Smart Villages, when technology arrives at a village to stay
Towns and villages are no strangers to the digital revolution that is taking place in the world, or at least they should not be because their survival depends on it. Innovative solutions, from Big Data to the Internet of Things (IoT), have reached rural areas to help develop and improve their social, economic and environmental conditions.
Ostana is a village located in the northwestern Alps in Italy, a beautiful and quiet place, perhaps too quiet. As is the case in other small populations across the world, its few inhabitants are concerned about population ageing and depopulation. However, Ostana is one of the locations participating in the European Commission's Smart Rural 21 programme , an initiative that aims to transform rural communities and convert them into smart villages.
RURAL DEVELOPMENT TODAY
The situation in Ostana is not unique. Currently, 55% of the world's population lives in cities and, according to data from the United Nations (UN), this could reach 68% by 2050. The inevitable consequence is population loss in rural areas, especially in countries with low birth rates in Asia and Europe. However, the Covid-19 pandemic may curb this trend, as experts from Wharton University and other analysts are now predicting, as teleworking spreads and more people choose to leave the cities in search of a better quality of life.
For this population influx to be viable, it is necessary to create a smart rural environment and to overcome the obstacles arising from the lack of infrastructure and services that afflict these areas. Achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 9 and SDG 11) depends both on responsible urbanisation and on promoting policies that provide rural areas with improvements in education, health, industry, technology and logistics, as well as on fostering a green economy along with strategic environmental management. This is where smart villages come into the picture.
WHAT ARE SMART VILLAGES OR SMART TOWNS
The idea behind smart villages revolves around shifting the paradigm, so that instead of considering small rural populations as recipients of government aid, they are equipped with the necessary means to become engines of change and productive centres. The determining factor in achieving this is the digitalisation of the villages.
By using the internet and associated technologies, potential customers can be attracted from anywhere, improving efficiency, and therefore increasing productivity, offering better customer service and creating job opportunities both locally and in other areas. The main obstacle is the digital divide, the difficulty in accessing the internet outside large cities, and the lack of digital literacy, the lack of training to equip the population with the necessary skills.
FACTORS IN RURAL TRANSFORMATION
The opportunities for rural development are linked to a series of wide-ranging changes and for these communities to receive the necessary momentum:
In addition to access to the internet and new technologies, which we will discuss later, here we will mention the use of precision farming techniques, which improve crop yields and the use of water and soil. Applied biotechnology also contributes to the production of new, more effective and nutritious crops, pest control and ecosystem recovery using bioremediation techniques.
Climate change is having a palpable effect in many rural areas, affecting crops and biodiversity, with the loss of species and ecosystems. Sustainable resource management and environmental protection are needed, a task that falls to the rural population itself.
The increase in the cost of living in large cities and the new possibilities for teleworking are, on the one hand, slowing the abandonment of rural areas and, on the other, returning young people from the cities to the villages, where they can work or set up businesses with a better quality of life.
Global consumer trends show an unstoppable growth in organic agriculture and sustainable products, whose sales are growing at five times the rate of unsustainable products, according to the Center for Sustainable Business at the Stern School of Business (New York University). This provides greater added value for production in rural areas.
The development of rural communities also depends on the impetus of local, national and supranational governments to provide infrastructure and support for new businesses with tax exemptions and funding. One example is the European Network for Rural Development , on which the aforementioned Smart Rural 21 programme depends.
RURAL INNOVATION: TECHNOLOGIES FOR A SMART VILLAGE
The new technologies are coming together to help the development of rural communities:
- IoT: the Internet of Things is linked to the concept of smart cities, but is also applicable in rural areas. For example, using sensors that allow crops to be more competitive or applied to education and health in isolated areas.
- Artificial intelligence: the adoption of artificial intelligence systems is directly applicable to improving crops and environmental management, as well as in optimising health services and infrastructure use.
- Big Data: the huge amount of data generated today (Big Data), allows changes in climate to be analysed accurately along with water consumption, livestock movements, the growth of pastures and forests, and other essential information.
- Drones: thanks to the use of drones, hectares of land can be monitored automatically thereby collecting data on temperature, crop status, animal movements or controlling the spread of pests, thus improving the use of pesticides.
- Blockchain: according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), blockchain technology can be used to increase efficiency, transparency and traceability in agricultural supply chains and make them more productive and sustainable.
- Nanomaterials: the use of smart materials has the potential to enhance sensors, apply fertilisers, pesticides and protective layers that improve food safety, eliminate waste and even mitigate the effects of climate change on plants.
- Robots: from autonomous tractors that do not need a driver to robots capable of picking delicate fruits one by one without damaging them, the introduction of robots in rural areas is driving a revolution in efficiency and sustainability.