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It's high time to be smart

Thinking about the “bright adaptation” of what we have

Our world has turned upside down during these past weeks due to the Coronavirus. We are struggling with doing our everyday jobs and taking care of our kids at the same time. We are running around in pharmacies to get hold of hand sanitisers or facial masks. We are stocking food to prepare for the worst. We are increasingly trying to avoid going to public spaces - especially crowded supermarkets – and making attempts to order food online, often with little success.

We also have more time to think, and questions keep popping up in our minds like ‘How could this have happened?’, ‘How long do we need to hold on like this?’, ‘How can we best prepare for the worst?’, ‘Even if we are over this one, is it likely to repeat itself in the near future?’, ‘How can we protect our kids in the long-term?’…

I heard some inspiring ideas on innovation at the Agri Innovation Summit (Lisbon) in 2017 from Professor Henrique Leitão, a historian of science at Lisbon University. In his presentation entitled ‘Innovation in the past - ideas for the future?’ Prof. Leitão argued that just by looking at the past we can draw ideas on how to proceed into the future. One doesn’t need to have a new invention to reach innovation, but can simply have ‘bright adaptation’ of existing inventions. He also stressed that the first condition to have any type of innovation is that you have a challenge: “If you don’t feel that you have a challenge, I’m sorry to say, you will innovate nothing.” – he said.

We certainly have a challenge now, so it’s high time to find smart solutions that can help us getting over it. We don’t need to go too far into the past to find ideas that we can ‘adapt brightly’. It is sufficient to look at some of the existing innovative rural development practices and ideas, such as online education, care for the elderly and vulnerable groups, direct food sales by producers to consumers, rural co-working spaces and digital hubs, protection of biodiversity and eco-villages - just to mention a few...

Online education is now a concern of all

Depopulation and ageing are key challenges that many rural areas have been struggling with. As a consequence, an increasing number of rural schools have been closed down. Securing local education has been a concern of rural communities for many years, online education and digital technologies offering one of the key solutions to overcome this challenge. Some small villages have accumulated valuable experience that many other schools and local communities - be it urban or rural – can learn from in the current crisis.

In Finland, 93% of local schools have been closed down since the early ‘90s. While some communities have experimented with transforming the abandoned school buildings in smart ways, others have tried to find ways to allow children receiving quality education locally without the need of travelling long distances.

In the Western part of Finland, Kannus municipality decided to close down the primary school in the small village of Eskola in 2013 due to the small number of pupils. The villagers started to teach their children themselves, until a new three-year experiment has ‘brought back’ the school to the village in 2018 through developing digital education with Lapinjärvi, a municipality lying 500km away from Eskola. The experiment ran successfully for two years, when Lapinjärvi decided to leave the project because the state's compensation did not cover the associated costs. Eskola is now hoping to lay new foundations for its cooperation with nearby Kannus municipality, jointly completing the last year of its experiment and continue cooperation in the long-term.

Better appreciating living in rural areas

Many of us have been dreaming of getting away somewhere far if we could only afford it and had the necessary working conditions (e.g. sufficient connectivity) to carry on with our work remotely. The only place that seems to be safe right now is pure nature, that allows minimising interaction with other people. I’ve been looking with envy at my sister and her family who have relocated from their city apartment to their small family house in rural Hungary.

Many people are being forced by the virus to work through ‘home office’. While remote working has its own challenges – especially with kids running around – it is expected to force company leaders to reconsider how to run their businesses in the future, when and where the physical presence of employees is strictly required, what can be done more efficiently remotely, how much to spend on travel expenses, etc.

If remote work is more widely accepted as a common practice, it might also raise the value of living and working from rural areas. Many villages in exceptional natural environments – such as SVN members Skibbereen (Ireland) and Lormes (France) have been experimenting with developing favourable conditions for remote working through digital (co-working) hubs.

Win-win for farmers and consumers

While most people have somehow adapted to working and studying from home, shopping from home has been largely more challenging. An obvious alternative to going regularly to supermarkets is online shopping. However, online platforms, especially those of large supermarket chains are almost impossible to access and delivery can only be arranged for weeks ahead. Does this situation offer new opportunities for farmers to sell their products directly? Would short supply chains and platforms that create direct connection between farmers and consumers will gain new importance?

Indeed, some of the ‘farm-to-fork’ platforms have seen a sharp increase in their sales over the past weeks. One of the most popular platforms in Belgium (eFarmz) gets regularly congested and then ‘sold-out’ fast these days. This also shows that it is hard to keep up with increasing demand (image to the right). The question remains whether and to what extent the increased demand and interest in locally produced food will stay once the coronavirus is gone…

"You are very large in number today!" Source:

Taking care of the elderly and vulnerable people

It is a well-known fact that elderly people are the most vulnerable group of the population impacted by Covid-19. Taking care of elderly people has become the centre of attention of many local communities. Practices range from helping elderly people overcoming their isolation in confinement (see for instance the examples on ‘Fostering solidarity in rural areas in the Covid-19 crisis’ published by the ENRD) to the need for providing effective e-services (food delivery, health care services) in a situation when elderly people are strongly encourage not to leave their homes.

Solidarity for the elderly and vulnerable groups is particularly strong in small rural communities. For instance, the website of North, East and West Kerry Development (NEWKD) in Ireland (one of the initially selected pilot areas in the Smart Rural 21 project) is populated with news on the wide range of services the community offers to its members in need, including meals prepared at the local family resource centre by local chefs and volunteers, support and information in the time of crisis for people living with dementia, advice on mental health, etc. “It is fantastic to see members of the community rallying around one another and helping each other out” – says Jackie Landers, CEO of the family centre, quoted in a local newspaper article.

Preserving biodiversity is one of our best ways to protect against viruses

While most of our concerns are related to running our everyday lives, the current situation unavoidably raises questions about the wider global trends and our future and especially of the future of our kids. Some researchers see direct connection between the loss of biodiversity and the spread of new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19. A newly emerging discipline called ‘planetary health’ focuses on the connections between the wellbeing of humans, other species and wider ecosystems – as presented in a recent article of The Guardian on ‘Tip of the iceberg: is our destruction of nature responsible for Covid-19?’.

“We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbor so many species of animals and plants — and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses.” –argues David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, in a recent article in the New York Times – “We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”

Warning signs, that we have often ignored, have been there for some time: it is sufficient to mention recent pests and diseases in the agricultural sector such as the well-known and feared avian influenza (bird flu) and classical swine fever, less-known livestock diseases, such as the ‘bluetongue’ virus that is now spreading towards Northern territories due to climate change, and other harmful plant diseases and pests.

The current virus must increase awareness among people about the importance of protecting nature and biodiversity. “[W]hen you’re done worrying about this outbreak, worry about the next one. Or do something about the current circumstances.” – David Quammen states and concludes that “We are faced with two mortal challenges, in the short term and the long term. Short term: We must do everything we can, with intelligence, calm and a full commitment of resources, to contain and extinguish this nCoV-2019 outbreak before it becomes, as it could, a devastating global pandemic. Long term: We must remember, when the dust settles, that nCoV-2019 was not a novel event or a misfortune that befell us. It was — it is — part of a pattern of choices that we humans are making.”

… So it’s high time to be smart

Innovative solutions are needed more than ever. Identifying past experiences that can help overcoming current challenges is absolutely crucial. We do not yet see the end and the exact consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, but it already seems certain that challenges will not end but continue after the quarantine. We need to plan and best prepare for what is coming…

… The examples and ideas listed above are just a few of many. Exploring what local rural communities can do, and sharing smart practices with other communities are essential.

Upcoming blog articles will focus on concrete practical examples in relation to the ideas discussed above. Share your experiences with us and keep following us!

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