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What Rural America Needs to Succeed in the Digital Economy

By Matt Dunne, Center on Rural Innovation. This article was published on June 3, 2018.

A seismic shift is happening in rural America. The opioid epidemic is disabling a segment of the workforce, retail jobs are giving way to ecommerce platforms, and college graduates are moving to cities in search of higher pay.

But arguably the biggest change is workforce automation, and rural communities simply don’t have the tools they need to adapt to rapidly changing economies and new modes of work.

Industries historically concentrated in rural areas are already being touched by automation. The first driverless tractors were introduced 15 years ago. On many dairy farms, milking is done entirely by robots; humans don’t get involved unless a cow’s smart collar (think Fitbit for cows) determines the animal is sick. Mining and forestry are performed by stunningly efficient machines. And that’s not to mention the manufacturing sector, where a re-programmable robotic arm able to sense and avoid nearby human movement now costs around $20,000.

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