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Overcoming Wicked Problems: Local Broadband Development in Action

Posted: January 25, 2011

by Michael W-P Fortunato, Research Associate, Center for Economic and Community Development

Dr. Theodore R. Alter’s research team likes it complicated. There is a growing recognition that many of the problems facing rural America (and most of the rest of the world) are what may be termed “wicked problems.” These are problems that do not have one simple solution, whose full impact and scope can only be understood using multiple investigative and analytical techniques spanning many disciplines: economics, sociology, psychology, political science, business, and so on. Wicked problems involve the investigation of broad phenomena like global climate change, world financial crises, fighting terrorism, or gauging the potential impact of GMOs – these issues have implications spanning the full range of society, and are in turn affected by the actions of many social groups.

So how does one go about solving these complex problems? “It’s not about giving prescriptions,” says Alter about the tone of his team’s research, “it’s about seeing the interdependencies between all facets of rural society – social, environmental, cultural, economic, emotional – and understanding whose perspectives have been privileged relative to others throughout history.” While it is unlikely that any one person, research team, or institution can solve a wicked problem, Alter’s team hopes to make significant strides in understanding how these problems arise in the first place by investigating the underlying beliefs, power structures, and processes that have either facilitated or inhibited rural development in different locales.

“It’s not about giving prescriptions...it’s about seeing the  interdependencies between all facets of rural society – social, environmental, cultural, economic, emotional – and understanding whose perspectives have been privileged relative to others throughout history.”
~ Professor Ted Alter

Alter’s team is currently engaged in projects that examine current, complex topics that impact the way that local societies operate. One particular Team Alter project is getting some attention – both because it is timely and because of the complex nature of the research problem. This project is called the Digital Divide project, intended to examine ways to stimulate broadband development in rural areas where it is lacking. Increasingly, it is becoming well understood why some communities get broadband internet and others do not: many private infrastructure providers simply cannot make money laying fiberoptic cable in dispersed rural areas with few customers. More interesting, however, is understanding how communities that could not get mainstream broadband access mobilized to build their own broadband systems. Understanding the dynamic processes that led these communities – often financially distressed – to take on significant amounts of risk for such expensive projects is critical to the success of other communities who may face significant barriers to broadband development.

The project is already uncovering some interesting results that could potentially influence the way that broadband development is conducted. Rather than catering to mainstream providers, six study communities in Pennsylvania, Maine, and Wisconsin found a way to develop their own independent, openaccess broadband system through partnerships between the public and private sector. The secret to mobilizing these multi‐lateral partnerships typically begins with one particular local organization who serves as a champion by recognizing a local need, and – most importantly – insisting that there is a local solution to meet that need. The central organization then identifies potential partners with different skill sets that are complementary to the team’s goals. While many communities debate about technical issues dealing with the type of broadband they seek to develop, or the financial boundaries they face, successful communities have overwhelmingly focused on organizational issues like building alliances between previously disconnected institutions and companies within their own communities. From there, many of the technical issues are quickly resolved due to the breadth and diversity of knowledge being routinely shared among the team. The critical mass of such a large project has made it easier for the champion organization to communicate the benefits of local broadband development to the public, who often scrutinize government officials for excessive and unnecessary spending.

These organizational delivery models, often called public-private partnerships or P3s, are difficult to execute precisely because cultural and societal barriers exist in many communities. Successful communities have reported facing challenges in overcoming inter‐organizational rivalries and fiefdoms (such as two branches of local government that have historically never worked together), questions about the fairness of government participation in private sector affairs, and resistance from citizens who do not understand the importance of broadband to community development, or its applicability in everyday life. Despite these challenges, successful communities have also reported astonishing upgrades to their local internet, and multiple improvements to local life now that they are connected to fast internet – sometimes faster than service that is available in major cities. Most impressively, these communities did it themselves with local inputs, and enjoy improved relations between engaged local institutions and businesses.

The Digital Divide project continues to unfold as data collection continues, but Team Alter is optimistic that multiple investigation methods – in‐person interviews, public surveys, and in‐depth community profiling – will paint a comprehensive picture of places that have developed high‐tech telecommunications infrastructure on their own, and how others can too. Complete reports are expected to be available before the end of 2011.