Saturday, February 27, 2010

How Environment Shapes Community Values

I spent a good chunk of my life living in the shade of the Cypress Hills in Southeastern Alberta before moving to the bright lights of Edmonton. It’s been an interesting transition, and it’s taught me how our environment shapes the way in which we apply community values.
Let’s consider the value of neighbourliness. Most Albertans place a high value on being good neighbours. Yet that value gets expressed much differently in the Cypress Hills than it is in Edmonton.
In the Cypress Hills country, there’s a lot more miles than there are folks to occupy the landscape. There aren’t people around us to bail us out of trouble.
Edmonton is a big city, with all the people, traffic, and congestion that goes with urban life. People surround me on the street, and every conceivable business and service is at my fingertips.
Yet a person in trouble may get help quicker in the Cypress Hills than in Edmonton. It sounds contradictory, doesn’t it– like starving in a supermarket, but that’s the reality of life today. It’s also an excellent example of how our physical environment can shape our values.
Let’s consider a scenario where you’re a gent driving home late on a bitterly cold winter night in Edmonton. You see a female driver stopped at the side of the road struggling to change a tire. Do you stop to lend a hand? Chances are that you won’t. It’s late, she wasn’t really signaling for help, she can use her cell phone to call for help– you know this script. You focus on the road ahead and boogie on home.
Now let’s shift the locale to the Graburn Road that winds its’ way from the TransCanada Highway to the Cypress Hills. You’re a Cypress Hills rancher, it’s late at night, and as you come around a bend you see a truck up ahead in the snowy ditch. As you get closer, you see it is Fred Stumpkopf. Your family and the Stumpkopfs have been feuding for three generations. Surely you too would focus on the road ahead and boogie on home?
Not on your life. You would stop, grab your snow shovel, and help Fred get his truck back on the road. Between the two of you, there wouldn’t be ten words spoken, including his parting; “Thanks for the help” before you each continued on your way.
That’s because one of the cardinal sins in the Cypress Hills country is leaving someone stuck. It’s right up there with starving your livestock and having a portrait of Pierre Trudeau hanging in your living room.
In the Cypress Hills, the isolation has created a powerful need for mutual support, and that need has driven a dominant community value that demands personal responsibility for others.
Here in Edmonton, the complexity of urban life has eroded our desire to help our fellow man. Again, our environment shapes our values. There’s no “right” or “wrong’ value sets here; just the reality of living in communities with different environments.
Where does that leave me? Which values have I adopted? The Cypress Hills has shaped my values, and for that I’ll be forever grateful.

Friday, February 12, 2010

High–Speed Roulette

There’s an essential component of the concept of “engaged communities” that is badly- and sadly– lacking in most of rural Alberta. That shortfall is the alarming lack of high-speed Internet access. It goes to the very heart of “engagement” and threatens the future of the communities most at risk in post-boom Alberta.
Internet access drives global economic and social engagement. Without high-speed digital access, you’re not going to attract new residents and you won’t retain your young people. If you’re not wired, you can’t tell your story, and if you can’t tell your story, you’re hooped long-term. That’s today’s reality, and it will only become more pervasive as technology evolves. Yet rural Albertans- normally a progressive lot- are adopting a less-than- flattering posture with their rears in the air and their heads in the sand when it comes to their uptake on digital access.
Alberta’s Supernet strategy; rolled out with much fanfare and huge investment has failed to achieve its goals. The failure occurred not because of an inherent flaw in the Supernet concept. It failed because there was a lack of a “first mile strategy”- a strategy to entice rural residents to make the necessary investment in Internet access.
I use the verb “entice” very deliberately. Government assistance has created a dependency in rural Alberta that gets in the way of progress. If the economics don’t yet justify private sector investment, and if the province doesn’t foot the bill, the very best of new initiatives will become a very, very tough sell in today’s Wild Rose Country.
That’s how it has been in Alberta, with the result that many third world countries have a higher rate of Internet uptake than rural Alberta. That spells doom for many communities that are on the cusp.
What makes it sadly ironic is that it doesn’t have to be that way. A historic model exists that could be reconfigured to lead the way to a digitized, energized and invigorated rural Alberta.
That model is the old Alberta Government Telephones. AGT had a mandate to bring telephone service to all Albertans, even those residing in its’ remote corners. It used the profits from urban operations to expand service to remote parts of the province. At completion of the province-wide rollout of phone service, AGT was privatized.
A similar crown corporation could spur Internet uptake in rural Alberta. Without that uptake, community outreach will only extend about a hundred kilometers down the road. In today’s wired world, that’s a one-way road to extinction.