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Smartness shows in actions. An impulse for (re-)thinking Smart Villages as an open process with manifold appearance

Michael Fischer has been working in the field of spatial development for almost 20 years. He studied social sciences with a special focus on rural areas. In 2006 he joined ÖAR consultants and became an associate partner in 2014. His consultancy focus is on regional policy and multi-level-governance. He is part of the Austrian CAP-Network, responsible for quality-of-life related topics and LEADER-networking. He is a lecturer for regional development at Vienna University and the Austrian University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences.




Whenever a new concept is introduced, in any context, there is a need for clarity, especially when this happens in a field with a high dynamic of concepts in use. It is necessary to explain the new not only in a self-referential way, but also in terms of its difference from the existing – ideally by deconstructing the concept into its smallest observable components. While this approach may be useful in the natural sciences, it can lead to a double paradox of clarity, especially in the case of a development concept such as Smart Villages. 

The first paradox can be explained by contextual dependency or “systemic entanglement”. What does this mean? Smart Villages as a concept at EU-level needs to be suitable for villages in 27 Member States, each of them with different development paths, different cultures of participation, different available resources, different path dependencies, different experiences with digitisation, and so on. In addition, these villages are all embedded in different cultures of multi-level governance, different uses of funding and support instruments, etc. Some of these circumstances may hinder development, others may offer opportunities. Thus, a very rigid definition of Smart Villages could lead to a situation where only a few can make use of it because it fits only their circumstances. 

The second paradox lies in the uncertain nature of the “new”. Although the Smart Villages concept is based on more or less proven assumptions about certain development factors (e.g. sustainable development requires wider participation and not just decisions by a few formally elected people) it still cannot be predicted, how these individual elements work in different combinations at the local level and how emerging approaches, resulting from highly ambitious application, can enrich success. An overly narrow definition could therefore limit learning experiences and local impact.

Smart Villages as an open approach at EU level
Since the date of introducing, the Smart Village concept has been reflecting this need for openness. “What can be concluded about the EU approach to smart villages is that it remains open-ended to allow for different aspirations and avoid limiting opportunities and innovation capacity.” (Kirketerp de Viron & Mudri 2019: 16)This resulted in a definition for Smart Villages, that is still in use (with minor varying adaptations):

Smart Villages are communities in rural areas that use innovative solutions to improve their resilience and address challenges in the local context. This is based on local strengths and development opportunities. They rely on a participatory approach to develop and implement their strategy to improve their economic, social and/or environmental conditions, in particular by mobilising solutions offered by digital technologies. Smart Villages benefit from collaborations and alliances with other communities and stakeholders in rural and urban areas. The initiation and implementation of smart village strategies can build on existing initiatives and be funded from various public and private sources. 

This definition indeed offers clarity to some extent. But every term used raises further questions. What kind of participation is smart? How must a strategy be structured and what should it contain? What characterises a village, how small or how large can it be? As argued above it certainly would be possible to provide a very precise definition to every aspect but – in my opinion – the negative effects would exceed the positive ones. So how can we deal with this situation? Does this put the concept at risk of being arbitrary? Not, if the concept evolves together with its application.

Doing and learning within pathways of “context” and “ambition”.

Openness doesn´t mean that the interpretation of the different Smart Village factors (such as participation, innovation, etc.) has to remain completely fuzzy. One can see various pathways for the application of the different Smart Village factors where the endpoints describe a combination of Context: “What am I allowed/able to do?” and Ambition: “What am I willing to invest and eager to achieve?”. While Context mainly refers to circumstances that cannot be influenced by the individual village or actor, the Ambition reflects the individual motivation for development. Without claiming that this is the only and best way to define these pathways, the following figure shows a possible variation.

In villages with no previous experience of participation, it may be appropriate to start by simply asking local people what they need and what they would like to see happen in the future. This approach is limited in terms of feasibility and risks ending in frustration for those whose “wishes” cannot be fulfilled. The other end of the scale could be a clear framework for participation, where people are given a clear vote for co-decision, where there is a clear commitment to commonly implement shared decisions, or a clear process for how the results of participation processes are taken up by those who provide the necessary resources in whatever form.

For some villages, innovation can be smart, simply copying solutions that work well elsewhere and are needed in the local context. This may be because they do not want to overburden actors, or because they are hindered by overly cautious decision-makers or funding schemes. Others may have the opportunity and/or the ambition to innovate more ‘radically’ by developing entirely new products or services. The combination of the two more advanced forms of participation and innovation can be seen as social innovation, where local social practices are fundamentally restructured and result in an improved situation (living conditions, etc.) for local people.
Digitalisation is something of a core feature of Smart Villages. Here, one side of the pathway could be the simple transfer or translation of analogue to digital processes, such as local authorities switching from paper to digital forms for registering children in kindergarten. Where there is opportunity to act more freely and with higher ambition, digitalisation can be used to radically redevelop business models or services. Villages can, for example, introduce a digital “climate protector” app for mobile phones that tracks the distances you travel by bike or on foot instead of by car and rewards you with bonuses in local shops and so on.
Sustainable local development is rarely achieved in the short term through a single project. Ideally different actors with different initiatives interlock over time and provide a leverage effect guided by a shared vision. Thus, Smart Villages need a strategic roof that, among others, provides a commonly defined target state and cornerstones for pathways to achieve it. This strategy may focus on one sole issue or object (in the context of spatial development) and have a limited integrated perspective. This would be appropriate where needs assessments show a clear urgency in a particular area or it can be expected that resources might only be mobilised very selectively. For example, in an attempt to face decentralisation tendencies, a village decides to breathe new life into the local centre by defining a series of measures to utilise vacant buildings for cultural (music/theatre) and economic (pop-up stores) purposes. A more ambitious strategy would have a longterm perspective (especially exceeding legislative periods of local politicians) that is based on a broad local consensus (including public and private actors), combines different sector policies, and builds upon a sound combination of local strengths to face identified local challenges or to exploit opportunities. In that sense the previously mentioned example could be enhanced to work together vertically with administration and politics on federal regional level to change existing patterns of spatial planning by sensitising actors on all levels with good practice transfer, development scenarios, covering different local functions, etc.
Cooperation is an important factor for local initiatives to access new opinions and knowledge and to pool resources. For sure, one can stick to existing cooperations with “similar” partners because they proved fruitful (like two craftsmen working together for years). But even this aspect of smart development can be more ambitious if one explicitly crosses boundaries by connecting to new partners that enrich one´s own development opportunities (like the craftsman who finds a partner from the creative industries). Ambitious networking and cooperation also means to overcome shyness of networking transnationally and to actively build up cooperations even with language barriers. 
Last but not least, financing is a crucial aspect in smart development. In some cases, it may be adequate to focus on one sole funding instrument. Especially when implementing a multi-faceted strategy it often turns out that one needs more flexibility in funding. Thus making use of a portfolio of different funds (e.g. a mix of national and EU-funds, combined with community- or crowdfunding) enables to custom-fit funds to measures/projects and not vice versa.   

These examples show that a clear threshold for dividing “smart” from “non-smart” is not imperative. Smartness rather describes a sound choice of processes along the Smart Village factors (participation, innovation, digitalisation, etc.) influenced by constraints and opportunities of context and ambition, of the external and the internal. For many villages there will be a starting point from which they can develop, enhance opportunities, and move smaller or bigger steps from the left to the right sphere of the pathways.
Yet, for some villages this openness may cause uncertainty and raise questions like “Am I doing it right? What, if I choose the wrong participation methods? What if I can´t see an added value of digitalisation for my initiative?” In these cases, but also in general, villages can benefit from exchange and learning experiences of other villages, by participating at Smart Rural 27 activities or other support instruments offered by EU projects.  

All levels must adopt an open attitude

To make this an open and self-developing system of Smart Villages work, not only villages have to accept its openness. Since Smart Villages often rely on funding, managing authorities need to provide a suitable funding framework that takes this openness into account, and that certainly allows for them to define minimum requirements (for example to demand a participatory process for strategy development) but do not limit or over specify how this is realised and how the final output looks like. For example, it would be possible to choose an approach where milestones are agreed and monitored with the beneficiaries and additional support and exchange – for example via the national CAP-network – are provided.

Maybe this insight makes it easier: not even a recipe is a recipe for success

In German we use the term Kochrezept (cooking recipe) if we refer to a very clear manual for doing or achieving something. I once held a presentation about rural development methods and argued that it is not possible to deliver “cooking recipes” for their implementation. After the event a person from the audience approached me and said: “You don´t cook a lot, do you? Your picture of cooking recipes is wrong. Even if all ingredients, units and workflows are explained in high detail, there are factors like humidity on the day of preparing the food or too high rotation speed of your mixer that can influence the quality of your dish.”   

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