Rural Futures: Innovation

By: William Ashton
Published: May 7th, 2020

When imagining futures, that the ‘s’ on futures is critical, since there are many futures, not just one, and not just one way to get there. Innovation is often mentioned in conjunction with future.

 In January, with the beginning of a new year and decade, I started thinking about my opening remarks for the Brandon University Rural Development Institute’s annual national conference “Imagining Rural Futures”. I hoped that showing a few well-selected slides coupled with my narration would serve to get us thinking about the future—and I don’t mean just a few years from now, but indeed two decades from now to 2040, at least. Then COVID-19 crept in and exploded our planning efforts. In mid March 2020, we cancelled this conference. Now, after adjusting to work-from-home routines for our entire crew of researchers engaged in projects and engaged in rural development ctivities, I return to the futures topic, but this time with an unprecedented question: How will this novel virus affect futures generally, and rural futures in particular?

At first, you might wonder how it’s possible to meaningfully connect this all-consuming worldwide pandemic to any future, let alone rural futures. As I write, country after country reports daily to the world their infection numbers, the number of people tested, and the numbers of victims who died. We have gone from watching China from a distance and the rapid fencing-in of more than 30 million people to prevent the spread of this virus, to most of the planet on lockdown – from northern Italy and their continued suffering, Iran, and then to Spain, with the U.S. now the epicenter; and day after day, we hear reports of exponential growth in the number of countries and citizens falling to coronavirus. The global economy crashed and billions and even trillions of investment dollars were lost in hours around the world. There are some who say that this will be worse than the Great Depression. But what about, specifically, the link to rural futures?

One point in my imagined conference introduction for “Imagining Rural Futures” is still relevant today and any time one imagines futures, and that is the promise of innovation. It can change anything and everything. Think of life before and after the advent of the internet. But an even more disruptive innovation happened four and a half decades ago, April 4, 1975, when Paul Allen and Bill Gates used a portmanteau (microcomputer and software) to launch Microsoft. While focused on software, their first big opportunity was licensing their operating system to IBM, and a global standard was set. Ten years later, Microsoft launched the first version of Windows in 1985 (Wilms, 2020). Today, this innovation is central to the rapid shift from classrooms to online meeting times, for K to 12, and post-secondary alike. This one innovation and the profits from it made Gates a billionaire and scores of others multi-millionaires. 

During the COVID-19 crisis, innovation for profit is shifting to a more cooperative stance, as companies collaborate and work hand-in-hand with governments to do good for society. When Canada Goose () stepped up and restructured its production line to sew protective gear for front-line health workers, this was adaptive and innovative. 

It was cooperative innovation when the auto-parts giant Linamar Corp. from Guelph (which produces engine parts) suddenly became deeply immersed in the unprecedented challenge of building ventilators. They are familiar with re-tooling production lines quickly for extremely precise items, while rapidly recruiting suppliers as well as expediting shipping of raw materials, and all the while tracking financials (Chase and McClearn, 2020). Many raw materials originate from sources in rural areas in Canada. can be as revolutionary as a new disruptive product. In an encouraging and instructive twist, this time innovation is for the broader good, not just corporate dominance or profit alone.

For some, the future is all roses – they are the ones who say, let’s pay attention to and focus on the good stuff only. But like today, we can anticipate that there will be challenges in most futures. COVID-19 is a significant and unexpected one. In these times, in our times, what models stand out of future-oriented behaviour and promising policy directions?

Sadly, there are many prominent examples that appear contrary to the general intention of working together to find a way through challenges. Yet there are always multiple responses reflecting multiple interests in a crisis, while continuing to look to and build a future – some stellar and cooperative, others self-interested. For example, April 4th, 2020, headlines read: “Trump to prevent export of medical items”. Leblanc and Morrow (2020) reported that the US President wanted to invoke the Defense Production Act to prevent US companies (namely 3M) from selling N95 respirators, surgical masks, gloves, and protective equipment to others beyond America’s borders. After a few days, the White House softened its stance and allowed exports to resume, but only after replenishing domestic stockpiles. All this time, Prime Minister Trudeau clarified that blocking trade to Canada could hurt Americans dependent on the products and raw materials that Canadians ship south, like wood fibre needed to produce some medical items in the US. And the Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador recalled the unreserved welcome and safe refuge that their rural communities gave Americans as their flights made emergency landings in Gander during the unprecedented and turbulent times of 9-11 (The Canadian Press, 2020). The point is that when imagining futures we will have to be inclusive and contend with “the good, the bad, and the ugly”. At times, it may not proceed peacefully and respectfully.

But even that is questionable. You might ask, what is ‘peacefully’? Certainly one aspect is the question of what are ‘essential services’? For many essential means related to life and safety. Without a doubt, the front-line health workers in hospitals are essential as they take care of regular emergencies and sick and recovering patients, as well as those who look after critical-care patients on ventilators and in long-term care facilities. Essential services include supplying food and home goods like toilet paper. Who knew we would be so quick to break the peace over TP? As the Calgary mayor pointed out, COVID-19 is not a gastrointestinal disorder where TP would be especially essential. Nevertheless, Canadians in urban and rural areas alike quickly shut ourselves in and began avoiding each other, while maintaining some resemblance of sanity by seeing each other on apps. Trips to the grocery store were reduced to once a week. For those in apartments and condos, there is growing concern about tenants not physically separating sufficiently to reduce the spread of COVID-19. To enforce the separation behaviour, governments such as that of Manitoba made some social gatherings illegal, which carries a fine.

In contrast, in the US, Morrow (2020) joins similar dots of social response to point out a different kind of social behaviour that occurred early in the pandemic. He notices a lineup of people outside a store in Culver City, California. On March 15, he reports, lobbyists sued the California state government (coupled with a strong lobby in Washington, DC) to have gun stores and related industries declared ‘essential’. With record-breaking unemployment now surpassing that of the Depression era, Morrow writes that residents are “eager to line-up and load up on weapons and ammunition in case they have to fight off looters made desperate by the pandemic… and 80 to 90% are first-time [gun] owners.” This suggests that when imagining futures, we must ensure that multiple points of view are considered worthy of inclusion. Of equal import is the knowledge that there are many others with futures too and many different social behaviours different than what you can imagine. Not everyone is necessarily rowing in the same direction or even in the same boat, but nonetheless they have a role and need to be included.

Imagining futures – rural futures in particular – includes innovation of all kinds, disruptive and social alike. While imagining and forging futures, many will see successes. Challenges will surface, as will opportunities. The key seems to be how we address successes, challenges, and opportunities and the nature of our responses. What values do your actions reveal – cooperation or self-importance? Are we in this together or are some acting alone, as if they are islands in a sea of global connections? Does it matter how we act now in this one crisis, this pandemic, since it is unlikely to happen again in the same way? Or will it? When imagining futures the ‘s’ on futures is critical, since there are many futures, not just one; there is unlikely to be a unified vision of ‘our future’ now or any time along the way to 2040. Imagining futures and taking action toward a desired future are socially constructed and negotiated phenomena.

References Cited:

Chase, S., and McClearn, M. (2020). Auto-parts and medical firms team up to build ventilators. Globe and Mail, B1. April 3, 2020. 

Leblanc, D., and Morrow, A. (2020). Trump to prevent export of medical items. Globe and Mail, A3. April 4, 2020. 

Morrow, A. (2020). Gun sales surge in US as stores declared essential. Globe and Mail, A22. April 4, 2020. 

The Canadian Press. (2020). The Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador takes aim at Trump over medical supplies. Globe and Mail, April 5, 2020. See:

Wilms, J. (2020). Moment in time: Microsoft is founded. Globe and Mail, A2. April 4, 2020.