Strengthening the future of smart rural areas through the SMART ERA Horizon Europe project

Rural areas are often perceived as less attractive places to live because of fewer services, structural problems, limited employment opportunities and an ageing population. The ongoing digital transformation and increasing teleworking opportunities offer a unique opportunity to redirect migration flows back to rural areas. Northern Ostrobothnia is strongly involved in the "SMART Community-led transition for Europe's Rural Areas, SMART ERA" project. The University of Oulu is leading the data-driven work on smart rural development and the Council of Oulu Region is responsible for pilot targeting and local collaboration.
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25 organisations from 11 countries are implementing the project. Northern Ostrobothnia is one of the pilot regions. The Baltic Institute of Finland is the third project partner from Finland and the international project partners are from Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Poland, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland and Austria. The project is coordinated by Fondazione Bruno Kessler (FBK) from Italy.

SMART ERA was launched at the beginning of the year and will continue until the end of 2027. A kick-off meeting was held in Trento, Northern Italy, at the Fondazione Bruno Kessler on 17-18 January 2024. The initial phase will involve developing data and methodologies and defining pilots. The pilots will be carried out in close collaboration with the business interface. The total budget of the project is approximately € 6.59 M, of which more than € 570 000 will be allocated to Northern Ostrobothnia.

The SMART ERA project will reduce vulnerability and promote adaptability in rural areas by designing, developing and implementing a range of digital and non-digital solutions in partnership with local communities. The project will be an important step towards building greener, more compact, sustainable and innovative growth models for Europe's rural areas.

"The project coordinator, Fondazione Bruno Kessler, has shown a strong ability to lead a project involving 25 organisations from eleven different countries from the application phase onwards. The collaboration of R&D, piloting and business interface creates a unit working towards common goals. It has been built through close interaction and shared responsibility. At the same time, it is important to learn to understand the challenges, needs and community in other pilot areas, for example, to which the project seeks solutions by producing pilots of operating models and technologies," says Ossi Kotavaara, Research Director at the University of Oulu Kerttu Saalasti Institute.

"A small practical example of how digitalisation works can be found in the kick-off meeting. Together with the Council of Oulu Area, we had prepared a presentation on broadband connections in our region, which we knew would be very comprehensive by European and global standards, also in rural areas. The starting points for digitalisation to work are clearly different in the countries targeted by the project, such as the coverage of fast mobile broadband connections and the availability of open wireless networks," says Katariina Ala-Rämi, Special Researcher at the University of Oulu Kerttu Saalasti Institute.

The SMART ERA project develops the well-being, resilience and innovation capacity of rural communities by providing smart solutions that can be combined into smart innovation clusters. They can address current socio-economic and environmental challenges and promote smart and community development. The project will start by identifying the needs of each pilot region and, for the challenge chosen by the region, creating practical trials with new innovations or technologies to test the smart solution with the local community and exchange experiences with other pilot regions.

The understanding and development of "smartness" draws on smart city policies, technologies and literature. The project will highlight aspects of rural areas to complement the development of smart cities. SMART ERA approaches the theme through 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; and 6) rural population, including demography, migration and seasonal population.

Smart Innovation Packages (SIPs) help to make the project work as practical as possible. "A Smart Innovation Package is an integrated set of solutions to solve a specific challenge. These can promote change in the target areas by addressing both the identified challenges in different areas and by promoting community and cooperation," says Deputy Development Manager Saija Tikkanen from the Council of Oulu Region.

Reade more on the project website.

Read also a news story of Fondazione Bruno Kessler, coordinator of the project.

Last updated: 12.2.2024