The digital economy is designed to be inclusive, which means socio-economic progress through digitalisation should benefit the urban population and rural communities.
For governments, advancing and empowering those living and/or working in rural areas through the digital economy are key to increasing their overall contribution to the development of their locality.
However, before implementing digital economy strategies in these areas, governments need to address challenges that are preventing the rural population from embracing digitalisation.
In their brief ‘Smart Villages – how to ensure that digital strategies benefit rural communities’, the European Network for Rural Development (ENRD) propose an essential measure to tackle these challenges: overcoming the digital divide in rural areas.
Bridging the digital gap in rural areas requires working on three major components concurrently, while meeting the specific needs of different areas and the present landscape of policy support.
This is essential to improve the level of demand, utilisation and awareness of digital technologies, which can then drive investments in rural digital economy.
The first component is broadband infrastructure, where connectivity (including ‘last mile’) should be invested in areas that are remote and will greatly benefit from digital access.
“Focusing on schools, libraries and small businesses (e.g. farms) as well as direct links to homes can also bring important social and economic impact for rural inhabitants,” suggest the ENRD.
The second component is the promotion of digital service utilisation, in which governments must make the effort to work with the rural community in understanding the purpose and advantages of using digital applications in their locality and encouraging active utilisation of digital technologies.
This is because unlike their urban counterparts, rural inhabitants “may be unaware of potential applications that can dramatically improve their quality of life in fields such as active and health aging, e-health, distance learning, shared mobility, logistics and so on,” note the ENRD.
Above all, the successful development of the first two components is dependent on the effective implementation of the third component: digital skills and literacy among the rural population.
This does not only involved providing the awareness of having access to Internet connectivity and digital government services in rural areas.
Rather, governments need to plan and carry out projects and programmes that aim to build digital skills among rural residents, including the knowledge and competence in operating digital tools, and a basic knowledge of a wide range of topics related to digital technology.
Some of these topics are using different types of application; conducting online research; performing online transactions or electronic payments; improving their devices’ privacy and security; and navigating digital information.