Updated: Apr 4, 2019
In this blog article we argue that smart villages offer a new "policy window of opportunity" to support rural areas and communities in an integrated way. The key to its success is a genuine multi-funded approach where single smart village strategies are supported by multiple funds, and the demarcation of funds and different rules are not the concerns of individual villages. 'Smart villages' will not just happen. Managing authorities of various funds and programmes should get together now to start designing the smart village policy framework of the next programming period in close collaboration with each other. Villages and village groups need to be closely involved already at the design stage.
There has been an increased buzz around the ‘smart villages’ concept at recent EU-level events and debates. In preparation for the 2021-27 programming period, the focus is shifting towards how to best support ‘smart village’ implementation through policies, programmes and related funds.
The European Parliament event of 21-22 February 2019, that marked the closure of the EU’s Smart Villages Pilot Project, encouraged participants to go home, pass on the message and ensure the implementation of smart village approaches on the ground. (Easier said than done!) The recent meeting of the ENRD Thematic Group on ‘Smart Villages’ has been exploring how the EAFRD and Cohesion Funds can best support smart villages (including LEADER/CLLD, cooperation and digital strategies). These are important considerations for the successful implementation of future smart village approaches. However, some crucial questions remain unanswered, and a focused approach is still missing. Let’s take a few of these questions and attempt to provide some suggestions on how to make a bigger leap forwards.
We believe that the new ‘smart villages’ concept is an important “policy window of opportunity” for strengthening rural areas, communities, economies and the environment now and post-2020. It is worth seizing this policy opportunity at national, regional and local levels. Assuming that there is willingness at local, regional and national levels to make smart villages ‘happen’, the main question that remains then is:
How? While there seems to be a clear commitment from the European level to support ‘smart villages’ through future policies, it has not been specified through which policy instruments or funding this should be done. In fact, Member States are given a lot of flexibility on how to support ‘smart villages’ (if at all) in the future. While flexibility can be good, it also brings a lot of uncertainties about what to do at local, regional or national levels and the risk that in most places no actions will be taken. There is also a risk that due to greater flexibility and uncertainty, the gap will be widening between more advanced Member States that started to act already, and less advanced ones that do not know where to start.
Why would villages start developing 'smart strategies'? Certainly, suggesting from the European (or even from the national) level to develop smart village strategies because they are useful for the future of rural communities will not be enough to do the trick. While bottom-up initiatives and push is crucial (and in fact this has been the main driving force behind creating the Smart Village Network), it is optimistic to assume that without a supportive policy framework, bottom-up initiatives will considerably change the status quo of ‘smart villages’ in Europe. Villages need incentives to adopt smart village strategies or start labelling existing projects, strategies and other instruments as ‘smart’. Without a clear support framework and policy instruments they will just carry on with their business as usual.
How smart villages will be funded? It is useful to keep in mind existing and future EAFRD instruments, such as those suggested by the ENRD. However, while certain funding streams (“measures”) of rural development programmes can contribute to smart village approaches more than others, ‘individually’ they will not be sufficient to reach a breakthrough. The coordinated and harmonised use of various types of EAFRD interventions would be needed to effectively support smart villages.
More importantly, we need to look beyond EAFRD. Support for smart village strategies should not only be made available through multiple policy instruments and funds but an integrated and coordinated support framework is required. In fact, the main added value of the smart villages concept lies in its potential to mobilise multiple funding sources for integrated rural development. After all, the instrument (see EU Action for Smart Villages) was born from the cooperation of three Commissioners: Hogan – Agriculture and Rural Development, Creţu – Regional Policy, and Bulc – Mobility and Transport. We should not lose sight of this fact. Practical coordination may be particularly challenging during the post-2020 programming period, as EAFRD will no longer be included with the other funds in the Common Provisions Regulation (although the CPR territorial chapter is still applicable).
How we can ensure integrated multi-funded smart village strategies? This is possibly the most important and the least discussed question of future smart village support frameworks. While representatives of various funds are regularly present at European smart village events, and reinforce the willingness of their funds (and specific policy instruments are named) to support smart villages, real life implementation of integrated multi-funded approaches is less straightforward. The continued emphasis on the need for “demarcation and complementarities between the funds” and the set of different rules and regulations still look alienating; while the collaboration among various authorities managing different funds remains challenging.
Multi-funded CLLD could offer useful lessons. However, still fairly little is know about how multi-funded CLLD has been implemented across Europe during the 2014-2020 programming period. Knowing which funds LAGs have used in different Member States tells little about the effective implementation. Genuine multi-funded CLLD would mean supporting single local development strategies from multiple (i.e. additional to that of EAFRD) funding sources. However, in most Member States multi-funded CLLD means local action groups operated under various (mono)funds (e.g. Fisheries LAGs), LAGs applying for other than EAFRD funding sources as beneficiaries, or acting as a ‘one-stop-shop’ for stakeholders (i.e. providing guidance regarding the availability of various funds for specific goals). Other than a few unique examples (such as the Smart Tyrol Region), there is little evidence of genuine multi-funded approaches. Multi-funded smart villages could be more ambitious than this.
How to be more ambitious? National and regional governments should seize the opportunity and take up the offer of the European Commission to support smart village strategies in an integrated way. In an ideal scenario, portions of different funds should be specifically devoted to support smart village approaches. This could also be done through a pilot approach, setting aside only a relatively small proportion of the relevant funds in an experimental way.
This smart village (pilot) funding should be poured into a single ‘bucket’ so that smart village beneficiaries do not need to think which fund they are applying for and what specific rules apply. The ‘demarcation and coordination of funds’ should not be the concern of the villages, but should be ensured through effective coordination of managing authorities (or intermediary bodies) in administering the ‘bucket’ of smart village funds. Villages should be primarily concerned and encouraged to develop long-term and comprehensive smart village strategies according to specific needs and assets of their areas. Key criteria should be developed to assess strategies for funding (such as community engagement, multi-actor approach, comprehensive analysis of challenges and assets, innovative approaches, clear and achievable targets, etc.). Funding could be made available according to the quality of the strategy, the proposed thematic focus and proposed process of animation and implementation.
Where should we start? This depends at which level you act. Managing authorities of various funds and programmes at national and regional levels should get together (e.g. in the form of a smart village ‘task force’) as soon as possible and start coordinating with each other the design of a supportive policy environment. In line with the partnership principle, villages, village groups (including LAGs) and their representatives need to be directly engaged in the process of designing future programmes in order to ensure that these address the most relevant needs of local rural communities and that the process is meaningful and encouraging for villages (see our blog article of March 2018 on ‘Villages need to have a say on what smart villages are’). The European Commission should live up to its promise and guide and support any Member State that is willing to experiment with a genuine multi-funded smart village support framework.
Smart is all about innovation. Member States and regions need to be ambitious and experiment for the support and benefit of their rural areas, despite the uncertainties. As our Finnish Rural Network colleagues expressed: “We didn’t know what we were gonna do, so we decided to try something.” Let’s try ‘something’ now. The Smart Village Network is ready to support its members to take actions at local, regional and national levels.