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Can we make the countryside smarter?

A growing understanding of the importance of place to policy-making is one of the central interests of the Bennett Institute, and we are developing an ambitious programme of research on cities and economic growth and the challenges associated with the ‘left behind’, working with different partners, in this area. Below we publish a blog on ‘smart villages’, which reports on an investigative feature from Apolitical, a non-partisan platform designed to improve policy-making around the world.

Anoush Darabi, writer for Apolitical, explores the growing concept of “smart villages”, mirroring the technological growth and investment of our major cities.

Compared with other European countries, urbanisation in Finland came late and happened fast. In 1950, just 31% of Fins lived in cities, compared to 79% in the UK. By 1980, this had grown to over 60%. “People still have a lot of connections with rural areas,” said Janne Antikainen, development director at Finnish development consultancy MDI. “It's a strong part of our identity.”

As the urban boom accelerates from the 20th century and into the 21st, the concept of the tech and data-enabled “smart city” has emerged. But people will continue to live in the countryside. Now, Finland and other European countries are trying to apply a smart city approach to their rural communities. With “smart villages”, they’re attempting to reimagine country living for the twenty-first century, and ensure that the benefits of technological progress aren’t isolated to the city.

A smarter countryside

“All around the world, there has been a concept of the smart city,” said Antikainen. “[We thought] perhaps in Finland we could find some solutions for sparse populations and long distances on those same issues that have been touched upon with the smart city concept.”

In 2016, the Finnish government commissioned MDI to carry out research in partnership with several government ministries into how rural services might be improved with digital technologies.

Under the framework of the “smart countryside”, Antikainen surveyed three different rural regions — an area with an ageing population in eastern Finland, the south western archipelago popular with tourists and an agricultural area in the west — to assess what services were like and how people interacted with technology.

Technological infrastructure and internet connections were often better than the researchers expected, but too few people were using them. “Often the infrastructure itself doesn't secure good regional development — we visited places that had very good or splendid infrastructure, but still there were no solutions for products or services that would be built on this infrastructure,” said Antikainen.

Digital Villages

In the German state of Rhineland Palatinate, policymakers have been trying to build such products and services. Since 2015 the “Digitale Dӧrfer”, or digital villages, project has been finding new ways to make ordinary life easier by turning settlements into “living labs”.

A team made up of technology specialists at the Fraunhofer Institute and public servants from the state went to selected towns and villages to work with locals on a set of solutions to their needs.

The point is to go beyond conventional infrastructure such as faster broadband connections, to build tools which help rural communities tackle the unique challenges they face.

Among the solutions developed in Rhineland Palatinate were “DorfFunk” and “DorfNews”, the former a community-focused social network where residents could interact or offer help to one another, the latter a news service which collects local news stories and allows residents to contribute their own.

The aim of both is to link people in the community together, and helping to bridge the physical gaps between the villages.

Digital villagers

For both Antikainen and Hess, technical education is central to ensuring such tools are used. While younger people will have grown up as so called “digital natives”, for older generations it can prove harder to interact with services which sit online.

“We can’t expect 10,000 users on the very first day,” said Steffen Hess research program manager at the Fraunhofer Institute. “With each new solution, naturally you have to entice them and motivate them to take part. Obviously that only takes place step by step.”

For Antikainen, elderly people “definitely need basic skills”, but both he and Hess were surprised by their willingness to take part. Far more so than young people, at home with existing modes of communication, older people welcomed the helping hand from the state, and the service it provided.

“Our most active user group is young pensioners, those between the ages of 60 and 65,” said Hess. “Before we started we didn’t think that we would be able to reach them, but they’ve turned out to be the most active.”

But more valuable than the solutions themselves is the experimental and consultative “living labs” approach that spawns them, said Hess. “We go to places where citizens already meet, and try to ask them what it is they want and need,” he said, “It’s not about the concrete solution, but what the needs are we could serve.”

Following consultations, teams of software engineers try to get working prototypes of solutions up and running in three to six months. From here they can be improved and refined, depending on the way that citizens interact with them.

Viable futures

The European Network for Rural Development has backed smart villages as one of its key areas for future reform. Through digitalising rural services, European policymakers hope to meet the challenges of rural life as urbanisation continues, populations age and services become more sparse.

For both Hess and Antikainen, the opportunity now is to build on this community engagement and push into different sectors. Digitale Dӧrfer’s next theme is transport, beginning a consultation this Autumn with solutions to be proposed in the Spring. Antikainen meanwhile hopes the government continues to experiment with the rural communities.

The ultimate aim is to show that life in rural need not be meaner or more difficult. “I don't think it's very realistic to think that the migration patterns would change dramatically,” said Antikainen “But that citizens everyday life would be easy and supported both in urban areas and rural areas.”