The beginning of the 21st century is undoubtedly the era of countless smart devices: smart phones, smart cars, smart homes and even smart cities. The omnipresence of the word constantly brings one question to my mind:
What does smartness actually means in the context of contemporary communities?
A smart phone gives me Facebook and emails while the cell phone does not. Smart car makes my ride safer and my parking easier. Smart home is much more automated than regular house and takes care of humidity or too much sun autonomously, and is also more efficient in terms of energy. But how is smartness defined in terms of community? How is a smart community any different from a usual community?
The term Smart City is actually rather popular and widely used in professional and general public. Smart cities are (or at least should be) focused on how to upgrade an urban living environment to a level that enables the best possible coordination of urban sub-systems (water management, traffic, energy, etc.) by using information and communication technologies (ICT) while including citizens in these same processes. Said differently: smart urban areas have to deal with problems of (too) many people living in a small area of land and very close together. On the other side of the scale are rural areas with their own specific problematic: sparsely populated areas, greater distances among people, small diversity of employment opportunities, brain drain, etc. While the term Smart City is already pretty much established, when it comes to Smart Villages the situation is quite different, and so the question persist: How could an ordinary village be transformed into a smart community?
In Smart Villages: Comprehensive Review of Initiatives and Practices we have made a literature review concerning this matter. It is not that the concepts of smart rural areas or smart village are completely new, they have been developed and applied worldwide, mostly in areas that are socially, economically or/and technologically deprived (such as in South Africa or South-Eastern Asia). To develop the off-grid accessibility to electricity is at the forefront of such initiatives. Yet, for many rural areas the basic (electric) infrastructure is already provided – how do they become smarter?
There is not many clearly defined characteristics of smart villages, but something seems of vital importance: people and their local context. The only logical way to start a smart transformation of a (rural) community is by using a bottom-up approach, observing local context, networks, problems and opportunities and start to build on the basis of local characteristics. To develop a smart village is to take a holistic approach to make a given community more sustainable; not only in terms of social, economic, agricultural or industrial resources but also in terms of services and cultural resources. A village does not become smart only by digitalizing processes, services or agriculture. It has to create smart, ecological and sustainable agricultural activities, develop touristic activity in a sustainable way, promote creative and cultural activities, protect natural and cultural heritage, stimulate local and circular economy and provide basic infrastructure to enable e-education, e-government, e-health, e-tourism.
For example, with the project Smart Villages we are developing a concept of Smart Villages in the Alpine Space whereas we are addressing the key regional challenges: (i) economic globalization, (ii) demographic trends, (iii) climate change, (iv) the energy change and (v) Alpine region as a transit region. More precisely, we are addressing the causes for (youth) brain drain, such as deprivation of jobs, provision of services, favourable climate for entrepreneurship or (social) innovation.
Smart Village is thus a model of sustainable village with locally-based circular economy, praising social and cultural diversity and including ICT solutions into digitalized health, educational and touristic services, to improve living conditions in rural areas and to enable equal opportunities for people living in the countryside.
Actually, we propose even further: combining already existing initiatives and the smart village concept we developed the concept of a FabVillage (part II).