

“Conference participants could see multiple ways in which they can become connected to new resources and strategies to move forward, and several indicated they are ready to go back and make a difference in their communities,” Peterson said.

More than 25 other speakers also addressed attendees to the one-day conference in various small-group presentations and discussions.

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