During the coming decades, the pace and reach of technological developments will continue to advance significantly. We tend to frame the potential impacts of these technologies around our towns and cities, which is where an estimated 55% of the global population currently lives. With this figure set to rise to 68% by 2050, it is no wonder that urban settlements have dominated the ‘smart city’ narrative so far and seem like the obvious places to focus.
However, what about the 3.4 billion people that currently live in rural areas? The potential developments in digital infrastructure, products and services are as imperative for social and economic advantage in the countryside as they are in towns and cities, and they should be playing a significant part in how our rural futures are imagined, practiced and stewarded.
“Smart cities need smart villages—not only for food security but the sustainable growth of enterprises and youth development.” Sir Brian Heap and Stephanie Hirmer
With this in mind, let’s explore the opportunities that digital technologies afford rural communities and why community engagement is central to a successful shift to the ‘smart village’ narrative.
Digital tech: a critical enabler of positive change
Countryside dwellers have been underserved by the digital rollout for years, with the UN’s International Telecommunication Union estimating nearly 40% of rural homes globally do not have access to the internet compared to only 28% of urban homes. This lack of connectivity has been highlighted even further by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has demonstrated just how important connectivity is in our everyday lives – whether for work, shopping or staying in touch.
Internationally, in general rural populations are recognised as being disadvantaged; a lack of services, depopulation, transport issues, reduced jobs and now climate change are all taking their toll. However, it is important to note that this picture is not universal and not all rural communities are disadvantaged. That said, fundamentally we need to improve the quality of life of villagers and digital technologies can be a critical enabler of positive change and a brighter rural future – socially, economically and environmentally.
In the UK, we are currently witnessing a shift in the demographics of village populations as Covid-19 and the rise of remote working sees people forgo cities in favour of the countryside. Beyond the need to have core digital infrastructure in place that enables people in rural areas to work from home efficiently, digital technologies can transform a whole host of human experiences and capabilities when they are invested in properly.
- The role of digital technologies in tackling climate change is becoming ever more apparent: helping to reduce emissions and waste; increasing people’s capacity to act and enabling circular economies – which is seen as key to preventing biodiversity loss. In our race to net zero, it is essential that rural areas have the digital means to participate fully.
- Service provision can benefit immensely from investment in digital infrastructure, products and services. For instance, digital banking services should be readily accessible to everyone – especially as banks continue to close high street branches – while digitally-supported integrated care services should be seen as a priority for all places with an ageing community.
- The pandemic has shown us just how crucial digital connectivity is for education, enabling school lessons to carry on virtually and ultimately preventing students with appropriate technology from missing a year’s study.
For all these reasons and many more, policy makers must ramp up their efforts to further drive smart village concepts and delivery to ensure rural lifestyles are sufficiently supported by digital enablement – and equipped for future uncertainties.
Why community involvement is key
If rural communities are to benefit from digital technologies and not be left behind or in receipt of ill-served solutions, community involvement must be central. Local vision, collaboration and inclusiveness is key.
Community involvement means having representative stakeholder community engagement with all people and lifestyles included. To support such participation, initial activities can include community training workshops to get to grips with:
- evidence gathering and new technologies
- local consultation and planning frameworks
- online capabilities to enable collaboration and discussion
- funding applications and business case development.
Communities must be supported to identify meaningful context-specific challenges, work out what needs to be done to achieve the challenge, determine their assets at hand as well as those required, and then identify the opportunities and/or projects. Supporting collaboration and agency are critical.
Of course, many communities are already thriving social capital networks who ‘simply’ need support to enable appropriate digital services and to mobilise community resources in new and connected ways.
Smart village pioneers
There is much to feel inspired by when looking at communities already harnessing digital technologies to develop rural economies all over the world.
It is clear there is growing national and international policy-level interest in rural development through digital technologies too. The European Network for Rural Development has been exploring how to effectively set up digital hubs in rural areas and promote digital technologies within them, while OpenGov Asia has launched a multi-agency initiative to help local indigenous rangers learn new AI and digital skills in order to monitor the health of their country. The Smart Villages Research Group, meanwhile, has developed an integrated smart village model based on work across Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Here are some examples of smart village concepts and projects that show how rural communities are using digital technologies to evolve and thrive.
Smart Fintry was a community-based project in the Stirlingshire village of Fintry that allowed households and businesses to buy their electricity directly from nearby renewable energy generators. This was done using the existing electricity grid infrastructure, wireless communications and smart meters to balance demand and supply.
The overall aim of the project, which ran for almost two years up until March 2018, was to pilot a replicable local energy economy that linked local, sustainable generation with consumption. In addition to reducing electricity costs and carbon for consumers located near renewable electricity generators, Smart Fintry aimed to alleviate fuel poverty, retain and enhance local value and economic resilience, and develop a framework to help shape future policy relating to distributed energy use.
Finland’s Smartest Village competition challenged villages to find smart solutions for providing services in areas such as healthcare, education, food, energy, mobility, retail, hobbies and culture.
It searched for villages with the willingness to become more “vital, active and innovative” in order to thrive now and in the future.
Entries included: increasing awareness of individual villages and their attractiveness; improving everyday safety, inclusion and wellbeing at various stages of life; helping the elderly live at home by improving services targeted at them; and developing a school and village house.
This living lab in Canada is working to create prototypes in the areas of natural building, permaculture and food production, health and wellness, regenerative business and economy, decentralised technology, community organisation, new forms of governance, and whole system design.
The aim is to create processes and templates that other communities can use to regenerate the health of bioregional ecosystems, local communities and their inhabitants. The project has reached its initial funding goal of $2m and is now creating crypto art to fund the development of a living prototype community in western Canada.
Since 2019, Malaysia’s Ministry of Rural Development has been working with partners to provide rural areas with smart solutions, close the digital divide between urban and rural areas and build digital skills among village communities.
The pilot smart village programme – which will initially start in 191 villages but is intended to expand to 15,000 villages across Malaysia – plans to roll-out high-speed internet that will power smart classrooms and digital libraries, allow villagers to sell their wares via digital marketplaces and farmers to use drones, and enable hospitals to monitor the health of their patients from city areas and deliver care via telemedicine. A smart map is also being built to share data in real-time and increase flooding awareness.
The project hopes to minimise migration from rural to urban areas by creating more job opportunities for village dwellers as well.
Whether enabling people to work from home more easily, reducing CO2 emissions or keeping the ageing population connected, when designed well, digital technologies are critical for advancing sustainable futures and improving the quality of life for all. Digital technologies must, therefore, be seen as an integral part of rural development.