Franc Bogovič is Member of European Parliament, Co-Chair of the RUMRA & Smart Villages Intergroup in the European Parliament and former Mayor of Krško
U-LEAD: Dear Mr Bogovič, our first question is relatively straightforward: what do we mean when we talk about “smart villages”?
MEP Franc Bogovič: Although there is no legal definition of a 'smart village' within EU legislation, there are a number of distinguishing features associated with the smart village concept, with the involvement of the local community and the use of digital tools being seen as core elements. The concept implies the participation of local people in improving their economic, social or environmental conditions, cooperation with other communities, social innovation and the development of smart village strategies. Digital technologies can be applied to many aspects of living and working in rural areas. The smart village concept also suggests the adoption of smart solutions in both the public and private sectors over a wide range of policy fields such as improving access to services, developing short food supply chains and developing renewable energy sources. The smart village concept is gaining traction on the rural development agenda, coinciding with the ongoing reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). A key element of this reform will be a new delivery model based on each Member State developing a CAP strategic plan. In December 2020, the Commission published its recommendations for each Member State on the direction their plans need to take to achieve the CAP objectives and the European Green Deal targets. The European Parliament has made a significant contribution to the smart village concept, taking part in a pilot project on smart eco-villages and supporting the European Commission's 2017 action plan for smarter villages. The European Committee of the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee have meanwhile both indicated their support for the concept through events, opinions and communications.
U-LEAD: Someone may argue that “smart villages” are all about the digitalisation of rural areas. Is it really so?
MEP Franc Bogovič: No. Digitalisation and connectivity are important pillars. But it is key that we approach smart villages bottom-up. Smart villages should be from the people for the people. Their base should be the village gathering or meeting, where the villagers discuss the main existing obstacles and challenges to their development and develop potential solutions together. Digital platforms and smart tools can be useful in the process. But the starting point is including the people and empowering the community. A lot of democratic radicalisation has happened in rural areas across Europe. This is often because people felt overlooked and left behind. Smart villages is about citizens taking ownership and responsibility for their own area. Also competitive elements can be a healthy driving force for this.
U-LEAD: It seems that European villages are attempting to become smarter. There are several initiatives, projects, networks. How far is the EU in supporting this concept? Do some success stories already exist?
MEP Franc Bogovič: The European Network for Rural Development (ENRD) network of the European Commission has started collecting nice examples of successful smart villages. They can be found on their website, here. Then the “Interreg Alpine Space” has collected some best case practices from their region. You can find them here. More examples were collected by Smart Rural 21 network and can be found here. The later two organisations have profited from Preparatory Action funding in the European Parliament that was tabled together with my dear colleague, former MEP Tibor Szanyi.
U-LEAD: If you try to google “smart village” in the Ukrainian language, you will find only a little information about it. This can be explained by the fact that there are still many problems and challenges in rural areas in Ukraine and that becoming “smarter” is not a key priority yet. So, what do you think: it is worthwhile for Ukrainian rural municipalities to introduce elements of a “smart village” already now in their policies? Or, on the contrary, the concept that we are discussing can only be relevant if the social and economic situation in the village is already sufficiently stable?
MEP Franc Bogovič: The most important is a political decision for balanced development of the country. If you do not support rural areas in your country, centralisation and urbanisation are unavoidable consequences. Without providing basic infrastructure (water supply, roads, broadband connections), education, sports, health, cultural infrastructure and so on, you cannot expect people to stay in the countryside. It is also necessary to provide jobs in rural areas, in agriculture, forestry, as well as in tourism and small business.
We started our support for smart villages in the EU by anchoring the term “smart villages” in various EU funding mechanisms for the upcoming Multiannual Financial Framework, a kind of multi-annual indicative budget. The Ukrainian parliament should do the same. Politics has to help create a fertile ground for the right kind of plants to grow. If you would like smart villages to flourish, you need to earmark money for the upcoming medium- or long term funding period in the rural development budget of your country. Additionally, you should start speaking to large companies operating in the country (national or international) to invest into such projects with their technology. A combination of public and private funding is the key to such large-scale projects.
U-LEAD: Which first steps should the village take to become smarter? Or, would you say that the first step should be taken on the national level by developing a policy, which supports “smart villages”?
MEP Franc Bogovič: It is good if these kinds of complex visions are developed bottom-up and top-down simultaneously. As previously said, it is essential for the villagers to identify their own, very specific, problems themselves and also come up with possible solutions. At the same time, once solutions have been developed on the ground, it is important that government will have funding and support mechanisms in place, in order to help realisation. Also platforms, where local areas are connected to potential investors and companies are useful in this context. If national, regional and private work together smoothly for the development of an areaa region, there is usually a return of investment for all parties.
I myself come from Slovenia, where in 1970 the Slovenian government set the concept of polycentric and balanced development of regions, which also supported smaller towns in the country, as well as family farms. These wise decisions, which date back to the time of communist Yugoslavia, enabled the Slovenian countryside to be inhabited and developed today. Today, Slovenia is becoming a pilot area for the concept of smart villages in Europe.
U-LEAD with Europe Programme is delighted to announce a new online forum “Rural Development and Multi-level Governance: Smart Villages Approach for Ukraine?” The event is going to take place on June 18, 2021 at 11.00 hours. This online forum aims to explain the potential of the concept of Smart Villages and inspire municipalities in rural areas to take action on future support of municipalities in Ukraine. Step right up - send your email to firstname.lastname@example.org.