In the past decade European countries have been undergoing a transformation towards an information society, and the changes taking place depend on global technological development. Rural residents are also a part of this process. Adjusting to the changes is not so much an opportunity as a necessity, as more and more types of activity are performed in the virtual world. This allows distances to be “reduced” and goods and services, especially public ones, to become more accessible. In this context, information and communication technologies are treated as a chance to overcome development difficulties [1
]. However, their usefulness depends on the availability and quality of the internet. Its absence or poor accessibility deprives a given area of opportunities for smart development [6
A new concept for rural development proposed by the European Commission is called “smart villages”. It is primarily aimed at villages that are declining due to remoteness and depopulation [10
]. The first and most often repeated definition of smart villages comes from the document on the EU’s actions for this idea [13
]. According to its authors, smart villages are those (local communities) that use digital technologies and innovations in their daily life, thus improving its quality, improving the standard of public services and ensuring better use of local resources. The document by the European Network for Rural Development (ENRD) underlines that a smart environment is created by people, and their main objective should be to find practical solutions to the main problems they face. It can be said that the EU promotes support for the development of areas in decline by using digital technologies and innovations. By engaging in a discussion on the concepts that have only just been formulated, the question can be asked whether these areas have the capacity for smart technology-based development. The authors assume that smart villages “begin” with an analysis of the use of digital technologies to create a space in which it is easier for local leaders to take account of the needs and capabilities of the inhabitants. Adopting such an approach makes it possible to consider the elements necessary for this process. The authors believe that the sine qua non is access to the internet.
The accessibility of the internet is spatially differentiated. The question is about its scale and nature. So where does the smart-village concept stand a chance? The decline in rural areas is characterised by the lowest level of socio-economic development, the following hypothesis will be tested: the lower the level of rural development, the lower the internet accessibility. This makes it more difficult to implement the smart-village concept. The implementation of such a defined objective will take place in three stages: (1) tracing changes in the rural population in Poland in relation to the level of socio-economic development; (2) identification areas of internet infrastructure deficiency and verification that they overlap spatially with areas of the lowest development level; (3) determining what smart villages are or are meant to be, what they should be like in the future, and what resources rural areas need to support activities fostering such initiatives in the EU’s future financial framework.
The beginnings of the smart village concept date to the middle of the last decade, when a vision of smart rural areas was presented by T. van Gevelt and J. Holmes [14
] on the basis of activities already pursued in this area in Africa and Asia. Due to substantial developmental and structural differences between rural areas in those regions of the world and rural areas in Europe, the concept is understood a little differently in the EU, also in view of its objectives and the instruments used in its implementation. An important document giving direction to smart village initiatives in Europe appears to be the above-mentioned the EU Action for Smart Villages
], planning specific actions aimed at putting the idea into practice. What has become the driving force of the discussion on smart villages, however, is the vision of “a better life in rural areas” outlined in the 2016 Cork 2.0 Declaration [15
], in which one of the challenges for EU policies for the development of rural areas was described as follows: “to overcome the digital divide and develop the potential offered by connectivity and digitisation of rural areas” (p. 3). The Rural People’s Declaration of Candás Asturias [16
] from late 2019 underlines the necessity to support smart initiatives as part of EU policies. The development of “smart rural villages and towns” is also recommended by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in its rural policy-making principles [17
] (p. 7). The great role of digital technologies is also highlighted by F. Bogovic and T. Szanyi, who view the concept’s development and practical application as a chance to ensure an easier and better life for rural residents, adding that it is necessary to respond to the problems created by the ageing of society and a shortage of services [10
]. Another underlined aspect of smart villages is the idea’s territorial sensitivity, enabling any projects to be adjusted to local circumstances. The virtue of the concept’s possible broad application is at the same time a drawback whenever we try to say what a smart village really is (or can be) (see Section 3.3
and Section 4
). The authors of the present paper see this issue as a general challenge, not just for the institutions that plan the development but also for the scientific community, its task being to deliver knowledge that best describes reality.
Some researchers believe that the smart-village concept draws upon the equivalent concept of smart cities [49
]. However, the problems faced by urban and rural areas seem to be completely different, therefore the solutions proposed during implementation of these two approaches are also different. The authors of one study on smart villages conclude that one of the biggest challenges is how to overcome the emigration from rural areas to conurbations, and ask a fundamental question: “what smart services, provided by whom, how and at what cost could be provided to ease the situation?” [63
] (p. 3). In this context, it seems equally important to ask not only about the scope but also the means of providing such services.
In the context of areas struggling with problems caused by negative demographic trends, we can speak of smart solutions in three aspects: public services, public management, and economic activity in a broad sense (Table 1
The first group includes services provided mainly in traditional forms by local government. The steadily diminishing population, decreasing population density and increasing percentage of the elderly will reduce the financial capacity to continue these services. On the other hand, demand for some specific services, e.g., related to healthcare or elderly care, will grow. L. Philip and F. Williams [64
] noted this in their study, mentioning such solutions as digitally supported communication platforms or assisted living technologies. This forces us to think about how to meet these needs, and new technologies are one of the tools proposed in development policies being drafted for the coming years [65
]. Apart from solutions for basic social services, the idea of smart villages also envisages using innovative solutions in transport and power supply.
Examples of smart actions in rural areas.
Examples of smart actions in rural areas.
|Smart Solution Group||Public Services:||Public Management:||Enterprise:|
|Areas of intervention||power supply (e.g., RES)||e-administration||precision agriculture|
|safety and security (e.g., visual monitoring)||waste management (e.g., container fill-level sensors)||online trade (e.g., in local products)|
|distance learning||town-and-country planning (e.g., digitisation)||rural tourism (based on smart solutions)|
|transport (e.g., telebuses)||environmental monitoring (e.g., air quality sensors)||sharing (e.g., of specialist equipment)|
|e-care|| || |
The second group of smart solutions is intended for the public administration. The solutions that seem especially important from the point of view of the rural areas being considered here are those designed to rationalise the performance of some of its tasks, e.g., in waste management. Equally important, although requiring greater involvement and skills from residents, are e-administration tools, which research has shown are still inadequately developed in Poland, partly due to barriers of awareness in society [69
One important objective of smart villages is not just to uphold the vitality of depopulating areas but to revitalise them as well. The solutions proposed here are related to farming itself as well as to other economic sectors not linked to agriculture. Enterprise in a broad sense is the least identified and, it seems, most difficult area of implementation. It depends on many aspects that are of a highly individual nature (impossible to standardise), such as businesses’ financial resources, competences as well as residents’ needs.
For the smart-village concept to function it requires the harmonisation of several elements: initiatives and collaboration aimed at proposing new solutions, necessary infrastructure related to information and communication technology, institutions activating and coordinating the work, and finally, the provision of services which would respond to the needs of local communities on the one hand, while enabling local authorities to alleviate the effects of emigration on the other (e.g., by reducing the cost of providing services). Implementations of the concept carried out so far, however, show that the above elements will not become reality without appropriate competence, skills and changes in rural residents’ perception of new technologies (awareness of the need for them)—this applies both to the recipients of smart solutions and to the people and maybe even institutions that will provide those solutions.
These requirements appear in the plans to support smart villages in the future Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), among others in Finland [71
] and Poland [72
]. In both countries support is planned in two ways:
At the national and regional level, where projects in basic infrastructure (e.g., broadband), development of e-services for different economic sectors (e.g., tourism, agriculture, public health) will be financed. In addition, the environmental component of such projects will be mandatory—thus, national authorities also see an analogy between smart villages and sustainable development.
At the level of local communities, ideas and strategies of individual villages, their clusters or local action groups (LAGs) are to be supported. The scope of support will depend on the bottom-up smart-village concept” proposed (especially highlighted in Poland).
The link between these levels of support can be provided by what are called innovation brokers, selected from LAGs and national rural network structures. Thus the initial government proposals take into account, to a certain extent, the elements of smart villages: both the basic ones (such the ICT infrastructure), but also those related to the expertise and activity of the rural residents, above all their leaders (Figure 7
GUS data from 2019 [74
] indicate that, of the people who do not use the internet on a daily basis, as much as 68% see no such need and over half justify it with their lack of skills. This is hard to imagine, however, when we see how common smartphones or notebooks have become as elements of the daily lives of the Polish and, more broadly, the European population, offering online access to all kinds of resources. Excessive costs of ensuring internet accessibility are indicated by a fifth of those polled, while some 14% cite overcoming an aversion to the internet as a barrier (p. 2). The results of the Social Diagnosis from 2015 enable us to conclude that rural residents’ competence in using the latest devices is increasing, including among the elderly [75
]. There are also other studies indicating that this group uses new technologies increasingly often and has a more positive attitude towards them [76
]. The need to digitise rural areas has been recognised in research carried out in other countries, to mention the United States, Germany, Italy and Slovenia [60
]. At the same time, access to fast internet networks is just one link in the entire chain of a process that also includes issues of adapting to the new technologies and matching smart solutions to the needs of local communities. It needs remembering, however, that in practice the implementation of the concept in question could take a dozen (or a few dozen) years, which means that the potential beneficiaries will be people who already function very well in a world based on new technologies.
The attention of rural stakeholders is turning to the concept of smart villages, an idea that raises great hopes for improving rural residents’ standard of living. Successful development based on the concept of the smart village is conditional on relatively good access to the village internet. Without it, there is no access to digital technologies and further to smart initiatives based on digital solutions. Research has shown that only one in five communes with a low or very low level of development have high internet access. At the same time, more than half of the rural areas facing decline have a low level of accessibility to the internet infrastructure (which may also sometimes mean a lack of it). The authors confirmed the hypothesis that with the decrease in the level of development the provision of ICT infrastructure in rural areas also decreases. Although research on smart villages is not yet advanced, it would seem that given the possibility of such solutions being co-financed from European funds, the main barrier to implementing the idea are a lack of skills and confidence in new technologies among people who do not use them on a daily basis. As data on rural residents’ access to and use of computers, the internet or smartphones suggest, however, innovative solutions are increasingly being used by people who will become beneficiaries of smart initiatives in the coming years. It is worth underlining that the competence of entities responsible for local development will be equally important for smart villages to be a success.
In view of the above, we posit that the smart-village concept should not be limited to the conditions created by developing technologies, but should be more open, i.e., receptive to social innovations. By these we mean not only introducing unique solutions but also implementing already existing ones, albeit in a new social context—an ageing society or rural decline. The solutions in question are intended to respond to the needs of a specific local community as well as to lead to lasting, positive changes in a given social group. This can involve innovative products, smart services or processes enabling different solutions to be found for typical social problems in local communities, in line with the motto “a better life in rural areas” [15
] (p. 1).
We see a certain analogy between the smart-village concept and the sustainable-development concept. In both these concepts, attention is drawn to maintaining a balance between the economy, society and the natural environment. This should improve the quality of life of residents but take account of current economic benefits of different groups as well as the environment they live in. In this context, it is worth mentioning U. von der Leyen’s declaration on measures aimed at adjusting to the digital age: “I want Europe to strive for more by grasping the opportunities from the digital age within safe and ethical boundaries” [79
] (p. 13).
The issue outlined here leads to one more observation: that the smart-village concept is not completely new. Similar ideas to take advantage of new technologies have appeared before, and the current technological progress allows us to conceive that today’s initiatives have a greater chance of success. However, it is worth referring to earlier experiences in order to adapt the present intervention in the best possible way to both the needs and the capacity of local communities and their institutional environment. Especially since work on the new framework of European funds for 2021–2027 is about to reach the crucial phase when decisions will be taken on how much funding will go to smart villages.
This article was written just before the coronavirus pandemic. During the pandemic, the authors have added this paragraph, also at the suggestion of reviewers. The whole world of science is observing this new situation and trying to draw conclusions from the current facts. We have started thinking differently about the future. We have undoubtedly entered a world of permanent changes. Will the “corona crisis” deepen the processes of depopulation of peripheral zones and at the same time increase the concentration of population in suburban areas? Will we take advantage of the possibilities offered by virtual communication, remote working, on-line consumption and telemedicine, and will there be a renaissance of villages remote from urban civilisation? What is happening is a “process” and as we observe it we will acquire arguments to determine possible scenarios. Today, however, we can already see that the emergence of this crisis has shown both certain weaknesses and benefits in the implementation of this concept. The undoubted benefits include, among others, the rapid acquisition of competences by people of different ages, development of on-line services, and above all—in the hinterland—“taming the internet”.