After 5 years of its launch by the European Commission and the European Parliament, Smart Villages has not only started to become a popular term, but also reality for many rural communities. The 1 st Preparatory Action on Smart Rural Areas in the 21 st Century (Smart Rural 21 project, 2020-2022) had the mission to help selected communities develop and implement local smart village strategies. As a result of the project, many participant rural communities have successfully embarked on a journey to become a smart village. However, these have only been the first steps taken on a long road. Villages need longer-term support to successfully carry through with a range of interconnected smart activities towards a smart vision.
The Smart Rural 21 project demonstrated that even the most innovative and open-minded villages often find it hard to access effective technical and financial support within the regional, national and European policy frameworks. At the Final Conference of the Smart Rural 21 project (in October 2022) many participant communities expressed their concerns that – while they developed their smart village strategies with support from the Smart Rural 21 project –it has been hard to access funding and support for the smart solutions set out in the strategies (beyond the support provided by the Smart Rural 21 project itself). Small rural communities often feel that they are left alone with their challenges and struggles and have to find their own solutions and funding for addressing local problems.
‘How to effectively support smart villages through EU policies and programmes?’- is the question that the EU has been concerned with during the past years. The Smart Rural 21 project drew initial lessons from the process of closely working with villages (see Guidebook on How to Become a Smart Village and the Final Conference – October 2022).
The 2nd Preparatory Action on Smart Rural Areas of the 21 st Century (Smart Rural 27 project, 2021-2023) has taken support to the next level. It has set the goal to map and improve the Smart Villages support system from the local to the European levels. This is a highly ambitious goal. So how to effectively do it?
Networking is the key to the process. At these early stages of the Smart Villages development process, it is particularly important to share successful – and less successful – experiences at all levels: from peer-to-peer learning among villages, to discussions of relevant stakeholders in specific regional and national policy contexts, to European-level sharing of experience. Creating and animating a networking environment for mutual learning is the mission of the European Smart Villages Observatory to be piloted in the Smart Rural 27 project. The European Smart Villages Pilot Observatory aims to facilitate the exchange of experience and knowledge on Smart Villages at all levels, with the ultimate aim to improve Smart Villages implementation both through European, national and regional policies and directly on the ground through supporting communities.
An obvious entry point of making Smart Villages more widespread, has been influencing rural development policies and programmes of Member States. Smart Village policies are mostly developed at the national (and in some countries at the regional) level, primarily within the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Strategic Plans. The expectation of the European Commission towards Member States’ governments has been to integrate Smart Villages support at least within the CAP Strategic Plans (but ideally also in other policies – especially the Cohesion Policy). Therefore, during the early phase of the project, the Smart Rural 27 project activities were mostly targeted on mapping the policy framework, understanding the scope for influencing policies at national and regional levels, and – based on this – improving specific national and regional Smart Villages policies, programmes and dedicated instruments. Dedicated Smart Villages taskforces were set up in those Member States where opportunities were identified to influence programmes and instruments (currently in Austria, Belgium – Wallonia, Cyprus, Finland, Latvia, Poland and Portugal). Taskforces have become the first pillar of the European Smart Villages Pilot Observatory.
As far as the local level is concerned, the Smart Rural 21 project already successfully implemented several networking activities for peer-to-peer exchange of experience among rural communities: including smart café sessions, cross-visits and events. During the Final Conference, participant rural communities have strongly expressed the need to continue this exchange process. “Many villages highlighted the added value of exchanging with other villages and the motivation that comes from the recognition that ‘we are not alone’” (Final Report of the Smart Rural 21 Project). Furthermore, during a set of final interviews with Smart Rural 21 participant villages, it was highlighted that exchanges should continue among villages on common themes of interest. Therefore, so-called knowledge clusters have been set up on specific themes with the engagement of interested rural communities (so far on renewable energy and digital services). Knowledge clusters are the second pillar of the European Smart Villages Pilot Observatory.
Beside supporting the development of supportive Smart Villages policy frameworks and programmes at national and regional levels (multi-actor taskforces) and the implementation of Smart Villages on the ground (through the exchange in the knowledge clusters), exchanging experiences and learning from each other at the European level is ever more important due to the novelty of Smart Villages programming. Smart Villages is still a new concept and many Member States have not programmed targeted Smart Villages interventions in either their CAP Strategic Plans (2023-2027) or other programmes. Therefore, sharing information and knowledge about successful (and less successful) experimental policy instruments that directly support Smart Villages is crucial. Also, while CAP Strategic Plans have been approved, there is still scope for amendments later on, as well as improvements in the implementation through the design of dedicated interventions and support (e.g. within LEADER). To assist this process, dedicated exchanges will be organised with groups of stakeholders (e.g. group of LAGs and other LEADER actors, group of CAP Managing Authorities, group of CAP Networks, etc.) to allow exchange of knowledge and discussion among stakeholders having the same responsibilities and concerns within the programming cycle. These European stakeholder groups or platforms are the third pillar of the Pilot European Smart Villages Observatory.
The European Smart Villages Observatory is at a critical piloting phase. 2023 will be about testing and strengthening the three pillars of the Observatory. The Smart Rural 27 project together with the European Commission aims to achieve that the Pilot Observatory is sustained and reinforced further in the coming years to create improved networking and better support from programmes and policies, ultimately for the benefit of local rural communities.