The ENRD’s Policy Analyst, Enrique Nieto, provides a definition of ‘Smart Villages’ and explains the need for a supportive framework in the 2021-2027 period.
Rural areas across Europe are undergoing rapid change. Whilst persistent challenges, such as depopulation and poor quality public services, continue to put many rural communities under pressure, there are also new and exciting opportunities for rural residents and rural businesses. Opportunity arises from the key drivers of rural change in the 21st century, including the impact of existing and emerging digital technologies, the low-carbon and circular economies, the bioeconomy, new value chains, new patterns of mobility, closer links with cities and so on. In this context, Smart Villages is understood as rural communities that refuse to simply wait for change to happen to them.
Many are taking advantage of digital and social innovation, new win-win relationships with urban areas, and activities which reinforce the role of rural areas in the transition to a greener, healthier and more caring society. A good representation of these examples are collated in the ENRD Smart Villages Portal.
A common definition
At the EU level, the Pilot Project on ‘Smart Eco-Social Villages’ led by ECORYS in consortium with several partners was funded by the European Parliament and contracted by the European Commission in view of developing a common definition of Smart Villages.
After two years of research and the analysis of several case studies, it concluded with a definition that is both inclusive and broad. It recognises that the challenges and needs of rural areas are very diverse – hence all rural villages and communities can be smart in their own way. In addition, this common definition reinforces the central fact that this concept is about rural citizens taking the initiative to find practical solutions – both to the severe challenges they face and, importantly, to exciting new opportunities which are transforming rural areas. There is an important distinction between ‘Smart Villages’ and ‘Smart Cities’.
The concept of Smart Cities focuses very much on big data and the opportunities for transforming the way in which cities function through inter-related digital technologies. Smart Villages are not simply an extension of this; they focus instead upon empowering local communities to engage with their future, including the use (where appropriate) of digital technologies.
Channelling policy support for Smart Villages
The European Commission’s proposals for a Regulation on CAP Strategic Plans and for future Cohesion policy leave much more freedom for EU Member States to design their own national and regional strategies within broad categories of intervention. Although there is no specific intervention or fund for Smart Villages included in the Commission’s proposals, Member States are encouraged to support Smart Villages and adapt the available types of intervention to the specific needs of their territory. Member States may therefore design their own packages of support within their post-2020 CAP Strategic Plans in the framework of rural development and in their Partnership Agreements1 and programmes in the framework of Cohesion Policy.
Within the CAP Strategic Plans they could, for example, provide for a toolkit of targeted interventions for LEADER/CLLD and other forms of co-operation, knowledge exchange, or investments in basic services and businesses, depending on the context and needs in that Member State. Within the framework of their Partnership Agreements, Member States and regions can also consider using the European Regional Development and Social Funds to channel funding that can support them.
The Smart Village concept is also relevant for a wide range of EU and national policies for sustainable mobility, renewable energy, the bio and circular economy, social innovation, and others. The ENRD Thematic Group on Smart Villages has developed individual briefings on how various policy tools such as LEADER/CLLD, other forms of co-operation and digital strategies can help to create the conditions for the villages.
In this flexible context, it is key that national/regional and local stakeholders take a proactive approach in the programming phases to design a supportive framework for Smart Villages in the 2021-2027 period.
1 It is proposed that Partnership Agreements will be drawn for all Cohesion Funds
2 European Pilot Project on smart eco-social villages
Smart Villages definition
‘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 co-operation 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.’