The Smart Village Concept. EXAMPLES FROM POLAND

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The Smart Village Concept. Examples from Poland

The transformation of rural areas and the broadly understood problems of their development have been the subject of scientific analyses and lively public debate for many years. The ongoing discussions stem from a reflection on the increased effectiveness of rural development policies and the search for new approaches to their programming at the local level. They are also the result of a growing feeling that it is necessary to achieve sustainable development objectives more effectively and reduce social and economic disparities between rural and urban areas. Among the emerging challenges in the last decade, the transition to an information society has come to the fore, however it should be stressed that the changes taking place are dependent on global technological and digital development. The fact that rural areas are inhabited by about one quarter of the European Union’s population makes us aware of the importance of these changes in rural areas. In Poland, this proportion is much higher and amounts to 40%. Being aware of this fact, it may be assumed that adaptation to transformations cannot be treated as an opportunity, but as a necessity, as more and more activities are carried out in the virtual world. The importance of digital and communication technologies has been reinforced in recent months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has transferred some activities to the virtual sphere. Equipping rural populations with digital and communications skills will make it possible to “reduce” distance, thereby increasing accessibility to goods and services, especially public ones. In this context, information and communication technologies (ICT) are treated as an opportunity to overcome development-related difficulties. However, their use depends on access to the internet in a given area. Its lack or poor coverage in a particular area deprives it of the opportunities for development based on smart technologies or smart initiatives. As regards the local dimension, it is not only digital technologies that are growing in importance, but also activities aimed to improve broadly understood living conditions of rural residents, also on a micro scale. In these transformations, people and their skills are of unique value, and waiting passively for change does not make much sense. In this context technology can only be a tool, as human competences are becoming the major driver for the improvement of the standard of living and quality of life. Well-identified local human resources form the basis for social innovation, and consequently contribute to increased resilience of rural areas, allowing them to solve problems faced by local communities. The transition to an information society understood in this way has a significantly broader context than digital and communication technologies and comprises a range of social and agri-environmental issues. The concept of rural development proposed by the European Union, called smart villages (SV), is primarily addressed to villages that are “in decline” due to their remoteness and progressive depopulation. The first and most often replicated definition of smart villages was laid down in a 2017 document on the European Union’s endeavours in respect of this idea. Smart villages are defined as those villages (local communities, regions) which exploit digital technologies and innovations in their daily life, thereby improving the standard of public services and making better use of local resources. Therefore, it may be concluded that the European Union proposes support for developing peripheral areas based on digital technologies and smart innovations. Joining the discussion on the assumptions of the concept, that are being worked out now, we have wanted to consider whether these areas have conditions for development based on smart solutions. We have accepted the assumption that smart villages begin where reflection takes place on how to use digital technologies to create a space where local development leaders can more easily take account of the needs and possibilities of their residents. The adoption of such an approach allows us to think about what elements are necessary in this process. In order to give an answer, we have identified some Polish examples as well as challenges and mechanisms of the development of smart villages. The identification of examples of smart villages, followed by an in-depth study of the initiatives implemented is an important step towards understanding the overall concept. The reason behind dealing with this topic was the conviction of its importance in both theoretical and applied contexts. Therefore, we have decided to pursue two objectives: cognitive and application-oriented, while looking for answers to the following questions: 1. How is the concept of smart villages understood by different groups of village residents (initiators, beneficiaries and local authorities)? 2. What mechanisms impact the de-marginalisation of rural areas? 3. How should support for smart villages in the coming years be programmed? 4. What are the necessary resources to implement smart initiatives? 5. What is the impact of smart solutions on the surroundings? 6. What guarantees the sustainability of solutions? 7. Are the concepts of smart villages and smart city related in terms of meaning? By identifying these problems as well as by describing the existing solutions, we want to achieve the objective of applicability by pointing to the solutions that would become a kind of benchmarking for other regions, counties [powiat in Polish], municipalities or sołectwos (a term describing one or more villages or an auxiliary unit of the municipality). We would like to emphasise that it is still necessary to look for solutions that can be an example for other villages and to bear in mind local limitations related to resources. The cognitive aim is to acquire knowledge of the smart village concept. The book’s structure is the consequence of the methodological assumptions and objectives of the research project. It consists of a theoretical/methodological and an empirical/descriptive part. Section 1 describes the concept of smart villages and presents its journey from an idea to the development instrument. It presents evidence showing that the idea has all the attributes of the scientific concept, underlining at the same time its practical potential. The motives for implementing the concept are characterised by pointing to five drivers for the creation of smart solutions in rural areas: responding to depopulation and demographic change, finding local solutions to public funding cuts and the centralisation of public services, exploiting linkages with small towns and cities, maximising the role of rural areas in the transition to a lowcarbon, circular economy, supporting digital transformation. In addition, the process of marginalisation of rural areas called the “circle of rural decline” has been mentioned. It describes how the SV concept is implemented in European Union policy, referring to the selected EU measures and documents. Section 1 also presents the challenges that the concept faces in order to enhance quality of life by creating more resilient social structures, using available resources and tools. Moreover, the Section compares the smart village concept with that of the smart city and points to the similarities and differences between them. Section 2 presents the concept behind the field study. The organisation and methodology of this study are explained in detail. In addition, the basis for the selection of both the target group surveyed and municipalities participating in the study are discussed, justifying the deliberate selection of ten municipalities. Scenarios for individual in-depth interviews broken down into three study groups are presented, followed by the characteristics of the municipalities and the initiatives implemented in these municipalities. Section 3 shows the contextual nature of the initiatives and their intertwining. It has been noted that the division into infrastructural-technological, social, and agrienvironmental solutions is conventional. In each case the reasons behind the implemented initiatives have been presented. In addition, the way they were implemented as well as their effects and sustainability have been discussed. The importance of particular groups of resources during the implementation of the ideas has also been pointed to. A significant part of particular subsections is devoted to an attempt at defining the infrastructural-technological, social and agri-environmental contexts for the implementation of smart village initiatives. Section 4 presents similarities and differences in the understanding of the concept of smart villages by different groups of respondents. This has been particularly important from the perspective of the pursuance of the project objectives. The respondent groups included initiators, beneficiaries and local authorities. Moreover, the section describes the reasons behind the initiatives undertaken in selected municipalities. Attention has been drawn to the process of involving the local community and collaboration between groups under study. The impact of the projects on their surroundings and the constraints to their implementation has been shown. Also, the presentation of ideas for supporting local leaders has a prominent place in the section. The last section, which replaces the traditional summary, consists of two parts. The first part shows why it is worth creating smart solutions. The processes of depopulation and population ageing cause villages to face new challenges. Therefore, it is vital in this context to create new smart solutions that meet the needs of the residents while respecting the idea of sustainable development. The second part of the section offers recommendations for developing the smart village concept in Poland made during project implementation. The book is the result of a research project implemented under the Operational Plan for 2020-2021 of the Polish Rural Network’s NSU entitled “In-depth Study of Smart Villages in Poland – Selected Examples”, under Priority 1. Fostering knowledge transfer and innovation in agriculture, forestry and rural areas. The motivation for the project was the My SMART Village competition organised in 2019 by the Institute of Rural and Agricultural Development of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IRWiR PAN). The competition also inspired us to conduct further in-depth studies of the selected initiatives. The publication is addressed to persons from various backgrounds who are looking for information on the smart village idea: representatives of local governments, local government employees or local leaders who are the “driving force” capable of mobilising their local community. The book may also be useful for rural residents because it is up to them to decide what their life would be like there. The topics discussed in the book are in line with the current discussion on smart villages. In the new EU programming period, funding is envisaged for rural areas under the Smart Villages Programme until 2027. We wanted to present various initiatives and smart solutions and to disseminate the selected practices in this field. The readers will find in the book suggestions and ideas that can be modified or improved, but above all adapted to their own and their community’s needs. We hope that it will be an inspiration for those who still have doubts whether it is worth undertaking such initiatives at all. Its advantage is combining theoretical considerations with practical experience that we acquired during the My SMART Village competition, and during in-depth studies conducted in selected municipalities. It is the conviction of the authors that the book does not exhaust smart village issues. The book is an invitation to further deepen the topic and to look for solutions which may contribute to enhancing the quality of life in rural areas. In addition, on the one hand, it is a form of benchmarking showing examples of existing solutions, and on the other hand – a form of encouragement to look for someone’s own recipes aimed at creating smart/creative areas. The publication attempts to analyse the concept of smart villages at various levels and show its importance in today’s digital world. Its aim is to show that the solutions do not need to have the nature of costintensive investment projects, but also – or may be first and foremost – of micro projects improving the situation of rural inhabitants. The book “Concept of Smart Villages. Examples from Poland” is a supplement to the research already carried out in Poland by, among others, Oskar Wolski (2018), Marcin Wójcik (2018), Magdalena Zwolińska-Ligaj, Danuta Guzal-Dec and Mieczysław Adamowicz (2018), Ryszard Kamiński and Leszek Leśniak (2019), Andrzej Hałasiewicz (2020), Łukasz Komorowski and Monika Stanny (2020), Mieczysław Adamowicz (2021), and in the European Union by Veronika Zavratnik et al. (2018), Simona Stojanova at al. (2021) or Evgenia Anastasiou et al. (2021). We would like to thank everyone who showed us kindness during the collection of information and during the interviews, in particular the participants in the study who devoted their time, the initiators of individual smart solutions for their support and assistance with the in-depth studies. We would also like to thank Professor Tomasz Wojewodzic from the Agricultural University in Kraków for reviewing the monograph and for his valuable comments.