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Harnessing innovation to unlock the potential of rural and remote areas

Digitalisation has enormous potential to transform life and opportunities in rural and remote areas. Our recent experience has proven that digitalisation can bridge physical distances to bring opportunities and services to us no matter where we live – so long as we have good digital connectivity. Yet, paradoxically, the exponential role of digital connectivity, services and skills over the past couple of decades has exacerbated rural-urban disparities, where it should have healed them.

Title over photograph of a hill-top village featuring a steep cobbled street and charming houses, looking over a wide countryside landscape with forests and gentle hills: Harnessing innovation to unlock the potential of rural and remote areas

European Broadband Competence Offices Network Support Facility

Innovation and digitalisation versus the rural-urban opportunity gap

80% of the EU is rural and home to 30% of the population, yet many rural areas have gradually been left behind while urban centres develop, providing better access to public services and offering a broader range of opportunities. As this gap grows, rural communities can begin to suffer from depopulation, as people of all ages move to better resourced, often urban areas, in search of quality education, employment opportunities and healthcare, among others. As rural populations and economies shrink, so does investment in public services and infrastructure, and so the rural-urban gap further widens.

The choice to live in a rural or urban area should not be made on the basis of access to essential services or opportunities. We have the ability to make these available everywhere. Indeed, many rural areas are dynamic and growing. The crux of the matter, however, is that reliable, high-speed broadband is the prerequisite for accessing the modern services that can bridge the digital – and opportunity – divide between rural and urban areas.

The pandemic switch to remote living caused a paradigm shift, wherein a huge swathe of the population at large became remote citizens, virtually overnight. Suddenly, the market for remote services was vast, the demand undeniable, and a commensurate wave of investment and innovation swiftly followed. The resulting solutions were life changing for many – a lifeline in lockdown – yet more and better solutions are still to come.

As we increasingly embed them into our daily lives and make that level of close access the norm for all citizens, irrespective of geography, we drive the mainstreaming and accessibility of remote services. In so doing, we support the widespread adoption of innovation needed to digitally bridge the gap between rural and urban access to opportunities.

Harnessing the pandemic-born step change in remote services has far-reaching potential for both the immediate and long-term sustainability and flourishing of rural communities. This, in turn, will have important consequences for society as a whole. Greater cohesion and an understanding of our interdependence, coupled with a blanket levelling-up of our social and economic circumstances, will contribute significantly to our resilience in the face of the challenges we expect in the coming decades.

Looking deeper

In order to explore this concept in greater depth and bring additional perspectives and practical examples into the discussion, the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) and the European Broadband Competence Offices Network (BCO Network) brought together a diverse range of expert speakers in a workshop as part of the 2021 European Week of Regions and Cities: ‘Rural connections: green and digital innovation to unlock the potential of rural and remote areas’.

Local empowerment

Andreas Wolter, Vice Mayor of Cologne, Germany, and CEMR Spokesperson for urban and inter-territorial mobility, called for the empowerment of “our communities, our small towns and villages to be able to take the steps that will improve their conditions of life”, prioritising “how we can turn those challenges into opportunities” and emphasising the role of local and regional associations in creating a Europe-wide discussion.

The rural-urban gender gap

As flagged by MEP Clara Aguilera, Co-Chair of the European Parliament Intergroup on Rural, Mountainous and Remote Areas (RUMRA) and Smart Villages, the difference in opportunities for citizens in urban versus rural areas can be seen not only in terms of general employment and education levels, but also in increased gender inequality. MEP Aguilera encouraged participants to explore this further through the European Commission’s recent Communication on the EU’s Long-Term Vision for Rural Areas, which offers a good analysis of the main challenges and actions needed.

Looking beyond agriculture

MEP Aguilera also underlined that, when planning to intervene in support of rural development, it is important to view territories from a holistic and comprehensive perspective, so that the full range of needs can be addressed, rather than approaching them from the perspective of a particular sector, such as tourism or agriculture – as has been done in the past. She warned of this risk, particularly with regard to how it may hold back the opportunities that the environmental transition and green pact could otherwise bring.

Sustainable mobility

An additional dimension is the need for sustainable mobility and improved physical connectivity between territories. The movement of people and goods is a critical aspect of social and economic development and cohesion, and it requires considerable investment in order to bring about equitable growth – but, as stated by Carlos Martinez Minguez, Mayor of Soria, Spain, these must be implemented in close alignment with the energy and ecological transitions.

Digital infrastructure for inclusion

Carola Gunnarsson, Lord Mayor of Sala, Sweden, and Vice-President of the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions, identified digital innovation as essential for the sustainability of remote area communities, particularly in the face of climate change adaptation and accessing important services. With the example of innovative “distance-spanning solutions” in healthcare, such as medicine-delivery drones for inhabitants of sparsely populated areas, Ms Gunnarsson emphasised the importance of addressing the digital infrastructure gap in such areas in order for the benefits of digitalisation to be accessed equitably and inclusively.

“The more we build systems for digitalisation, the more important it will be to have reliable infrastructure. It is a question of trust for society, and of basic safety in the welfare system. If we have reliable digital infrastructure, we can develop the whole society.”

Cross-community collaboration

Closing the digital divide is more complex than ensuring the presence of the physical infrastructure, commented Eddy Hartog, Head of Unit for Technologies for Smart Communities within the European Commission Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology. In order to accelerate the implementation of the technical solutions needed, Mr Hartog proposed that territories, cities and communities work together collaboratively, through such platforms as Living-in.EU, to share knowledge and even co-invest in solutions.

Long-term quality of life

Professor Simona Ferrante, from the Polytechnic University of Milan, pointed out that, for people in rural and remote areas in need of regular health checks and support, unintrusive remote health monitoring can be a life changer. With examples from her EU project, ESSENCE, such as a gesture-tracking ink pen or voice-analysing app designed to alert family, friends or clinicians in case signs of possible cognitive or physical decline are detected, Professor Ferrante showed how innovative digital technologies can foster a “new model of home-based care”, allowing greater independence, quality of life and peace of mind, as well as, importantly, the choice to remain in one’s own home and community.

Noting that ESSENCE’s solutions all operate reliably on standard bandwidth networks, Professor Ferrante underlined the importance of building in accessibility and ease of adoption when developing such tools, in order to remove any barriers to their use.

Educational equality and generational renewal

Goran Škvarc, Deputy Manager of Croatia’s EU-funded e-Schools programme, advocated strongly for the impact of e-Learning on reversing negative demographic trends. He outlined how equal access to quality education – through such tools as ICT equipment for schools, digital skills training for teachers, and online courses for island pupils – can be transformative for individuals as well as communities:

“Digitalisation can raise the quality of life in villages and small towns in Croatia by offering opportunities for better and more diverse jobs in rural regions, and the e-Schools programme can prepare teachers for more innovative approaches in their work with pupils. Through this, pupils will be better equipped for further education, more competitive on the labour market and encouraged to remain in their home regions.”

Social, economic and environmental sustainability

Demonstrating that accessibility and affordability reoccur across the spectrum as key factors for the successful proliferation and adoption of innovative tools and approaches, George Beers, from Wageningen University and Coordinator of the EU project ‘The Internet of Food and Farm 2020, countered the perception that smart agricultural innovations can seem out of reach for many smaller farmers, leaving them at a competitive disadvantage. New businesses, he explained, are emerging specifically to bring such innovation to market. Taking on the investment in equipment, data processing software and expertise, they then offer these as a packaged service to farms of all sizes, with a fee in proportion to the individual farmer’s needs.

Whether to save costs on resources and improve a farm’s environmental footprint, to remotely manage operations and free up a farmer’s personal time, or to gain direct access to the market and save on intermediaries, there are new technologies and digital tools available to help farmers of all scales, in all locations – as long as there is reliable connectivity.

Digitalisation is the gateway, but connectivity is the key

Throughout the day’s discussions, we returned, time and again, to the inescapable reality that, although digitalisation has enormous potential to transform life and opportunities in rural and remote areas, there remains one great barrier that is all too common in these areas: the lack of reliable, high-speed broadband connectivity.

Jan Dröge, Lead of the BCO Network Support Facility, quantified the challenge:

“We have already missed the 2020 EU connectivity targets, which included 30 Mbps broadband access for all citizens, and we already have new targets that are even more ambitious: to connect all citizens to 1 Gbps by 2030.

In urban areas, we almost reached the 2020 targets in 2019, with 90% of citizens having access to 30 Mbps. In rural areas, however, where over 30% of the population live, only 60% had coverage - and these are only the average figures: there are large difference between countries.”

For this reason, digitalisation – and the multitude of opportunities it offers for rural development, thriving communities and better quality of life – must be leveraged as a demand-driver in order to ensure that broadband investment reaches all rural and remote citizens.

An abundance of EU funds and expert support are available to Member States and regions to help accelerate the roll-out of broadband networks. Indeed, Member States’ Broadband Competence Offices (BCOs) have the specific mandate of harnessing these supports and channeling them to areas in need, as well as offering guidance to broadband project promoters on planning, financing, technology and more.

Mr Dröge therefore encouraged everyone to reach out to their BCOs to see how they can help deliver high-speed connectivity, close the digital and opportunity divide, and unlock the full potential of rural and remote areas.