Episode 11: Rural broadband expert Roberto Gallardo intersects digital parity, mindset, rural potential

 

 

     

 

 

In the Season 2 premiere episode, nationally known rural broadband researcher and RFI partner Roberto Gallardo, Ph.D., Assistant Director at the Purdue Center for Regional Development, passionately challenges rural communities and national leaders to take action for digital parity, and not just in terms of logistical technology — but also in mindset.  In his work with rural people in Nebraska and across the U.S., Gallardo has seen communities with the best technological advances, but without the mindset to embrace the opportunities the digital age has to offer. It is time for not only providing access to everyone, but for empowering those individuals to use the technology to its fullest potential.

Check out Dr. Gallardo’s work with the University of Nebraska at Omaha, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Nebraska Extension and the Nebraska communities of Ashland, Nebraska City and Ravenna! “Increasing Rural Civic Engagement in the Digital Age” was funded in 2017.

Roberto Gallardo, Assistant Director, Purdue Center for Regional Development
“I see communities start thinking and acting digitally when they understand the potentials and the benefits and the challenges of the digital age and they are brave enough to start trying different things. They will fail, but then they will get up and they will try it again and that tells me that the community is now in a digital mindset.”
Roberto Gallardo, Ph.D.
Assistant Director, Purdue Center for Regional Development

About Dr. Gallardo

         

Roberto Gallardo is Assistant Director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development and a Purdue Extension Community & Regional Economics Specialist. He holds an electronics engineering undergraduate degree, a master’s in economic development, and a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration. Gallardo has worked with rural communities over the past decade conducting local & regional community economic development, including use of technology for development.

He has authored more than 70 articles including peer-reviewed and news-related regarding rural trends, socioeconomic analysis, industrial clusters, the digital divide, and leveraging broadband applications for community economic development. He is also the author of the book “Responsive Countryside: The Digital Age & Rural Communities”, which highlights a 21st century community development model that helps rural communities transition to, plan for, and prosper in the digital age. Dr. Gallardo is a TEDx speaker and his work has been featured in a WIRED magazine article, a MIC.com documentary, and a RFDTV documentary. He lives in West Lafayette with his wife and two daughters.

 

Some (of many) Publications From Dr. Gallardo

 

Show Notes

Dr. Connie: Welcome back to the Rural Futures Podcast. I’m your host Dr. Connie, and joining me today is Dr. Roberto Gallardo. Welcome to the podcast, Roberto.

Dr. Gallardo: Thank you, Connie. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Dr. Connie: Well, I’m really excited to have you on. So, just a little bit more about Roberto, he’s the assistant director for the Purdue Center for Regional Development, and a community and regional economics specialist at Purdue Extension. But the other thing about him is he’s been conducting research in extension regarding the impact of broadband in rural communities, and this is a huge issue right now. Roberto, tell us a little bit more about what you’re doing in that space, and why.

Dr. Gallardo: Sure. Thank you. I agree. It’s a trendy topic right now. I’ve been involved in this for the past 10 years, or so. I love extension work because I call it applied research, right? You go in there, you do research, it’s research-based, and then you come down to the trenches and you kinda apply that research, that knowledge. You extend it. That’s kind of very good to do because you get feedback. You get very important feedback that many times is missed if you’re only solely looking at the research side. So, I’ve been doing a lot of secondary data crunching on broadband access and adoption in rural communities. Its impact, socioeconomic impact, et cetera, et cetera. But recently, we’re working with communities actually to learning how they can leverage digital platforms to increase civic engagement, for example, which is a project that is funded through your organization. And we also are doing surveys to better understand how households and rural households are using the technology. So, we’re moving a little bit beyond the access conversation and trying to focus more on the utilization and adoption.

Dr. Connie: And why do you think this work is so important? I know we hear a lot of times here at the Rural Futures Institute, well, people choose to live in rural, so it’s a choice they’re making. Do we really need to make the investment necessary to connect people? So, why do you think this work is important in terms of helping people living in rural be part of this wave of technology?

Dr. Gallardo: Well, as you know, the digital age is unfolding. I use the analogy that it is in diaper stage right now and the train has not left the station. And so, we’ve got to make sure that everybody that can, should board that train. And if not, you’re going to be left out of a really, truly transformational time. I’m sure if there were internet and video back in the day when everybody was moving from ag to the industry in the cities, this level of transformation was taking place. So, I believe that the digital age is doing the same now, and so the digital economy is only a part of what you hear, and of course, that’s what drives many policymakers. But I think that overall the technology, the digital age has a lot of potential for rural communities. So, working on helping these rural communities board that train, right? Before the diapers become a toddler, and then they become children, or a teenager, we need to make sure we get onboard now because one of the characteristics is it moves really quick. The digital age does. So, if we miss a train, trying to catch on later on is going to be harder.

Dr. Connie: Now, what if rural communities do miss that train? I mean, as a futurist, I love to explore these possible scenarios and what’s possible, and a lot of times we focus that work on why this is important, but what would you see happening if our rural communities miss this opportunity?

Dr. Gallardo: In a very positive spin to things, I think they’re going to go through a very slow death.

(upbeat music)

Dr. Gallardo: I think they will still remain a core of whatever towns are left, but we’re already, you know, youth is moving out and our population is becoming older. That’s not sustainable. And if we do not plug in into this digital ecosystem, we will surely be left out and we will surely experience a decline.

(upbeat music)

Dr. Gallardo: Now, the question is out to the jury regarding if we do plug in, what’s that going to do for rural? I think that that’s another question, future-looking, that we need to address, but we know for a fact now that if you do not have the connectivity and the know how, right off the bat, you’re out. So, I would rather worry about okay, we have the connectivity. How can we improve the know how, and how can we then turn our rural communities around? Not necessarily in growth, but in development, right? That’s one of the key differences I teach my students. Many rural communities don’t want to grow, and that’s fine. But what about develop? What about improving the quality of life of those that remain, or those that have young families like me, who want to return, or want to live in a less chaotic situation or environment like it is in big urban areas?

Dr. Connie: I think that’s such a key point, right? In terms of thinking about okay, if we can transform these communities, and it’s totally possible. I mean, the possibility is there, what could that look like? Now, that might not be population growth, and I think this is very key because I think part of the challenge we have working in this space right now is a lot of decision makers still want to see numbers. They’re like, we want to see the numbers grow. We want the population to grow, and that’s not where we are in the present state. What are those other metrics, measures, characteristics we can use to see how these communities are thriving and can even be better in the future?

Dr. Gallardo: I think it’s a no-brainer. The quality of life of rural communities can improve if we have access to education that’s only given in certain areas. We can do that virtually. We can also take advantage of telehealth, and tele-work, and other applications without having to move necessarily out of that rural ecosystem. There are some challenges there, right? It’s the death of distance. This argument has been around for 40 years since the information communication technology came online, but I believe this time, it’s a different situation because the technology’s so mature. It’s so sophisticated and we don’t even know what’s coming down the pipe. So, that’s why I’m hopeful. But rural communities will miss out if they, number one, are not connected, and number two, do not have that knowledge, that insight of how to leverage that technology.

(upbeat music)

Dr. Connie: The other thing I really appreciate in your work that you talk about is this whole moving from the industrial age mentality to a digital age mindset, and how important mindset is. Could you expand on that a bit?

Dr. Gallardo: Yeah, definitely. Many communities that I’ve worked with may have fiber optics, right? But if they don’t have the correct mindset, they’re not going to do anything with that fiber optics. And that change in mindset is not easy. I wish I had a step-by-step process to follow, but it’s really, really location-specific and context-specific. What I see communities kind of when they start thinking and acting digitally is because they understand the potentials, and the benefits, and the challenges of the digital age, and they are brave enough, in a way, to start trying different things, and they will fail, but they will get up and they will try it again. That to me, tells me that the community is now in a digital mindset. I have noticed that the previous step to that change in mindset is awareness, and many times, many times, awareness is overlooked, easily. So, that’s public policy 101, right? If we do not agree on the problem, let’s not even discuss strategies and solutions.

(upbeat music)

Dr. Gallardo: That awareness to me, is a big, big part of my job, and the extension side is that awareness can lead to that change in mindset. Rural communities need to stop thinking about “oh, the industrial age, let’s go ahead and hopefully attract the next big manufacturing facility.”

(upbeat music)

Dr. Connie: In futuring, we really talk about that important mindset, as well. Like, so what you believe happens is what will happen. Ultimately, that’s where you put your energy. That’s where your energy flows. Here at the Rural Futures Institute we’ve talked a lot about that, as well. So, if we don’t change the narrative around what’s possible in our rural communities and how rural and urban really need to collaborate in order to create a more sustainable future for everyone on the planet, and not just people, but the ecosystems, the animals, everything, then we’re missing out on an opportunity to create a better future for all. And I think, this mindset even of everything has to be very competitive, or the mindset of a lack is sort of unfortunate, in terms of a world of abundance and what is possible. I think technology, while also having its challenges, can really usher in an era that’s more positive for more people.

Dr. Gallardo: Totally agree. Scarcity has been the commodity that’s been driving everything. Potentially, we can now reach that age that you’re describing, and that’ll change the dynamics completely. It’ll change our assumptions, it’ll change our vision, it’ll change everything. But again, the first key step is that awareness, right? What is this digital age? What are you talking about? What do I need to be looking out for because I can’t predict the future? I can’t tell you go down this route, but that awareness is something that I think is often overlooked.

(upbeat music)

Dr. Connie: I think leadership is an essential part of this conversation, so tell us a little bit more about you as a leader. What’s your philosophy style? How do you lead in this space?

Dr. Gallardo: I appreciate that. I don’t consider myself a leader though, but I appreciate that. I think that empowerment and trust are key things that any leader should look at. You cannot babysit, you cannot micromanage. I think that people have potential, and if you empower them correctly, I think you can unleash that potential, and that’ll free energy that otherwise would be tied up with menial tasks or trying to micromanage. At a community level, that’s what I shoot for with the communities I work with, is you will not depend on me. This is a show, and this process is totally driven by you. I am here, and I will dance at the tune that you play. That is very important for sustainability purposes. Make sure the community is comfortable and is empowered, right? Then they will take it. And if you couple that with a mindset change, I think the community can do just fine.

Dr. Connie: Now, what type of leadership do you think it’s going to take to make these types of things happen? How do you see leadership evolving so that we do help shift the mindset, and we do help empower people in the future?

Dr. Gallardo: I think that many leaders in rural communities are doing so many things all the time. They’re putting out fires all the time, right? They’re just responding. They’re reacting. They don’t have time to be proactive. It’s just the context, right? The situation. I think leaders need to incorporate feedback. I’ve seen part-time mayors that also have a full-time job. It’s different dynamics in an urban leadership or situation, but I think that’s the key step, Connie, is first and foremost, the leader needs to recognize, I’m busy as it is, but I do need to get additional feedback and incorporate this and collectively reach a vision that will then drive and really nurture this future leadership.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, we’ve really been, here at the institute, talking about sort of this process of co-creation because you can’t just go to a community and you’re just not just going to swoop in and help them. It’s their future, right? So, the goal really is to empower their future and help them achieve what they desire, but on the other side of that, I think as a university one thing we’ve really been working on is how do we then listen to what’s happening in that space? How can we co-create not just the future of that one community, but these communities of practice as a whole? Like mental health or childcare through that feedback, create better experiences for our students here, and really learn as a university how to evolve ourselves in an era that’s full of exponential change. And I think that co-creation really comes from that deep listening and not just doing what we’ve always done.

Dr. Gallardo: Correct. Totally agree. That co-creating, that ownership dynamic, I think, is critical.

(upbeat music)

Dr. Connie: I appreciate in your work how you bring out the evolution of so many industries with this connectivity. Can we deliver more online, or use different technologies to create almost virtual experiences wherever we are so that we can not just earn degrees, but those credentials, badges, whatever competency-based education might be there, or skills? I know you’re a person who like to learn by doing. So, how do we create these experiences using technology so people can live where they choose, but also create the future they want? I would love to know what you think about the future of broadband. What do you think it looks like, and what is it going to take really to connect everybody on the planet?

Dr. Gallardo: There’s still a billion people without electricity, when you look at it. It’s a matter of priorities. The future of broadband, I think more technologies will come out to play, but what I hear from providers and what I know is that the laws of physics, we have reached that point, especially wireless, right? Many people tell me, oh, the solution will be wireless, don’t worry about it. It’s like, well, there are no leads, right? If there are no bodies of waters, or lakes, or whatever, we can’t get past that laws of physics. So, I think that the technology, I’m hoping, will continue to evolve where it’ll be a lot more efficient and where it’s not as costly to connect. Because when you think about it, Connie, the electronics and the actual fiber is not expensive. What’s expensive is the labor, right? It’s those capital costs to actually install, or run it, or run the wire, but the actual electronics as you’ve seen in the exponential behavior, I mean, they’re going down, they’re going down. They’re cheap. The future of broadband is yes, a worldwide, all world is connected. I mean, just imagine. I think that the worst waste of human talent and creativity is poverty. I think that humans are created by nature. It’s just that we are not exposed to the same things. We don’t have the same opportunities. We are in different contexts. Imagine how many creative folks, because of their poverty situation, right? Imagine plugging that creativity into this digital ecosystem where you have worldwide information at your fingertips. What can we solve? What ideas will come out of that? And yet, we have not tapped into that because they’re not connected, right? Imagine a world that’s connected, all low income people join this bandwagon. I think it’s going to change totally how we see the world, the ideas that we have. That feedback, that co-creating will be really, really powerful then, I think. It’s going to be a huge, massive brain, really, that’s going to be connected.

Dr. Connie: I think just even understanding where people are, how they’ve experienced life, and they’ll be able to create solutions we aren’t thinking about, you know? Because they’ll have different experiences and different knowledge to bring to the table. Now, I know you’ve worked a lot with the speed issue because it’s not just about the access. It’s also about the quality of the access. A lot of what we’ve learned is the FCC data is not accurate, so really, it seems like there’s a lot more people connected to high-speed internet than there are. Could you expand on that a little bit and tell us what you’ve found in your work?

Dr. Gallardo: Data-wise, we are not where we should be. The FCC does the best it can with that data, which is carrier self-reported. It’s not validated or cross-checked in any way. So, we’re trusting entirely on what the providers are telling us. There’s a granularity issue where a block, which is the lowest census geography, you’ve heard this, if one household is served, the entire block is considered served– that raises some issues. And on the speed thing, I think the next divide really is on speed because if you look at that data, for example, here in Indiana, 100% of blocks are served or advertised with 10/1 speeds, right? Assuming we can believe that data, but what difference does it make? And that’s where the research should be taking us now. What do you do with a 10/1 connection, and what do you do with a 100/100 connection? Because, and that’s what I tell communities, is that the web evolves accordingly, okay? Try browsing the web today,not streaming video or doing any of those things, just try browsing the web today with dial-up. It’s crazy. But other areas or locations in the world are already fiber. They’re experimenting with higher speeds, and guess what? The web is going to evolve, the speed is an issue. We don’t want rural US to be left at 10/1 speeds, or even 25/3 speeds, when all these applications are expecting faster speeds. So, that’s a big, big, I think that’s the next hurdle is aside from connectivity like you said, is the quality.

(upbeat music)

Dr. Connie: What makes you so passionate about this work?

Dr. Gallardo: I just believe that digital platforms can really unleash that creativity that’s kind of suppressed, that will of communities to improve themselves, to see that they may have been over the past 20, 30 years, under a bad situation economically speaking. It makes me passionate because I believe that it has the potential to level the playing field, like you’ve read my articles about digital parity, and that rural 2.0, that rural renaissance, that’s why I’m passionate about this. It’s because I believe, I truly believe that this technology, there’s a lot of issues and there’s a lot of other stuff that we’ve got to address, but I think that it truly has the potential to start a rural renaissance. I have lived in rural areas. So, imagine on the healthcare side, on the education side, on the entertainment side because of mixed reality, and digital reality, and all these applications. So, that’s why I’m passionate about it is because I think rural community, to understand this potential, they need to take conscious steps towards this future.

Dr. Connie: I love that. Taking those conscious steps towards the future. Can you share some stories, success stories you’ve had working with communities in this space?

Dr. Gallardo: I’ve been to a Boys and Girls Club, and I’ve got iPads with me, and we got the ScratchJr App. Low-income minority kids that have never seen a tablet, have never had one, it’s amazing Connie, how within 20 minutes they’re just tapping away. That confirms what I see is that the potential is there, the creativity is there. That’s a specific example. I’ve seen other rural businesses that depend entirely on their online sales because otherwise they would’ve gone out of business within their 2,000 town. I’ve seen in, like we’re working on the project with the RFI on the communities, how they can become more responsive. How can they become more responsive, so that way their quality of life and their civic engagement improves? So, I have bits and pieces of examples like that in my work, and it’s very gratifying to see. That’s when you realize Connie, remember that mindset change? That’s when I go, that’s very interesting. They made that jump, and now I’m starting to learn from what they’re doing.

(upbeat music)

Dr. Connie: I also know you’re a family man. You’re married, you have two children. So, what do you enjoy doing, and how do you continue to sort of evolve as a leader yourself through doing some other things outside of work that spark your creativity and passion?

Dr. Gallardo: Yes, I’ve got two daughters. One of them is 11. She’s pushing hard for a smartphone. She’s not getting it yet.

Dr. Connie: Hey, that’s my 11 year old daughter, too! I am with you on that. So, when you give that a yes, tell me.

(laughing)

Dr. Gallardo: Yeah, so I think that what I enjoy the most is getting some piece of knowledge, and then kinda see if it truly materializes in the trenches. That’s what gets me going every day, is when you show up to a community, you tell them this, that, and then they look at you in the eye and they say that, that doesn’t make sense. This makes sense. And then you go, oh. That feedback is phenomenal. I’m passionate about that. On my daughter’s side, I’ve shown them a couple of the stuff I’ve done, and my little one who’s eight, always tells me, “daddy, I know you and technology get along really well.” That’s kind of how she’s grasping it now, but I see that all their homework is online, and I cannot even imagine what a family that cannot afford, right? Or they’ve reached their data plan, or they’re not connected, or they have to drive to a library. I, as a parent, totally empathize about that. It’s like, wow, I totally, totally understand why you’re frustrated, why you’re mad. Why your children are at a disadvantage that they didn’t even create themselves.

Dr. Connie: That’s such a critical point because when you think about the future, and I think when you have kids, or grandkids, or other young people you care about are in your life, you do want to envision a better future for them, and for them to have that mindset themselves of anything is possible. I literally at my fingertips can create whatever life I want. I can solve things. I can be a social entrepreneur. I can start a business. I can raise money for a cause. There’s just all these pieces and parts to it. We’ve always been very excited about the work you do, but I think hearing it now today in terms of how do we make it also a great equalizer in this world, I think, is just such a powerful message.

(upbeat music)

Dr. Connie: So, tell me, and share with our audience a little bit what parting words of wisdom do you want to share?

Dr. Gallardo: What I tell communities left and right, and colleagues, and everybody is do not tell me how it cannot be done, that I already know. Let’s instead focus on how it can be done, and that again, goes back to the mindset. I’ve seen communities that once it becomes a priority, whatever barriers seemed unsurmountable before are surmountable now. That just, attitude is really at the individual, at the group, at the community level, what I tell communities every time is I can come and present and talk to you about this everyday, but if you do not as a community, as a group, as a leaders, whatever it is, do not really feel that this is the way you need to go, or this is what you should be looking at, there’s nothing I can do, really. I can share with you resources, but you will always tell me why it cannot be done because you do not have that attitude towards it can and will be done. It’s amazing, Connie, I wish I could document all this and do a study on that, but it’s amazing how really, funds, which is the number one issue, right? Financial, it really becomes secondary and a technicality once this attitude is in place. Because when you want it, you will mobilize to get it, but if you’re wired or if you’re thinking, oh, it can’t be done because of this, oh, it can’t be done because of that, well, we know that, but that’s the question. How can it be done? Or the question then becomes, do you want it done, or do you have the will to do it?

(upbeat music)

Dr. Gallardo: I understand there are other issues. There are other community issues, it could be health issues, it could be crime. And so, I understand that the connectivity part may be pushed to the side, and that’s understandable. I would only ask that you do bring it back into the radar because the train will leave the station, and it’s going to be harder to catch on because that exponential behavior. We don’t know what the future will bring, but if you don’t kind of understand the characteristics and the behaviors now, and hop on that train, it’s going to be really hard down the road. It really will, because then frustration will kick in, and then you’re going to this downward cycle where the community’s being left out, most of your youth are out they’re not coming back. Today is the time we have a very narrow window, so I would encourage communities that listen to us that we understand there are other issues at play, but please, please make connectivity, or digital mindset, or digital parity, a priority.

Dr. Connie: I think that sense of urgency is a very important piece of this. Let’s do this, let’s get it done. Thank you so much, Roberto. We really appreciate your time and expertise, and we look forward to following your work and continuing to share that with our audience, as well, and just appreciate what you’re doing in this space to not only connect people, but really help them create their future.

Dr. Gallardo: Thank you, and thank you for the opportunity, and thank you for that other project that we’re working on, we’re learning a lot. I think the communities are having a blast. And so, thank you for the opportunity, and thank you for being colleagues in this venture, that’s important. Nobody can do it alone, so I truly appreciate your interest and your own resources and mindset that you bring to the table. I appreciate that.