‘Smart villages’ are modernisation tools to be taken seriously

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

With the help of digital platforms the farmers' position in the value chain has been dramatically strengthened. [Supparsorn [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Where are the e-tools to modernise the CAP?.

The expansion of e-tools in rural areas will enable villages to become more agile, make better use of their resources as well as improve their attractiveness and the quality of life of rural residents, argue MEPs Franc Bogovič and Tibor Szanyi.

Franc Bogovič sits in the EPP group and is a member of the Committee on Regional DevelopmentTibor Szanyi is in the S&D group and is a member of the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development.

Agriculture may not be as important as it was in the past, for example in the number of jobs, but it still has an enormous impact on rural areas. It is an essential factor for preserving rural landscapes and has an ecological and social function within our food production chain.

Agriculture provides benefits for other sectors, such as the tourism or the energy sector and we have experienced that many SMEs have developed successful business models connected to agricultural production.

We strongly welcome and commend the EU objectives in the new CAP proposals, related to innovation, digitalisation of agriculture as well as measures for young farmers, who will lead the transformation and modernisation of European agriculture.

Result-oriented indicators, which will follow these objectives need to be realistic. National administrations will now saddle the large burden of establishing measures and strategic plans, in order to follow the indicators and objectives.

This requires proactive administrations (to say the least) and we would like to create a framework in the EU, in full respect of the subsidiarity principle, that gives local administrations the freedoms necessary and that rewards proactivity with financial opportunities for the region.

With the help of digital platforms, the farmers’ position in the value chain has been dramatically strengthened. Shorter value chains allow the farmer to sell his or her produce directly to the consumer, thereby increasing the choice for the consumer, while circumventing often monopolistically acting retailers.

The farmer gains autonomy and the ability to negotiate a fairer price for his products. With this is in mind, the importance of the EU objective to strengthen all e-tools in agriculture becomes crystal clear.

10 billion euros from Horizon Europe, reserved for innovation in agriculture can be one of the main tools for financing research projects, connected to the smart village philosophy;
But the strategic advantage of the smart village objectives is that our vision is dispersed throughout several legislative proposals and EU funds.

Our main goal needs to be to establish the connection between these funds. A good example for this is the EU funded LEADER programme, which is designed to support rural businesses and to create jobs and support the rural economy, in the SME sector.

The cooperation between research and private sector will be crucial for the smart villages to succeed. Our hope is that a small number of best-case scenarios will serve as examples and final convincing factor, to persuade investors to match the EU funds ready to be dispersed for smart villages and thereby the revitalisation of rural areas throughout our beautiful continent.

The very practical way forward is to improve the legislative proposals and to encourage national administrations to see smart villages as a serious modernisation tool, which can become the key factor for repopulating rural areas in the EU, by improving life quality in these areas. We need to encourage all stakeholders (research, SMEs, IT sector, energy sector, farmers, advisory services and so on) to be proactive and cooperative.

Smart village is a new concept in the realm of EU policies, yet it has become an important one among policymakers as well as other stakeholders. There is no definition at the European level on what this term actually means.

We therefore implemented a pilot project in the Agricultural Committee of the European Parliament, with the aim to find and establish a definition for ”Smart Villages”, which integrates the range of different interpretations and conceptions currently existing.

It is already clear that ‘smart’ means the ability and the possibility to use all the modern tools, services and beyond. It is crucial to gain inputs from stakeholders and academics who are involved in relevant projects or programmes.

Ecorys, one of oldest economic research and consulting companies in Europe, has been granted the budget by the European Commission for the pilot project to develop the scientific definition and tools on how smart villages need to be implemented, in order to be able to properly harness the success and high hopes we have placed into our vision.

We share the understanding that digital technologies include information and communication technologies, the exploitation of big data or innovations related to the use of the Internet of Things, for example.

The systematic connection of these tools will act as a lever that enables smart villages to become more agile, make better use of their resources and improve the attractiveness of rural areas and the quality of life of rural residents. Ecorys has already identified some successful initiatives that are going in the rights direction, such as ‘Bras-sur-Meuse’.

They are using European funding to create telework centres offering high-speed broadband, training for elderly, a co-working space, and many activities for the local inhabitant to stimulate entrepreneurship and to fight against unemployment and social exclusion in rural territory.

Or the ‘Eskola village’, which uses community building to organise citizen-led development providing place-specific services including the use of IoT. They foster the integrated development of the village. These examples are serving as baselines for the more complex vision of smart villages; a rural area, which profits from the synergies created by linking existing technology with each other in a systematic way.

We need to understand smart villages as communities in rural areas that develop smart solutions, in order to deal with challenges in their local context. They build on existing local strengths and opportunities to engage in a process of sustainable development of their territories.

They rely on a participatory approach to develop and implement their strategies to improve their economic, social and environmental conditions, in particular by promoting innovation and 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. Of course, we should not forget (digital and precision) farming, food production and environment, which give the core difference between urban and rural settlements.

All of this will always boil down to our key message: smart villages are the opportunity to use digitisation, not only for farming but also for rural communities and the current reform of the CAP presents an opportunity to realise this.

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