On 15 July 2021, the Interreg Europe Policy Learning Platform hosted a webinar on the topic of drivers of innovation in rural areas. Rural regions make up roughly half of the territory of the EU-28, with just over one quarter of the population living in these areas. By building innovation capacity, deploying the latest technological developments and implementing innovative solutions, rural and sparsely populated areas can overcome their inherent challenges and remain viable business locations.

Digital transition challenges and infrastructure deployment solutions underpin many actions in rural areas to help accelerate rural innovation support actions. Business networking, clustering and setting up competence centres can also help rural regions become more competitive and support their SMEs with targeted and adapted solutions.

It is also important in this post COVID19 context to consider how to make rural economies more resilient and respond to current societal challenges and transitions (digital, energy, ecological) and facilitate the uptake of the latest technological solutions.

Webinar recording

Key speaker Olavi Luotonen from the European Commission highlighted the role Digital platforms can play as drivers for the emergence of a widespread network of Smart Communities in Europe and ultimately they are expected to contribute to an improved balance between urban and rural opportunities for all Europeans.  Interoperability of digital infrastructures and supporting common standards is a common feature of a number of successful smart village initiatives and networks.  He also promoted the EC policy initiative Living-in.EU

Clive Peckham representing the CARPE DIGEM project highlighted a number of good practices that showcased the creating of a user centred rural innovation strategy for the town of Lourmes in France and innovative business development initiatives adapted to rural industries.

Ninetta Chaniotou showcased some good practices from the BRIDGES project notably the role sector based competence centres (wood cluster in Kantalo) can play in driving the competitiveness of rural economies based in dynamic industrial value chains.

Webinar agenda overview 

Navigate to the discussion topics of interest in the webinar agenda overview below.

00:00:25 Introduction to the Policy Learning Platform services by Thorsten Kholish, Project Manager.

00:04:31 Introduction to the topic of rural innovation by Marc Pattinson, Thematic Expert of Research and innovation.

00:15:46 Keynote speech by Olavi Luotonen from DG Connect who provided insights into the role of the digital economy in supporting rural communities. 

00:32:36 Presentation by Clive Peckham, from Nièvre Numérique, on good examples of rural innovation driven by different levels of cooperation and digital technology.

00:46:53 Presentation by Ninetta Chaniotou, from the Regional Council of Kainuu on how a small traditional industry agglomeration turned into a competitive cluster thanks to innovation-based growth and knowledge infrastructure.

Panel discussion

1:00:06 Q&A To what extent do you and other colleagues from other DGs put together a broader base framework for rural initiatives and smart communities? What sort of interactions are you facilitating with your colleagues from other DGs?

1:04:30 Q&A The Smart Specialisation strategies do not support rural innovation but innovation in big AGRI food businesses. What is there to support small communities and businesses to design and implement innovation in non-AGRI sectors (e.g care, energy, education, mobility in rural areas)? Rural areas that are dynamic will innovate; how do we trigger innovation in those rural areas lagging?

1:12:24 Q&A What are your thoughts on a Smart Region approach? We are working on a framework here in the Southern Region in Ireland (NUTS II) as an enabler for a regional S3 and regional innovation approach.

1:15:44 Q&A To what extent S3 strategy development process should engage to ensure smart region dimension?  

1:18:51 Q&A To what extent was your initiative part a of a network of other competence centres? Or was it a unique one? How did it impact other rural development project strategies?

1:25:03 Q&A Can you give us a bit more insight on what the cascade funding will look like? 

Key learnings

During this webinar, a number of interesting key learnings were identified: 

  • Rural community stakeholder engagement and participation is a key success factor for ensuring the strong co-development actions in the strategy design phase: inclusion, involve and engage represent key concepts;
  • Access to state-of-the-art technology solutions is important for rural communities to ensure equal access to public services and offer businesses competitive support packages
  • During H2020 the EC has experimented with the creation of large scale rural development digital platforms and networks as a means to create critical mass and accelerate policy learning.  As part of these initiatives digital marketplaces can offer rural communities access to a wide range of user driven services.
  • Project initiators must seek policy alignment with regional level strategies such as RIS3 as they represent important opportunities to secure co-funding and complementarities with other initiatives
  • Intermediaries such as clusters or digital network brokers can play an important role in supporting the deployment of smart village initiatives. The Kantola project in Finland (wood competence centre) demonstrates the catalytic role a small but specialised knowledge infrastructure (innovation intermediary) can play in structuring rural business development.
  • Digitalisation services can offer SME inspiration to develop new business models and offer new innovative services (such as online wine testing)
  • All speakers highlighted the importance of building evaluation and feedback loops to ensure project initiatives take into account lessons learned.  Communication actions are important to share knowledge locally with rural communities but also with other project partners.
  • New technologies and business models also require the development of new skills sets and the establishment of local training resources.
  • Events such as European Regions for Smart Communities Summit (9 -13 May 2021) help gather local and regional leaders from across Europe to discuss how to involve the citizens and stakeholders in co-promoting smarter small cities, towns, villages and regions for a better tomorrow. Meanwhile policy initiatives such as Living-in.EU declaration and movement - 'The European way' – support the digital transformation in cities and communities and provides a high level support framework for pursuing the debate.
Photo by LightFieldStudios on envatoelements