So much so in fact that if all rural businesses in Scotland maximised their use of digital technologies, £2.5 billion would be added to the Scottish economy.
That is according to a recent report entitled Unlocking the Digital Potential of Rural Areas across the UK, which was commissioned by Amazon and published by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and Rural England.
It states that if Scotland’s rural businesses were to take full advantage of digital technologies, they would also add up to £1.44bn in rural business turnover.
Dr Jane Atterton, manager of the Rural Policy Centre at SRUC who co-authored the survey-based report, says it comes down to diversity.
“It’s not all about the land-based sector, there are lots of other businesses operating there and we shouldn’t forget that and make sure that policy and practise responses recognise that diversity.”
According to the most recent government figures, there are more than 67,000 people working in the agriculture industry, however other key sectors operating in Scotland’s rural areas include entertainment and arts, retail, accommodation and financial services – those which place the most emphasis on online selling.
Atterton says: “One of the striking things is that rural businesses are already doing a lot in terms of digital.
“Almost 100 per cent of businesses that responded to the survey are using digital for email and internet browsing, as you would expect.
“A high proportion of more than 80 per cent are using it for online banking, while just under 80 per cent are using it for accessing public services and more than 60 per cent said they were using digital cloud computing.
“Meanwhile 35 per cent had their own website for online selling, while over 20 per cent are selling via a third party platform.”
Most businesses now view digital technologies as key to their growth and many opt for social media as the go-to tool to promote their products and services instead of the more traditional business websites.
Although digital does not just mean advertising and browsing. It provides access to remote working, meaning that employees do not have to travel to the company’s offices, resulting in benefits to both the environment and the wallet.
It also improves productivity and wellbeing among remote workers. A UK-wide study carried out last year by insurance company VitalityHealth, Cambridge University, RAND Europe and Mercer found that people with long commutes are more likely to suffer from depression, while 12 per cent are more likely to report multiple aspects of work-related stress.
With that comes the added need for high-speed broadband in order to access web-based virtual meetings through use of software including Skype.
Other digital business uses relate largely to operational or management processes, which save time with communications, information searches, filing and financial transactions.
However, business owners based in the countryside who hope to achieve their full economic potential by going digital are faced with challenges and an undeniable issue is connectivity.
Medium to large businesses are most likely to benefit from superfast broadband, but rural businesses are typically family-run, home-based and employ fewer than ten people.
As internet is becoming increasingly important to any successful business, a government-funded fifth generation network (5G) testbed has been launched in Orkney, which is one of the worst served parts of the UK for connectivity.
The year-long 5G RuralFirst project will see 5G rolled out in a part of Orkney with data being transferred to Glasgow.
It is being led by networking company Cisco in partnership with Strathclyde University and aims to test the development and commercialisation of 5G in rural areas with the hope of one day digitising the island fully. It co-incides with the Scottish Government’s aims to have 100 per cent of the population connected to broadband by 2021.
Tony Gribben, Cisco’s general manager for Scotland, says: “Where you live should not have a negative impact on the life experience that you have.
“For individuals, business and communities, all of our lives are digital. [Connectivity] gives opportunities for individuals, for enhancing quality of education, for enhancing provision of healthcare services and for companies who are based and work in these remote environments, it can give them an opportunity to compete outwith their local area.”
Gribben points to the salmon farming business, which is one of UK’s biggest food exporter, as one example of that.
“In essence it is a fairly tech-heavy industry today. There would be a huge opportunity if they had access to much higher bandwidth connectivity as they are limited in how much they can do in terms of digitising their business because of the challenges they have with connectivity today.”
Salmon grower Scottish Sea Farms in collaboration with rural broadband company HebNet CIC has already developed a wireless link between Skye and the remote West Coast peninsula of Knoydart.
The previous internet service was struggling to cope with the growing demands, while the satellite system used by the salmon grower for internet was unable to provide high-speed connectivity.
The new system has put internet speeds on a par with those in central Scotland meaning that Scottish Sea Farms now has high-speed connectivity between its three Loch Nevis farms and the shore base.
It has allowed for all three farms to be equipped with remote feeding and monitoring systems, which has enhanced the health and welfare of the fish.
However, it is not just a matter of improving the connectivity of rural areas that is key to unlocking their economic potential.
Atterton says: “One of the key things we did was ask businesses what the key constraints were.
“The focus in this study was not whether their broadband was too slow or unreliable, other constraints.
“Thirty per cent of our sample talked about the difficulty of finding external support and that, for us, was really critical.
“They were struggling to find help for the digital difficulties they might find in their business.
“Another 14 per cent were talking about not being able to access appropriate training for their workforce and the difficulty of recruiting people with the right skills and the difficulty in training the existing workforce.
“So there’s a really important issue around skills in the workforce.”
Building on those constraints, the report’s key recommendations include simpler signposting of digital support and information.
She adds: “Businesses were talking about not being able to access that support and what we’d like to unpick further is whether that support is not there or if they don’t know where to find it – I suspect part of it is the latter.”
She recommends a “single information portal” where businesses can easily access the right information and be linked up with the likes of Skills Development Scotland (SDS), the national skills agency that works with partners to provide services that deliver skills development.
SDS is helping to deliver a range of apprenticeship courses in order to develop the digital skills relevant to all sectors, including those in rural areas.
Claire Gillespie, digital technologies sector skills manager, says: “The frameworks are driven by what employers need and by growth areas, so we have done a lot of research gathering to make sure that we are developing pathways that meet with the economic future of Scotland.”
The apprenticeships include foundation courses for people at school, work-based modern apprenticeships for young people and work-based graduate apprenticeships for any age.
Gillespie says: “Part of my job is developing careers awareness and making sure that people in work and young people who might be in school, college or university, are aware of the wealth of career opportunities that are in digital.
“Also awareness of the subjects and skills required so that they are responsive to the needs of employers today and going forward into the future.”
The subjects include cyber security and data analytics which cut across a wide range of sectors and although they are primarily based on a technology framework, they are skills that cut across all sectors of all areas of Scotland.
To ensure that businesses are aware of the opportunities for expanding their team’s skillset, SDS has worked with employers to understand their skills and training needs.
To increase skillsets across all ages and to keep up with the rapid pace of technological advances, SDS is also looking at new ways to reskill and upskill the existing workforce of a business.
Gillespie says: “We have a whole package of what we do around that careers awareness and that digital economy message to make sure people are aware of the skills of today and the future.
“Part of that involves our signposting to other institutions, online courses, face-to-face courses, a whole range of things so people can then access a range of digital skills.”
Atterton believes this is just one way that businesses can be improved digitally.
She also suggests making sure that policies and strategies take account of rural areas whether it’s a digital, industrial or economical strategy, it is making sure that rural is at the front of policymakers’ minds so that the programmes and solutions are as appropriate to rural areas as they are to urban areas.
She says: “The UK and Scottish governments are investing in improving digital infrastructure which is great, but what we need is to be making sure that rural businesses have the information and knowledge to access and use that infrastructure and the staff members who have the skills to do that, so it is a whole package of support.
“Based on our survey data which was scaled up to the rural business population, we are able to say that by unlocking the digital potential and overcoming these constraints, rural businesses can contribute a significant additional amount to the whole UK economy in terms of gross value added and additional productivity, so there is a very positive economic impact.”
ISLAND FIRSTS: ONE OF THE MOST RECENT INNOVATIONS - 5G - IS BEING TESTED ON ORKNEY, WHERE SOME OF THE OLDEST EVIDENCE OF CIVILISATION IS FOUND.
As only 63 per cent of the UK has data coverage from the four main providers, 5G RuralFirst was announced in March by the UK Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
The £7.5 million co-innovation project between industry, government and academia aims to position the UK as a leader for 5G.
Led by Cisco with Strathclyde University as its principal partner, the network of 32 organisations is testing the benefits of 5G on rural communities and industries including agriculture and broadcasting.
They are doing so through a testbed in Orkney with data sent to the Cisco 5G cloud platform at DataVita’s data centre facility near Glasgow.
Tony Gribben, pictured, Cisco’s general manager for Scotland, says: “5G is a fundamental change in the quality and amount of bandwidth that you as a consumer of mobile technology will receive.
“3G was built for the evolution of the smart phone and static information like email.
“With 4G, the fundamental shift there was allowing access to much more dynamic information on mobile devices like video and the proliferation of Youtube. 5G changes the whole dynamic.”
According to Gribben, one of the big areas that 5G will have an impact on is farming through automated vehicles.
“The farmer can put a smart truck in a field and tell it to go and plough, plug in all the data and leave it to do a job, whether that be ploughing the field, sowing seeds, watering fields.”
Similarly, in the advent of the Internet of Things, each cattle member could be connected directly to the internet through a device like a Fitbit.
Gribben says: “If we can get this technology working in the challenging climate of the Orkney Islands, then we believe it can be utilised everywhere across the UK.
“It is purely about showcasing to the service providers, that there is a business case here for investment for connectivity into rural environments.
“We want to truly bring them into the 21st century.”
This article appears in the SUMMER 2018 edition of Vision Scotland. An online version is available here.