On a midnight raid in a rural region of Brittany, France, furious farmers blockaded roads with bales of hay. Other farmers dumped 3.5 million liters of milk next to a popular tourist monastery, torched tax offices, and doused 140 metric tons of fish with diesel. These actions, however extreme, were by no means irrational. In fact, these French farmers have been protesting government negligence of an agri-food crisis that has plagued Center-West Brittany for the last decade. The region is home to 97,000 people scattered across aging municipalities, all clamoring for economic progress. The European Union has tried dumping millions of euros into the rural economy, but throwing money at the problem has not facilitated any sustainable growth.
Meanwhile, the narrative of Brest, a maritime city on the coast of Brittany, tells the opposite story. Brest is a renowned oceanographic research hub boasting a youthful population, a dominant service sector, and a burgeoning start-up scene. Brest is booming; the rest of Brittany is lagging.
Indeed, similar tales of rural-urban stratification are prevalent globally. Cities are all the rage, and rural areas are enraged. The European Commission explained the phenomenon best in December 2010: “Europe’s rural areas face a common challenge—their capacity to create high quality, sustainable jobs is falling behind urban areas.”
Not so fast. Piloted in April of 2018 via the Bled Declaration, the European Commission’s new Smart Villages program attempts to loop the 502 million rural Europeans into the globalized economy. The initiative aims to promote sustainable investment in rural areas and identifies renewable energy and digital services as the priorities of the Smart Village. Place-based initiatives in France and Germany have become models of Smart Villages, demonstrating that rural municipalities can become beacons of sustainable growth.
In 2015, France launched one of the first programs to facilitate “city-countryside reciprocity contracts.” These agreements—precursors to the Bled Declaration—facilitated mutualistic relationships between urban and rural areas. Brest and Center-West Brittany signed one such contract in November 2016. These contracts are brand new, but their early successes are undeniable: After pouring in €2 million of funding, France has made significant strides in rural-urban collaboration in such areas as bioenergy and healthcare.
In the energy sector, the Brest-Brittany contract precipitated a new wood energy cluster, which aggregated rural timber businesses to capitalize on wasted timber for public lighting. Given that 25 percent of Center-West Brittany is covered in forest that has an annual production potential of 120,000 tons of wood, the reciprocity contract has found ways to take advantage of that potential and link rural and urban economic activity. Now, three trucks leave Center-West Brittany per day to feed a biomass station in Brest, which, in turn, reduces the city’s carbon dioxide emissions.
The reciprocity contract has also increased health care collaboration, addressing Center-West Brittany’s risk of becoming a medical desert. In fact, the University Hospital of Brest expanded operations to its rural neighbors with outpatient consultations with specialists and mobile MRI scanning. The hospital has also made strides to make Center-West Brittany both a test bed for new disease research and a site for courses in dentistry and vocational training. The results of the program have far from materialized, but these small reforms have already tied the region into urban activity and growth. These successes are standards for Smart Village initiatives throughout Europe.
But efficient energy is only one tenet of the Smart Village framework; the contemporary village must also be digitized in order to truly reap the benefits of globalization. According to a 2014 Volenteurope report, in the majority of EU nations, “only 47 [percent] of rural households can access broadband internet, compared to 80 [percent] in non-rural areas.” The Broadband Competence Offices of the EU, along with the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, seek to change this. With broader internet access, supporters of the Bled Declaration hope to facilitate digital platforms for essential services in rural areas, from e-learning to e-administration to e-health.
The “Digital Villages” project in Germany epitomizes these goals. Piloted in 2015, it involves 33 participating villages, and seeks to expand to the 56 million Germans living in sparsely populated areas. One notable product of this initiative is an e-commerce site called BestellBar, where local vendors can list their stock on a one-stop website. Volunteers sign up to deliver parcels from BestellBar and are rewarded for their service with digital currency that can be spent on the site. Bringing local commerce online in this way widens the consumer base of small-town vendors; more demand encourages more sustainable prosperity in towns as small as 335 residents.
What BestellBar achieves for commerce, DorfNews accomplishes for media. A local news aggregator for these digital villages, DorfNews allows for rapid communication between residents and governments. Sponsored by the larger regional authorities, it integrates social media and existing news sources to provide citizens with access to the news relevant to them and their region. Unlike most local publications, DorfNews allows users to contribute their own updates. Above all, the portal connects disparate rural communities on one platform and increases visibility for small businesses. Digital villages can’t facilitate sustainable growth without this kind of connectivity among local residents.
The German angle of sustainability combats rural exodus and recognizes that the presence of digital services simply makes rural areas more appealing, as it facilitates business operations and allows for efficient municipal governance. German digital villages have shown progress in these criteria, but they are only prototypes. Their mass implementation hinges upon fundraising to build the necessary infrastructure.
The EU is excited about the potential of Smart Villages: The Bled Declaration bleeds idealism for the future of European rural areas. Talk of eco-mobility, shared economies, and e-everything pervades official EU papers. But so far, these buzzwords have barely left the pages of social science studies and materialized in only a few real-world test cases. The obstacles to these projects are excruciatingly bureaucratic. Proposals are drowned in acronyms and inundated with interest parties. Similarly, as the plan for Italian rural areas concedes, “in each project area, individual EU funds apply their own rules, which does not facilitate collaboration among different management authorities.” A lot of red tape is at play here, and so far, the EU is mostly talk and very little action.
But the importance of rural development and sustainability cannot be understated. Economic disparities between urban and rural areas not only exacerbate imbalances in development; they often intensify political polarity. These cleavages already pervade political situations within Europe and globally, becoming evident in voting booths, manifesting in deeply divisive campaigns, and triggering the rise of populist movements. Perhaps smart villages will play an important role in curbing these tensions and addressing these issues.
Residents of rural Europe should not be tormented by fluctuations in global commodity markets or isolated from the rest of the online world. It may be too soon to pass judgement on the concept of a smart village, but the successes of French reciprocity contracts and German digital villages show promise for larger-scale implementation. If done right, Smart Villages may help clean up the protestors’ bales of hay, spilled milk, burned buildings, and soiled fish across Europe.