Young people view the communications devices they use as a part of their community, not mere tools, and this perspective will change how they live, work and play in ways that could benefit rural America, according to a futurist who spoke in Lincoln recently.
Meantime, rural Nebraskans already are generating new ideas to revitalize their communities, ranging from using smartphone apps to give old town museums new life to providing special credit or donated land to help young farmers and ranchers get a start.
Tom Koulopoulos, founder of the Delphi Group, was keynote speaker for the University of Nebraska's second annual Rural Futures Conference. Koulopoulos said that humans always have sought out community, but technology is changing how they define it.
"Community is what we seek and embrace," he said. Urbanization occurred because people found it necessary to gather in large numbers to conduct commerce and communicate. That's not true anymore.
"Kids are growing up constantly connected to each other and their devices. These devices become part of their community," Koulopoulos said. "The notion of what community is will change in ways that are impossible for us to fathom right now."
Those changes could benefit rural America, he added. He predicted a "mass exodus" of future generations away from cities.
"These kids want meaning. They want quality. They want a better life," he said. "Kids realize they don't have to live in cities to get it."
University of Nebraska President James B. Milliken said the Rural Futures Institute, which sponsors the conference, fits perfectly with the land-grant university's mission, first set out more than 150 years ago, to connect universities to their states' citizens.
"We have not realized the full potential of what could be achieved by leveraging our resources, our intellectual capacity and our energy" in rural America, Milliken said.
The RFI aims to do that, he said, by tapping into expertise from all four NU campuses and partnering with rural communities and leaders across the state. Already, the institute has funded 11 wide-ranging projects with $750,000 in grants.