Europe can and should do more to use digital technologies to meet the challenges faced by Europe’s rural areas. This was the key message from a meeting of rural development stakeholders in Bled, Slovenia, on 13 April.
The Bled Declaration, delivered by MEPs Franc Bogovič and Tibor Szanyi, to Commissioners Phil Hogan (agriculture and rural development), Violeta Bulc (transport) and Mariya Gabriel (digital economy and society), calls for further action to digitalise rural areas through the EU’s Smart Villages initiative and taking advantage of existing digital tools.
The declaration highlights how digital technologies should be used to mobilise local assets to solve challenges and seize opportunities in European rural areas. Precision farming, for example, has the potential to increase productivity while significantly reducing environmental impact and food safety risks. Nonetheless, the uptake of new technologies such as this vary considerably from one country to another. Making sure that all of Europe can benefit equally from the digital transformation is a key element of the declaration.
Other technological achievements highlighted in the declaration include digital platforms for e-learning or e-health, the circular economy, the biobased economy, rural tourism and renewable energy. To fully take advantage of those, it is important to invest in rural communities through existing EU funds such as the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) or Horizon2020 research funding.
Launched a year ago by the European Commission, the Smart Villages initiative aims at supporting a better quality of life, a higher standard of living, better public services for citizens, better use of resources, a lower impact on the environment and new opportunities for rural value chains. The concept covers human settlement in rural areas as well as the surrounding landscapes.
Broadband and connectivity is a first crucial step in digitalising rural areas, where there is still a serious gap compared to urban areas. In 2016, only 40% of rural households had access to fast broadband compared to 75% in urban households. To help close this gap, around €6 billion have been made available through the EAFRD and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) to finance broadband roll-out and other digital infrastructure in rural areas.
The Smart Villages thematic working group under the European Network for Rural Development, meanwhile, focuses on issues such as how to revitalise rural services through digital and social innovation. To do this, it is looking at what can be done and what is being done across the continent to share knowledge and best practices throughout the network.
In addition, a Smart Village pilot project is also being put in place, with the idea of developing a model for smart eco-social villages. The idea is that this model could then be used to improve the situation for rural communities. The first results of this pilot project are expected before summer 2018 and the full model should be developed by summer 2019.
The European Parliament is also investing in the initiative: €3.3 million has been allocated for a preparatory action to launch next year. The idea is to provide support for the development of 10 Smart Villages throughout the EU.
13 April 2018