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Women’s Academy for Rural Innovation 2022: Key Takeaways

December 5, 2022

On October 23rd 2022, the Women’s Academy for Rural Innovation event, hosted by the European Leadership Academy, began in the Ávila province of the Castilla y León region in Spain.

The Women’s Academy for Rural Innovation’s vision is aligned to the European Commission’s commitment to achieving a gender-equal Europe by 2025. It was born out of the reality that in Europe, women still face structural challenges that can prevent many from achieving their full potential, and how in rural areas, women face a double hurdle – overcoming the gender gap as well as the urban/rural divide.

The event invited 15 women from rural areas within the EU to come together for a week-long programme of masterclasses, debates and workshops with top experts, helping to inspire and empower participants to gain skills to help rural areas succeed in a digital world.

As CyrusOne is a member of the European Data Centre Association, we were delighted that our very own Aashna Puri, Strategy and Sustainability – Europe, was invited to attend and deliver a keynote speech on how digital infrastructure and data centres can be a great equaliser for women in rural societies.

As the event progressed, just as Aashna outlined in her keynote, it was clear that a major solution to enabling women in rural areas to unleash their full potential is data centre infrastructure, which provides the backbone of digitisation.

Key Takeaways
There were three key takeaways here, which outlined that data centres are the enabler to:

            1. Better access to healthcare and education

One of the key challenges highlighted by women living in rural European communities was the limited access to basic services such as healthcare and education, let alone in a manner that is scalable. Many of the female entrepreneurs at the Academy were focused on improving access to these services to encourage youth and families to stay in rural environments and stop the “brain drain” to cities. Data centre infrastructure provides the backbone for connectivity, data storage and information processing. It enables clinics or hospitals to store patient records, minimise error, improve response time, and ensure there’s care/resources available round the clock. Data centre infrastructure can similarly benefit education. A more robust digital backbone connected by data centres means better access to digital resources making it easier for students to access the same materials and learning resources regardless of geography or gender.

Data centre infrastructure provides connectivity for the basic provisioning of essential services including healthcare and education, the foundations for women in rural areas to survive and thrive. Digitalisation allows for better and faster information sharing, as well as allowing technology to perform better, for example 5G network infrastructure can allow smartphones to run with lower latency, and can improve the quality of schooling from primary to university level. Good healthcare and education also means women can spend less time held back by ill-health or concerned about their employment prospects and more time gaining the confidence they need to fulfil their potential.

            2. More economically sustainable and environmentally-friendly farming

The EU Green Deal, which seeks to see the continent become climate neutral by 2050 has set aggressive targets for the agriculture sector such as a 50% reduction in pesticide use by 2030. Close to 75% of farms in Europe are family enterprises, with 30% of them managed by women. The recent sanctions to Belarus and Russia and reduced trade from Ukraine, which alone accounts for 19% of EU wheat imports and 13% of oilseed imports, has sparked debate on whether the sustainability targets should be suspended to ensure food security in Europe. Cloud computing and digital infrastructure can support farmers in aggregating their data from tools like soil sensors, satellite or drone images, and weather stations to make better decisions about managing their crops and have greater control over yields. This way, sustainability targets don’t have to be foregone in the face of geopolitical tension but instead the production environment can be better navigated.

In rural areas without suitable digital infrastructure, all decisions related to the smooth running of farms have to be made with the limited resources available. This has been made tougher in recent years as a result of changing regulations, for example legislation that restricts how farmers can protect their crops from pests. In rural areas in Spain and beyond, many farms have been owned and operated by the same families for generations who rely on them for their livelihoods, so making the right decisions on how much of each crop to plant and when, and how to manage those crops is pivotal. Being able to use modern technology and access accurate real-time data to boost yields and protect the environment is a huge enabler; for many farmers, they simply have to go digital to keep operating.

            3. Employment opportunities

Many of the women at the academy shared their first hand experiences of the decades-long exodus of young workers from rural communities, leaving empty villages and a stagnant rural economy in their wake. Countries like Portugal have tried to financially incentivise workers to relocate to the countryside. However, without ICT infrastructure, this is not a viable proposition. Data centres delivering connectivity to rural environments can bridge the urban-rural divide, particularly in a post-pandemic world where 25% of employees are working remotely 3-5 days a week. Young workers staying or returning to rural communities brings diverse perspectives and new initiatives to these communities, improves public services, and stimulates innovation and economic development. This reinvigoration of rural environments doesn’t have to come at the cost of depleting the rural ethos but can ensure no one, particularly women, is forced to look for opportunities away from the homes and environments they so deeply care about.

If there is no digital infrastructure nor data centres present in or around rural areas, that can be a big limiter for local women in terms of career prospects and choice of livelihood. The reality is, if there is no internet connectivity in a rural area, no scalable enterprise can be based there.

Yet, if good internet connection is made possible, far more is on the table, and women have the chance to learn digital skills that can equip them to work remotely for large companies based in cities, or even set up their own small business.

Thank you European Leadership Academy

The Women’s Academy for Rural Innovation was a resounding success, bringing together individuals aged between 19-49 with expertise covering engineering, medicine, agriculture, government and more, making for a diverse group with a wide range of unique and insightful perspectives. One was even the mayor of a town in Slovenia!

The peaceful and beautiful rural location brought to life the challenges that can exist in rural communities, such as limited/no network and strained access to services one might otherwise take for granted, and provided a comfortable setting for attendees to freely bounce ideas off one another and share thoughts on policy, industry and the environment.

We all have a responsibility to address bias in the data centre industry, and events like these, which bring together diverse perspectives to identify positive ways forward, are vital in creating the change we want to see.

Thank you European Leadership Academy for a brilliant event for knowledge sharing, networking and engagement! To find out more about the Women’s Academy for Rural Innovation, click here.