Smart villages and social innovation: the SIMRA project


Bill Slee, an Associate of the Rural Development Company and an Emeritus Fellow of the James Hutton Institute, discusses the urban origins of smart settlements and outlines the H2020 SIMRA project.

The idea of smart settlements began in cities and, initially, was largely framed in terms of creating an ICT infrastructure capable of addressing smart energy, intelligent travel and communications, and much else, from the efficiency of healthcare and emergency services to the provision of tourist information. It was then transferred into a rural setting with the idea of smart villages. In smart villages, smartness was framed in terms of both the ICT infrastructure and the human and social capital in the community.

But even the urban policy community is now asserting the importance of human and social capital as the key factor underpinning smart cities. The idea of a creative class collaborating in partnership to drive positive change has emerged alongside the ICT infrastructure as decisive determinants of smartness. There is much greater resonance of this wider notion of smart cities with smart villages.

Smart cities are places with effective innovation ecosystems, where a range of interests, typically the private sector, municipalities, research institutions and civil society have come together in cohesive ways to drive innovation. While some villages may have some elements of this innovation ecosystem in place, most do not. Key elements are missing. But it is still equally apparent that some villages still seem to thrive against expectations.

The smart village

What makes a smart village? It is one that outperforms with respect to expectations on key indicators that could be social, economic, or environmental. Rural Europe does not present similar opportunities everywhere. There are some deeply challenged areas where decades of outmigration, entrenched poverty, limited job opportunities, land abandonment, and environmental degradation are the norm. There are other rural areas, often attractive commuter villages in the hinterlands of prosperous cities, where per capita GDP levels are way above national averages. But is this high level of affluence an indication of the smartness of the village, when neighbouring villages have similar levels of wellbeing? I think not.

In rural regions suffering from generally poor socio-economic performance, it is still possible to find communities which are bucking the broadly negative trend. Behind their better-than-average performance, the key drivers of their strong performance tends to be strong social capital, not only the social capital that bonds local community actors together, but also the bridging and linking social capital that connects key local actors to external gatekeepers and funders. These villages, even with poor broadband, still often manage to outperform their regional neighbours. These are the innovative, forward looking, imaginative, and creative communities that are really ‘smart’.

Researchers in many developed western economies have noted that smart communities have a higher proportion of creative people, not just creative in the ‘arty’ sense, but also entrepreneurs and researchers. According to the US regional scientist Richard Florida, creative people often choose an attractive environment in which to live, so places with high quality environments may draw such people in. Occasionally, a single or a handful of entrepreneurial types can buck the regional trend and deliver highly positive outcomes at local level, but success is usually greatest where a constellation of different actors works together in formal or informal partnership.

What SIMRA is telling us

The Horizon 2020 Social Innovation in Marginalised Rural Areas project (SIMRA) is actively exploring social innovation.1 The project is exploring vibrant examples of community-led projects such as the short food chains in Austria and Greece, social care in Italy and the Netherlands, community energy in Scotland, fighting the menace of forest fires in Spain, and supporting community-led models of forest management in Slovakia. These smart communities are showing a different way forward for marginal rural areas. But, in the current policy climate, where austerity has impacted adversely on municipal budgets and so much depends on communities’ capacities to draw down discretionary funding from public or charitable sources, there is a danger that the smart communities get smarter on the basis of their drawdown of funds into local projects. This cannot satisfy European cohesion objectives, because less advantaged communities will sink further behind and disparities will increase.

A key need is for affirmative action in less smart villages to help them become smarter, building community capacity through training and small achievable changes that build stronger foundations for transformative change. Effective LEADER groups have often been able to provide the nurture and support to kick-start and empower local activities. The greater subsidiarity of the reformed CAP gives Member States the scope to act, but the really smart villages will need to think beyond the RDPs and engage with other European funds, as well as national public sector and other sources of support. If Member States and municipalities are prepared to put the enabling policies in places, the potential for more positive outcomes is enormous.


1 European Union Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme grant No. 677622, awarded to the project Social Innovation in Marginalized Rural Areas (SIMRA)

Professor Bill Slee
Rural Development Company
Emeritus Fellow
James Hutton Institute
Tweet @simra_eu

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