Arnold Evans finds that "teleworking" is bringing skills and employment to declining rural communities
To find the sleepy market town of Kington, you must make your way through the languorous byways of the Welsh Marches. Or, if you prefer, take the information superhighway to its site on the World Wide Web. You'd expect major cities to be represented here, or groovier Californian suburbs such as Palo Alto, but not a Herefordshire backwater with a population of 2,000. At the site, you'll find descriptions of its tourist amenities, of course, but also lively presentations from a string of small businesses evidence enough that towns like Kington have to find alternative sources of employment, now that a once thriving agricultural economy is in terminal decline.
Visit the town itself, and at first, you'll find nothing to distinguish it from all the other picture-postcard Ambridges that characterise rural England. The sort of place in which tourists, off the beaten track, pause for a coffee on their way to somewhere else. But walk down the quiet high street, and among the greengrocers and haberdashery stores you'll find as incongruous as a Tardis in a Jane Austen novel the Kington Connected Community Company (KC3). Step inside the Georgian building, and it feels like moving from the last century to the next.
It's a hive of high-tech activity. Computers, fax machines, digitisers, modems are all being kept busy by KC3's five staff, and some of the 300 or so locals who pop in every month to make use of the facilities. You might find school children using computers to add the finishing touches to their homework, housewives learning word-processing, farmers using spreadsheets to knock sense into their accounts, a novelist struggling with his last chapter, entrepreneurs making their sales pitch to distant clients via the Internet, and a stream of other novices and seasoned hackers producing newsletters, posters or laser-sharp curriculum vitaes.
Telecottages are an increasingly common sight in the Marches and Wales. But KC3's office in the High Street is different: as well as offering the community an array of hardware, it is the home of a bold experiment that could breathe new life into the old town and bring fresh hope to declining rural communities throughout Europe.
KC3 came into being in September 1993, when BT, Apple, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Rural Development Commission chose the town to host a pilot study into the effect that IT and sophisticated telecommunications might have on small communities. They treated Kington to Pounds 250,000 of hardware. This included over 30 Apple computers, six CD-Rom drives, 15 printers, and two Satelcom videophone units. BT installed 15 ISDN lines which can shift digitised data 30 times faster than an ordinary line. The connections can be switched around the town as the need arises. Local schools, the library, hotels and anyone else who was interested were given access to the town's own electronic bulletin board. The local council provided a headquarters in the High Street and after the publicity which usual attends such corporate altruism, the town was left to get on with it.
As might have been anticipated, the experiment wasn't an overnight success. As Adam Wilkinson, KC3's chief executive accepts: "It's no good imposing ideas from above. That's never going to work. We've got to let people find their own uses for the technology. It could take them a long time, but if they don't see a need they are not going to want to use it."
Of course, the centre can offer its facilities and organise courses to help those who are already interested to become computer literate. The far harder task is to create the circumstances in which information technology blends seamlessly into the life of the community. People will forget about KC3 and bold experiments instead, they'll simply use computers and modems as naturally as they now use paper and telephone.
Adam Wilkinson takes great pride, for instance, in Billboard an electronic bulletin board that links neighbourhood schools with the police who use it to involve pupils in a local anti-crime project. For Mr Wilkinson it characterises how the Kington experiment works at its best. KC3 provided the technology and the know-how but, he boasts, "Now the project has got nothing to do with us. I have no idea what information is on Billboard. We were the facilitators, but now it's entirely up to the schools and the police to develop it in the way they want."
He's sensitive to the huge demands the local curriculum is putting on local schools. A new community officer, responsible for education, is going to help them devise ways of using the town's unique resources not merely to deliver the IT requirements of the national curriculum, but to create a new generation in Kington who feel completely at ease with the new technology. These are the children who crowd the High Street centre during the popular Saturday morning computer sessions. It's their prospects that most preoccupy Adam Wilkinson. With so few job opportunities available locally, they'll have to leave to seek work elsewhere, thus exacerbating the town's population imbalance. If it is not to end up, like so many of the country's prettier towns, as a haven for pensioners, it must create its own employment.
Of course, a computer literate workforce is always going to prove attractive to employers hoping to relocate in the country. But in the age of the Internet, location needn't matter. Kington's population, with their modems and ISDN lines, could be ready and willing to work for any employer without ever having to leave home.
KC3 already runs a remote office and payroll service for ICI. There's no reason why it shouldn't build up its order book and create, in Kington, a thriving "teleworkforce". KC3 has over 400 registered teleworkers on its books, and ambitious plans to peddle their services in the commercial world.
A growing number of major companies are recognising that teleworking is a cheap alternative to maintaining expensive offices. The two million or so teleworkers in this country also realise that a few hours at the terminal in the back bedroom can be preferable to commuting.
It's not surprising then that BT and Apple have thrown money at their guinea pigs in Kington, or that they, together with rural communities throughout Europe, are eager to see if the experiment succeeds. Over the coming months, Kington can expect lots of visitors at its World Wide Web site, and even more who stop at the town, hoping for more than a cup of coffee.
Kington is at html:www.zynet. co.ukcaiusWelcome.html.Tel: 01544 231768