Jean Hardy, MSI is a PhD Candidate and Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan (UM) School of Information. His research uses ethnographic and participatory design methods to understand how people use information and communication technologies for community formation and economic development in the rural Midwestern United States. He is the co-organizer of UM's Rural America Working Group and is affiliated with the UM Program in Science, Technology, and Society. Jean's formative work in rural computing has been published in prestigious venues for information and computer science, such as Information, Communication, & Society and the Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, including winning Best Paper Honorable Mention Awards at CHI 2016 and CSCW 2017, and a Best Provocation award at the ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems in 2019.

Talk: The Rich get Richer in Rural Innovation Economies: Revisiting the Digital Divide

Abstract: The digital economy increasingly demands that entrepreneurs, organizations, and communities frame themselves as “innovative.” This poses particular challenges for rural regions, largely owing to stereotypes that associate rurality with technological backwardness and negative growth. These deficits are apparent in computing research, which largely approaches rural regions as defined by problems that can be solved through technological access (e.g. broadband infrastructure, lack of specialist health services). However, many rural economic development authorities and other institutional actors have pushed back, arguing that rural places provide conditions for new technological innovation. With this in mind, my research interrogates how rural regions seek to reframe and reinvent themselves by mobilizing contemporary demands for innovation, entrepreneurship, and technological advancement.

Drawing from ethnographic research in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I show how economic development organizations and civic groups work to balance demands for technological advancement while still maintaining a connection to the rural values and livelihoods that make the region distinctive. I demonstrate how some communities are successful at enrolling themselves in modern innovation economies, while others see these opportunities as being out of their reach. I argue that development practices focusing on economic growth as the primary means of progress disadvantage low-resourced rural settings while benefitting rural communities that already have larger economies. This has exacerbated digital inequities in rural communities, shaped by the ability of local governments and businesses to participate in new formations of the high-tech economy, where well-heeled rural communities benefit and those without existing resources continue to decline.