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Rural Smart Communities: boosting rural economies through large-scale pilots

The EU is launching a new €30 million initiative, with rural digital service platforms, innovation ecosystems, the smart village approach, and standards at the forefront. Entering Europe’s Digital Decade, the European way of digital transformation Living-in.EU provides minimal – but sufficient – interoperability of data, systems and services between smart cities and their suppliers. The two new large-scale pilot projects offer the opportunity to extend these Minimal Interoperability Mechanisms to rural smart communities.

Rural Smart Communities: boosting rural economies through large-scale pilots

Since the 1997 publication of Frances Cairncross’ The Death of Distance: How the Communications Revolution Is Changing our Lives, it has been argued that this "death of distance" will be the single most important economic force shaping society over the next half a century. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that even those living in rural areas can still carry out their jobs and other activities – irrespective of distances – when supported by their digital environment. In his keynote speech at the 2019 Connected Smart Cities Conference, Roberto Viola, the European Commission’s Director-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology, strongly encouraged a general shift in focus from systems to ecosystems, from design to citizen empowerment, and from smart cities to smart communities. He said that cities and communities will only succeed in their digital transformation if citizens are actively included in the creation of new digital services. This shift is now in progress.

More than 50 partners from across Europe will participate in two new Rural Smart Communities innovation actions. They have just signed their grant agreements with the Commission’s Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology (DG CONNECT), who is co-leading this €30 million initiative focussing on boosting rural economies through cross-sector digital service platforms with the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development (DG AGRI). The themes of the two new pilots launching in January 2021 are “AURORAL: Architecture for Unified Regional and Open digital ecosystems for Smart Communities and wider Rural Areas Large-scale application” and “dRURAL: The service marketplace for European rural areas”. To find out more, join us online on 13 January 2021 at the opening and the Rural Smart Communities session of the CxC Festival: empowering communities, Community by Community.

At the heart of these innovation actions are Smart Villages: communities in rural areas that use innovative solutions to improve their resilience, building on local strengths and opportunities. Their importance is also highlighted in the Declaration of cooperation on “A smart and sustainable digital future for European agriculture and rural areas”, signed by most European countries, to take a number of actions in supporting a successful digitalisation of agriculture and rural areas in Europe. The Declaration recognises the potential for digital technologies to help tackle important and urgent economic, social, climate and environmental challenges facing the EU's agri-food sector and rural areas.

The new pilots build on earlier results, such as from project “OrganiCity: Co-creating smart cities of the future” and from the Internet of Things (IoT) large-scale pilots “IoF2020: Internet of Food & Farm 2020” and “SynchroniCity: Delivering an IoT-enabled Digital Single Market for Europe & Beyond”. Building on the Minimal Interoperability Mechanisms (MIMs), which were validated in SynchroniCity, the new projects will provide a universal approach to developing, procuring and deploying IoT- and AI-enabled services for smart and rural communities.

The MIMs are championed by Europe-born Open & Agile Smart Cities (OASC), who unite cities and communities around the world building a global market for solutions, services, and data based on their particular needs and ecosystems; “CxC”: Citizen by Citizen, Community by Community, City by City, Country by Country. At the online CxC Festival, this can be further explored, for example through the CxC Catalogue, which lists existing services that are available to all MIMs-compliant platforms. It essentially works as an “app store” for smart communities, leveraging data platforms and connectivity, from the IoT to the cloud.

From Context Information Management, Common Data Models, Marketplace Enablers, and Personal Data Management to Fair Artificial Intelligence, the MIMs allow public and private actors to work across sectors and borders on market terms towards a more resilient Europe. Circular Resource Management and Geospatial Information are the next interoperability challenges to be addressed. The MIMs are technology-agnostic and can be integrated with existing systems. They increasingly support real-time aspects as data is collected dynamically in the IoT and analysed dynamically directly at the edge or in the cloud.

The MIMs are already a core common technical ground for “Living-in.EU: the European way of digital transformation in cities and communities”, opened for signatures at the Finnish Presidency’s Oulu Boost Event in December 2019. The declaration is still open for signatures by decision-makers at all levels of government and for support by other stakeholders. The MIMs will also be instrumental for the development of a dataspace for climate-neutral and smart communities federated at EU level; an initiative supported by the Digital Europe Programme in line with the Commission’s ambition to build a common European Green Deal dataspace. Creating an interoperable, interconnected and trusted environment for data sharing will allow European smart cities and communities to benefit from cross-domain, cross-city and cross-community, easily portable data services and AI-powered tools such as urban digital twins.

The MIMs’ design principles are also the basis for transitioning to a new architecture in the UN initiative “United for Smart Sustainable Cities” (U4SSC). This initiative is coordinated by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), supported by 14 other UN agencies to achieve the 11th Sustainable Development Goal: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.