Driving rural economic growth through the digital economy involves planning and implementing digital strategies that must benefit rural communities, and this goes hand in hand with narrowing the digital divide in these areas.
In their brief ‘Smart Villages – how to ensure that digital strategies benefit rural communities’, the European Network for Rural Development (ENRD) outline four key points that governments should take account of to ensure effectiveness of these rural digital economy strategies.
The first is targeting investments in broadband infrastructure for specific socio-economic development within rural areas that can be greatly enhanced through digitalisation.
While ultra-fast connectivity can boost digital literacy and lead to the introduction of various local public and private services, it may not be enough to encourage digital innovation among rural communities.
In fact, based on a series of case studies and discussions of their Thematic Group on Smart Villages, the ENRD find that “super-fast connectivity is not always a prerequisite of success and that its lack of availability should not be an excuse for doing nothing at local level.”
In other words, investing in broadband connectivity should go beyond physical infrastructure.
It should focus on initiating collaborative efforts between local communities, businesses, public sector organisations and digital service and infrastructure providers to study digital needs and opportunities, establish a vision of what the locality wants to be in the future, and building strategies and financial plans to achieve such vision.
The second key point is strategies for developing digital skills. Such skills should meet the needs of various rural stakeholders, including rural businesses, farmers and those that have yet to gain from digitalisation.
Thus, equipping these stakeholders with the necessary digital skills requires upskilling local authorities, rural organisations and service providers to be able to deliver training initiatives and services to rural communities.
“One way of doing this is by strengthening local ‘digital champions’ individual and/or organisations, who will help identify, design and deliver skills training,” suggest the ENRD.
The third is building rural digital ecosystems in order for digitalisation to become part and parcel of everyday rural life.
Achieving this involves identifying, understanding and mapping key gaps and opportunities within the layers and components of the local digital ecosystem – i.e. infrastructure, platform, services, providers, users, governance – to create a digitalisation roadmap that prioritises areas that can fulfil the socio-economic needs of rural communities.
These gaps and opportunities can include new digital services, entrepreneurial activities, and the latest digital applications like e-health, smart energy sensors and public wireless Internet access.
The ENRD recommend providing support in developing ‘enablers’ and ‘multipliers’ as a vital method to drive innovation among rural communities.
These refer to the likes of living laboratories, digital fabrication laboratories or fab-labs, pilots, and different types of digital hubs established within rural settlements to enable local communities to join regional-level digital initiatives.
To ensure that the first three key points can strengthen the effectiveness of any rural digital economy strategy and ultimately benefit the rural population, building coordinated governance at national, regional and local levels is crucial.
This fourth key point also requires the participation and support of multiple stakeholders such as digital service and infrastructure providers, local authorities, regional non-governmental organisations and rural organisations to build digital capability of rural communities and link regional strategies with local initiatives.
“Regional digital platforms can use co-creation methods enabling rural residents to use applications that can support social and business development. This can ensure digitisation strategies are part of creating long term and sustainable development,” state the ENRD.