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A look back on the smart eco-social villages pilot initiative

The Pilot Project on Smart Eco-Social Villages, initiated by the European Parliament, has been carried out by a consortium consisting of Ecorys, Origin for Sustainability and R.E.D. under the responsibility of the European Commission (Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development). The potential effect of this Pilot Project is to shape the on-going discussion on the future of the “Smart Village” policy. This pilot initiative is working alongside the European Network for Rural Development (ENRD) thematic group on the same subject. The final event of the pilot initiative took place in Brussels on February 21st and 22nd, 2019.

 

Defining smart eco-social villages

One of the main outputs of the pilot initiative was to define “Smart eco-social villages”. Thanks to the consortium’s work as well as online consultations and expert workshops to which SIMRA participated via their partner, Euromontana, the following definition has been adopted:

Smart Villages are communities in rural areas that use innovative solutions to improve their resilience, building on local strengths and opportunities. They rely on a participatory approach to develop and implement their strategy to improve their economic, social and/or environmental conditions, in particular by mobilising solutions offered by digital technologies. Smart Villages benefit from cooperation and alliances with other communities and actors in rural and urban areas. The initiation and the implementation of Smart Village strategies may build on existing initiatives and can be funded by a variety of public and private sources.

The definition is purposefully broad to be inclusive and to be an inspiration to a maximum number of territories. The wider policy context is considered in this definition as the challenges and needs of rural areas are very diverse.

The conflicting aspect of the Smart Villages definition lies in the importance given to digitalisation (ICT, Internet of Things, big data, etc.). In the European Commission’s view, Smart Villages should encourage digitalisation and, particularly, the application to agriculture and precision farming. On the contrary, the pilot project and the ENRD thematic group, supported by SIMRA, acknowledges digitalisation as a tool and a facilitator, but not as an objective. Indeed, to be inclusive, the concept of Smart Villages cannot recognise digitalisation as a criterion based on the low coverage of rural Europe by broadband.

 

Dissecting the definition

Each session of the event touched upon an element of the smart eco-social village definition, illustrating it by concrete examples and take-away messages.

  1. innovative services in Smart Villages: Smart Villages innovate in various areas and in very diverse ways, depending on the opportunities and challenges stemming from their local rural contexts, as illustrated in the SIMRA thematic brochures already. An interesting example of innovative services was the recently created Italian Comune di Ville d’Anaunia. Eight villages decided to merge in 2016, following a referendum, which enabled to pool public services, such as the management of local public spaces. The new municipality seized the opportunity to develop innovative tools for pooling municipal resources, as well as a digital hub to foster the use of teleworking.
  2. Role and importance of digital technologies: Digital tools and connectivity are closely associated with the “smart” concept and innovation. The presentation of Ruralitic, a French annual event to match the needs of rural areas with ICT solutions, illustrated how to use digital tools in an effective way i.e. to optimise public services such as waste collection or public lighting, to bring citizens closer together and to provide training and information to all.
  3. How to develop a Smart Village strategy: The diversity of local contexts, starting points and triggers indicates that there is no one-size-fits-all approach for becoming a Smart Village. For instance, the village of Svärdsjö in Sweden managed to create a community feeling thanks to the close collaboration between the municipality and volunteers at first for local infrastructure improvements and festivities. This collaboration then expanded to the whole community with a project of community-owned gas station with benefits being reinvested in the village.
  4. How to finance Smart Villages: Securing funding for the implementation of relevant solutions is an important component of a successful Smart Village strategy. For example, by using LED technology – which is less costly and therefore creates savings – in the public lighting system, the village of Comillas in Spain created a virtuous circle where the savings became available for investment in community projects or initiatives.

Several fresh key messages emerged from these sessions. Evidence from all case studies indicates that integrating public services is cost-effective for the community, whether it be spatially by collaborating with other communities nearby for transport, energy, etc. or virtually by creating sharing platform for instance. Linked to the discussion on digitalisation, but more widely still, to rural attractivity, the question of training is essential. Vocational educational training, punctual IT literacy training, leadership courses for local entrepreneurs, etc. help to increase the creativity and motivation of a community. Finally, nothing is worse than administrative red tape to discourage civil society engagement so smart communities should avoid at all costs to duplicate strategies, complicate governance, or set up new administrative procedures.

 

The future of Smart Villages

The Smart Villages initiative has fortunately found its way into the proposal for the CAP post-2020 and the number of Smart Villages in each Member State should even be a common indicator. However, SIMRA believes social innovation and rural communities’ initiatives should not be limited to the single Smart Villages measure. Within the CAP, advisory or facilitation support should also be provided to rural communities wishing to implement a Smart Village strategy at the very least but even better, SIMRA supports a mandatory cross-cutting principle for social innovation to be used in relation to any nationally designed measure of the Rural Development Programme (RDP).

The Rural, Mountainous and Remote Areas (RUMRA) intergroup of the European Parliament has been supporting a Rural Agenda as the counterpart of the Amsterdam Pact for urban areas for a long time. Such an EU initiative would ensure the roll-out of Smart Villages throughout the EU, without the risk of Member States watering down the Smart Villages initiative in their CAP Strategic Plans. The European Parliament has voted during the last plenary session in Strasbourg (11-15 February 2019) that 5% of the ERDF should be earmarked for greater territorial cohesion, out of which 2.5bn€ should go to Smart Villages.

If you’re interested in Smart Villages, read the policy note from the event here and have a look at the upcoming events showcasing the Smart Villages initiative:

 

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5 March 2019

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