‘Ciugud to be true’: The story of Romania’s best digital village

“Ciugud To Be True” - the commune's slogan also applies to electric cars as the area boasts one wind-powered charging station per 1,000 inhabitants. The commune also has smart lighting systems and has started to move its electrical cables underground. [Ciugud]

While Romania struggled, even after it joined the EU, to find a formula to revive some of its villages facing poverty and depopulation, the commune of Ciugud has stood out by managing to combat rural decline in a smart way. EURACTIV Romania reports.

In Romania, despite having a trove of EU funds at its disposal, the central government largely failed to develop a national strategy for rural districts, and villages were either left to rely on tourism, traditions, or agriculture, or take steps towards becoming “smart villages”.

The EU has been actively promoting the “smart village” concept to help Romania and other member countries combat rural decline.

According to the Romania Smart City Association, smart villages are communities in rural areas that use innovative solutions to improve the lives of residents, by streamlining public administration and developing the economy based on the area’s strengths, local opportunities and the latest technologies.

Romania’s best ‘smart village’

In Romania, the best “smart village” would undoubtedly be the commune of Ciugud in Alba county, central Romania, which mayors of other areas even visit for inspiration. Ciugud has even become an example of good practice for villages in the Prignitz District of Germany, following a visit of officials from the Brandenburg district at the end of August.

Ciugud’s mayor, Gheorghe Damian, ditched his political party to focus on the commune full-time, now for 21 years and counting. So far, he has invested more than €32 million in the commune’s infrastructure, tourism, green energy, and cultural projects.

But everything started before Romania joined the EU: “We somehow trained with the Phare and Sapard funding, we got the taste of EU funds,” said Damian.

“We would have needed the municipal revenue for the next 100 years to be able to achieve what we have done so far with the help of EU funds. 100 years and one has to account that if you start something and don’t finish it in a few years, it degrades and then costs you even more. And then, the people of Ciugud should have waited another 100 years to enjoy what they have today,” Damian said.

With the help of EU funds, the commune now ranks among the top five richest communes in Alba county in terms of budget revenues.

EU membership has allowed local authorities to no longer depend solely on the will of politicians to get development funding, the mayor said, adding that EU money is ‘the cheapest because it does not depend on the electoral score, how many banners I showed, but on the idea of ​​the project, what I propose and what I do with the actual amounts for the project.”

Smart village is a remedy for outflow of people from rural areas

Modernisation and structural problems are some of the biggest challenges for rural areas across Europe, along with shrinking demographics, urban migration or digital transformation. Smart villages, an increasingly popular concept among EU members, are set to counter all those negative trends.

‘Ciugud to be true’

Back in 2000, the commune counted about 2,600 inhabitants. Now it has 3,600 people so that, overall, around €10,000 per capita has been invested from EU money.

The mayor boasts that in Ciugud there is no housing without utilities (water, sewage, natural gas, fibre optics) and no unpaved streets. Even 26 kilometres of farming roads have been paved.

“Ciugud To Be True” – the commune’s slogan – also applies to electric cars as the area boasts one wind-powered charging station per 1,000 inhabitants. The commune also has smart lighting systems and has started to move its electrical cables underground.

The inhabitants are happy too as they trust the local administration more than the church, which in Orthodox Romania is not an easy feat.

“After all, this is the role of a local public administration: to make people happy through everything it does. The fact that people want to buy a house or a parcel here, to invest in our ​​economic development area, to set their company’s headquarters here, I think is the most thrilling for our local public administration,” the mayor continued.

But the success does not stop in Ciugud as the mayor is also looking to help develop surrounding localities, with which he has already developed partnerships.

“It is not enough for us to do well, we are aware that we have to live in a space where we have to eliminate disparities,” he said.

EU to fight ‘geography of discontent’ with new vision for rural areas

The European Commission unveiled on Wednesday (30 June) its long-term vision for the EU’s rural areas, proposing a rural pact and a rural action plan aimed at making those regions stronger, connected, and prosperous.

Developing education

The education system in Romania’s rural areas is often neglected, as derelict buildings often have no heating or access to water or sewage systems. With pupils also having to travel long distances to school, families sometimes prefer to keep their children at home to do household chores.

In Ciugud, this has changed. While kids used to go to school in neighbouring Alba Iulia, the capital of Alba county, the first “intelligent school” in rural Romania has since been set up. And since it is now at full capacity,  the commune is now thinking of investing in a new one.

At school, children learn to use digital solutions, which they will use when they become adults, said Dan Lungu, the coordinator of the Ciugud Smart Village programme. Lungu is very proud of the way local authorities have implemented various digital tools to facilitate the interaction between people and the administration.

“My colleagues started digitalisation in 2010. With EU funding, they started to buy software, to specialise, to work with them. Now we have a lot of digitised services. If the law would permit and if we could interconnect our database with the databases of other public institutions, we could do over 90% of interactions with citizens online,” Lungu said.

Other examples of good practice

Besides making advancements in terms of education, the commune has also looked into digital solutions to make it easier for citizens to pay taxes and duties.

People no longer have to go to the town hall to pay them as the commune has set up four electronic payment solutions, as well as self-pay stations for each of the commune’s villages.

Residents can also request or submit documents like their fiscal certificates online. About 80% of payments are currently made electronically.

And the commune’s investment spree is not slowing just yet. Following the construction of one of the most modern golf courses in south-east Europe for €15 million, and the first pier on the banks of the Mures river, Ciugud is looking into using EU funds to build the first motorhome campsite in Alba County.

[Edited by Daniel Eck/Zoran Radosavljevic]

Commission: The future relies on boosting ‘Smart Villages’

In an effort to revitalise rural communities and make them more attractive and sustainable, together with MEPs, the European Commission on Tuesday (11 April) launched an EU action called “Smart Villages”.

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