A checklist for building sustainable rural tech hubs

Parry Sound
Rural tech hubs offer flexibility, but need flexible entrepreneurs to thrive.

For years, tech hubs across Canada have been vying for global attention. These hubs are often tied to major municipalities or research universities; the rest of Canada is typically left out.

With the explosion of remote work, this paradigm is shifting toward smaller regions as people seek both livability and career prospects, said Pablo Listingart, Executive Director of tech skills school ComIT. It has allowed Canadian startups to hire and retain rural talent more easily than ever, kickstarting a beneficial cycle of higher-paying opportunities flowing back to smaller towns that can then turn into rural tech hubs.

Speaking with BetaKit, Listingart shared his theory of how rural tech hubs can come to be—and what support they need to become sustainable.

The great tech migration

Cities like Toronto and Vancouver are becoming increasingly unaffordable, but offer a wide variety of career opportunities. While this dichotomy might still draw young people, particularly those looking for a metropolitan lifestyle, Listingart said people aged 35-50 are beginning to think differently.

He shared the example of two senior-level developers he recently spoke with, both of whom said Toronto was just too expensive—they couldn’t afford any additional space for themselves, let alone space for a family, despite being high-earning tech workers. As a result, they looked to smaller cities and rural areas.

“Historically, most of the tech hubs were built around universities and colleges,” said Listingart. “My theory is that now some of the tech hubs will grow around more livable areas.”

This type of migration is increasingly common as people seek comfortable and affordable places to live, whether that be smaller cities, towns, or rural areas with strong internet connections. Once in those smaller regions, Listingart proposed that many individuals will be drawn to entrepreneurship, either after a decades-long tech career or if they were recently laid off. In either case, these new rural entrepreneurs bring with them a tech-focused mindset—and it can give way to a new kind of tech hub.

Building a rural tech hub requires flexibility

At first blush, it seems like a rural tech hub would develop in a similar way to any urban hub: multiple smaller businesses form and coalesce with support from government and the private sector. Over time, those companies grow or merge to create larger, anchor companies. From that initial spring of opportunity comes more entrepreneurship, and the cycle continues.

Building rural tech hubs will require a greater degree of flexibility from all involved because the local infrastructure for entrepreneurship is often not present.

“Many business councils are built to support the brick and mortar to support traditional companies … they are not prepared to support the development of digital skills.”

“Many business councils are built to support the brick and mortar to support traditional companies and organizations,” said Listingart. “So they are many times not prepared to support the development of digital skills companies.”

With that in mind, Listingart noted that rural digital entrepreneurs will have to build their own community. Ideally, local governments can then step in to offer additional support and resources to the community after it is stood up.

This is exactly what Listingart saw happen in Kelowna, BC, where local digital entrepreneurs came together to create or advocate for support organizations like the Central Okanagan Economic Development Commission and Accelerate Okanagan.

“Once there was a critical mass or somebody from the government was convinced that it was possible, they jumped in and started helping in that situation,” Listingart said.

Entrepreneurs will also need to be flexible in how they hire talent. Bluntly put, rural entrepreneurs cannot follow urban growth playbooks due to the population disparity. But Listingart said that’s OK because those urban candidates aren’t necessarily the ones you’re looking to draw into your business.

“If you are the founder who is building a company next to a lake and you understand that you don’t have to be physically in Toronto to build that company, then you understand that the people that you hire don’t need to be in the big urban areas,” said Listingart.

Who and where you hire might be dependent on the role. Living in a rural area might be fantastic for your sales team’s quality of life, but it won’t provide the same quality of networking to close deals. As a result, you’ll need to be more open to out-of-region travel or novel ways of connecting digitally.

“Even if you are in a remote place, you might need to have the flexibility to travel to other places to talk in person to your potential clients,” said Listingart. “You are building something different, your selling will have to be different as well.”

Similarly, entrepreneurs looking to build outside of the big city will need to understand what type of business will thrive in a rural setting. For example, a business needing a huge number of head-office-located employees may not thrive in a rural area from a pure quantity perspective. On the flip side, manufacturing or biotech firms in need of a specific type of real estate might find a small town at the edge of a transportation hub or shipping port to be a great fit.

Similarly, Listingart noted that time-critical work or work subject to industry-specific requirements (e.g. security clearance with on-premise infrastructure) may not work in rural areas with spotty internet connections or limited office real estate.

“There are some jobs that can’t be done [remotely],” said Listingart. “So this is not a call for everyone to move to smaller places.”

There’s a world of opportunity in smaller regions

Listingart grew up in a city of 20 million people in South America before moving to Canada. After emigrating, he settled outside of Winnipeg, a smaller city of only 850,000. He never thought he’d be successful outside of major urban cities like Toronto or Vancouver. However, he’s found incredible success in his career while maintaining a great quality of life with space for his kids.

This is the opportunity he sees across Canada for entrepreneurs if they want it.

“People need to know that there are many alternatives,” said Listingart. “It’s just about being courageous enough to change what you know for something different—and that something different can be built. You don’t have to stay with the status quo.”

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Feature image courtesy Unsplash.

Stefan Palios

Stefan Palios

Stefan is a Nova Scotia-based entrepreneur and writer passionate about the people behind tech. He's interviewed over 200 entrepreneurs on topics like management, scaling, diversity and inclusion, and sharing their personal stories. Follow him on Twitter @stefanpalios.

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