This opinion piece was written by Paul Soto, a senior policy expert, and Enrique Nieto, a policy analyst, from the European Network for Rural Development.
Smart cities versus stupid villages? That was a provocative title recently used by a French publication. But it isn’t simply provocation: unfortunately, it reflects several realities in Europe today.
Firstly, there is a massive digital divide between urban and rural areas. Some 80% of urban households in the EU were covered by ultra-fast broadband in 2017, compared to 47% in rural areas. Moreover, there is a chronic problem of digital literacy in rural areas, as well as a low level of digital take-up and innovation.
Secondly, many but by no means all rural areas are considerably worse off than urban areas on many broad measurement counts, such as educational attainment, health, employment and earnings. This is driving a rural exodus, particularly of young people, which in turn feeds internal EU migration.
One solution many are talking about is “smart villages”. But what are they?
What are smart villages?
Smart villages are not simply about catching up with urban areas by applying the “smart city” concept to the countryside. Smart cities tend to focus on big data and opportunities for transforming the ways in which cities function through interrelated digital technologies.
Smart villages, on the other hand, focus more on local communities taking their futures into their own hands, often, but not exclusively, with the help of digital technologies.
While the idea of smart villages may mean different things to different people, several key features of smart villages have, in fact, been articulated and clarified through the European Commission’s EU Action for Smart Villages (April 2017) and subsequent discussions of a dedicated Thematic Group of the European Network for Rural Development (ENRD).
They have, at a minimum, five central elements.
- Smart villages are about people: rural residents taking the initiative to find practical solutions — both to the severe challenges they face and, importantly, to exciting new opportunities to transform rural areas.
- Smart means using digital technologies when they are appropriate, not because they are fashionable. Smart villages often use the power of digital technologies. But these are just one of the sets of tools available.
- Smart means thinking beyond the village itself. Some initiatives are taking place at village level, but many involve the surrounding countryside, groups of villages, small towns and links to cities.
- Smart means building new forms of cooperation and alliances: between farmers and other rural actors; between municipalities; the private sector and civil society; from the bottom-up and the top-down.
- Smart means thinking for yourself. There is no standard model or solution for smart villages. The concept is about local people taking stock of local assets, drawing on the best available knowledge and taking the initiative.
Behind the trend
Since 2017, there has been a wave of policy statements on smart villages from different EU institutions, and a series of countries are putting into place the building blocks for supporting them.
At the same time, hundreds of rural communities across Europe have launched exciting projects which are starting to show what the villages and countryside of the future could look like.
Many of these smart village initiatives have been triggered by the challenges of depopulation, the loss of young people and cuts in public services. Communities all over Europe have responded by launching a wide range of social innovations in energy, health, care, mobility, food, education and training.
Smart villages are also responding to emerging opportunities which can strengthen the role of rural areas in modern society. For example, they are trying to exploit the full potential of rural areas in the transition to a low-carbon, circular economy and take full advantage of a rural digital transformation, rather than just catching up with cities.
How to boost smart villages: next steps
These are exciting times, and networking can play an important role in connecting the emerging EU policy framework with needs at the grassroots level.
Over the coming year, the ENRD Thematic Group on Smart Villages will bring together a range of stakeholders to discuss how to create policies which enable rural communities to develop their own smart solutions in a wide variety of local contexts.
Resources are available on the ENRD smart villages portal: so, spread the word! — Paul Soto and Enrique Nieto
(Picture credit: Pexels)