Smart Villages: an idea whose time has finally come for Romania?

Rural areas across Europe are undergoing rapid change.  On the one hand, persistent challenges, such as poor infrastructure, low quality rural services and the outmigration of young people, continue to put many rural communities under pressure and are rapidly accelerating their decline. On the other hand, there are also new and exciting opportunities for rural people and rural businesses arising from what have been termed the ‘key drivers of 21st century rural change’, drivers of change which include a raft of shifting social values and consumer preferences, the impact of digital technologies, the imperative of developing low carbon and circular economies, the emerging bio-economy and so on.

EU rural development policy has a long-standing record of stimulating various forms of innovation in response to such challenges and opportunities, and one relatively new policy initiative that has the potential to both add to – and build upon – this existing track record is the concept of ‘Smart Villages’.

In a nutshell, Smart Villages can be understood as “rural communities that refuse to wait for change to happen to them”. Such communities are made up of rural people who take the initiative to mobilise themselves and explore practical solutions to the day to day challenges they face as well as seize new opportunities for improving their quality of life and standard of living. And there are, of course, thousands of rural communities across the EU doing this in various ways.

In recognition of the growing phenomenon of Smart Villages, the European Commission launched an EU Action for Smart Villages in the spring of 2017 and this has attracted widespread interest ranging from EU Institutions, national and regional governments to rural stakeholders on the ground.  Smart Villages were further highlighted in the Commission’s Communication on the Future of Food and Farming (November 2017) as a priority for helping “local communities address issues of inadequate broadband connectivity, employment opportunities and service provision in a clear and comprehensive manner”. 

The concept of Smart Villages is now embedded in the draft legislation for the post-2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and Member States will therefore have the opportunity to make support available in their CAP Strategic Plans for rural communities that wish to develop Smart Villages. Some existing higher-level strategic frameworks for Smart Villages (see chapter 2 of the ENRD Rural Review 26) already exist in some Member States and provide inspiration for this. 

All very exciting! 

Except of course that Smart Villages require Smart national / regional authorities to support them – and particularly to strategically programme and target the EU funds that are being made available. And this is where we start to get nervous, where we start to sense already the potential for a lost opportunity in Romania. 

And this would be a great shame since there is no doubt that the concept of ‘Smart Village’ is both relevant and appropriate to the Romanian rural context. It is clear, for example, from the recent work of the Romanian National Rural Network that some inspiring examples of Smart Villages do already exist in Romania where “traditional and new networks and services are enhanced by means of digital, telecommunication technologies, innovations and the better use of knowledge”. It is also likely that many more inspiring examples remain to be identified. 

These existing examples are not the result of any co-ordinated or coherent effort, but arise from numerous ad hoc factors, including the vision and personal commitment of local community leaders; various NGO initiatives focussed on issues ranging from poverty reduction to cultural heritage; innovative use of rural development and other funds, and; various other development initiatives funded with bilateral / multilateral assistance (e.g. World Bank-funded) over the last 25-30 years. 

It is also interesting to note, for example, that the concept of ‘Smart Cities’ is already well-established in Romania, including the publication of a Smart City Guide by the Ministry of Communications and Information Society (MCSI) in 2016. Whilst taking a more historical perspective, the concept of so-called ‘model villages’ existed in Romania during the 1920s – 1930s and was developed / promoted at the time as a tool for transforming rural life and introducing modernity to communities of predominantly peasant smallholders. 

Rolling out the Smart Village concept in Romania might therefore be considered as an idea whose time has FINALLY come. Watch this space for more information and comment.

Mark Redman, Highclere Consulting