Empowering the future of European rural areas

Digital solutions can reduce vulnerability and promote the adaptability of rural areas. To ensure that the solutions developed are implemented, cooperation between researchers, developers and local communities is needed. The first step is to analyse the pressing socio-economic and environmental challenges in the area to make the smart and community-led transition a success. SMART ERA - SMART Community-led transition for Europe's Rural Areas, launched in early 2024, is doing just that with 25 organisations in 11 countries. The shared reality is shaped in a profound way through visits to the different countries.
vuoristoa Trentossa, Italiassa, edustalla osa instituuttirakennuksesta

The kick-off meeting of the SMART ERA project took place on 17-18.2024 in Trento, Italy, where the coordinating organisation of the project, Fondazione Bruno Kessler (FBK), is located. The project's solutions will be piloted in six regions, of which the Northern Ostrobothnia region is one. The consortium includes the University of Oulu and the Council of Oulu Region as project partners, with the former also acting as one of the work package leaders. The Baltic Institute of Finland is the third project partner from Finland and was also represented at Trento. The other project partners are from Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Poland, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland and Austria.

Visits provide an understanding of the realities of implementers and regions

A central way to create a consortium of organisations from so many different countries working towards common goals is to bring researchers and developers together face-to-face to get to know each other and the target areas, and to build trust around common goals. For example, it will help them to understand the challenges and needs of the very different pilot areas to which the project will seek solutions through the interaction of community, innovation, and technologies.

A small practical example can already be found at the kick-off meeting: together with the Council of Oulu Region, we had prepared a presentation on broadband connections in our region, which we knew would be globally very comprehensive also in rural areas. But perhaps we were still surprised, based on our own experience, that fast and comprehensive mobile connections in the Italian Tyrol region were not self-evident. This came up in practice when we were looking for a network on the way to the meeting venue for the map application.

The success of the project will depend on close cooperation between all partners over the next four years. The experience of the FBK, which leads the consortium, in managing joint activities is impressive, as reflected in the well-designed program and effective practical arrangements. The network organised a planning meeting before the start of the project to deepen the understanding of the different areas of expertise. It gave us sufficient time for general introductions of the different organisations and individuals and for concrete discussions and workshops that would contribute to the practical work. The workshops, which were conducted in a variety of group work formats, enabled a lot to be achieved over the two days. Most importantly, it allowed people working on the same tasks and themes to get to know each other very well. The effectiveness was also enhanced by the pre-tasks sent to the participants, and by the facilitators' ability to lead workshops on cross-cutting themes.

Smart solutions develop the countryside in several dimensions

The Italian kick-off meeting clarified the project's planned objectives and their concrete implementation. The effectiveness of the actions will be a key success factor during the project.

The overall goal of SMART ERA is to increase the well-being, resilience, and innovation capacity of rural communities by providing smart solutions that can be combined into smart innovation clusters. The understanding and development of "smartness" builds on the literature, policies, and technologies on smart cities, which the project will complement with aspects of smart rural areas.

SMART ERA analyses, measures and develops six dimensions of rural intelligence:

1) rural mobility, including integrated modes of transport
2) rural governance, including access and accessibility of services, access to high-speed 4/5G and fibre networks and mobile working
3) rural economy, including developing enterprise and business ecosystems and ensuring the number of young and female-led enterprises;
4) rural environment, including sustainability of transport, housing and enterprises
5) rural living environment, including assessed health and well-being
6) rural population, including demography, migration and seasonal population.

Measuring the maturity of each pilot area along these dimensions will provide benchmarks and development targets to move towards higher levels.

Building community through smart innovation packages

Smart Innovation Packages (SIPs) are a way of making project work as practical as possible. A SIP is "an integrated set of solutions to solve a specific challenge". These allow to promote change in the regions not only by solving thematic challenges but also by fostering community and cooperation.

The project will organise open calls for smart innovation packages in partnership with local businesses. For example, ten grants of €60 000 are available for companies. The implementations will be selected through an "open call" competition to develop solutions tailored to the needs of the pilot region. This will also give the company's innovation international visibility throughout the project area.

You could say that innovation is a passion for simple solutions. The extensive groundwork of the solutions developed in this project enables user-driven solutions to real and acute challenges facing communities. By exploring issues such as mobility, access to services, housing and well-being, and rural economic development, for example by increasing the number of young people and women-led businesses, we are making a difference in rural areas across Europe.

Authors, University of Oulu Kerttu Saalasti Institute:
Matti Muhos, Professor, title of Docent, PhD, Director
Ossi Kotavaara, PhD, Associate Professor, Research Director, Regional Excellence Research Group (REx)
Katariina Ala-Rämi, PhD, Senior Researcher, MicroENTRE Microentrepreneurship Centre.

Photo: Katariina Ala-Rämi